Mackall and Robert Manley did not set out to build a passive house when they
embarked upon the renovation of their 1860s townhouse in Carroll Gardens. The
building required a near gut renovation, so when they inquired for bids, Laura
on a whim included a contractor with experience in passive construction.
Surprisingly, the bids came back with a relatively small difference in cost.
They decided to take the plunge.
Laura’s father, Louis Mackall, a Connecticut-based architect
who trained at the Yale School of Architecture (he was also part of the Prickly
Mountain group in Vermont in the 1960s), took on the design, his second Brooklyn
townhouse project and his first passive one. Louis embraced the passive-house
concept in masterminding and building out his vision. In many cases, the strict
requirements of passive architecture—such as the mandatory 8 inches of
insulation on all outside walls; triple-paned glass in all window openings; and
insertions of in-take and out-take vents for the air-exchange system—lent
themselves to Louis’ unique aesthetic. Gowanus-based contractor Build with Prospect, led by Jeremy Shannon, AIA, executed
all functional aspects of the construction.
A passive house lives entirely within itself,
retaining heat and cool air as needed and relying on the plethora of energy
sources within a modern-day home—the refrigerator, lights, oven, stove,
computers—to generate heat in the winter. The perimeter of the house acts like
a thick skin, sealing in this self-generated energy. With extra insulation and
airtight openings, a passive home does not need a gas or oil heating system.
Fresh air is brought in through an energy recovery
ventilator, or ERV, which requires very
little energy to operate. The ERV pulls in fresh air while pushing out the old,
converting the new air to the same temperature as it exchanges them. While the
ERV keeps the air fresh, there is also a Mitsubishi system in place that
runs on electricity to heat and cool the house—if needed.
“We didn’t turn the heat on all winter,” Laura admits
incredulously, since New York experienced record-low temperatures in February. “It
hovered right around 70. Our biggest fear going into [a passive build] was, are
we going to freeze in winter? And we did not. Of course, the idea wasn’t to not turn our heat on, but to not
have to use it as much.” They ended up not needing it anyway.
Because the perimeter walls have to be
unusually thick in order to contain the insulation, certain design decisions
and adjustments had to be made. For one, a thicker wall creates thicker
windowsills. When Laura took her father to see a passive house in Park Slope,
he thought the window trims looked too jail-like. Louis’ solution was to chamfer the windowsills
so that they radiate out from the panes at a 45-degree angle.
“Passive construction requires deep walls,” Louis explains. “In Laura and Robert’s house, the total exterior wall thickness was
21 inches. By angling the interior window trims, we eliminated the ‘tunnel’ effect, and greatly increased the amount of
light coming in to each room.” The angled trims offered a surface on which to
add traditional detail as well as lighting. Louis designed the paneling on the
sills to incorporate inset LED strips that make the windows glitter at night.
Laura and Robert traveled to Copenhagen to source furnishings and lighting fixtures. In the parlor, a Finn Juhl Chieftain Chair sits with a Hans Wegner coffee table and Mama Bear Chair, reupholstered and paired with a matching ottoman in Hella Jongerius fabric. They chose oak over rosewood and teak for its meatiness and less-polished look. The light fixture was designed by Vilhelm Lauritzen. The vintage Moroccan rug is from Breuckelen Berber.
From left to
right, the room includes artwork by Wolfgang Tillmans, David Altmejd, Günther Uecker, and Carl
“My dad’s style tends toward the traditional,” says
Laura. At the same time, the windows and other elements of the design are pure
inventions. “When we saw the house, it had a lot of original detail, which is
why we wanted it. So it was this push-pull between wanting it to still feel old
and the function.” Louis designed the moldings throughout based on what he was
seeing in the house already—the original detailing and feel of the interior—to
communicate the period. The ceiling decoration is original, with parts of it
replicated in the parlor and in the entry hall by Absolute Plastering in
The floors on the parlor level are heart pine,
reclaimed and milled by the Hudson Company. At one
point, Hudson called to say they had leftover wood from the new Whitney Museum,
and did they want it? Laura was thrilled. With 20-foot planks, there are hardly
any breaks. The stair treads are the original soft pine.
Louis inserted two archways on the parlor level,
dividing the parlor from the kitchen and the kitchen from the dining room, and
designed custom arched pocket doors for the parlor opening. As with most of his
specialized projects, the doors were built by his woodworking shop, Breakfast
The curved line is one of Louis’ favorite design motifs and it reappears
throughout the house. “I like curves because they are more interesting
than straight lines. Now, with CNC technology and computers, making curves is
simple,” he explains.
“[My dad] talks about the circle,” adds Laura. “He says, ‘You look at a circle and you just get happy.’ He’s very
passionate about it. I grew up with a lot of circles.”
The slight bend at the top of the cabinetry in the
kitchen carries the motif, giving the room a nautical feel (Louis is a born-again
rower). Laura and Robert decided to balance painted and raw wood in the
kitchen, since in their previous home they found that painted wood chipped with
use. They selected quartzite countertops for a light but not-too-precious
surface. As with the parlor window trims, Louis incorporated lighting into the
kitchen woodwork, installing lights in the uppermost cabinets to give off a
glow. Where the dining room fireplace used to be, he placed the oven
and inserted the original marble mantelpiece above the stove. Cabinetmaker James Schriber built out the room.
The couple found the glazed tiling for the
backsplash at Mosaic House.
Beyond the kitchen, a spacious, sunbathed dining
room stretches the full width of the house. Laura and Robert wanted natural
light, and sourced the largest open-glass doors possible in a passive house.
The glass wall allows southern light to illuminate the entire parlor floor and,
since it is triple paned and air-sealed, the light even provides heat in the
wintertime. They were also happy to find an old dogwood tree planted in the
backyard, which will shade the back of the house during the summer months.
Laura picked fabric for the dining room drapes
from Cowtan and Tout. The dining chairs and
table are by Hans Wegner. Ole Wanscher designed the sideboard, above which
hangs a painting by José Lerma. Louis crafted an aluminum deck off the dining
room to allow for maximum light to penetrate the garden, and with a softened
surface to make it easy to walk on. All of the pieces were prefabricated by
Breakfast Woodworks and assembled onsite.
“I feel row houses are so well designed for the passive model, because
the sides are already insulated,” says Laura. “The back of our house faces south so in the
winter the sun heats up the dining room. Then in the summer there will be
leaves on the trees so the room will be shaded. We may also do an awning at
Louis designed an oval-shaped cove ceiling in the
dining room and installed an utterly unique light fixture within it. He fixed a
hanging chandelier to a moveable wooden beam fitted with rubber wheels that run
along tracks. When the couple wishes to extend the dining table, they can
easily center the chandelier overhead by guiding the beam with two broomsticks.
Like most of the dwellings on their block, Laura
and Robert’s house
has a ten-foot extension on the first, or parlor, level. During construction,
they decided to extend the second floor by 10 feet and the top floor by 3 feet
(they had already removed the roof). The second-floor master suite could then
encompass a full bath, a laundry room, and two walk-in closets.
Louis incorporated curved walls on the second floor to make
the entrances to the front and back bedrooms more gracious. The second-floor
hallway, the master bedroom, and the daughter’s bedroom are interconnected
circles rather than the typical square spaces, which would have you entering at
“In the master, we enter on an axis which
connects the centers of both circles—hall and bedroom,” Louis explains. “Without
the curves, one would enter into the corner of each room, which is just plain
awkward.” He built concave shelving into the left curved wall of the master
bedroom, and both rooms have curved entryways and doors. The door to Laura and
room is especially tricky, as it is a double door and yet curved to follow the
new line of the hallway.
Louis designed shelving for the master bath.
The remaining levels include a third floor for
respective offices. Since they both work in the art world and are collectors in
their own right, artwork abounds throughout, and had to be taken into account
when designing the interior walls. They added extra height to the third floor
to accommodate the insulation but also to give the rooms a more loft-like
Here in Laura’s office (as well as in the
parlor) the couple installed Ecosmart fireplace inserts that meet passive standards.
A metal container holds ethanol, which burns up to four hours, giving off heat
and a pleasing flickering flame. Above hangs a work by Assume Vivid Astro Focus.
The guest kitchen (above) and bedroom on the garden level.
Likewise, underneath the garden-level guest
apartment (complete with a sitting area and kitchen), Laura and Robert dug out
the cellar by two feet to convert the basement into a playroom. In this way, a
room that once housed the oil heating system and boiler can be put to better
use, with rainbow carpet tiles from Flor adding warmth and liveliness.
A final step will be to have the house certified
as passive, which requires passing a “blower door” test and official approval
of the building procedures.
Beyond the initial design and build of a passive
house, life inside carries on much as it would in any other home, perhaps just
more meaningfully. Everything participates in giving its high-tech skin
purpose. As Louis says, “The non-fake is an important, if elusive, requirement
akin to art, which is in turn akin to heart. As with a good book, the experience of a good house is transformative.” The passive model just might change how we participate
in any house, anywhere.
The “powder room moment” with Pierre Frey wallpaper and floor tiles from Mosaic House.
Build with Prospect
by Michel Arnaud
Post by Anne Hellman