New Home, Healthy Home For Life

Written by Kathy Weiss

Photos by Reggie Morrow

Video by Nick Ehrenberg

At the heart of one couple’s most ambitious collaboration stands their most prized asset: Their three children.

Scott and Lisa McDonough of Iowa City shared recently how they came to design and build a house that’s energy efficient, durable, earth-friendly and above all, healthy — a feel good place where Mae, 8, Walter, 6, and Ruby, 3, can live and play to their hearts’ content.

The McDonoughs are owners of McDonough Structures, a local company that designs and builds high performance homes that will stand the test of time with minimal environmental impact.

As evolving ecoists, the couple’s interest in building better, healthier homes grew from a conversation several years ago when Lisa was a grade school teacher. Scott recalls his wife commenting that many of her students were taking medication for asthma, allergies and behavioral disorders. After exploring the phenomenon in depth, they concluded that a child’s living environment actually can make them sick. For their own family, they wanted to provide the healthiest living space possible.

Their spacious two-story home was completed last spring on an existing home site in an older residential neighborhood north of the University of Iowa campus. Situated on a hill covered by sprawling mature trees above the new UI Art Building, the house incorporates many “green” building features: Geothermal heating and cooling with radiant heat in the basement floor; sprayed polyurethane foam insulation; triple pane windows with internal blinds to reduce household dust; and hard surface flooring to eliminate the dirt and germs associated with wall to wall carpet. To protect air quality, they also used low VOC (Volatile Organic Compound) paints and finishes.
A detached garage is set apart from the house, connected by covered walkways, to eliminate harmful exhaust fumes from entering the house. A side benefit to this, says Lisa, is that “we have natural light coming in from all sides of the house.”

A generation ago, Scott explained, houses were built air tight. “They didn’t allow air movement and moisture would easily get trapped in places and cause mold problems.” While foam insulation tightly seals their home and dramatically increases its energy efficiency, the trapped air issue was resolved by installing a mechanical air exchanger to constantly bring fresh air into the home. “It’s the lungs of the house,” he says.

The result is a house that breathes and whose inhabitants can breathe easier.

Inside, outside and all around their home, environmentally friendly measures are at work. In a powder room on the main floor, Scott shows how pushing a button brings hot watch to the tap instantly. A circulating pump does the work so that water isn’t wasted. Similarly, ingenious dual flush toilets save water by offering a choice for every flush: 1.6- or .8-gallon water consumption, which can save as much as 25,000 gallons of water annually.

Scott laments the use of standard construction materials like asphalt shingles, which he says are “taken out of the ground, put on a roof for 30 years and then put back in the ground again.” To eliminate this waste, the McDonoughs chose a standing seam metal roof for their house. Completely recylable, it’s also built to last a lifetime.

Natural soapstone surfaces in the kitchen, bath, laundry and mud room/studio, limestone in two bathrooms and colored concrete in the guest quarters exemplify the couple’s commitment to sustainable building, as does their choice of Marmoleum for a high traffic space adjoining two main entrances. An all-natural linoleum, Marmoleum is made of linseed oil, cork, limestone, tree resin and natural minerals, ideal for the large kid-friendly area where coats and boots are stored in each family member’s personal cubby. The mud room doubles as a studio where Lisa, a jewelry designer, creates her line of Lisa Bo Bisa jewelry and children pursue their own artistic endeavors. 

At the heart of their home, the kitchen seamlessly blends with the family room, creating a modern one-of-a-kind gathering space.  Lisa worked closely with architect Steve Klocke and cabinet maker John Martinek to create a “professional galley” wide enough for efficient meal preparation by one, two or five at a time. A stylish, curved soapstone counter hugs and hides the lower food prep area. “That was Steve’s idea,” Lisa points out, touching the widest curve of the smooth surface. “We tried to create intimate areas for small groups to sit together. We tend to have a house full of people almost constantly,” she added.

The kitchen has no corner cabinets, by design. Set in soapstone above the streamlined cherry cabinetry, a Wolf magnetic induction cook top presents another family-friendly marvel: The surface stays cool to the touch until a pan made of a magnetic material like stainless steel or cast iron is placed over it. Induction stovetops are about 90 percent efficient and reduce the chance of little hands getting burned. A GE Monogram convection oven also is more efficient by cooking food faster than a conventional oven.

Central to the construction process was a “systems approach to building” that everyone adhered to, said Scott, a member of the Energy and Environmental Building Association. He and Lisa worked closely with the architects, cabinet maker and sub contractors, who all understood and believed in the overall system. “It was certainly a collaborative effort,” Scott said. “The people we worked with are awesome; they are very talented.” 

Sub contractors included the foam insulator, Mark Moyer of Midwest Poly Solutions, and Dale Merrill of Liberty Iron Works in Mount Vernon, who designed floor-to-ceiling partitions of steel mesh for the main stairwell that are aesthetically pleasing and functional. “We told him, ‘Think outside the box’ and he brought wonderful ideas back to us,” Lisa related.

Natural stone and tile work in the bathrooms was completed by JB Barnhouse of Country Stone Masons in North Liberty and Dave Ashton of Ashton Tile & Remodeling in Solon, respectively, while Bea Day Plumbing installed the water system and fixtures. Architect Olga Badovinac, on staff at McDonough Structures, designed built-in furnishings for the kids’ bedrooms.

“Implementing the energy efficiency features on our house increased the cost of the house by about $25,000,” Scott says, noting that when amortized out for 30 years, it increases their monthly mortgage payment by about $150. “We just moved into the house in May, so we don’t know our average monthly utility bill yet, but the savings will easily exceed $200 per month at today’s rates, and I’m quite confident the rates won’t go down, so the savings will increase in the future.

“If a homeowner can think of their utility bill and mortgage payment as one payment, the overall monthly expenses are less by upgrading to an energy efficient system,” he added. “Plus, since your mortgage is tax deductible, Uncle Sam is helping pay for the upgrades.”