Architect Jason F. McLennan’s gloriously groundbreaking new family home is on its way to becoming the state’s first certified residential Living Building.
THE FIRST SIGN was tangible: “Lot for sale,” it read, all nonchalantly, in handwritten letters — as if this weren’t the site of a zillion future superlatives.
Architect Jason F. McLennan notices signs. This time, he and his family were in the market for a promising lot on Bainbridge Island; had been for a couple of years. And this lot, so close to a booming estuary, a restored salmon stream and blissful Pleasant Beach, certainly seemed exceptional: a lush and sunny, forested and flat acre, give or take, that feels five times bigger. “Exceptional” was crucial: While the McLennans were eager to settle in on the island, they were not keen to settle.
“The lot needed to have a mix of characteristics,” McLennan says. “We like the south end (of the island); you can see the water but have privacy. We needed good solar and didn’t want to cut down beautiful cedars and firs. And we wanted the right spirit.”
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Cue ethereal signs Two, Three and Four.
“Building a home sometimes is a leap of faith,” McLennan says. “I was hemming and hawing: ‘Should I do it for sure?’ I went for a walk around the site to think about it. I thought, ‘Maybe I need some sort of sign.’ Just as I thought that, a crow screeched and landed on the estuary railing. I thought, ‘Maybe that’s not enough.’ I got to the forest, and a heron took off. Then I thought, ‘If I get a third …,’ and I walked to the stream, and a big frog jumped across my path. Three totem animals.
“It was meant to be,” he says.
It was meant to be Heron Hall.
Inspired by the stately birds that stalk the public, human-made Schel-Chelb estuary; by McLennan’s childhood fondness for “The Wind in the Willows” and Toad Hall; and by the ecological motivators that drive who McLennan is, how he designs and how he lives, Heron Hall is a genuinely groundbreaking tribute to regenerative design, local materials, salvaged treasures and bespoke green products and techniques — one of the most advanced buildings ever.
Heron Hall is a home of significant firsts. But first, Heron Hall is home.
McLENNAN’S CREDENTIALS read like a Who’s Who of Green Building whose subtitle spells out: Jason F. McLennan, That’s Who.
Born in Canada 44 years ago, the CEO of McLennan Design is an innovator, an influencer and a profound believer whose Earth-friendly approach to design, architecture and life itself resonates and inspires worldwide. He’s received the Buckminster Fuller Prize (pretty much the Pulitzer for socially responsible design) and the 2016 national Award of Excellence from Engineering News-Record. He’s a senior fellow of the Design Futures Council and the Ashoka Foundation for social entrepreneurs. He’s the author of six books on sustainability and green building, and one of YES! magazine’s top 15 people reshaping the world. (McLennan moves in some famously green circles: Megastar Leonardo DiCaprio has commissioned him as a lead consultant for a state-of-the-architecture eco-resort on a private island off Belize.)
McLennan’s also founder and chairman of the International Living Future Institute, and founder of its Living Building Challenge, the incredibly stringent, gold-standard, greener-than-LEED certification program. (Though he didn’t design it, McLennan’s ultra-green fingerprints are all over the tiny-footprint Bullitt Center in Seattle, a certified Living Building called “the greenest commercial building in the world.”) (The Seattle Times profiled McLennan in 2009, a few years before the center’s completion.)
The symbol of the global Living Building Challenge is universally beautiful, simple and efficient: a flower. To earn Living Building certification, projects must meet 20 imperatives grouped into seven performance areas, or petals (energy, health and happiness, materials, place, water, equity and beauty).
Heron Hall, by design and not surprisingly, is abloom in full, glorious compliance. While certification is performance-based (and so takes at least 12 months of actual performance), the McLennans’ home is on track to become Washington’s first certified Living Building residence.
“When it was time to do my own home, we had to walk the talk of the Living Building Challenge,” McLennan says.
With 10kW of photovoltaic panels on its south-facing roof; a 15,000-gallon cistern on the north for drinking, dishes and showers; and a 4-foot-deep agricultural cistern/swimming lane on the south for landscaping and gardening, Heron Hall is “completely solar-powered and completely off the water grid,” McLennan says. “We have food production on the roofs. The footprint, ecologically, is minuscule.”
HERON HALL IS the first home McLennan has designed for his family: wife Tracy, their four children (Declan, 13; Aidan, 11; and Rowan, 8, live here; 20-year-old Julian is in Seattle) and their two doggies (sociable Sammy, technically a Newfoundland but possibly part bear, and “crazy” Luna the Doberman).
“My wife and I always dreamed of building our own home,” McLennan says. “We wanted to do it when the kids are young enough — architecture shapes people and spaces — and have them spend time on the construction site and see why we’re building this way.” (Tracy reports the kids were on-site every week of the build.)
Sites are notorious best-intention-wreckers right off the bat, but here, all signs pointed to simplicity and synchronicity — other than that one time construction stopped for a week to wait for nested duck eggs to hatch. And that other time everyone had to scoot around a fawn. Well, and that other other time they decided to manipulate the screened porch midway to notch around a nearby tree. “We didn’t have to cut down anything but cottonwoods,” McLennan says. “And we took those down and milled and whitewashed them, and used them as interior siding.”
So far, the “building” part of the McLennans’ Living-Building-in-the-making eclipses the “living” part: The family moved in the first week of March, after two years of exceptionally meticulous construction.
“Building a custom home is always a challenge,” says Rob Smallwood, of Smallwood Design and Construction. “Trying to realize the vision — obviously, this is many steps above the typical home. It’s called a Living Building Challenge, not a Living Building Cakewalk. You just don’t walk onto the site with a rattle can of paint.”
Especially when you’re building on the extreme leading edge of eco-innovation:
• There are sturdy walls, and then there are the 2-foot-thick rammed-earth walls of Heron Hall, starting at the entry gate, rising two stories through the powerful central stair tower and grounding the entire home with what McLennan calls “a literal stabilizing presence.” In a modern adaptation of an ancient technique, natural raw materials — sand, gravel, clay, soil from this site — were hand-compacted, seismically reinforced with rebar and filled in the middle with insulation that gives the assembly an R-value of approximately R-40. In the car courtyard, you can see and touch and count the striations (“kind of like the Grand Canyon”) — along with unexpected (and ingenious) integrated electric-car-charging ports. “It’s the world’s first electrified rammed-earth wall,” McLennan says.
• McLennan and Smallwood call Heron Hall a “localist” project, like farm-to-table agriculture, but with building materials and talent. The cathedral-like living area’s giant salvaged beams are from Bainbridge; island artists created much of the artwork, often from scraps (an awesome horsehead sculpture is made from actual horseshoes); and the treads in the massive stair tower are 6×12-inch chunks of Douglas fir milled by local Coyote Woodshop from fallen Bainbridge trees. Also there: Block tiles cut from the ends of salvaged boards form patterns on one wall, and the landing is “wood from a tree that had been in someone else’s yard 80 years,” McLennan says. “When it fell, instead of wood chips, we milled it into 12-inch-wide planks.”
• In a purposeful whole-home expression of “salvaged modernism,” repurposed materials meet state-of-the-art construction, with breathtaking results. In one salvaged-modernism microcosm — Heron Hall’s lone darker, moodier room (a bathroom just past the entry that McLennan calls “a library that happens to have a toilet in it”) — a salvaged freezer door opens to reveal a repurposed bookcase stocked with shelf after shelf of reading material. Reclaimed redwood from a 100-year-old wine vat wraps the walls, and the ceiling is inlaid with 1890s-era tin tiles. But … then there’s that sleek concrete countertop and one particular element so innovative, McLennan had to effect a change in the local municipal code to allow it: a foam-flush composting toilet. There is one of these tankless wonders in each of the home’s three bathrooms: You flush them before you go; they considerately use 95 percent less water than a typical toilet; and in 18 months or so, you have your own highly personalized mulch to spread around the yard.
HERON HALL RISES, and stretches, like a supercool, extra-long barn. Or church. Or both. Tracy loves farmhouses; Jason is into simple geometry; and everything here is kind of spiritual and mystical, on purpose.
More about Heron Hall
The home looks, and feels, gigantic, but in reality, there’s less than 3,000 square feet of living space, McLennan says. “Half the house is one big, open volume. People think it’s bigger, but most of it is air with solid-earth walls. That’s not normal in a house.”
Outside, ink-black cedar siding blots through the treetops; it’s all Forest Stewardship Council-certified, and all charred, chemical-free, in the Japanese style of Shou Sugi Ban. A flat green roof over the bike and canoe shed waits for bushes and bushes of blueberries. Tracy’s secret fenced garden holds a hunk of fallen Bainbridge timber (giant) supporting a deck above the master suite, and a wall-embedded flower tile (tiny) salvaged from Kansas City, her hometown.
A heron gate sculpture of scrap metal, a collaboration between McLennan and metalworker Dick Strom, leads into the entry courtyard. Past the shed and auto court, custom pavers, designed by McLennan and created by Coldspring from castoff stone pieces (this series is called Fibonacci; the pavers in Tracy’s secret garden are dubbed MUD), lead to a tucked-in, one-of-kind entry from a faraway place with an unexpected layover.
“The door was hand-carved in Afghanistan,” McLennan says. “It originally was imported by a Seattle department store for display, and my wife and I found it sitting in a corner at Earthwise. The door is hidden here to create mystery and excitement; you want it to be a bit magical.”
Right inside, a beckoning trick of perception and anticipation: There’s a cozily warm welcome bench under bright-green moss art by local artist Joe Zazzera — but no hint at all of what you’re about to walk into.
Says McLennan, the modest magician: “It’s really a simple plan: The bottom is adult world; the top is kids’ world.”
BECAUSE THIS IS the McLennans’ world, you know every single element has been impeccably conceived, planned and executed for sustainability: In the double-height living area, 1-foot-thick framed walls create amazing energy-efficiency atop the even thicker rammed-earth ones; south-facing glass doors stack completely open for passive-solar benefits and natural ventilation; and radiant heat courses under wood floors (in circulation paths) and exposed concrete (in “more deliberate areas”).
But … wow. It is stunningly sustainable: the colors, the materials, the textures, the flow. (Tracy, who has an art history degree, handled some of the interior design.) There is so much to notice, ponder and appreciate.
“We haven’t made a single compromise, and that’s kind of the point,” McLennan says: “to show people you can go to the furthest point of sustainability with beauty and comfort, and stop taking advantage of the world.”
Tracy says she might have had a tiny reservation or two about some of those furthest points (you might, too, if you were a composting-toilet pioneer), but they all evaporated their first night in Heron Hall.
“I have to say that it has exceeded expectations,” she says. “So much has to function, and Jason has done such a brilliant job of piecing out every function — the kitchen, pantry, laundry. It’s always felt good to be in this house. I don’t like to camp. I want to feel like my home is a place of comfort and retreat. If anything, it’s so much nicer, because of the quality of materials.”
THE KIDS’ ZONE looks over the soaring great room, its view framed by substantial, salvaged stained-glass windows. A door opens to a deck on the south side, toward the estuary and beach. There’s a countertop here for homework — and so kids can keep an eye on their parents in the kitchen below — and a nearby piano, TV, sectional and walled-off study nook wrapped with salvaged barn boards. A ladder leads to a play loft on the nook roof.
The three resident McLennan children each have a room, but they’re small rooms, on purpose, and they all share one bathroom.
“We want them to come out here and be brothers and sisters,” McLennan says. “It’s our parenting philosophy.”
Kids are essential to the McLennan design philosophy, too, summed up in one cool word: biophilia.
“It’s the idea that humans are drawn innately to nature and healthy, living systems,” McLennan says. “I believe children, in particular, need to be near trees, grass, ponds as part of their development as stable human beings. We designed it to draw kids outside and get dirty, to be kids like I believe we were meant to be. We wanted our kids to be stewards of nature, too, and this is the way to get them out in it.”
THIS NATURE-FRIENDLY building sustains a family and a philosophy, but it’s also an unparalleled laboratory for hands-on learning and wide-reaching teaching. Heron Hall has its own website. A couple hundred people will attend its official ribbon-cutting ceremony, likely around the solstice, in June. And McLennan estimates he’s led maybe 20 tours in, out and around his family home over two years, at all stages.
“We had a workshop during the rammed-earth walls, and a guy from Europe came and studied, and schoolkids,” he says. “We’ll do more of that: architects, local residents, local sustainability advocates. Now that we’re living in it, it won’t be as frequent, but the idea is that a few times a year, we’ll have tours come through.”
During one, Smallwood the contractor says, the tour group trekked down to the site’s man-made stream, once confined to pipes but now brilliantly daylighted with fish ladders, stream-appropriate soothing gurgles and actual returning fish.
“A three- to five-pound salmon came through,” he says.
(For the record: That’s yet another totem animal — and one more pretty unmistakable sign that McLennan is on track with his vision “to heal a place and use development to support it.”)
“We wanted Heron Hall to be timeless, for generations,” McLennan says. “We hope it’s the kind of house that 100 to 200 years from now, families will be in it, loving it and using it. It’s not built like a typical home. This home endures as a wonderful legacy — one of those historic homes in the future that people talk about.”