Innovation Takes Flight // Off the Grid Meets off the Hook

By Allan Schuchman

Heron hall quite purposefully invites the question, how far can we go in making sure our homes are sustainable and healthy, to insist that our surroundings foster the best possible living environment? It’s that sentiment, said Jason F. McLennan—renowned commercial architect, designer, author and environmentalist—that inspired him to walk the walk when he designed and built Heron Hall, his family home on the island.

McLennan’s professional efforts are considered central to the sustainability movement in both the United States and Canada. In addition to heading his architecture firm, McLennan Design, he travels worldwide speaking, presenting and consulting. An influential leader in “deep” green building, McLennan is a recipient of the prestigious Buckminster Fuller Prize, which recognizes outstanding socially conscious design. He is also Founder and Chair of the International Living Future Institute and was named an Ashoka fellow for his work championing social entrepreneurship.

Ultimately, it was McLennan’s vision to bring his life’s work through his own front door—to create a home that would dismantle conventional ideas about sustainability, efficiency and the plausibility of living off the grid—that gave birth to Heron Hall.

The result is a beautiful union of reclaimed land and a several-years-long design, salvage and construction journey. The traditional construction and craftsmanship is seamlessly married with its prefabricated elements, striking a thoughtful balance. Eco-friendly island builder Smallwood Construction spearheaded the building process.

Heron Hall is a Living Building Challenge (living-future. org/lbc) registered residence—one of three under way on the island that are being designed and built to meet rigorous green building requirements.

The home overlooks Rich Passage and the man-made Schel-chelb estuary, just west of Lynwood Center. The home is at a junction of ecosystems brimming with life—a freshwater creek circulating with tidal seawater and countless birds, including ducks and a resident heron for whom the home was named; a gravel beach with bivalves and starfish and crabs; and a forest’s edge with deer, possum and raccoons, goldfinches, juncos and nuthatches. In fact, it was an encounter with a crow, a frog and a heron—all within three minutes—that McLennan took as a sign that of the home sites he was considering, this was the one.

But the location is more than an idyllic plot. “It’s a localist project,” McLennan said, noting that almost everything used in its construction came from the Pacific Northwest, much from the island and even some from the site itself.

Perhaps one of the most notable elements is the rammed earth walls. Manufactured by Sirewall, much of the aggregate (like sand, clay and dirt) was sourced on site, then mixed with cement and steel reinforcement and compressed, or “rammed,” into the monolithic parapets. Engineered for the region’s high seismic potential, the product is also safe for the environment, provides superb insulation and is hygrothermally optimal for regulating both temperature and humidity. It was also used in constructing a charging station for the family’s electric cars.

An unusual fusion of wood species—every last inch responsibly harvested, salvaged or reclaimed—is found throughout the walls, window seats and ceilings of the home. Rough barn wood and reused wine-barrel heads and staves are paired next to sleek, smooth cuts. The wide staircase, McLennan’s favorite space in the home, is a mix of Douglas fir and cedar and is inlaid with wooden wall tiles from the island’s former Coyote Woodshop. Even cottonwoods from the site, which McLennan pointed out are typically cleared and discarded, were milled and used in the home.

Thick with “salvage modernism” (a term McLennan coined), the home relies heavily on integrating rescued and reclaimed materials. Truly memorable are two spectacularly intricate doors originally from Afghanistan. Previously brought to Seattle for a retail exhibit, they were going to be discarded before being rescued by Earth Wise Architectural Salvage and rehomed with McLennan.

Both at the staircase’s landing and as a divider between the upper-level play loft and the living area below, 1920s vintage stained-glass church windows filter soft, colored light into the rooms. “They inhabit the space,” McLennan likes to say. “I like to think I’m giving them a dignified second life.”

At the home’s entry, a “carpet” of tile is in step with the residence’s visual interest. Manufactured by Coldspring—the pattern conceived by McLennan from the Fibonacci spiral— the striking outdoor floor is made of remnant stone that would normally be discarded or ground into aggregate. It’s not only designed to last decades with no maintenance, it’s made without chemicals.

The tile flooring is just one example of the project’s commitment to not using toxic materials or harmful chemicals that appear on the “red list.” The list is compiled by the International Living Future Institute and designed to protect both the end users and the people who manufacture the materials. It nixes using known health hazards such as asbestos, chlorofluorocarbons, formaldehyde, lead, mercury phthalates, and wood treatments containing creosote or arsenic, among many others. It was important for the team to choose materials from compliant suppliers and manufacturers like Ecos Paints, Knauf Insulation and Sustainable Northwest Wood.

While designing the home, McLennan wanted to use locally made Jeld-Wen windows but had a concern about possible noncompliant ingredients used in their assembly. He contacted the company and explained his concerns. Jeld-Wen responded by agreeing to produce fully compliant, salvaged wood windows for Heron Hall as well as to implement the change throughout the specific product line for future Living Building Challenge projects. It’s those kinds of happy repercussions, McLennan said, that drive him to keep asking and expecting more from the construction industry.

The house is so green, even the toilets are a point of interest. The composting latrines from Phoenix Composting are the first to be allowed on the island within a mandatory sewer district, their use requiring a new ordinance from the city. The foam flush system uses 90 percent less water than traditional toilets. Also a major water saver is a Nebia showerhead, which the family is test-driving. The emergent technology atomizes water into millions of droplets, creating 10 times more surface area than a regular shower, using 70 percent less water and less energy to heat.

Adding to the home’s novel accomplishments, a giant, silver 15,000-gallon cistern makes Heron Hall the first rainwater-only residence in Kitsap County and one of but a few in the country.

In addition to 10 kW rooftop solar panels—which represent the exclusive power source for both the home and the cars—the residence is designed as a passive solar house, which means it gets much of its winter heating from the sun, further reducing typical energy use. Icing on the cake, the house even has green roofs made by Columbia Green Technologies where the McLennans will grow fresh food. Heron Hall is an inch-by-inch, detail-by-detail study of ecological thoughtfulness, material reuse and novelty that goes on and on.

As you’d expect, the home brims with local artistry— meticulous Neil Kelly-built cabinetry designed by McLennan, bamboo chandeliers created by David Trubridge, other lighting by Brandon Perhac, and glass LED light fixtures from Danger, to name a few. A steel sculpture by Dick Strom at the entry and a Joe Zazzera moss sculpture in the foyer add to the home’s distinctive character.

Finally, in early April, after several years in the making, Jason and his wife, Tracy, along with three of their children (the fourth has flown the proverbial coop) moved into Heron Hall. The finishing touches are still going in. So far, and not surprisingly, it suits them. “We absolutely love living here,” said McLennan. “It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you put your heart and mind into it.”

For more, visit