Sustainability: How Michael McDonald Won Three Platinum LEED Awards

By NanaWall Systems, December 23, 2011

Michael McDonald is the only builder in California, possibly North America, to build three platinum LEED custom-build homes. Two include NanaWall operable walls in their sustainable design: the Margarido House and the Hillside Home in Mill Valley. We interviewed Mike McDonald on his design principles, and about an exciting new direction for the future!

The Margarido House in Oakland, CA - one of the nation's first LEED Platinum certified homes

Mike, congratulations on being the visionary builder behind three residential homes that received LEED Platinum awards! Can you tell me how you achieved such high “green” ratings?

Our approach to sustainability starts primarily in the design phase. You can achieve a tremendous amount of sustainability without focusing on expensive active systems, like huge solar arrays. I am a proponent of thinking about the project from a passive perspective, focusing on abundant lighting, natural ventilation, durable nontoxic materials, and large overhangs for a passive solar design. This is specific to the use of products like Nanawall, especially in California, where we have the opportunity to create a lot of indoor and outdoor living space. The client’s perceived need of the home’s square footage can sometimes be achieved with a smaller indoor area expanding outdoors. The indoor outdoor concept, like what NanaWall provides, allows the client to live larger in a smaller conditioned footprint.

All three of the LEED platinum custom-homes you built were large, contemporary homes. What other features do they have in common?

They all had relatively conservative budgets (laughs). Well, while each of them was unique, architecturally significant and modern in its design and living configuration, the main objective of these homes was sustainability. Achieving LEED platinum certification proves modern and/or larger homes can be sustainable; having a significant size doesn’t preclude them from being energy efficient. It requires a simple, thoughtful approach starting with design and the materials used, regardless of the home’s size. For example, I’m working on several LEED Platinum  and net zero homes right now, including a 7,000 sq ft home. Definitely more challenging, but it can be done.

So after achieving three  platinum LEED awards with your firm McDonald Construction & Development, we heard you joined a new construction company, RYAN Associates. What is your role there?

Yes! Ryan Associates General Contractors is based in San Francisco, but we also have operations in Hawaii and New York. Ryan has been around in the high end residential construction business for 32 years. I joined Ryan because I was impressed by their ability to pull off complex high-end designs like the Calistoga Ranch: a landmark example of a sustainable boutique hotel, and a net zero home in Berkeley hills, and dozens of other beautifully designed and executed sustainable homes. My role at Ryan is to help our clients and design partners bring sustainability to high end residential and boutique/hospitality projects. Most contractors don’t have a strong, hands-on sustainability background; architects and consultants are constantly needing to educate the contractor on how to achieve sustainability goals. As a contractor with deep sustainability experience, I am able to bring a tremendous amount of value to the team, rather than waiting to be educating.

How do you feel about the change, and what direction do you see yourself moving towards in the future?

I’m definitely excited about the move to Ryan. When I had my own firm, it was awesome, but I could only really do one or two projects in a year. With my small operations team, pulling of complex projects was also a challenge. Ryan is a larger organization, yet it acts as a small agile custom builder. We actually have two LEED platinum projects in the pipeline right now with more in the wings. I would never have had the opportunity to be involved with this volume of unique sustainable projects on my own!

Thank you Michael, we wish you luck at Ryan Associates and look forward to hearing about other LEED platinum achievements in the future!

Learn more about Mike and his LEED Platinum Custom Homes on his website and what is happening at Mike's new company, Ryan Associates at