At last, the stars have aligned. I knew that, eventually, I’d see the supreme, definitive combination of mechanical system performance and design, built to serve a customer who wanted only the finest blend of comfort, efficiency, operation and aesthetics.
To come to fruition, Dan Foley, president of the company he formed 20 years ago, Foley Mechanical, Inc., based in Lorton, Virginia, needed exactly the right set of circumstances. The stars aligned when Foley met the Most Interesting Man in the world. No, not the Dos Equis Man from the beer ad, but the homeowner can certainly lay the claim to that title.
This meeting happened at a home referred to as Willow Oaks. To call it a home is a bit deceiving. It’s an 11,000-square-foot, five bedroom historical masterpiece.
But then again, calling Foley and his star mechanics a “fine mechanical team” is no less deceptive because, after all, they’ve dedicated their professional lives to the fine art of mechanical systems.
At Willow Oaks, their mastery over form and function achieved exactly that.
Foley, a mechanical virtuoso, is a man driven to achieve perfection, an elusive triumph that leverages the team that supports him, now to include a staff of 16 relentless mechanics. Among them are stars such as Brian Golden, Ron Etter and Dragon Vucelja.
FMI’s team has repeatedly combined their efforts to achieve near-perfect system completions. I’ll admit, these accolades make Foley a bit squeamish. But he’s built some of the finest hydronic and HVAC systems we’ve seen. Manufacturers go agog to see their equipment so artfully put to use in FMI’s mechanical creations. So, it makes sense when I say their work at Willow Oaks is “flawless, incomparable.”
Back in 2016, when Foley met our Most Interesting Man in the World (let’s just imagine their initial encounter happened in a quiet cigar and cognac bar), the stage was set for mechanical mastery.
In real life, our homeowner Scott is middle-aged and strapping, fetching in appearance, long, lean and – shall we say – financially secure. Schooled as a forester and once a police helicopter pilot, hi-tech business entrepreneur, avid motorcyclist, helicopter designer and endurance racer, Scott earned his stripes and reputation. He lives in the now-perfectly-restored and modern-ized stone home on a 75-acre estate in rural Virginia – a home that was built in the 1930s and later remodeled for Averell Harriman, politician, business-man and diplomat.
House with History
Between 1938 and the 1990s, very little was done to the house. Harriman died in 1986, and there were challenges to settling the estate. At some point in the 1990s, the home was winterized and mothballed. Scott purchased the property and home at auction 20 years ago from the estate of Pam Harriman, Averill’s wife, who went on to become the U.S. ambassador to France during the Clinton years.
The homeowner considered several approaches to the home’s renovation, settling on a full gutting, leaving little, but the stone shell to begin the re-build.
Scott explained that to match the big additions to the original home he found a stone mason who studied the cut and crafting of the original stone, and who also found the still-operational Bull Run Mountain quarry, just 10 miles away, where stones were first harvested for the house almost 100 years earlier. It’s now impossible to tell the difference between new and old, both cut from the same rock formation.
Scott was determined to make the home energy-efficient and “completely comfortable.”
As the demo work was underway, large drilling machines began their work, drilling eight, 330-foot geothermal boreholes. So, for several years as the renovation progressed, the property became a sea of mud, trucks, quarried stone, equipment and portable toilets.
“I’d be excited and encouraged one day,” Scott recalls, “and then in a cold slump the next. The months of demo work ran into many more months of gradual rebuilding. It was draining at times. Today, it’s a thrill to be here. Only now, with the completion of work by FMI, has the home achieved its full potential.”
FMI’s work at Willow Oaks began in 2016. By then, Scott had already unveiled his plan to gut and modernize the home, including two substantial additions, work that entailed two full years and substantial investment.
From the outside, the home looks very much like it did when first built a century ago. Of course, modern systems that provided important comforts or conveniences – such as central vac, whole-house sound, a clothes steamer appliance, climate control for the wine vault, radiant heat, optimally zoned AC would be allowed. However, Scott wanted them mostly hidden, favoring the aesthetic of the home’s original appeal.
Serving one of the wealthiest communities in the world, Foley’s familiar with the meaning of “extreme.” Extreme efficiency. Extreme comfort. Extreme amenities. Extreme expense. And extreme egos, too.
However, Scott’s personality contradicted his desires for the home. Though he expressed interest in the very best of what mechanical systems could provide for the home – that is, extreme comfort and efficiency – Scott was humble in requesting their finest work, and technologies, and frequently asked Foley, and lead technicians Golden and Ron for their ideas and advice as to the best way to tackle a challenge.
“We never wanted so badly to do our best work for someone – because Scott understood the complexity of our challenge, and was so nice in talking with us frequently about how we did our work there,” Golden says. “With a renovation project of this size, we were always encountering new problems. But we never tried to avoid Scott. Just the opposite: he was so approachable that we had many pleasant, detailed conversations about our work.”
The work that Foley’s crew did at the home resulted in 12 AC zones, 26 zones of (mostly hydronic) heat – including several extensive zones of radiant heat – and heating and cooling for spaces that could quickly tax the most extreme comfort systems, such as a living room that could go from zero occupants to 50 or more within half an hour.
Foley adds that even in a house this large, there was no such thing as an unfinished space: “The entire home – all levels, every nook and cranny – was considered.”
I can attest to that: even the mechanical spaces are works of art.
Hydronic Fine Art
It’s in the home’s lower level, unlike so many other projects where a base-ment is relegated to lesser status, that Foley’s crew was given ample space for the finest mechanical room I’ve ever seen.
First of all, Scott wanted the level a full foot deeper and – while they were at it – to underpin the home’s foundation with 50 additional steel beams, engineered to perfection.
It’s in the lower level where the hydronic system circulates its first course of radiant comfort: a mile of tubing distributes low-temp heat six or eight months of the year there. The primary source of heat are two, stacked, 5-ton Hydron water-to-water geothermal units.
Just a few feet from the geo systems – in every direction within the mechani-cal space – is evidence of Foley’s long relationship with Taco Comfort Solutions.
They pulled plentifully from the manufacturer’s extensive product line to populate the home’s inner sanctum. Golden carefully wired a bank of Taco zone controls.
“They’re our war horse, the brains for flow control,” he says.
He chose VR pumps or 00e circs to manage flow rate for the home’s many zones extending from the methodically arranged primary/secondary piping. Zone Sentry valves, governed by Taco ZVC controls, control supply water flow to the radiant heat zones.
“We used Taco SR pump relay controls to operate the circulators,” Golden adds.
Golden’s extensive use of tekmar staging and reset controls – though mostly in the home’s lower level – also included wi-fi thermostats to optimize com-fort. Some of them took roost in a special, hidden cabinet in the kitchen. Foley’s crew also installed snowmelt for a garage apron and sidewalks; for these, there are discrete, in-slab tekmar sensors to provide ambient condi-tions to the main controls.
Outdoor reset works in tandem with the tekmar controls to determine when a natural gas-fired boiler will assume the lead role in providing heat for the home and domestic water.
“We think we’ve settled on an outdoor temp of 15 degrees for that,” Golden explains. He adds that they have further backup heat with a VRF system should it be needed. “But, it hasn’t. It’s been used for cooling only, so far.”
When Scott saw Golden’s copper piping, complete and ready to be insulated, Scott asked if they had to be hidden.
“The work is magnificent,” Scott adds. “Let’s give ‘em a shine and let ‘em celebrate.” Golden was all too happy to oblige.
They also commissioned custom steel supports for the mechanical equipment, and meticulously labeled every facet of the mechanical masterpiece. The effect is a sort of “NASA meets Apple” shrine.
“It was the crowning accomplishment for the mechanical art that they pro-vided,” Scott says. “But what amazes me most is the way Dan, Brian and Ron understand the science behind the work they do, and the practical applica-tion of this technology. It’s just remarkable to me how they’ve accomplished a balanced blend of everything involved – discipline, skill, mechanical capabil-ity, fine art. It’s all there.”