Mike Whitfield, from Mike Whitfield Construction Ltd, explains what to look for if you're trying to find a good builder for a successful low energy building project.
Interview with Mike Whitfield
Based in Herefordshire, Mike Whitfield's name comes up time and again when the words ‘Passivhaus' and ‘builder' are mentioned in the same sentence, and if reputation alone is anything to go by, then Mike is certainly a leader in his field.
In the late 1980s he worked with a builder using reclaimed and natural materials, even before they had any real notion of energy efficiency. His interest in this way of building was piqued in 1996 when working on a job with an energy consultant, and this has led to a gradual move towards constructing energy efficient buildings, to the point where his company specialises in building to Passivhaus standard. During this time, they have been continually working to improve their assembly methods and detailing.
Perhaps not being your typical builder, Mike has been to the AECB conference a number of times (at which he has also attended as a guest speaker), and has found that it has been a very sharing environment where people are learning a lot from one another.
Look for someone who has a genuine interest
Mike believes that if a builder has a reasonable level of competency, is prepared to learn, and looks at a previous job and thinks how they could have done it better, then they have the ability to progress quickly.
He recommends using the AECB as a starting point for finding a builder. Even if they don't have experience of Passivhaus, it is likely that they at least have a real interest in low energy buildings.
The beauty of Passivhaus is that it is measurable, so anyone claiming to be a specialist in the field can be judged by their results. Mike explains that this is the reason why he has been so busy the last few years, because once you have a track record of being able to build an airtight, thermal bridge-free home, then people will come to you because they know you can actually deliver it.
Attention to detail is the biggest difference from traditional building
On a traditional build, with a good plasterer and second fix carpenter the results can look okay! It doesn't work that way on a Passivhaus building.
Mike explains that it's not just about completing the tasks, but ensuring they're done in the correct order to get it right and save considerable time and money.
“The biggest challenge in building, is doing things in the right order really. And it sounds a lot easier than it is. To get the materials there, and the right people there, at the right time so that everything flows in the right order, takes quite a bit of experience.”
The steps to building a high quality, energy-efficient home
A typical project for Mike would ideally begin by working with an architect that is “on message”. If the architect is inexperienced then they would usually recommend bringing a Passivhaus consultant on board to assist.
A good set of drawings should be completed by the architect for the builders to work from, with the opportunity for Mike to have input if he can see where improvements can be made.
The windows need to be ordered in advance so that they are there on site within a couple of weeks of starting the job. They prefer to put the windows in as they're building, as it's easier to do and also helps to protect the site.
Other stages include insulation and airtightness, first airtightness test, first fix electrics and plumbing, plastering, completing the MVHR system, second fix tiling etc.
Building to Passivhaus standard takes time to learn
Mike's company has 8 full employees, but even for skilled carpenters or builders who aren't used to Passivhaus it can take at least a year or two for them to fully get their heads round.
“They've just simply got to do that length of time to experience enough jobs to fully understand all the pitfalls really and to see where the problems might arise.”
Work to the builder's programme
Mike thinks that when selecting your builder it's important that if you've found someone who you think is the right person then you should work to their programme and be philosophical about waiting for them to start. He explains that the most stressful part for him is turning up to start the job on time! It can be very difficult to predict, given the whole process can sometimes start up to 18 months earlier. Even at the point of signing contracts and ordering windows it can still be 6 months before they start on site, and dealing with extras can easily see that 6 months become 7 or 8.
Passivhaus requires a higher level of supervision
Mike tries to have one main job at a time, though there are generally two on the go: one being finished and the other being started. Having any more jobs would mean he wouldn't be able to get round the sites easily to provide the level of required supervision. Even experienced people that have been working with him for 10-15 years still need a certain amount of help and supervision, because not every project is a straightforward box shape.
Maintaining good relationships is key to the journey
Once you have the experience the actual building work can be fairly straight forward, but Mike feels it's important to maintain good communication throughout. The best jobs also tend to be where there is good communication with the architect and collaborative working from the outset.
Selecting a builder through a tender is not ideal
A lot of architects who deal with Passivhaus realise that the collaborative method of working is better, and appoint a contractor very early on. They can try and work out the price with them, do the detailing together and make sure everyone understands what's going on.
Mike feels that if you were to put a job out to tender you couldn't be sure that the person that wins has an understanding of what they need to do.
Mike says that a lot of committed Passivhaus builders are doing jobs quite competitively, and it's important to remember that you could easily be doing a Passivhaus for less than another builder would be quoting to do a similar traditional house to a high standard. He reminds us that typically a Passivhaus might cost around 10% more, but by definition it's a high quality house.
“Even if it's 10% more, it's 10 times as good!”
Find out more
Find out more information about Mike Whitfield Construction Ltd
House Planning Help at Ecobuild
We are holding a House Planning Help meet-up at Ecobuild this year. We'd love you to come along and say hello, tell us about your self build dreams and plans, or even how progress is going on your own project. Alex Baines, whose project is our current case study in The Hub, is also going to be with us and answering your questions.
We're going to be there on Tuesday 8th March. It's free to come along to this session but please sign up if you can so that we know to expect you!
The Hub update
We're currently working on our next module for The Hub, but in the meantime you can check out the ones we have produced on planning permission, and financing a self build.
In our most recent episode of the Long Barrow Passivhaus build we see the completion of the raft foundation.
If you are a member (just £45 a year!) you can also join our private Facebook group and share thoughts, advice, questions and experiences with other like-minded folk.
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