Landscape Architect and Director of HLM Architects, Simon Bell, explains why he decided to upskill when it came to building his own house.
Interview with Simon Bell
HLM Architects are an award-winning practice with offices in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. As a Director, Simon was familiar with one of the projects designed from their Glasgow studio – Tigh na Croit – and knew that he wanted the same architect (Ross Barrett, who is also a friend of his) to design his own home.
A Passivhaus doesn't need to be a simple box
Something that Ross proved with the L-shaped design of Tigh na Croit, is that a Passivhaus doesn't have to take on the simplest form. Yes, it can be at its most efficient as a straightforward box, but it is also possible to create buildings with architectural merit and beauty as well, it just might take a bit more effort to make the standard work.
The panoramic beauty of the site created Passivhaus challenges
Based in the centre of Northern Ireland, the stunning site is near a small village called Broughshane, close to Ballymena. They are up in the hills, with fantastic views to the east and west, and also panoramic views to the south. This meant they were always going to be faced with the challenge of balancing those out with solar gain, shading and window ratios, and is why they now have framed views of the landscape, rather than a huge expanse of panoramic glass.
The value of an architect is to bring a different vision
Having given Ross a brief around how they wanted to live in and use the house, it naturally lended itself to a long house type arrangement, which would have been far simpler from a Passivhaus perspective. With further design iterations they found that it wasn't quite going to work as they would like. Ross then presented a new design where the walls weren't parallel. It widened out as it got to the centre of the house, and then narrowed down at the ends. This was the design they decided to move forward with.
He wanted to be an informed client
Being the kind of person that likes to learn and understand how things work, and know the right questions to ask, when it came to the design and build of his own Passivhaus Simon was keen to develop his knowledge further. He took inspiration from Tomas O'Leary who had a similar background as a landscape architect, and has gone on to be internationally respected in Passivhaus circles with MosArt. This gave him the confidence to take on the Passivhaus Designer course himself, which he found to be intense and challenging, but also appealed to him with its methodical processes and attention to detail. Doing the course at the same time as working on the final stages of his own house design, meant that he was able to experiment in PHPP and take a lot more time to test things out for himself and understand the impacts that various changes made.
Quality control and education became part of his on-site role
In resisting his desire to be a hands-on self-builder (which he accepted fairly early on was going to be unrealistic if they wanted to be living in a house within 5 years!) Simon decided he wanted to take on the role of informed client, and work very closely with everyone on the team. Building through covid restrictions meant that he took on much more of the site role, as Ross wasn't able to be present as often as he would have liked. Simon was able to educate everyone that came to work on the site about Passivhaus, and how things that seemed insignificant would actually be important to the overall performance of the finished building.
Contractor attitude was more important than Passivhaus experience
When it came to selecting a main contractor, they found that there was a very limited number that had Passivhaus experience. Instead, they focused on their attitude, attention to detail on other builds, and evidence of where they had gone above and beyond building regs before.
They established a no-blame culture
Due to the pandemic restrictions, Simon ended up being more hands-on that he had originally intended. Living nearby meant that he could visit the site daily and be there to highlight issues or anything that needed particular care. This included setting up a no-blame culture, so that if anything was damaged they would all be informed, affording the opportunity to rectify it, rather than having it covered up and becoming a bigger problem later on. The contractor responded well to this and had come into the project wanting to learn and understand, and deliver it to the best of their ability.
Having a live project helped his understanding of the course
Even with the Passivhaus training course, Simon found that so many things you just have to learn about on the job. This was true for him particularly around the detailing, and finding the optimum solution for a heating system.
Trust in your consultants
Although it isn't necessary for clients to take the Passivhaus training course that Simon did, he does recommend that they do some reading to get a good understanding of the standard and how it works. The Passivhaus Trust has plenty of guidance available which is ideal for this and is pitched at different levels. Simon also believes that it's important to put your trust in your consultants too, and give them a degree of freedom to come up with the solution.
“Perhaps not get too involved in some aspects and more involved in focusing on how they're going to use the building and communicating that, but not necessarily getting too hung up on the actual technical solutions.”
The pandemic presented the biggest challenges
The main concern for them was getting the required level of airtightness, but the Covid pandemic brought about the greatest challenges. It impacted on materials, getting people to site, and causing delays and knock-on effects to the programme. It left the structure open for longer than they would have liked, which again had further implications.
Each build presents a learning opportunity
It's about good design, good practice and attention to detail. Simon's advice is to embrace upskilling and have the confidence to do it, whether you're a client, designer or contractor. And when a project has been delivered, go back and review what could have been done better, and what do you need to upskill in the future.
“It's a continuous process. We're always learning, we always need to learn, and that should be the mindset rather than trying to maintain a status quo where we always do things the way we've always done them. Let's challenge ourselves to always improve and do better.”
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