Self-builder Oliver Smallman tells us about planning, building and living in his London Passivhaus.
Interview with Oliver Smallman
Oliver and his wife are not absolute beginners at self-building. They co-designed a house in Corfu where they have lived on and off for 27 years. As Oliver sums it up, “Probably not the best design I’ve ever seen in the world, but with the most remarkable view.”
A rare chance to build green in London
While the Corfu project was a tremendous experience, Oliver had no intention of self-building again. However, when he had an opportunity to buy a house in Chiswick, with an unusually large garden, he saw the chance to use new, ecological building methods to build a Passivhaus.
The sunken design meant opting for concrete
Oliver designed his Passivhaus with Richard Dudzicki, of RDA Architects. They originally planned to use Structural Insulated Panels but the site was very constrained and Richard saw the potential for sinking the house below ground. Thus they chose a piled site and a concrete build.
Oliver had already fallen in love with the use of boarded concrete and explains, “The concrete walls on the interior, boarded and plain and smooth, were always in the plan.” The mixture of textures is part of what Oliver calls, “concrete as a look”; they even allowed the errors of the pouring to remain.
The brief called for concrete, convenience and light
As well as using concrete, Oliver wanted to avoid the house being dark. He says lots of glazing along the south of the house works well for a Passivhaus.
In terms of style, he had grown used to travelling in his work life and Oliver appreciates functional touches like having the lights over your bed and the switch at hand. “It’s a little bit “hotel-y” but it really suits me,” he says.
Neighbours objected to the modern design
Although the planning application was recommended for approval, about 40 local residents came to the planning meeting with extremely negative reactions and three councillors stopped the application.
One reason given was excessive size, despite the majority of the house being underground. They also argued the house was not “in keeping with the area” but Oliver has a different perspective, asking, “Why would you build a replica of a house that was built in 1949 or 1950? You’d be mad!”
Repeated planning applications didn't just pay lip service
Rather than sacrifice his contemporary design, Oliver tried to absorb feedback to gain his neighbours’ support. This meant some meaningful compromises where the design was blended in. For example, Oliver chose to match the white exterior walls and bricks of the other houses in the road.
A smaller second design allowed more green space, but the application was rejected again. Oliver then lost his appeal on the grounds that he wasn’t providing parking. Further reducing the top floor enabled off-street parking to be included in the next application.
Getting planning consent took four applications
Having seen the application a number of times, twelve Council members gave up their Saturday morning to come and look at the site. The opposition party made representations but Oliver says they made the mistake of behaving rudely. As he explains, “I think the Council officers probably thought, ‘You lot are nuts and this guy’s doing something perfectly reasonable.’”
At the next vote, the same three councillors objected, but the others disagreed, so planning permission was finally granted four years into the process. Oliver notes that the final design fits the street and has become accepted. The modern house is softened by use of greenery and locally appropriate materials.
Research led to the right concrete and windows
Although Oliver was inspired by the use of concrete in stations like Westminster, his design contrasts it with wooden floors. In addition, he used Portland Whitener to lighten the colour. Oliver went to the Concrete Centre and signed up for the course in concrete pouring. “You can’t just phone up a concrete company and they bring you concrete and pour it and then it looks like this,” he says.
Oliver also did a lot of research to find the right triple-glazed windows. He has been happy with the certified Passivhaus windows and service provided by Internorm.
A tight urban site presented challenges
The eight by eighteen metre site meant building close to boundary walls. The existing house had to be underpinned and Oliver needed to protect his neighbour’s house and cherry tree while digging a four-metre hole within three metres of them. To give Oliver the security to start digging out, a specialist company was used to sink the concrete piles.
Digging a large hole on such a tight site meant that space for storage and machinery was permanently on the move. As Oliver says, “It’s like a dance. When we were piling it, the piler would be in one corner, the concrete machine would have to be in another one.” They even built a platform to put the digger on to remove the last piece of soil.
The Passivhaus offers comfortable, healthy living
When the house was complete, Oliver actually rented it out for a while. Staying in his existing draughty house meant he appreciated the difference even more when he moved in. Three things surprised him. Firstly, how quiet the concrete-built, triple-glazed house is. Secondly, the fantastic air quality and thirdly, living draught free, with the same temperature everywhere.
Oliver isn’t dogmatic about the Passivhaus method but is extremely satisfied. “There may well be better solutions in the future, but I’ve now had the opportunity to live in this house for nearly a year and I absolutely love it,” he says.
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Leaving a legacy costs more
Oliver’s house is designed to last and be efficient. As he explains, “I’m trying to build something that uses very little power and little energy, and I’ll be long gone but it’ll be a very valuable asset either for my own children or for somebody else.” In fact, he says his energy costs are easily under £500 a year.
However, Oliver admits the build cost more than he’d intended, saying, “I thought I could do it for £400,000 and I built it for £600,000 finished.” Digging out the soil had been much more expensive due to bad weather. Moreover, he could have saved on some specifications but paid more for feel and durability. For example, he fell in love with the floor in the Saatchi Gallery. He reveals it cost “a crazy amount of money” but the untreated Douglas Fir will last hundreds of years and could be sanded a thousand times.
Oliver’s tips for self-builders
Commercial builders tend to avoid low energy builds as they are less profitable, but Oliver remarks that the more people who put up good buildings, the more the country as a whole will benefit.
His key advice is to persevere. As well as using Google for research, he has two other top tips for green builders:
- He recommends the PAUL MVHR system
- The Green Building Store has a lot of very good information, e.g. their planning service for the MVHR (around £300)
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