Ben Adam-Smith reflects on how he's changed while making 200 podcasts about self and custom building. He also looks at how the podcast has changed with him.
As part of celebrating my 200th podcast I wanted to create one more special episode. Last time I shared 20 self build tips learned from 200 podcasts. In this session I want to look at how I have grown in my understanding (hoping that I have!).
So, I've dipped in and out of the archive to try and pick out some key moments and themes.
I’m going to review blocks of 50 episodes at a time.
My purpose for starting the podcast was to learn about building an ecologically sound house.
I wanted to use my media skills to interview green building experts. However, this soon included chats with self-builders who had been there and done it.
I expressed a love for architecture but also a feeling that too many buildings today were not up to scratch.
Back in 2012 I was also upset that a lot of buildings in my local town ‘were not in keeping' with what was already there!
What is an eco home?
Although I will never stop asking this question, the first 50 episodes were undoubtedly about me finding my feet and trying to collate my thoughts. And I had some great teachers!
Influential people helped shape my thoughts
Even in those early days I connected with some high achievers in the space. Here are some highlights:
004 Wolfgang Feist (co-founder of the Passivhaus standard)
011 Brenda Boardman – Environmental Change Institute (University of Oxford)
019 Mark Brinkley – Housebuilder’s Bible
020 Andy Simmonds – chief executive of AECB
024 Jonathan Hines (director of Architype)
025 Elrond Burrell (Passivhaus expert)
035 Lloyd Alter (Treehugger)
050 David Snell (Homebuilding & Renovating)
I was lucky enough to discover some key organisations, too. Pat Wilkinson from Touchwood Homes told me about the AECB. From there I got introduced to the Passivhaus Trust. And a big moment came when my production company Regen Media starting producing video inserts for the UK Passivhaus Awards.
What did I learn?
These first few podcasts really helped me understand some key factors such as scale, choice of materials, etc. It also made me appreciate how much logic was wrapped up in the Passivhaus methodology.
However, the big learning was that when built well, eco homes can deliver a very high level of comfort. And this is extremely desirable.
If people can just understand what they're missing out on then they may seek out ecologically sound buildings by default.
At the end of my first year of research I decided to create an e-book called Why Most People Don’t Build Energy-Efficient Homes. The fundamentals are also available in our free Eco Design 101 course.
Conflict over deep retrofit of period homes
Compared to new build, transforming existing properties into low energy buildings was clearer much harder.
And there was clearly debate over how beneficial these makeovers might be. My chat with Roger Hunt, author of the Old House Eco Handbook, hammered home the importance of historic fabric.
Three important connections were made during this period.
Key connection number 1
Meeting Mike Coe (in episode 54) was definitely a big moment.
He and his partner Lizzie were the self-builders behind the Autonomous House . . . but Mike is also a retired ITV News cameraman.
In fact he came out of retirement to help me put together a documentary called The Future of Housing.
Crowdfunded on Kickstarter, this aimed to highlight the importance of airtightness in delivering thermally efficient buildings. Everyone seems to know about insulation but airtightness is often forgotten. This can’t be done in isolation, of course. Build tight, ventilate right.
The premiere of The Future of Housing was held in the Mildmay Community Centre (itself a Passivhaus retrofit project).
Key connection number 2
I was to bump into Chris a number of times in the coming years and eventually go on to hire Parsons + Whittley to design my new home.
Key connection number 3
I met self-builder Alex Baines in episode 74 and his project ‘Long Barrow' went on to become our first in-depth video case study. This gave us a key piece of content to help launch, our online resource The Hub.
Great international guests
During episodes 50-100 there was also a wonderful flavour of podcasts from around the world (something that I’d wanted to do since day one). Here are a few that come to mind:
084 – Clare Parry from the Australian Passive House Association
088 – Jay Shafer (the man who popularised the tiny house movement)
089 – Bjorn Kierulf
091 – Tomas O’Leary (Passive House Academy)
095 – Harold Orr (the man behind the Saskatchewan Conservation House)
096 – Kara Rosemeier (Passive House Academy New Zealand)
Main discovery – self build plots can be hard to find
With the birth of my first child James, life got busier!
Finding time to visit potential plots was not easy, but we had the extra impetus that we were out-growing our home!
While we did find a few suitable sites and put in offers, they generally went to sealed bids and we lost out.
I shared what I'd learned during this time in an article called ‘why it's so hard to find land to build a house on‘.
A welcome financial boost came early in my land search
In episode 66 I talked about how inheriting money was going to make the practicalities of building a house much easier.
This was the first time I suspected my ancestors were helping me. There's another one coming later!
Time to get laser focused
The overriding theme for this period is quite easy to pick out: focus.
I'd been trying to produce a podcast that could be listened to around the world. While there are many commonalities, there are just as many differences. I was missing out on the detail of how to build in the UK.
I'd also made up my mind that I wanted to build new, because this seemed a more logical first step (rather than retrofitting, which is more complex).
In episode 110 I made a big change to my podcast. I announced that I was going to stop covering retrofit and focus entirely on the UK market. While I was sad about this, I definitely felt I'd reached a fork in the road.
Speaking opportunities came my way
One aspect of going on a learning journey is that sometimes people want to know about it!
Jackson Moulding invited me to give a presentation at Ecomotive's week-long series of talks and workshops on self and custom build!
After interviewing Harvey Fremlin at the National Self Build & Renovation Centre I went on to do a talk at one of their shows. And I'm very pleased to have been invited back for a number of their shows ever since.
Finally I went to the Houses of Parliament and became a panellist for an enquiry into the quality of new housing in England!
A second in-depth video case study The Hub
The in-depth video case studies are at the heart of The Hub and we went in search of a follow-up to Long Barrow.
I'm delighted that Jae Cotterell, co-author of The Passivhaus Handbook, got us access to one of her projects – Buckinghamshire Passivhaus.
I fail to build my new home before I turn 40
In episode 143 I announced that I'd failed in my quest to build an energy-efficient home before I turned 40.
What's more, I didn't even have a plot of land. However, I wasn't about to give up . . . and my luck was about to change.
My ancestors were clearly not impressed with my plot search and offered up this gem at the end of 2016!
Having spent years talking about it, I was finally taking big strides forwards.
Key episodes included:
Big changes at home
We sold our house (to partially fund our build) and moved into rental accommodation.
My second child Emily arrived, making life even busier!
The Hub gets an upgrade
The Hub is an ever-evolving beast and during this time we made some much needed changes.
We also celebrated our first Hub member completing his build (Donal O'Leary).
This has been an amazing journey. I have loved the learning and it's been a privilege to visit so many eco homes.
I feel I understand much more about what makes a great home and I have broadened my tastes too. Yes, I do love contemporary design now!
On the flip side, I am less accepting of houses that choose to simply comply with minimum standards (building regulations).