Janice Gardiner, an ecologist and the client of last week’s interviewee Josh Wood at Green Trace Architect, is here to tell us what it is like to be the client on a Passivhaus project and share what she has learnt from the experience.
Interview with Janice Gardiner
Janice Gardiner is a nature conservationist and alongside her husband Colin has created the beautiful Hazel Tree House. After having their youngest child leave for university, Janice and Colin decided that they wanted to downsize from their 4 bedroom, victorian terrace house in North Somerset and embarked on the adventure to build an eco home in the Herefordshire countryside. After moving in just over a year ago, the house is living up to all of their expectations and even surpassing them, after recently winning the Best Eco House at the Build It 2023 awards.
In this chat, Janice talks about what it's like to be the client in a Passivhaus build and shares with us all of the lessons she has learnt along the way.
Finding the site
Janice and Colin had been looking to downsize and originally their search had included houses or renovation projects in the area close to Ross on Wye. But when they discovered a former pub garden with outline planning permission, they began on the new-build journey instead.
“We'd done up a victorian terrace for 20 years, so we were constantly looking after the house and making improvements. So we actually want a house that will look after us.”
The site is just under an acre in size and includes the house plot, overlooking an orchard and also a field behind, that Janice is using her knowledge of wildflower meadows to manage.
“We'd always looked at Grand Designs and we'd always thought we'll never do anything like that. And I think it was just seeing it in a place that we were considering we just thought well, let's have a look and see what's possible!”
Start with clear intentions
As an environmental conservationist and ecologist, Janice states that it was always going to be an eco-house; in the materials that it used and level of energy efficiency. Although initially they thought that they wouldn’t be able to stretch the budget to meet Passivhaus standard, there was an ethos of sustainability from the start. Having this clear intention allows you to create a team that possess the knowledge and skills that are in line with these values and will provide a strong structure for your build before you even broken ground.
“We wanted it to be eco so that was one of our criteria to start with. My backgrounds in nature conservation, so the environmental side and the ecology side was very much there. Then because we knew we wanted an eco build, we started looking for architects that had those credentials.”
It is crucial to find the right team
Because Janice and Colin began the process with clear intentions, they were able to assemble a team that had the same shared values and the qualifications to put them into practice. Being from around the Bristol area, Josh was recommended to them by another firm and they began the talks with him.
When it came to finding a crew for the actual build, Janice was able to draw on the large community of eco builders in Herefordshire and as a result found Dai Rees, a local Passivhaus builder. He was the project manager and the main contractor, and having his expertise working alongside Josh’s designs helped the build run smoothly. The team he put together was also quite special as they were all builders who had an interest in Passivhaus and eco builds, so were eager to learn and put their own special touches into the house.
This strong team shows that the overarching ethos of a build will help you find people who share those interests, and through their passion for their work you will together create something really special!
“I think you should try and enjoy the whole process and I think there's something about working with people that you have a good relationship with. What I found lovely about doing an eco build is that because people are doing what they're interested in, you're all trying to achieve the same thing. There's a bit more of a meaning behind it for all concerned.”
The planning stage is not to be rushed
At the beginning of the build, they didn’t think they had the budget to build to Passivhaus standard. Josh then came on board and was able to not only provide the design and technical drawings, but also present the different build methods and materials that could get the house close to that standard. An architect acts to guide clients through the sea of information that can be overwhelming if you haven’t done this before.
Josh provided Janice and Colin with an excellent feasibility study that helped them see the larger picture in relation to their site, planning and construction methods. They also sat down and identified what characteristics they were looking for in their house; how they wanted to live within it and how it would make them feel. The exercise highlighted that Janice and Colin wanted a modern but modest eco home which promoted simple living with a sense of joy and calmness.
“I think he was then our guide as to the method of construction and all of the design of the house. But he did a really good feasibility study with us in terms of what it is we wanted and how we wanted to live”
Planning restrictions can be a license for creativity
Within the planning permission for Hazel Tree House there was a restriction that it couldn’t be larger than 100 metres squared internal floor space and limited the house to two bedrooms. This meant there was a need to creatively design the space to get the most out of the size restrictions. Josh was able to work within these limitations by including a void area over the open plan living space that allowed for the house to feel bigger without going over the floorspace restriction. In addition, the upstairs of the house is situated under a pitched roof, and within planning regulations anything that is under eaves that are lower than around 1.5m is not included in the floor space calculation. This restriction ultimately led to space being used as efficiently as possible and added features that maybe wouldn’t have been considered without it there.
Outline planning permission can offer a lot of freedom
At outline planning the previous owner had not submitted a detailed plan for the build and as result there was a very standard outline of a two-bedroom house with 100 metre square internal floor space but no other details that were specified. This meant that they had quite a lot of freedom in terms of design and style as long as their new plan met these guidelines. This included moving the overall position of the house further back in the plot, in order to save a large Hazel Tree from being removed, which later became the design inspiration for the house, a crucial factor in keeping the house cool in the summer and the house's namesake.
The build system
Hazel Tree House is constructed on an Isoquick raft with a poured concrete slab. It is a timber frame structure using I-joists with walls made from blown cellulose insulation sandwiched between wood fibre boards. The roof and half of the external walls are clad with black corrugated metal with integrated gutters and the other half with cedar panels. The windows and doors are all triple glazed from the Green Building Store and the internal walls are finished with clay plaster. Due to the very efficient way that materials are used, the house has a negative embodied carbon score.
Due to delays in planning as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the whole process took a total of 2 years, from buying the land to moving in, but the build itself only took 9 months of that time.
Where to save and where to spend – bespoke vs standard features
Janice talks about how you may start with the simplest design intentions but when you are given other options that are maybe a bit more interesting but add to the cost it is difficult to not be tempted. The pay off is in what they offer you or the joy they give you.
“A straight A frame shape would have been your simplest form and your cheapest form. Josh came up with the idea of lifting part of it to create this opening and this veranda. Once you've seen that, it's very hard to just look back. So I think that is the thing that happens. You're on a creative journey with your architect, and then with your builder. Some of the joy of the build is in doing those things, rather than sticking with just what you've said and just what the budget is maybe dictating. So I think your personality comes through in the decisions you make there.”
Janice shares that Hazel Tree House's signature round window added expense to the project and caused a few headaches when it came to installation and the creation of an external window sill. When building a Passivhaus, airtightness is crucial and unusual shaped windows can be areas where gaps can be created. There are ways to avoid this and with some bespoke and creative carpentry, solutions were found. Janice says that despite the added challenges that the round window created, she is very glad they decided to do it as it is very worth it for the character it gives.
The tin cladding is actually an example where Janice and Colin decided to save money. They had originally looked at dark grey cladding panels which were significantly more expensive than the black corrugated metal they ended up choosing. But in fact, the cladding that they decided to go with adds a beautiful structure to the back of the house and hints to the agricultural buildings that it shares the landscape with. This is an example of where the more expensive option may not be the best for you, and it is aways good to refer back to your intentions for the build: does the material or feature align with them?
“We did stretch ourselves because the things that we said we can't afford, like the solar panels and Passivhaus certification, were things that we really did want to do and we really did want that quality of finish. So, I think you can say to yourself, I'm not going to do it. But actually, once you're doing the build, and really involved in that process, you've got to be very strong to not go with what your heart actually wants.”
Is Passivhaus certification worth it?
In the case of Hazel Tree House, the aim had always been to get it to the highest standard of energy efficiency that they could, including an MVHR, triple glazed windows and a very high standard of blown cellulose insulation. It was only during the build that Janice and Colin decided to go the whole way and get the passivhaus certification as well. This is not an essential extra step and in essence whether you have the certification or not, your home’s performance will be the same. But for Janice this final step felt like the perfect end point: once you have gone so far, why not go the whole way. It is also good to be able to actually monitor the performance of your house for resale purposes and because it is nice to know that extra effort in construction has been worth it. In this case, Josh was able to use Hazel Tree House as the basis to get his Passivhaus designer qualification as well.
Not everything will go to plan
Janice and Colin encountered their biggest challenge of the build whilst laying the concrete for their foundations. The site access already limited the size of the vehicle that could deliver the concrete and although two trucks had been arranged to deliver the concrete in rely, only one had been sent. To add further insult to injury, when the truck returned, the plant had broken down and they had to go to one further away. When working with concrete, time is of the essence, and the way it is laid can impact the finished outcome. As this concrete slab was also going to be polished and become the floor for the whole of the downstairs, it was even more important that it was done properly and due to the delay, the team stayed late into the night to work on it. This issue did ultimately impact the finish of the floor and there are areas with imperfections, but as Janice points out, these things are quite quickly forgotten about or overlooked once the build is over and you move into the house.
The client experience during the build
Janice lived in a bungalow close to the site during the build so was able to be present on site pretty much every day. She describes this as a great experience as you get to see all of the stages of the process and really feel a part of the journey. She also highlights an interesting flip that you see as the client. For the first half of the build you are watching; because the builders are following the architects plans, you have very few questions you need to answer. But as soon as the internal finishes begin, you start to be asked questions that you haven’t even considered yet. So as a client, the internal structure and design of things such as lights, sockets, stairs, doors, kitchens, bathrooms etc is the area where you will be most in demand.
“You sort of get used to not really having very many questions, or just having a look at things, maybe you're looking at the windows and stuff. Then suddenly it comes to the internal and ‘Oh, where your stairs going? What stairs do you want? What's your electric? Where do you want your sockets? Where's your lights?' and suddenly, you really are in demand and having to make decisions. You know, really thinking about the internal layout and structure, when you haven't even got walls necessarily.”
Visiting another house can be an amazing way to understand what you want for your home
All of Hazel Tree House’s internal walls are finished with clay plaster which creates a beautiful and warm textured surface. Janice says that during the planning stage they were able to visit another passivhaus in the area (Old Holloway) who had chosen the clay plaster finish and fell in love with it. Not only does clay plaster create a beautiful effect, it also good for the overall health of the building as it is a natural breathable material which will take in moisture when there is an excess and release it again when needed. The clay plaster can be a good choice too if you are looking to reduce the upkeep needs of a house, as once it is sealed, it is a finished surface that won’t need to be repainted every few years like other wall surfaces.
Being able to see the finish in person really helped them feel confident in their choices and now that the house is completed, Janice and Colin have participated in the Passivhaus open day for visitors who are beginning their journey, to share what they have learnt and help them with those decisions.
“It's a big part of the finishes getting the clay plastering done. But then it's done. You know, you don't have to paint unless you choose to. So basically, once all the plastering is done, that's it, your house is decorated.”
Adaptability and problem solving is crucial
Having a good builder is very important, as their ability to alter plans and adapt to certain situations is crucial. There were a few occasions where Dai was able to highlight a potential problem and come up with an alternative option or an added precaution that helped to avoid big disasters. One example of this was with the Air Source Heat Pump that was fitted. Because of the size restrictions from planning, Hazel Tree House has what Janice calls a “mini plant room” which is essentially just enough space to fit everything in it. When Dai and his team were constructing the walls Dai pointed out that once the Heat pump was in place it would be very difficult to get out again so he decided to create a removable panel instead of a wall, which would be there in case it broke down. As luck would have it, the heat pump was delivered faulty but this fault was only discovered after it had been installed and turned on for the first time, and Dai had to use his removable panel to get it back out again.
“I think that was the lovely thing about the design process, your builder is solving problems and coming up with solutions all of the time. We have a strange shaped downstairs shower to fit in a very compact space, which caused a bit of headache: how am I going to make a shower tray here because I can't buy one (unless you want to spend a lot of money). So it's those things that you're solving as you go with the help of very, very good builder.”
Open plan living
Hazel Tree House is designed to cater for open plan living and the main social space of the house contains the kitchen, living room and dining room all as one. Janice describes it as a lovely space where you can all feel connected, even if you are doing different things, with also the option for private spaces in the bedrooms and office area.
“It was lovely last Christmas, we had all the family here. You could be cooking and still part of everything that's going on and that felt exactly what we wanted. Then if you want private space that's either coming to bedrooms, as a separate space, so we do have a chair in our bedroom. And then an office space that is more functional and actually can be more messy. You can keep the mess out of that sort of central social space and I think it very much functions like that.”
Performance – “You have no concept of what it is like to live in a Passivhaus until you have lived in one”
Janice talks about how she knew that a passivhaus was going to feel very different from a standard house, but was unable to comprehend the realities of that until after they had moved in. The key thing she highlights is that in a standard house, you have warm rooms and cold rooms, so to move within your house you are constantly changing from one to another. In a passivhaus the temperature is constant throughout the whole building, which make the entire house feel more liveable at all times of day and all points in the year. On the day of recording in December the house was 19 degrees centigrade in the morning (after a night which dropped to below 0).
The house has solar panels installed and uses the electricity to heat the hot water tank and power the lights etc. The house only has two towel rails and finds that most of the heat in the house is generated through sunlight, cooking and just generally moving around. The solar panels feed into the grid and are not connected to a battery as this was an expense that the budget couldn't stretch to, but Janice hopes to get one installed in the future.
“We are very geeky about it because we do constantly monitor the internal and external temperatures, we have monitors all over the place. And you have to learn to manage it as well, I think, because it is so different and so new. It was 19 when we woke up this morning, and it's gone up to just about 20, just from us being here and having the oven on a bit… What we're finding is it drops one or two degrees overnight, because it's not 100% efficient in keeping the temperature in. And then in the evening, when you're sitting down more, that's when you might want to have a bit of heating on just to boost that temperature. And we just use, an electric heater and we have the towel rails, but that is all that we're pretty much using.”
Is it luck or is it having an open mind?
Janice highlights that it was a relatively smooth build, and they didn’t have any major issues. There were things that went wrong, like the concrete plant breaking down when you are in the middle of laying the base slab or the water heater being delivered faulty and having to be replaced straight away. But the overall feeling is that these things are what you make of them. Janice talks about her build with positivity and an overall sense of enjoyment, so whilst it may feel like luck, your own mindset and flexibility is a crucial factor in any project.
“It has gone really, really well and I think knowing we wanted it to be an eco house helped from the start, because then that's what we were looking for. And to some extent, you can say we were lucky to come across the right people, but I think it was then just trusting your gut about how you got on with someone because that relationship is something that's going to go on for nine months. I think it's probably very important, because it's a process you're all going through for that length of time.”
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