Architects Polly Upton and Kirk Rushby explain how they used their expertise to deliver a striking, high performance home for a very reasonable budget.
Interview with Polly Upton and Kirk Rushby
Having worked at top sustainable architecture practice Architype for many years, Kirk Rushby and Polly Upton were well placed to tackle a Passivhaus project, but bided their time for the right opportunity.
Keeping their cost base low gave them a head-start
Buying a house that they could easily afford in their early years at Architype meant that as their salaries increased their costs did not and so they were able to save money each month. Ultimately this put them in a strong position with cash to hand.
They never stopped considering the opportunities
Even though most plots they found were beyond their financial reach they didn't give up, instead considering various opportunities and thinking that maybe in 5 years or so things might slot into place. Thus anything they learn about the process or sites now might help them down the road.
However, this persistence paid off sooner than they imagined.
They were prepared to take on a plot with challenges
After looking at a few sites they came back to one that had been on the market a while. On the edge of a village, it afforded views to the hills beyond… but there were some drawbacks. The key challenge was access, which was via a low tunnel under the railway. This would make bringing materials to site tricky.
Also being down a private road there were numerous potholes and there was going to be some noise from the railway line.
While this might have been putting other people off, Polly and Kirk felt they could address these challenges. For example, just building to Passivhaus standard would have big acoustic advantages inside the house and eliminate most of the noise from the railway line.
Reducing the floor area helped them keep to budget
The site came with outline planning consent which was perfect for them, as architects, because they could design their own house.
With a fixed budget they had to make sure they had enough money for the project and could see it through. This is where their architectural background came into its own. They started with a rough cost per square metre figure and then went into more detail of how they were going to build it and what each of those elements would cost.
When they couldn't afford it, they reduced the house size and started again
“We designed a 160 square metre house and then we realised that we probably couldn't afford that. And then we realised that maybe we didn't even need it. So we shaved about 30 square metres off and didn't really feel like we lost anything.”
This refinement was an ace up their sleeve. They reached a natural point where if they made the house any smaller then it would become difficult to make the space planning work.
‘Upside down' living was an easy choice
Sharing a similar work experience the core decisions were easy. They wanted to have bedrooms on the ground floor and the living space above (where the views would be better). They planned to use timber frame, which was familiar to them and would also be more practical for delivering to site.
It was the smaller decisions like choosing the wall finishes that prompted more discussion!
The house has a ‘warm' roof
Where some people might have a cold loft space, Kirk and Polly opted to keep the top ‘half storey' of the house within the thermal envelope, giving them more usable space. This is where there office is situated and also where you get the best view.
Each window opening was carefully considered
Polly and Kirk wanted a window arrangement where each window was just the opening.
This meant balancing up daylighting, views, solar gains and cross ventilation (through the openings on the east and west) while also trying to avoid complexity.
On the south side they decided to have a couple of larger windows which would not open. This would be cheaper, as well, plus they didn't need these windows for cross ventilation purposes.
With the main view out to the west they came up with a manual shading strategy for their big door involving roller shutters.
Justifying the cladding choice was the main planning hurdle
Getting full planning permission was fairly straightforward. In fact the main discussion with the planner was over the corrugated metal cladding for the walls and roof.
“We had to convince the planner about the detailing and provide some precedents to show it wasn't going to look like a big agricultural, clunky shed and it was going to be quite refined.”
The non-concrete foundation worked well
With the constraints of the site they wanted to avoid the stress of a concrete delivery. So they took advice from Passivhaus specialist Nick Grant and structural engineer Andrew Collinson about using a compacted gravel foundation.
They weren't afraid to pull in favours
Initially Polly and Kirk didn't know their neighbours or have friends in the area but as time went by they felt more comfortable with getting support when they needed it. Whether it was paying the farmer to help with his telehandler or asking the local builders' merchants to receive a timber deliver, it made life easier and kept the costs down.
Polly's brother Matt built the house
Enlisting a family member to be your builder can be fraught with danger, but both Polly and Kirk felt Matt was right for the job. Polly knew he was a hard worker, who plans well, knows the building industry and is cheeky when negotiating with suppliers. His ‘can do' attitude also goes a long way.
This was to be his first full house build although he'd done a large extension before.
There were nightly meetings!
As Matt didn't live nearby he stayed with Polly and Kirk during the week. That meant that there'd be intense discussions about what was going to happen the next day, the next week or the next month.
Polly's dad and a couple of Matt's friends were the only other workers through the project.
Getting services connected took ages
The build took 15 months and during most of this time Matt was without power.
“We started trying to get the ball rolling the summer before we started building. And we didn't get the last telephone line in until we'd already moved in so it took a long, long time.”
Kirk believes the utilities companies don't have the same sense of urgency that you do. Plus there were agreements with third parties to arrange, which all takes time.
Luckily Matt was able to crack on under battery power and using an extension cable from a friendly neighbour. This was yet another advantage of a dry construction method.
Supply chain issues impacted on some decisions
Building through the pandemic there were some big supply chain issues. This meant that they had to think on their feet. Fitting out the interior was subject to what was available at the time so being flexible really helped.
The design of the house helps avoid overheating
The house has been really comfortable through their first summer. Even when it got up to 31C outside, at the top of the house inside it was only 25C. So the design of the house, with its roof overhang and shutters, does the work.
Polly comments: “You learn that at about one o'clock, you need to close the shutters on the big west door.”
The programme is subject to real life
Kirks suggests that amongst the things he'd like to do differently would be to make the programme more straightforward. However, the reality of it is that there are delays with some things and you have to fill the time with other jobs you can do.
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