Architect Kirsty Maguire explains why reusing an existing building is always preferable to demolishing and rebuilding. However, when buildings are in terrible condition or need radical alterations to make them habitable we should be looking to reuse, recycle and reclaim as many materials as possible. Kirsty shows us that with intentional and sustainable design, you can create a new structure with a wealth of history.
Interview with Kirsty Maguire
Kirsty Maguire is an architect and Passivhaus designer who specialises in reclamation practices and sustainable building. Along with her team, Kirsty has been involved a wide range of projects that focus on finding ways to recycle the wealth of resources in existing buildings and reclamation centres, instead of buying new. In this chat, Kirsty explains the steps that are taken throughout a reclamation centred project and describes how preloved items can bring beauty and creativity to your home.
Reusing and reclaiming materials is an essential part of sustainability and the future of construction
A lot of the narratives around Passivhaus certification and sustainable construction have a focus on new builds. Whilst these projects are great, we can’t solely focus on sustainable new builds for the future of housing. Kirsty highlights that we currently have a wealth resources in already existing structures. We don’t have the ability to start from scratch on everything, so reclaiming, renovating, and reusing will be fundamental for a strong circular economy and in creating a sustainable future of housing.
“We've done everything from little cottage upgrades to working with the UNDP in Armenia doing big, tower block retrofits. And that's really, you know, that's what's going to change the world in a short time.”
What is the circular economy?
“Circular economy is looking at materials not only in the use that they are now but also beyond that use and into their next life.”
The Seed is a new building constructed just outside of Dundee on a woodland plot. It is a home for two families and acts as a small-scale cohousing project, with shared access to living areas. When the project was originally brought to Kirsty and her team, it was intended to be an EnerPHit project on an existing structure, but after reviewing the building health, the team realised that the structure was in a very poor condition with a lot of damp.
“We drew the things that we're going to have to be taken out in red and the drawings were almost entirely red! There was very little left.”
As a result, the goal shifted from reuse to recycle and the team formulated a plan to demolish the existing structure and reuse as much of the material as possible in the new building. Bricks were used in a range of different ways, creating gabions that formed the foundation of the structure, as aggregate on the site and also in the garden to provide structure for the biodiversity growing that the client is developing.
The client was passionate about sustainability and biodiversity being at the heart of the project, which can be seen in the construction methods, choices of materials and the overall design of the house.
Reusing materials might mean changing their use
Not all reclaimed materials will be able to be used in the exact same way as they were before, so there is an aspect of creativity needed for designers to work out how to use them in new projects.
You don’t need to demolish an existing structure to be able to reclaim materials
There are some great resources out there for sourcing reclaimed materials, whether that be from architectural salvage yards, stone yards, and even online sites such as eBay, Gumtree and Freecycle. A great example, local to Kirsty, is Dundee Scrap Antics, which is a creative recycling and social justice enterprise, that aims to give preloved items another life.
“They might have something that's been sitting in the back there for years and years or even decades, which is exactly what you need for your project. So there are a lot of places you can go.”
Finishes are the easiest way to reuse in a Passivhaus
Structural components can be a bit harder because there won’t be any manufactures data to prove the efficiency of the product, in particular insulation. But this matters most in Passivhaus structures as you need this data to get the certification. Therefore, using reclaimed materials for your internal finishes can be a great way to improve the sustainability and character of your home.
Our current building industry doesn’t consider the richness of reclaiming materials
The current system is designed to make you go straight to the merchant and buy any materials new, it is considered efficient in both time and cost. But it doesn’t take into consideration the benefits of using reclaimed materials on the environment and the unique quality of the finished product.
“It doesn't take into account the rich wealth of recycled materials that exists out there.”
Demolition companies are incentivised to separate waste and avoid putting everything into landfill
With the presence of substances like asbestos, demolition has moved past the time of a wrecking ball and a skip. Now, it is a much more measured process, but there are still important considerations to be made and does depend on where the reclaimed material is used afterwards. Often, demolition companies have the materials taken away to be used in other projects, but Kirsty highlights that whilst this is much better than them ending up in landfill, the most sustainable use is in reclaiming materials and reusing them on the same site. In the case of The Seed, the asbestos was professionally removed, and the majority of the timber and plaster was taken to be used on other sites, but pretty much all the rest was reused on site, whether that was in the building itself, landscaping or in garden structures.
Surroundings can be a big influence on the design
In the design of The Seed, the woodland area in which the site is situated, influenced a large amount of the design as well as the environmental performance. Internal layout can be designed to maximise the connection to the outdoor space and the use of two different colour clay plasters inside differentiates between the two families’ zones in a cohousing living space. As a result, you create a warm atmosphere both thermally and emotionally, that sits within the land not on it.
“As the client described it, almost womb like. Very enveloping and warm and cosy. Not only from a thermal performance point of view, but from a sort of emotional point of view.”
You must not only consider how the building will be constructed, but also it’s deconstruction in many years to come
The construction of The Seed focused on installing root protection and avoiding the use of concrete and cement when laying the groundwork. They decided to use steel screw piles for the foundation as they could position them in relation to the tree roots and can be removed with little impact at a later date. Kirsty also pointed out that even if the steel piles can’t be reused in a future project, they can be recycled.
“This comes back down to the thinking about the whole building life. So you in the same way that we were looking at the previous building that was on the site, that was at it’s end of life, and identifying the type of materials that we can reuse within that, despite the fact that when it was built that wasn’t what was being considered. What we're looking at with a new building is how that building could be taken apart at the end of its life… steel screw piles can be taken out with relatively small impact on the ground, and considering other materials as we go through as to what can be reused and recycled when it does come to that point”
… and it’s embodied carbon impact
Kirsty was yet to receive the data for the embodied carbon of steel screw piles, but did highlight that it is often the renewable energy devices that hold the highest embodied carbon of a project. You can influence this, depending on where you source you Solar PV, for example, can have a big impact on the level of embodied carbon. It is therefore much easier to control the embodied carbon of your above ground materials and it is often about looking at how to balance it all.
Remember to consider your waste management
Kirsty explains that in the construction of The Seed, they highlighted that root protection was an area of potential waste as it requires a large quantity of gravel. To get around this, they were able to use reclaimed materials from the demolition and any left-over material was used in another of their building sites.
Root protection has many benefits
Root protection is often a planning requirement for sites that have trees surrounding the foundation. The Seed was being constructed on a woodland site with many mature trees and root protection was required. The team found that not only did this process protect the trees, but it also protected the soil during construction and helped to avoid the perils of a muddy, winter, construction site!
“the contractor commented that they really loved having the reputation down because it meant that the site was very clean… you're not wading around in the wintertime, with mud up to your ankles, tracking it through the whole building site.”
Aim to continue the ethos through every stage of your build
It’s not only the shell that must be considered when creating a sustainable home. When you carry a mindset through every step of the process, right down to the internal finishes and furnishings, you achieve a cohesive design with much more intention. Kirsty talks about how Caroline (the client for The Seed) achieved the majority of her internal finishes with furniture she already owned, or second hand finds, rather than buying new and contributing to landfill waste. Each feature tells a story, in particular, the wooden platform made from materials reclaimed from the sailing club in Broughty Ferry that her site manager was involved in constructing all those years ago. This continuation of her overall ethos has created not only a beautiful design but a sense of history within a new structure.
“It's really interesting. So unexpectedly, these little stories start to come up and get created about the building too”
Remember to consider the biodiversity and ecology of your site
Kirsty also highlights that biodiversity and ecology are at the centre of their practice when renovating, demolishing, and reconstructing buildings. The presence of bats is a common occurrence in reclamation projects as these structures have been standing for a long time and it’s not only the previous owners that will have called them home. It is therefore important that the proper surveys are done, and any findings must be checked by a local ecologist.
“What's existing there already? It's not just the humans… who call the houses their home.”
Collaboration and a good team is key
Having a team that all share the same goal for a project is vital and if overlooked you may end up with a different end product than what you had envisioned. Storage in key when reclaiming materials as they will often be sat around for a while before they can be reused and in that time, they need to be stored within the right conditions. This requires an additional level of planning and coordination, so a good team that all understand the ethos of the build is crucial. Without this, things may become very difficult.
“It might be that the architect and the client find some amazing things together in terms of materials to reuse. But if you've working with the wrong contractor, then they're not going to be picking that up or vice versa… But when you get a great contractor to work with, or anybody else from the design team or the or the build team, then everyone putting their heads together to find solutions really can make the reused materials sing.”
Don’t be overwhelmed by the prospect of reusing and recycling in your build
Once you get into the process it can be really fun and exciting! Reclaiming and sourcing second hand materials can be a creative exercise in problem solving. You will likely end up with a range of unique and high-quality features in your home that will each tell their own story.
The industry has come a long way in the past 10 years
10 years ago, it would have been very difficult to find data on embodied carbon and embodied energy but today there is rich data base to help guide you. PHHP is a relatively quick modelling tool which also has a feature to check the embodied carbon and embodied energy of materials, allowing you to begin the process at a relatively low cost.
“if you're using PHPP… then you can choose whether you think that extra 50 millimetres of insulation is worth the cost or not and… that puts the control for specification and budget firmly in the design team and clients pocket, which is fantastic.”
Copyright – Grant Anderson / www.grantanderson.me / @grantandersondotme
Your project shouldn’t feel like a juggling act of different goals
Building projects should aim to have your goals working together cohesively rather than battling one another. This brings us back to our topic from last week; embodied carbon vs energy efficiency. Kirsty explains that we shouldn’t view them as competing goals, but instead as different factors that need to work together. You don’t need to forgo one to have the other, but you may need to spend a little longer working out how you can get them to work together harmoniously.
“thinking about the impact of the construction, in the same way that we've been able to look at the performance is a really powerful tool… For a long time, we were focusing on performance, and the decisions that you might make instinctively are often right, but they're not always. And it's exactly the same with embodied carbon and embodied energy.”
David Arrenberg explains why he wanted to project manage his self build, what the work entailed and how much of his time it took.
Interview with David Arrenberg
Originally a civil engineer, David was just starting to get into project management in his job at Scottish Water when he started his self build. With the skills and training he acquired in this role, he wasn't daunted by taking on the job of project managing his own self build.
Project Management is about being organised
David says that project management as a profession isn't complicated: it's just a case of being very organised and making sure that you know the order of things. In his professional capacity, he is used to working with programmes, understanding the need to allow for space in them, and appreciating what things might cost and what could cause delays. Compared to a big, multi-functional project at work, taking on the logistics of his house build seemed quite straight forward and just a case of breaking it down into its parts.
They didn't have to search for land
David and his wife Jenny were fortunate in that the plot of land was available to them, even before they had a desire to build their house. It was owned by his aunty, and with his mum already living in a listed building there the opportunity was gifted to them to build in the woodland that surrounds it.
In the two years it took to transfer the title deeds over and arrange finance, David worked on clearing the site where the house was to be built and spent time getting ideas from magazines and the internet about the kind of house they might build.
Protecting the woodland was the main planning concern
During that time, David also worked through the rules that were relevant to getting planning permission. With Invergarry House being listed, they had to make sure that their plot was at least 150m away and also had to overcome issues of overlooking other houses. But of biggest concern to the planners was how to protect the woodland. David had to pay to employ a specialist arborist to oversee the whole project from start to finish, working out how to get a driveway through the woodland without damaging tree roots. He also put together a woodland maintenance plan for its future upkeep.
With those issues out of the way, and having appointed Kirsty Maguire as their architect, getting the design of the house approved was relatively straightforward.
They had a budget of £300,000 for the build
Working with Kirsty on what it might cost to build their Passivhaus, they worked on a basis of £1,700-£1,800 per square metre, which also incorporated a little extra for risk. Based on the planned area of their building, this gave them a predicted cost of £300,000. The final cost of the build actually came in at around £315,000 which included all fees and landscaping.
Being able to borrow against Jenny's business and using savings meant they were able to avoid having to formally borrow money.
David brought in his own sub-contractors
Kirsty's experience of Passivhaus was what drew them to her, and they had a good relationship working together, taking each other's ideas on board. She took them through the outline and detailed planning stages and provided ad-hoc advice when required with minor issues and details on site.
Being local, David had many more contacts than their contractor Craigs Eco, so they had what they called an ‘open book policy'. This involved Craigs Eco providing a full Bill of Quantities breaking down every item, and within reason and where possible, they were happy for David to bring in his own sub-contractors and materials if he was able to get them cheaper. This did come with the risk that if he delayed another part of the works with his own sub-contractor then he would be liable for any additional costs incurred.
Many of the sub-contractors were family members or had connections with their family, but David ensured he only brought in people who he thought would be able to fit in with the Craigs Eco team.
Savings came through price negotiations, not sweat equity!
David was aware of the limitations of his own skills, so felt it was far better to save money by negotiating on prices, rather than tackling any of the trades himself!
The flexibility to be able to negotiate prices of materials himself, actually gave David big savings. Having been alarmed at the initial quote of £105,000 for the zinc cladding, David managed to eventually find a supplier who could provide it for £55,000.
Buoyed by how much he'd saved on this first item, he admits he became slightly addicted to going back and forth between suppliers to try and get the best prices. He says it was just a case of having the confidence to ask, and when it's your own money then you find you have plenty of enthusiasm to ask for discounts! The results he says were massive savings, while also ensuring they didn't forfeit quality.
It's about keeping on top of things
Access arrangements were something that David had to keep on top of in his role managing the project. The approaching track is only three metres wide so they did have the issue of deliveries arriving 300m away, without any way of being able to get them down to the site. For a time they had a small forklift helping ferry things across, but there were other occasions when, even though he had provided the track dimensions, he'd worry that he had a big delivery arriving and was going to have to take it piece by piece on the roof of his car!
Although not directly involved in the construction, David felt able to help out by keeping the site tidy and clean, and by making sure that everyone was able to get in and out unhindered.
The quality of finishes suffered a little towards the end
In general, David was really impressed with the quality of work on-site, particularly from the joiners and the zinc contractors. The only problems with finishes came towards the end:
“It's getting towards the end so maybe some of the money's running out a little bit. And the main contractor, starting to eat into his potential profits if you get them to do too much for what they have agreed.”
David's proof that it doesn't have to be painful!
The start of the project was a lot less time-intensive for David than the construction stage, as much of it was about waiting around for other people to do things.
He says he can't be quite sure how much time he spent working on it once the building work was underway as your enthusiasm takes over, but it was generally every night that he would be making calls and thinking things over. He estimates this was probably 20-30 hours per week, but it's not something he found painful.
With David and Jenny being in their mid-30s, they felt their energy levels were a definite advantage in managing the project relatively stress-free.
Even with their first child being born as the foundations were being laid, and approaching her first birthday when they moved in, they didn't find themselves being hindered by their change in circumstances at all.
You're not on your own
There's often a conception that project managing the build yourself means doing it alone, but David is quick to stress that's not the case:
Having a good architect is important, as they are able to help with the contracts with the builder.
The contractors have also been through the process before so you're not on your own there either.
And as frustrating as the planning process can be, the council are able to provide assistance.
“Project management is the name for it but you don't have to be a project manager. It's just being organized. That's all it is, trying to think of every element.”
Architect Kirsty Maguire explains what you can be doing to progress your house build plans, before you even have your plot of land.
Interview with Kirsty Maguire
A building by Kirsty Maguire, of Kirsty Maguire Architect Ltd, won the UK Passivhaus Award 2014 in the Best Bespoke Design category, for Hayshed Passivhaus Farmhouse in Ayrshire. Specialising in Passivhaus and eco-architecture she works predominantly on private domestic schemes but also commercially, with charities and the United Nations. Based in Dundee the majority of her projects are in Scotland but her work also takes her to other parts of the world.
Hayshed Passivhaus Farmhouse
Using the example of Ben's ongoing and so far unsuccessful search for a plot of land for his own self-build, Kirsty explains there are still things you can be doing to put your building project in a good position for the future, even before you have your site.
A feasibility study will put you in a strong position when bidding for plots of land
By considering factors such as site constraints and other negatives of an otherwise reasonable plot, Kirsty explains that you might be able to take on a trickier site which other people might be put off by.
Consider what are you looking for from your new home
This would be the first thing Kirsty would discuss with a client. Initially it would just be general ideas before sitting down together and going through what a client wants from their home in more detail. She would ask the client to describe a little about their ideas and dreams for it, for them and their family. They would cover how they would like to use the house, the atmosphere, the relationship with the landscape, how the house might be used differently as children grow up and eventually move away, or perhaps considering reducing energy bills if the client is downsizing.
At this stage it's not necessarily about coming up with solutions or design.
As this conversation develops, Kirsty is able to build up a good understanding of the client's needs and get into the detail of what makes them tick.
Initial sketches are produced
The initial questions stage turns into more of an ongoing dialogue and Kirsty is able to start working on some sketches. Ideally there would be a plot at this stage, but even without it Kirsty could begin developing conceptual sketches looking at relationships of spaces in a home, the atmosphere and the feeling. Kirsty stresses that an important part of designing a home is its response to the landscape so without the land there's only so far this stage can go.
As part of the discussion process Kirsty would ask about the client's ethos towards Passivhaus, eco-materials, energy and comfort. It is helpful for her to understand these for each of the members of the family in case they have differing priorities and ideas!
A client scrapbook of ideas can also be a benefit to the designer. Kirsty says it isn't essential but it certainly does help and she would encourage a client to bring it to the meetings if they have one. It can help with some of the less tangible elements of designing a home, such as acoustics and atmosphere, and what makes something really feel like a home.
Kirsty also finds it can be helpful to understand a client's current home and therefore how that's informing their reactions to their new house.
Understanding the budget
As part of the feasibility stage, it is important to understand from the outset what the available budget for the project will be. While Kirsty is not a cost expert, she can use experience from other projects to establish roughly what might be feasible to ensure that time and emotional effort in the project are not wasted!
Looking into the budget, Kirsty can help to establish what amount is available for construction costs, what might be needed to set aside for fees and expenses for the plot, and also suggest the client gets an idea of how much it would be to bring services onto the site. That can then be broken down into what's available for the build itself and apply a pounds per m² rate, based partly on looking at what was appropriate locally.
Particularly if there is a site already, they might sit down with a quantity surveyor to work out two or three cost options based on the budget. This helps people prioritise what they would like to do, and indeed whether they are still happy to progress.
There are other site specific considerations
Other things which can only really be considered once the plot is known, are things like planning restrictions and whether it is in a conservation area. Kirsty also talks about access to the site, ie, it could be a great plot but there might be difficulty getting cars onto the site. She also explains that some planning policies require your garden to be a certain percentage of the plot. “So if you know that 60% of your ground has to be garden you've got a house of a certain size you need parking and access then that starts to dictate the size of plot that you need.”
The feasibility study is a worthwhile process, whether or not you have a plot
“In terms of the feasibility study, I think it's great to do that whether you have a plot or not. I think it sets out the basis of the entire project so that people can really enjoy the design stage, knowing that some of the absolutely critical elements such as budget, planning, some of the if you like drier sides of it but essential to the success of a project, are in place and are addressed right from the start so it creates a great foundation for everything from there on in.”
Hayshed Passivhaus Farmhouse
While not directly related to the main subject of the podcast, Ben didn't want to pass up the chance of asking Kirsty about her award winning Hayshed Passivhaus Farmhouse project!
The client, Duncan, had a plot on his farm land in a stunning location with the building being designed to look out over Arran, Ailsa Craig and the sea over the west coast.
He already had outline planning permission when he came to Kirsty. Although a farmer he is also a contractor himself, and had a strong vision and artistic ideas about what he would like on the site, and was very interested in low energy and Passivhaus buildings. Being on the edge of a cluster of farm buildings, they followed the idea of using traditional buildings and landscape to influence modern design and decided to expand the cluster in a more vernacular way by adding a building which looked much more like the traditional hay sheds.
Being one of the first Passivhaus buildings in Scotland had its challenges but the enthusiasm of Kirsty, Duncan and the contractor carried the project through successfully. It was a very collaborative project and for all the members of the team there was a can-do attitude. “It was more about how do we go to the next stage and how do we do that the best way possible.”
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