Architect Ruth Butler shares the story of building a contemporary Passivhaus on an overlooked, brownfield site.
Interview with Ruth Butler
Ruth has been an architect for a number of years and was previously a partner at a practice in London. Part of the reason that she and her engineer husband left London for the south coast, where she has been running Ruth Butler Architects for several years now, was for the opportunity to build their own home.
Planning permission on a previous plot helped fund this project
After a long search they found a back garden plot but weren't able to get planning permission on it for what they wanted to live in. Instead they decided to opt for a design that would get planning permission, and sell the land for a profit which they could use to bankroll the first few months build on their new site.
Clearing the brownfield site was an opportunity, rather than a constraint
The site had been the regional headquarters of St. John's Ambulance and had a big, robust garage building on it which used to house the ambulances. The existing garage was knocked down and the component parts recycled into the build, with the brickworks being recycled into the hardcore, and the steel beams being used to build their own garage.
One of the most significant constraints was that it was surrounded by 13 different neighbours, who were all keen to challenge anything being built on the site because of concerns for their own privacy. Ruth approached the neighbours and made it clear they were a family, not developers, and were keen to make their future there. She emphasised that she wasn't interested in overlooking them, any more than they weren't interested in being overlooked by her. By making a model of the proposed building and neighbouring properties, they were able to demonstrate how the property would look and how it would impact on the surroundings.
Ruth and her husband enjoyed the challenge that the privacy issues and clearing the brownfield site threw up:
“The more constraints, the better the design has got to be to overcome them.”
Preparing the planning application took around a year, with getting the neighbours on side and getting the design right. The planning authority were supportive of the application, despite being a contemporary piece of architecture in a traditional setting, and they were granted planning permission without any problems or delays.
Design should complement the site and complement the way you want to live
Originally they would have liked a single storey dwelling, but the site wasn't big enough and they also needed the height to shield some of the views from neighbours. Instead, the house has an L-shaped design which encloses a walled, entirely private courtyard garden. Traditionally entrance halls were used for draft-proofing, but with a Passivhaus that function isn't required so they were able to re-think the entrance to their home. As you enter the front door you come directly into the kitchen, with the dining room and living room being at either end of the L-shape.
A pre-fabricated structure was chosen for a faster build
After selling their house to fund the project, they needed to rent while they were building so it was important to build quickly. They chose a cross-laminate timber structure which was pre-fabricated in Austria. It was erected and weather-tight in just 4 days on site. Completing the interior fit-out and exterior cladding took the whole build process to a total of 7 months.
The design challenged Passivhaus stereotypes
Although Ruth and her husband had been interested in Passivhaus they weren't entirely sure they would be able to achieve it on this build. The site demanded a substantial size of building and their completed design is at least double the Passivhaus form factor rules. To ensure they have enough light in the single storey elements they have used roof lights and they have added more insulation to the roof and walls than they might otherwise have done. Where they have a large amount of glazing to create a good indoor-outdoor flow they have used sailcloth for shading which can be taken down in the autumn and deployed when it is needed.
The house has a Passivhaus cat-flap which is super-insulated and programmable to and operated by an ID chip on the individual cat. They don't come cheap though, at around £1,800 installed!
“I think it's really important that Passivhaus, you can prove that you can do good bespoke site-sensitive designs and still meet the Passivhaus standard. I don't want to see a world full of very square, boxy solutions to Passivhaus designs, I want to see buildings that respond to their sites.”
The Landscape Architect was given design freedom
Ruth says that her clients would ideally give her a clear brief, knowing what they want to achieve and their functional requirements, without second-guessing what the design of their building might look like, as that essentially is part of her role. So when it came to the landscaping she was happy to give her Landscape Architect John Brooks a clear brief and the freedom to design it how he wanted.
“But I had been to see some of his work and I had made some assumptions in my mind as to how I thought he might tackle it and he entirely surprised me and came up with a design that took my breath away really.”
Ruth shares some helpful tips…
- It is important to design the inside and outside in tandem.
- Get the team right in the first instance. Their contractor hadn't done Passivhaus before but that wasn't important to Ruth. What mattered was whether they had the right attitude, and that applies to the whole design team.
…and lessons learned
If doing the project again she would:
- Change some of the technical details, such as instead choosing a pre-fabricated insulated slab.
- Use cross-ventilation in the bedrooms. The bedrooms are currently slightly warmer than she would like them to be.
Find out more
Visit the website of Ruth Butler Architects
Follow Ruth Butler on Twitter
Ruth's building contractor – Nicholas Coppin Limited
Ruth's landscape architect – John Brooks