Architect Josh Wood gives us an insight into his own self build project, where the balance between keeping costs low and creating a sustainable home have pushed him to come up with creative solutions. By undergoing most of the work themselves, Josh and his partner Amy have been able to transform their snug, back garden plot, into a comfortable and energy-efficient home. Josh explains how thinking outside of the box may be an excellent option if you are looking to get on to the property ladder with a smaller budget.
Interview with Josh Wood
Bristol based architect and founder of Green Trace Architect, Josh Wood joins us today to explore the topic of low cost sustainable homes. Josh is a qualified Passivhaus designer, with a background in environmental engineering and he specialises in sustainable architecture and creative design. Along with his Partner Amy and a handful of friends, Josh has undertaken quite a feat in building his own sustainable home in Bristol on a modest budget. In this chat, Josh talks us through his experience in working with clients, building his own tiny house and now his own self build, highlighting the key lessons that he has learnt along the way.
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Tiny houses can help you identify how you want to live
The tiny house revolution is one we have seen grow over the past few years and in this chat Josh talks of his own experience living in a tiny house he built himself. Tiny houses can be a great option when you have a thirst for building but are on a small budget or wish to escape the expensive private rental market. Tiny houses can offer a wonderful starting point to experiment with different design ideas and learn a range of skills whilst working on a small scale. In limiting yourself to live in such a small space, you can analyse just how you want to interact with your home and identify what you maybe took for granted in the past. Josh talks of how the size restriction challenges you to use space incredibly efficiently and pushes you to live a lot of your life outside. This experience helped Josh make connections through the Bristol Tiny House Community and overall he learnt a lot about how he needed his home to perform for him.
See opportunities where others don’t
Many people view small and oddly shaped plots as too difficult to work with, which means they are often dismissed at the beginning of the search for land. Josh explains that to afford this project in the heart of Bristol, he knew they would need to think creatively when looking for a plot. His search mostly consisted of these often overlooked sites and instead of viewing them as restricting, he saw their limitations as the framework of an exciting design challenge. There is a wealth of quirky plots across the country that many people overlook, but it may just be your ticket onto the property ladder if you are willing to think creatively.
“I'd been searching for land and I was always keen on buying a piece of land that everybody else thought was just useless.”
A failed planning application attached to a site is not always a sign to run the other way
When Josh initially found their site, the vendor had applied for planning permission but had failed to get it approved. Normally, these applications are then withdrawn from the planning website, but in this case they were not. This was very fortunate, and Josh took the comments from this failed application as a checklist that he would need to meet in his design. This is another instance where if you are willing to think creatively, what may originally seem like barriers can become guidelines.
A planning pre-app can help reduce the risk
Josh highlights that a pre-application to the planning authority can be an excellent option when considering an unconventional plot as it allows you assess the likelihood of success before you undergo the full planning process. Pre-applications are also closed to the public, so Josh was able to find out if their planning was likely to be approved before they had finalised the sale and without it affecting the price of the land. Pre-apps can also raise anything you may have missed or any concerns that the planning authority might have, so you can be pretty certain that your official application will be passed when the time comes. As a result of undertaking the pre-app process, Josh was able to submit their planning application within 21 days of the land being theirs and were granted planning not long after.
Small sites can dictate the design and construction methods
The site for Josh’s build had been parcelled off from a back garden and is located away from the road via a public alley. The site is therefore classified as a back land development which posed a few challenges for the build in terms of access and did dictate a few of the decisions surrounding construction methods. For example, Josh knew from the start that a prefabricated shell would be out of the question due to their limited access. In addition, the width of the standard timber they chose, based on price and accessibility, for their framing limited their insulation to 200 mil. Furthermore, the placement of the site meant that the design had to consider privacy and how to avoid overlooking or overshadowing the neighbouring properties. As a result, the best way to achieve all these goals was with a roof pitch of 25 degrees and to construct right up against another building, leaving a very small 400mil gap to work with. This gap was just enough space to fit scaffolding with a one plank width, so quite a squeeze when fitting the weather defence and siniat boards. All of these constraints can seem a bit overwhelming at first, but Josh’s overarching message highlights that by changing your mindset to view theses restrictions as exciting challenges, will lead to a unique and interesting design that you may not have thought up without them there.
Being both architect and builder can give you greater understanding of each role
The architect-builder relationship is a very important aspect in any project, and Josh highlights that after experiencing the role of the builder, he is better equipped as an architect to relay his designs and communicate with builders on future projects. He has even found the perfect balance between too much and too little detail on his drawings, as to provide a solid outline without restricting a builders need to potentially improvise on site.
“As an architect, you often have to go to sites and have conversations with builders and have conversations with clients, and to actually experience what both of those go through is invaluable as an architect.”
“I also think the age old question for architects is how much to draw and how much not to draw… if you try and draw too much, you're likely to get it wrong, a builder sometimes knows best. So I found I would draw this in the exact detail, I'll come to site and go nah that's just not going to work, actually. So you need to draw the intention and give an indication of what's required… but as soon as I start to put too much detail in there, it actually becomes less useful.”
Cost vs sustainability
This project began with the premise that it needed to be both a low cost, energy efficient and sustainable home, but this is often a tricky thing to balance. Josh has managed to keep the cost down by doing the majority of the construction himself, allowing him to spend the budget on good quality materials rather than labour. Also, by choosing to use a simple timber frame that could be sourced from local building merchants, constructing his own insulated raft and choosing wood fibre insulation meant that the design embraced simplicity in order to maintain sustainability. Windows are usually quite an expensive part of a build and Josh opted for triple glazed UPVC windows with a U value of 0.78 as they were a third of the price of composite windows. These windows are a great option if you are looking to get a good performance for a lower price, but Josh does also acknowledge that it was a difficult decision as the materials are not the most ecologically sound. This circles us back to our common theme of embodied carbon vs energy efficiency and especially in builds with a smaller budget it is sometimes necessary to make these compromises.
Some building regulations may be waived if there is enough reasonable evidence
In some instances you may achieve planning permission but be unable to actually build your project due to conflicting building regulations, in Josh's case, drainage almost posed this issue. Because the site is small and located in an urban setting there were concerns about surface water drainage; where would the rainwater go? After carrying out an assessment, Josh put in a request to have the drain feed into the main sewer like the other buildings surrounding the site. However, with the current state of sewage and water disposal in this country, the council is very unlikely to let any new build drain surface water into the sewer, so his request was denied. Fortunately, after undergoing testing on the sites soil, it became evident that a soakaway would be a possibility and was recommended by planning and their site engineer. This was an interesting situation as the soakaway would actually be too close to the building to pass building regulations, but as the advice from the authorities had suggested this solution, this detail was waived for the project.
When do you need paid help?
Josh and his partner Amy have undertaken the majority of the construction themselves, but there were a few areas where they needed help. Josh enlisted some friends and some paid labour when it came to laying the groundwork and the concrete slab, as well has some additional help whilst assembling the structure and getting the glulam beams in place. Josh did choose to enlist some professional help for the render, as lime render is not commonly used in this country and it is very important to ensure it is done by someone who really knows how to work with the material. With that being said, the rest of the work has been done by Josh and Amy and shows that it is possible to keep costs down by reducing the need for paid labour.
Of course, there are limits to this and sometimes paying for a professional service also gives you peace of mind. Josh explains that he chose to make the insulation raft for the foundations of the house himself rather than opting to use a system like Isoquick but wouldn’t necessarily recommend this. The risk with a foam raft is that if it breaks whilst the concrete slab is being poured, you end up with a big concrete mess. Fortunately, Josh’s stayed intact and he was able to save £5000 by taking on this challenge, but the stress of the process might make him reconsider the decision in the future. Ultimately, it depends on the risks that you are willing to take and the hands on work you want to put into the build, but Josh provides an excellent example of how these creative risks and out of the box solutions can lead to a wonderful home.
What not to compromise on in a low cost build
Building a sustainable and well insulated home were priorities from the beginning, but Josh has ended up improving the spec on a lot of the materials/insulation and included an MVHR system which was not on the original design. This is quite common in these projects because as it progresses you realise you will only undergo this process once and you want to get things to as high a standard and performance level as you can. Things like airtightness and MVHR systems are not ideal areas to compromise on as they are pivotal factors in the overall performance of the house.
“The initial plan was not to have any of that because we thought we wouldn't have the money. But as we've gone on, we actually shoehorned in the MVHR because I thought we can't not have an airtight home, and if we've got an airtight home, we need the MVHR.”
“But with these things, you will keep on working, you'll get more money, and it will come and then you'll wish, I wish I put it in. So we've kind of gone on that basis.”
How well does the house perform?
After Josh’s calculations using the Passivhaus Planning Package, the house meets the Passivhaus requirements for airtightness, but just slightly falls down on the level of insulation needed to get full passivhaus certification. However, it does meet AECB building standards and has excellent performance, especially considering the limitations that they were faced with. Using sustainable and breathable materials such as the wood fibre insulation also help to maintain the overall health of the structure and will create that overall pleasant environment that Passivhaus is known for.
Internal finishes can be a great place to save money
Josh and Amy are still working on the internal finishes of the house but have already managed to make use of a lot of reclaimed materials. They have created a beautiful balustrade out of old gates and plan to construct their kitchen out of second-hand filing cabinets. Using reclaimed elements, especially in your finishes, not only allows you to save money but also think about materials more creatively and bring some wonderful character to your home. Josh also opted to use a company called Stair Box who provide flat pack staircases. Whilst this was a bit of a puzzle to assemble, it is an interesting solution when trying to work within a low budget.
Slow down and try and enjoy the ride
One of Josh’s pieces of advice was to slow down because things take as long as they take. In trying to rush things, we often make mistakes, do a bad job or end up having to do it all again. It is important to remember to slow down and consider each stage so you can be sure you are doing it the right way, and you might even enjoy the process more too!
“I think I now understand the tale of the hare and the tortoise. Because I never really understood that as a kid, where’s the moral in that? And I think now it makes sense to me as a builder, you've really got to plod not run. Architects may be working at such high pace sometimes that can't be good for either you or the project. I feel that I've learned to take things slowly and that's been actually more beneficial to doing the project efficiently”
Take risks, think creatively, and keep searching for that perfect piece of land!
Overall, Josh’s message is that you can achieve a sustainable and high performing home on a small budget. By seeing potential in the things that others may overlook and taking risks, a self-build project can be an excellent way to get on the housing ladder.
“My advice, I suppose, would be to keep looking for those small bits of land and be very creative about how you might be able to make that into something!”
Find out more
Visit the website of Green Trace Architect
Read more about Josh's projects on his blog
‘Performance of Materials in Buildings‘ by Lyall Addleson and Colin Rice
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