James and Dani McDonald reveal why they were drawn to HUF HAUS, how the process worked and why they have become very loyal to the brand.
Interview with Dani and James McDonald
Dani and James had fallen in love with the concept of the HUF HAUS and also knew that at some stage they would want to move to the countryside. They liked the efficiency, the quiet build environment and the sense of bringing the outdoors inside. They knew they were sold on the idea and were determined to find the right plot to build the house.
Finding a Plot was a 10-Year Journey
Searching for the right plot became like a full-time job for Dani, who was travelling back and forth from London almost every week. As well as needing to fulfil their requirements in terms of access to mainline rail, being away from roads and other buildings, and being close to good schools, it had the limitations of needing to be accessible to the large vehicles and cranes that would be used in delivering and building the house on site.
As Dani didn’t want to live in a caravan it also needed to have a habitable dwelling on site for while the build was ongoing. When they sold their London residence they rented a property in the area and Dani was able to work tirelessly doing everything she could to secure a plot.
The original house on the plot
The HUF HAUS is Entirely Bespoke
All the elements of the HUF HAUS are bespoke, from the size and height, right down to the room shapes and fixtures and fittings.
A Visit to the HUF HAUS Factory is Required to Select Fixtures and Fittings
Although they already had the basic price of the house they had to travel to the show room to select the final finishes, such as taps, carpets and light fittings. With such an immense range on display, and barely a day to do it in, their choices were largely narrowed down by budget!
Dani and James' kitchen
Living on Site Prior to the Build was a Valuable Experience
Although the living conditions at the existing dwelling were challenging, the experiences from being on site and seeing how the light changed through the seasons was priceless and helped them make the right decisions about the design of the house. It shaped the aspect of the house and the decisions about where each of the rooms should be positioned.
Once Work Started On Site the Whole Process was Very Quick
From moving the earth to put the basement in, to moving into the house took just 5 and a half months. For Huf Hauses that don’t have the concrete basement the process is even easier.
The “Upside Down” Layout of the House was Chosen Because of the Views
Dani and James wanted the best of the views to be appreciated from the living areas, rather than from the bedrooms.
An added benefit of this is that the temperature of the basement bedrooms is ideal for sleeping in; cool in summer and warm in winter.
Ventilation is a Manual Process
In summer the heat can be removed through high level windows being opened to create a steady breeze. Despite the house having 105 windows, the large overhang over them prevents direct sunlight from coming in. It also has the benefit of stopping the rain hitting the windows, which means they don’t need to be cleaned as often!
HUF HAUS Make a Variety of Designs
The house which Dani and James own is a “butterfly” design, which is perhaps the most recognised of the Huf Haus brand. They also produce houses of more traditional styles and with “saltbox” type roofs. One thing they all have in common is that they are all built with bays – between 4 and 8.
The Huf Family Remain Very Involved With the Projects
The three Huf brothers are all trained architects, with Peter Huf being the architect for Dani and James’ house. They remain committed to providing an after care service and will call by when they’re in the UK to see how the building is performing and whether there are any issues.
Read the Manuals First!
With a whole new house full of new gadgets Dani found herself spending a lot of time reading manuals. She concedes it probably would have been sensible to have read the manuals in advance, however it took only a few weeks for everything to be set up to their requirements and running smoothly.
The Renewable Technology is Well Hidden
Although they toyed with the idea of using solar panels for heating they actually went with a ground source heat pump and heat exchanger. They also drilled a well in the garden which will be useful in times of hosepipe bans!
A HUF HAUS Every Time!
If they were to self-build again, James and Dani would only choose a HUF HAUS. They have been so impressed with the quality of materials used and with it coming in on time and on budget they found the whole process to be a pleasure.
Dani finds the house to be comfortable, accessible and respected by young and old alike, with visitors really enjoying their time there.
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Piers Taylor from Invisible Studio Architects explains what a build system is, why you would use one over another and whether any are preferable when it comes to creating low energy houses.
Interview with Piers Taylor
It was after seeing an inspirational talk by Glenn Murcutt in Sydney that Piers Taylor decided he wanted to become an architect.
A Building System is the Method Chosen to Construct the Building
Piers talks of these in terms of lightweight and heavyweight, and on-site and off-site construction, as most one-off individual homes will fit into these categories.
It is Easier to Achieve a High Quality Finish With a “Lightweight” Timber Building
When answering the questions of what is most efficient, most economically sound and best environmentally, timber is the material which Piers instinctively selects.
Timber is a renewable and readily available material, comparatively cheap, very workable on-site and can be used by people with varying degrees of skill and experience.
With Passivhaus requiring airtightness and quality of workmanship, Piers believes that a stud framed building is ideally suited.
It is Generally More Efficient to Build On-site Rather Than Pre-fabricated
Piers had laboured under the misapprehension that to build in a factory was the better way to do things, however when the expenses of factory rent, labour and heating are taken into account, when it comes to single buildings he believes that making things by hand on-site is more efficient.
There are Far Fewer Passivhauses Made of Masonry Than of Timber
While masonry buildings do have the advantage of thermal mass, Piers explains that it is harder to achieve a good quality finish with blockwork and wet trades. He puts this partly down to tradesmen putting them together crudely, with the assumption that someone else will be doing the finishes.
There is a Place for Concrete as an Environmentally Sound Material in Big Span Construction
Concrete has a smaller carbon footprint than if it were replaced in big span construction by steel for example. The problem is often the amount used, rather than the material itself, with laziness often causing its overuse. Piers doesn’t see a place for it in domestic houses, unless there is a particular desire for a thermal mass in the floor.
SIPs (Structural Insulated Panels) Don’t Have Any Real Advantages in Individual Houses
The advantages of SIPs panels lie in larger projects where economies of scale are a factor. For a domestic property they are expensive as the factory overheads are included in the cost, they contain all sorts of formaldehydes and glues, and they can’t just be made on-site.
While SIPs panels appear to be constructed quickly, it could be argued that making a timber frame in a factory would be just as quick.
Piers summarises that the ideal use for SIPs panels are for buildings with big roof spans, multiple buildings where an application is being repeated and where the walls are required to have a structural capability without the need for beams.
Big Volume House-Builders are Efficient in Terms of Their Construction
Piers accepts that, whilst we may not like what they build, big volume house builders have honed their methods of construction to be hugely efficient, as they’re making all the component parts on-site, and are therefore not paying factory overheads.
The Passivhaus Standard is Achievable With Any Construction Method But is Largely Dependent on the Quality of Craftsmanship
As Passivhaus is about achieving a good standard of fit to create building performance, rather than being interested in thermal mass, it is something that is not as easy to achieve with masonry.
Straw Bales May Not be That Efficient But Their Advantage Lies in Being so Locally Produced
Straw bales are relatively inefficient because they are bulky and not great insulators compared with some other materials. However, they are loved by some as a construction method as they are low tech, available, cheap and usually haven’t had to travel far – something that is sometimes overlooked with timber which, unless it’s come from a local sawmill, can often be shipped from Scotland, Scandinavia or Canada.
A Build System is Invariably Better When it Influences the Look of the House
Piers’ preference is to have the constructional system visible and legible to show what the different parts are actually doing, rather than the sanitised approach to current construction where everything is hidden behind plasterboard.
Piers sees a beautiful precision in timber, unlike the less aesthetically pleasing concrete block and steel which invariably have to be covered up because the fit is not good.
As with SIPs panels, there is often no call for steel frames in a domestic building as the spans don’t necessitate it and it is an expensive option.
Projects are Immeasurably Better if How They’re Made Forms an Early Part of the Building Decision
An early decision should be made on what is going to be the most appropriate material to use as this will give the building its character. By exploring all sorts of options you can gradually hone in with greater certainty on one thing.
Part of this early conversation should be focussing on efficiency, in terms of using materials intelligently and sensibly, without being wasteful, and these are things that need to be balanced with what the building is going to look and feel like.
Timber is the Best Material to Use For Keeping it Simple
Many self-builders will be doing a project for the first time so Piers’ advice is to keep it simple. Timber is quick, efficient, available everywhere, anyone can use it and it doesn’t harm the environment if it is chosen wisely, and with its only real drawback being lack of thermal mass, Piers considers it to be the best system to use.
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Which build system did you use? And what were the pros and cons?
UK Passivhaus Awards 2014
The shortlist for this year's UK Passivhaus Awards has been been unveiled. Good luck to all those involved!
Check out some of last year's projects.