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.”
Antoine Costantini explains how Kithurst Homes has embraced modern cutting technology to increase efficiency and minimise waste.
Interview with Antoine Costantini
With a background in physics and trouble-shooting in the construction industry, Antoine has always loved working with timber. He explains that engineered timber is a great way of using the material responsibly and with less waste.
There are 4 main types of engineered timber that Kithurst Homes use
Laminated Veneer Lumber (LVL) – “Like a plywood on steroids”
KVH – Finger-jointed soft wood
Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) – A cross lamination of timber in opposing directions
Glulam – Soft wood glued together
Automating the process is faster and produces less waste
Previously they would use a large chop saw to cut frames by hand, which meant manually changing the direction each time a different angle was needed. This would get repetitive and there was the risk of human error so they looked for a way of automating the process.
The Hundegger machine they now use is a five axis saw which enables them to make cuts at any angle and inclination. It has also reduced the time it takes to cut, mark and pack a 200 square metre frame from two and a half weeks, down to three hours! On top of this there's now only 3% wastage.
The Hundegger software reads and cuts from various file types
Get access to our in-depth video case study of Buckinghamshire Passivhaus, a PH15 build, in The Hub
Kithurst Homes also work from DWGs or can convert a hand drawing into a 3D image that the saw will then read.
The machine software creates a picking list
This will tell the operator the amount of I-joists, glulams and LVL that will be needed. These are then manually placed in order of size and fed into the machine.
The machine is clever enough to recognise the material that is being fed in, and will alert the user if the geometry of the material doesn't match with what it has been asked to cut.
Using I-joists is an efficient way of building
They use less timber than a traditional stick frame approach, and also reduce cold bridges because of their size and geometry. They arrive at the factory in 13 metre lengths, with Antoine estimating that an average frame would use around one kilometre of I-joists.
The combination of the web of the I-joist with incredible shear strength and the lamination of the flange gives the I joist its strength and load bearing capacity. The regularity of the timber makes it predictable, and that is a good thing in engineering. They know how it will react on strength, density, bending, modulus, and shear.
If it's not compostable or recyclable they won't use it
Once the timber has been cut, numbered and marked, it is packed together by wall. Steel bands are used to secure them, as these can then be recycled whereas the plastic alternatives can't. They are then stacked and transported to site by curtain sided trucks. Once on-site there is no need for a skip, as everything fits and there is no wastage. This complies with the company ethos of trying to preserve the environment as much as possible, and not using PU or polystyrene foams for example.
It just takes common sense and DIY skills to put it together!
Kithurst Homes will always provide training, whether that be on site or at their factory, in how to construct the frame. With everything being marked, it's a case of needing to be bound together, and Kithurst Homes provide all the fixings, the screws, the staples, the membranes, the plywood.
Antoine says that anyone with good DIY skills can put together their flat pack systems. Some of the parts can be heavy so may need extra pairs of hands, but generally because the I-joists use so much less timber they can be quite manageable.
Their full wall systems however require craning in and a team of carpenters to put together.
All their timber is PEFC certified
The timber comes from two or three manufacturers, with Steico in Germany being where they get their wood fibre insulation, LVL and I joists. It is fully certified to European regulations and Kithurst know their suppliers are using the timber properly, with everything on the tree being used and documented.
Initially beginning his search in the south east of England to be closer to his two sons in Surrey, Mick found a lovely plot, surrounded by a vineyard, and just 30 miles away from them. But despite the proximity, it had taken an hour and a half to get there and was £450,000 before he’d even knocked the existing bungalow down. It was at that point he decided to abandon his search in the south east and opened up to looking at sites as far afield as North Wales and Cornwall.
They made changes to the planning designs
Mick saw a plot on RightMove, that seemed to be in a pleasant village location at the northern tip of the Cotswolds. Close to a National Trust garden and Stratford upon Avon, he felt he would be able to find enough to do in the area and was surprised when he managed to purchase it for around the guide price at auction. It came with planning permission for a single storey Passivhaus with a design that he admits probably didn’t appeal to everyone, and is why he thinks there wasn’t more competition in the bidding.
Although not put off by the design, he was sceptical of its Passivhaus credentials and enlisted Mark Siddall of LEAP to re-work the plans. He did however want to keep it a bungalow to make it accessible for a family member who uses a wheelchair, but also because it future-proofed it for him too.
The original design had a lot of corners so they removed some of these and also had to raise the roof to ensure there was adequate head height for insulation. They swapped the entrance hall and study around to ensure a better flow into the house, and took out the many corner windows from the plans. Mark instead designed an arrangement of windows that came in 2 sizes: smaller ones for the bathrooms and bedrooms, and larger windows with seating elsewhere.
Timber was an important element of the design
Mick wanted to build using Cross-Laminated Timber (CLT), as much for the visual impact it provided inside as for its structural qualities. The bungalow uses 17 sections of spruce timber, which have 6 layers, are edge-glued, and don’t require an airtight membrane around the outside.
The roof came with a cassette of insulation in it so the structure went up in two days, and had an airtight wrap over the top by the end of the third day. The walls are made of an I-frame structure with blown-in wood fibre, giving a thickness of around 600mm and a U-value of 0.1.
The exterior of the bungalow has larch cladding.
The foundations were pre-cut to size
The building has a Jackon XPS foundation which was pre-cut to the required size and slotted together, with an XPS upstand that locked into the perimeter. This created its own formwork for the concrete pour.
The flat roof has a camber of around 5 degrees for shedding water. On top of the insulation is a cold roof section of ply and bitumen that provides the finishing structure on which to put the green roof. Mick says he checks up there from time to time just to check that seedlings for trees and other unwanted plants haven’t blown in and taken root!
He was keen to be hands-on
With Mick being on-site throughout the build process he was keen to get involved in any way he could, so one task that he took on was the airtightness taping. His top tip for getting it into the corners is to ideally bend the tape in two in order to push it in and get good contact right the way through the junction.
The straight lines of the 17 sections of CLT only took an hour to do, but all the other joints around the doors and windows took a lot longer!
Mick employed Alan Clarke as his M&E engineer and he carefully designed the ventilation system so it could go through cupboards and be kept out of the way, but still accessible if needed. The full design with all of the MVHR kit was supplied as a single delivery, and Mick took on the installation of the pipework himself. Not having any experience of doing something like that, he did find it took him a very long time to put together!
There is around 140 square metres of floating floor, which was designed to be laid to flow through without any junction strips at doors. His builder Andy took time to work out the geometry to ensure that boards were centred and wouldn’t end up with slivers at the edges, which Mick was then able to lay.
Always make space for storage!
Although Mick was adamant that he wanted to use CLT, he now realises that he could have been more efficient with materials and created the timber finish that he was looking for by using large sections of three-ply timber.
If he were to do the build again, he would probably opt for a two-storey building, though still keeping a downstairs bedroom. He says that the UK housing stock is generally fairly deficient in terms of providing for the elderly and those with mobility problems, so designing at least one bedroom downstairs is really important.
Mick says that going for a two-storey design would improve the form factor and use a lot less insulation. It is also more efficient in having less foundations and roof.
Lack of storage space is often a real problem in typical new build homes, but Mick is delighted at the amount of space they designed into his home, including a large storage wall. He also has a double garaged sized shed, although this is currently housing lots of off-cuts of CLT and three-ply materials that are waiting to find a home!
He emphasises why it’s always a good idea to build into the loft as that’s also potential space that can be used for storage.
Neil Sutherland explains how using a design, manufacture and delivery company can give you a better quality of construction.
Interview with Neil Sutherland
Neil didn't take a conventional route into architecture. After leaving school at 16 he undertook a technical apprenticeship with an engineering company for a few years. It was only after finishing his apprenticeship and going travelling around Europe that the wonders of Florence turned his head to architecture. He returned to Scotland, completed his degree and promptly set up his own practice, MAKAR, an architect-led, ecological design and build company.
Makar House, Kinloss, Morayshire, Scotland.
A unique entity focused on the delivery of great places
Neil summarises MAKAR as not being an architectural practice, builder or manufacturer, but a combination of the three.
His first ten years in business were spent working out how best to develop and design buildings, and was disappointed by the options available to him on the delivery side of things.
When he moved to a live on a farm with his family around 16 years ago, he had land available where he was able to develop and grow his business to include the manufacturing. He now has a couple of large workshops and employs close to 50 people.
Their unique offering means they are currently working at capacity producing homes mostly in the Scottish Highlands, but are also looking to mainstream what they do and make it more widely available.
Certainties can be provided to clients
Neil is able to offer certainties to clients, around design, programme, workmanship and cost. With the alternative being to work with a number of consultants and a builder, he says it can be difficult to find a company who are motivated by ecological progressive areas of working who are able to take on an architect's idea and make it work.
“As I’ve learnt over the years, the intention is the first stage but one has to figure out how to get things delivered. The execution of things is perhaps far more challenging than coming up with bright ideas.”
There are three aspects to a successful project outcome
The first is having a thorough understanding of the client's brief. This involves taking time to sit down with them and really understand their needs.
The second aspect is the site analysis. Every site will have constraints and opportunities, but there's always context; things to respond to, things you want to exemplify or even perhaps reduce.
The third element is a flexible delivery approach.
Neil believes as long as none of these three aspects are compromised, as he suggests happens in the standard approach to the design and delivery of housing, the customer will end up with a wonderful outcome.
Scotland has an abundance of quality timber
Scotland's forestry cover has an unusual species mix, dominated by pine, fir, larch and spruce.
Neil's company is looking to develop progressive ways of utilising that timber, from a structural perspective right through to insulation. They use the common characteristics of those species for different applications and avoid using chemical treatments wherever possible.
Spruce and Scots pine for example can be used for the carcassing of a panel type construction, Douglas Fir for large section exposed beams and posts, and larch is used extensively on the external applications of buildings, such as cladding and decking.
“There’s enough there to do everything we want to do, to do it without chemical treatments, and to work in anticipation of the circular economy, in anticipation of the idea that timber buildings are uniquely adaptable in the sense that they are repairable and you can change them. You can take them apart and put them back together again.”
They work closely with sawmills
In other parts of the world, and particularly in Europe there are many small to medium sized mills, which relate to their local resource and how it's used. In Scotland, many of the small to medium sized mills haven't survived so MAKAR tend to use a few large sawmills along with a small number of smaller ones.
Rather than the usual design approach of designing something and then looking for what you're going to use to build it, in normal situations they would look at the resource available and respond to that, buying the timber directly from the sawmill.
They use a lean process
Lean process improvement is largely used in manufacturing to improve efficiency and reduce waste.
Neil's interpretation is that it's about people; what motivates them to do things carefully, and with a lot of attention to detail, getting things right the first time and really enjoying what they're doing.
“It’s when you go about making things, when you connect the theory and practice of things together, you get a third thing that comes out which is a kind of tangible, pragmatic capability which is not held up as important as it is, in actual fact.”
And Neil believes it is the people who are making things who are the best people to ask about how to improve the process.
An ecological approach to engaging with the world
MAKAR use the term ‘meaningful work' to explain their working methods. It's about their work being respectful to everyone involved, and respectful to things beyond themselves.
“Every time we build a house, we know that it’s going to impact on people’s lives in a very profound manner. MAKAR exists because we believe that great buildings and places change people’s lives.”
The aim is for quality, not speed
The main constraint that MAKAR have with building the houses is the transportation. Their standard panel size is around three metres wide so that it can be transported by road relatively easily.
Such off-site construction methods may be more expensive than other alternatives, but they will be better and more consistently made and speed and cost reductions will come about over time.
The pieces of the house are made in sequence: first the floor, wall and roof panels, then the post and beam elements and finally the modular elements which are the parts of the house that have the plumbing, ventilation and electrics in them.
They try and do as much of the servicing within the modules at their workshop as possible as they believe this to have the best outcomes.
“But the future is about having less and less equipment, more and more fabric first, more and more simplicity around buildings really. But use the word optimisations. So, what equipment you do have you have to make sure it is working well and it’s optimised.“
Emily wanted to be an interior designer since she was very small, but ended up studying French and Psychology at university before deciding to go to Chelsea Art College to pursue her childhood dream. After gaining more qualifications, Emily worked for architects to get some experience. From there she went to work for an interior designer in London, and now has her own practice based in Somerset.
The interior shouldn’t be an afterthought
If design decisions aren’t guided by “a bigger idea about what the building is supposed to be”, there’s a risk that the interior and exterior won’t be coherent. Emily explains they wanted to build a timber house that was sympathetic to and connected with the surrounding countryside and nearby agricultural buildings.
She says she’s visited a lot of timber clad houses that look fabulous on the outside but whose interiors are “a crashing disappointment because it’s all white plasterboard with twinkly down lighters and absolutely no atmosphere.” She finds it surprising these houses aren’t made of wood both inside and out, like those she and her husband visited in Switzerland.
Ask yourself how you want each room to feel
Emily and her husband both did a lot of sketching for their self-build. They focused much more on how they wanted a room to feel, rather than how it would look. Sketches of room scenes helped them imagine their lives in the new house and captured the desired atmosphere.
Design the interior and exterior in partnership with one another
Focusing on how they wanted the kitchen to feel took them through a series of questions; the answers defined the design inside and out. For example, thinking about what they wanted to look at while eating breakfast, and where the sun would be coming in, suggested the size and position of the windows. But then they had to consider how this would affect the elevation outside, and the design needed tweaking to get to the point where it worked inside and out.
Emily says they decided to have their sitting room separate to (but adjoining) the open plan kitchen dining area. They designed this room to be a half level up with the ceiling following the roofline down, making it a cosy snug. She explains the materials they used are the same, it’s just that the space has been slightly manipulated to create a different atmosphere.
Think about how natural light will reach all the spaces
Emily’s house has light from all sides. She says it is really important to ensure that the darkest parts of the house still get natural light. They incorporated skylights into the design for their self-build, to avoid any “dark dingy corners”.
Create interesting relationships between spaces, inside and out
The sloping site presented challenges. Emily explains, “A developer house would just be plonked on stilts at the front to make the site flat, but then you lose the relationship to the garden”, adding, “We didn’t want that feeling of being on the upper floor and feeling really disconnected from the garden.” Instead, they dug down to enable the house to sit back in the hillside and decided to go for an upside down layout, taking care to create access to the garden from different places.
Their self-build uses internal glazing to create interesting relationships within the house – the rooms aren’t “a series of boxes with doors”. Emily says that internal glazing was something she and her husband had always liked about French houses and had been on their list of things they’d wanted to incorporate into their designs.
Be generous with some spaces to create the right atmosphere
Sometimes it’s worth sacrificing a bit of space to be generous elsewhere. In the case of Emily’s self-build, the design for the lower floor incorporated a wider hallway. She doesn’t see this as wasted space as it avoids the feeling of going downstairs into a rabbit warren of bedrooms.
Restrict the palette to avoid a “mishmash of everything”
There are a lot of options when it comes to interior finishes. Emily says they were quite disciplined in having just a few ideas for their interior and carrying those through with some rigour. She describes the house as having “two quite distinct overall sorts of atmosphere”. The rooms are either lined with oak or painted plywood; no walls are just plastered. And some of the ceilings are crafted from rough-sawn softwood and painted.
A joiner made their bespoke kitchen and he sourced the wood from the same supplier used for oak lining the walls. Emily comments, “The kitchen is intended to look like the walls, and blend in.”
Think about furniture early on as it impacts the design
Although Emily believes it’s good to let ideas develop and to be able to respond in an organic way, it’s also important to have an overall idea when it comes to furniture. She uses their veranda as an example, explaining that it is pretty much square in plan, but as the house is not a square box the corner of the deck intentionally gets wider to accommodate the table and chairs.
It also helps to know what you’re planning to do furniture-wise to produce electrical plans. For example, do you want to sit in a particular well-lit corner and read? The position of an extractor fan in the kitchen is another important consideration – what type of cooking do you tend to do, and does that require extraction directly above the hob?
Factor in storage during the design stage
Emily comments, “If we did decide to put everything away, there would be a space for everything.” The big store at the back houses the plant, store and utility rooms. They also incorporated really big wardrobes into the kids’ bedrooms and Emily and her husband have a lot of storage space in their dressing room.
Other tips for self-builders
Collate images of anything you really like into a folder
Have some clear ideas and follow them through – don’t get distracted
Think about how materials and texture can achieve the atmosphere you want
Ben and Kay Adam-Smith visit their architects Parsons + Whittley to discuss how to move their project forward. There are decisions to be made over which designs to pursue, what materials to embrace and how to address the various constraints (including bringing down the height of the building).
Whilst waiting for the feedback from the planners, we had moved onto materials.
The first option presented to us was a brick finish.
The second option embraced black timber cladding (more of a barn aesthetic).
Kay and I felt these routes weren't quite right for us.
And we asked about whether we could break up the building by using more than one material (e.g. lime render, lighter timber cladding, etc.). Little did we know that this suggestion would mean redesigning the house!
However, this was also at the stage where the planners had fed back that they wanted the height of our building to be more in line with the extant consent.
So the third option, which now addresses the height of the building and therefore the amenity of the neighbour (really down to overshadowing and view of the sky), is a house that steps down.
The fourth route introduced something called a cat slide at the back of the house as a way to prevent a loss of amenity for the neighbour.
These were the options we discussed in the meeting but we were keen to return to a simpler form if possible.
The route we chose to pursue returned almost to the initial designs but with a cat slide at the back.
Jonathan Hines from Architype explains the concept of eco-minimalism and also the very different approach that guides them as a business. We discover how this design philosophy has helped shape an exciting new scheme of 150 Passivhaus homes for the village of Kingstone, Herefordshire.
On the day this podcast was published the development – in conjunction with ArchiHaus – was granted planning approval! N.B. Our interview with Jonathan was recorded on 20th March 2013.
Interview with Jonathan Hines
Jonathan has been a director of Architype since 1989 and his life-long focus has been on achieving sustainability through design.
Keep Buildings Simple
Jonathan explains that Architype's approach has always been to try and keep buildings simpler in order to make better spaces and achieve higher standards of energy efficiency. Whereas many architects encourage complexity and engineers look to technology for solutions, an eco-minimalistic approach is about making buildings as simple as they can be. Jonathan stresses that this does not mean boring. At Architype they want to make their designs elegantly simple as well as radically sustainable. It's about simplifying things down to what works best and letting the buildings to do all the hard work in terms of being at one with the environment.
Simplicity Takes Constant Refinement
Far from being the easy route, making a building simple takes longer. It is a process of continually reviewing the designs and questioning if they are simple enough. Are there elements that can be taken out to make the building work better? Jonathan mentions Architype's early days of Segal Self Build. This was a system of construction, devised by Walter Segal, that was all about paring down construction to the basic elements and keeping it simple in order that people could self-build it themselves. Architype's roots have always been in understanding simple detailing and keeping the form of the building functional but also beautiful.
People Desire Greater Comfort in Their Homes
Jonathan believes that people have a higher aspiration for comfort in their homes than they did 50 years ago. Regulations also demand greater efficiency and year by year there is increased awareness about the wider sustainability of materials.
The Passivhaus Standard Provided a Logical Framework
As one of the early adopters of the Passivhaus Standard in the UK, Jonathan says that it offered a logical framework to do what they were tending to do anyway. Instead of being guided by intuitive assumptions it provided rigorous analysis, discipline and a quality assurance process in terms of design and construction. It is a tool that actually helps them to achieve things.
One of Architype's schools that meets the Passivhaus standard
‘Haus' means ‘Building' in German
Jonathan explains that Passivhaus can be applied to any type of building. People sometimes get confused by the word ‘haus' and think it must only apply to houses, but its translation from German means ‘building'. Amongst Architype's Passivhaus projects are four schools, a major research building for the University of East Anglia, a church in Sheffield and an Archives and Records Office in Herefordshire. In Germany people are doing Passivhaus fire-stations, hotels, hospitals, etc.
Sticking to a Budget is Just a Discipline
If you think a project is going to cost more then the chances are it will! Architype has always delivered sustainable buildings within tight and standard budgets. Jonathan gives the example of the UK's first BREEAM ‘Excellent’ primary school (for Wolverhampton City Council) which was created with no extra budget. It was achieved by keeping the form of the building simple, the section simple, the detailing simple, the window arrangement simple and so on.
Housing Developers Aren't Interested in Improving Design Quality or Sustainability
With the exception of one or two smaller scale developers Jonathan believes most big house developers aren’t particularly interested in improving design quality nor sustainability because they can sell what they produce already (as there's little choice in the market).
Building Houses in Factories is More Efficient
While a lot of construction in the UK is still done brick by brick, for many years Sweden have been building their houses in factories. It offers many advantages including driving up the quality of the finished product and minimising the amount of time needed on site. In partnership with retired Swedish businessman Lars Carlsson, Jonathan has set up a new company called ArchiHaus which aims to bring UK house building into the 21st Century. From first principles all houses will be optimised for Passivhaus, including the site layout. Then the houses will be prefabricated in a new house factory that ArchiHaus intends to establish.
Proposed scheme of 150 houses for Kingstone, Herefordshire
The Scale and Form of New Housing Must be Appropriate
Jonathan talks about this new development in a part rural Herefordshire, where there is a big housing need but where it's challenging to find appropriate sites. He thinks people generally don't like new houses because what is on offer is high density, suburban, poor quality and not appropriate for a rural site. Their approach aims not only to be Passivhaus but also higher quality in terms of design of buildings and landscape.
The Landscape For This Development Reflects its Rural Setting
After doing a study of typical Herefordshire vernacular architecture and the character of the Herefordshire landscape, Jonathan describes how they then set out to reinterpret that in a modern contemporary way. Instead of creating a suburban character site with wide roads, kerbs, pavements, fences and parking spaces etc. they designed a layout of lower density, with lanes that wind through a landscape of hedgerows, swales, ditches and orchards. This will make it feel completely different to a normal housing development. It’s also got generous areas of shared open space and allotments areas for food growing.
The Houses are Wider in Frontage and Shallow in Depth to Optimise Use of Daylight
A typical vernacular building in Herefordshire tends to be shallow in depth, wide in frontage and with a roof running along the length. On the other hand most developer houses seem to be narrow in width and deep in plan, which means there is far less daylight getting into the depth of the house. After conducting a Passivhaus analysis it became clear that the best approach was with a slightly wider house that gets more solar gain and better daylight. Jonathan remarks that the traditional vernacular form and the Passivhaus optimised shape actually have a very strong synergy. He doesn't find this surprising because old vernacular houses were built to maximise their relationship to the environment.
Self Builders Like Light and Airy Interiors
Contrary to the perception that comes through many house developers, Jonathan's experience with self build clients is that they tend to like airy spaces, slightly higher ceilings and a more open plan feel, with modern materials and modern detailing. Through programmes like Grand Designs he thinks that people have increased their awareness of what design quality actually is.
Architectural Quality is Lacking in Modern Houses
Jonathan mentions RIBA's Future Homes Commission report from 2012 where they found that although people liked the idea of a modern house they tended not to buy them because what they saw in them was of poor architectural quality. So they end up buying a Georgian or Victorian house, which can offer them light and airy spaces, high ceilings, good sized windows, etc. However these old houses are cool and draughty and are going to cost a fortune to heat. This is because the architectural qualities there outweigh the practicalities. So Jonathan says: “If we can combine the practical things of energy efficiency and lower running costs with good architectural quality then we are on to a winner.”
Striving to Create Better Buildings has Attracted the Best People
Throughout Architype's nearly 30 years of practice they have always been exploring new ways of doing things, from trying to find more sustainable ways of building and constructing, ways to save energy to looking at different materials that can be used to create more beautiful buildings. This drive for better buildings has attracted people who are personally committed to sustainability and design quality and actually believe in the ability of design to do that.
We Know the Origins of All the Materials we Use
Jonathan explains that over the years they have tried out lots of different materials. Some worked well, others were more difficult or appropriate only in certain situations. Now they have honed a fairly robust palette of what they’re confident are renewable and sustainable materials. This includes timber, insulation made from recycled newspaper, a range of mineral and organic paints and stains, and floor finishes in lino and rubber.
Buildings are Better at Saving Energy Than Generating it
The Kingstone development does not encompass any renewables and Ben asks Jonathan whether that was intentional. Jonathan replies that well designed buildings are really good instruments for saving energy. He does not consider them particularly good generators of energy. For example, photovoltaic panels are often perched in funny places behind chimneys or facing east-west or even north sometimes. This is because people have managed to get a grant or have got a feed-in tariff and they’ll get some return on it.
Renewable Energy Should be Generated on Efficient Scales
If the imperative is to save carbon across the whole world, then every panel that's put up now should be in the most optimum position available. Jonathan would much rather see solar arrays on the ground in fields, where they can be cleaned and maintained properly. If there's a separate inverter in 5000 houses, when something goes wrong the householder is probably not going to fix it. On a community scale or even at a regional scale renewable energy starts to make sense. Similarly with wind energy, big wind turbines in the North Sea are preferable to little ones perched on buildings, which don’t go round.
Saving Energy is the Best Route Forwards
Jonathan compares energy to rubbish – it’s good to recycle rubbish but it’s much better not to create it in the first place. So with energy it’s good to have renewable energy but first to use less of it.
After the success of our first Google+ Hangout, we are organising our next debate on the topic of housing density. Should we focus our efforts on building high or low density housing? If you have strong views on this subject and are already signed up to Google+ we'd love to hear from you. We are in the process of putting together a panel.
If you want to build a house then the first thing you need to do is find land. Suitable parcels might be few and far between. And when you do find one, you could face fierce competition. Not only from other self builders, but also developers with deep pockets and bags of knowhow. Our free course will lead you through how you find your dream plot.
So your heart is set on building an eco home but you don’t know where to start. Well, that’s why we’ve developed a 10-part e-course to help you understand some of the important decisions you are going to have to make. Can you have a comfortable, healthy home with low running costs . . . that’s also good for the planet?