Mike Webb explains why he chose to build to high ecological standards even though he could've made more money by just complying with building regulations.
Interview with Mike Webb
Mike Webb grew up in South East London but had his first taste of construction in Tenbury Wells, where he helped refurbish a 17th century, Grade II listed coaching inn. After selling the hotel he and his wife Audrey started investing in property. Mike has also built his own home and ran his own solar PV company. More recently he took on a major development in Seaton, Devon.
Mike moved quickly when he recognised the opportunity
In 2015 Mike was walking along Seaton Beach promenade when a chance remark from one of his friends alerted him to the potential of a site: “If I win the lottery tonight, I'm going to buy that house.”
The location was impressive with views straight out to sea but the dilapidated Victorian house was squeezed between two bigger buildings. There were also signs of regeneration in the area with the recent arrival of the Jurassic Coast Visitors Centre, a new Tesco and new housing around the corner. Mike bought the property within seven days.
Well established relationships helped him secure finance
After putting together a broad-brush business case for the project which included the value of the plot, the cost of demolition, the cost of the build on a square metre basis and also the best guesses of the values upon selling, Mike approached a long-standing friend and asked to borrow £2.5 million.
“If you've got a friendly banker in your pocket, it's always helpful. But he did say right at the get-go, “Happy to bank roll this one, but don't ask again.” So I knew the terms of engagement from day one.”
As a rule Mike doesn't normally work with friends but he knew that this was the only way to make this project happen.
And his ‘banker' did get all his money back with the profit share… and has even enjoyed some of the accolades that have come to this award-winning building.
‘Maximising the planning potential' freed up money to invest in quality
Mike explains that in property embracing the old adage ‘location, location, location' is essential. Blessed with a seafront plot, the next step was gaining consent.
“We fought hard to get eight individual apartments on there at a relatively cheap cost per plot acquisition basis. So as a consequence, we'd got a little bit in hand. And also I'd got the confidence of a friendly banker with a fairly competitive interest rate for development finance.”
Clifton Emery in Exeter, were commissioned to come up with an iconic building that would get the planning gain. Although the scheme was refused initially with a little tweaking it was approved 9 months later (but this delay came with considerable additional costs).
Keep developing your skillset
At a CPD (Continuing Professional Development) at Coventry University Mike met Emma Osmundsen and learned more about Passivhaus. Her talk about building better struck a chord and had planted the seed for making this a high performance development. Emma later shared some contacts with Mike, notably that of Tomas Gartner, an architect who specialises in Passivhaus and at that time was working with Gale & Snowden Architects.
With a strong sales and marketing background Mike is always considering the objections of potential buyers. Doing everything to the best of his ability stacked the deck strongly in his favour.
“Whilst the location was amazing, we then made it super eco. We made it super safe because for example, we've got smoke vents, misting systems, dry-risers, sprinklers in the building.”
A comprehensive specification helped the tender process
Having gained planning consent, architect Tomas Gartner took over and adapted the scheme from a standard build to a Passivhaus project. With a full bill of quantities and lots of attention to detail tender documents were produced and sent out to five shortlisted builders.
Mike believes the biggest risk of the whole scheme was hiring a contractor that couldn't deliver to the required standard. Classic Builders Southwest were appointed after careful consideration. They weren't the cheapest but Mike had confidence in them having seen some of their other schemes and he had developed a good relationship with their senior management team. They also could deliver the project in the shortest time.
External factors caused some costs to rise
While Mike tried to nail down cost as much as possible, there were certain supply chain issues in light of Brexit and then disruption with COVID.
Upskilling the team came with multiple benefits
Mike says one of the best things they did was take the teams from Classic Builders and Fords of Sidmouth for training at WARM in Plymouth. This had been Tomas' recommendation.
Collaboration and education
Training helped the team understand the goals of the project and how they would need to work on site to deliver them.
Only with buy-in was it possible to achieve these stringent standards.
Tomas also suggested that Mike train as a Passivhaus consultant so that he had a deeper understanding of the job.
Where there's a curve there's a cost!
While the original architects were charged with making the building iconic they were not planning to deliver a Passivhaus. So their initial designs left all sorts of challenges for Tomas and the team.
“In terms of the costs, there was a little bit of a bun fight between ourselves and the QS and the main contractor as to some of the finer points and detailing of this. It took a while to get it done, it slowed the programme down, but I've got to say the execution of the project by Classic (Builders), the way they delivered it with their supply chain, the curves are absolutely immense. If I did it again, I probably wouldn't bother.”
The structure of the building changes as it gets higher
There are various reasons why the building uses more than one construction method.
At the ground the building must be able to withstand flooding. Mike explains that it's effectively been built on a beach in a flood zone and protected by a sea wall.
87 concrete piles (13 metres deep) hold up a concrete ring beam, which is insulated from beneath.
“We start our insulation level well below the finished ground level. We then have a robust concrete box that was poured in situ, and that has external EWI wall insulation on it. We then had a concrete transfer slab that has 20 tons of steel in it and there were about 20 lorries of concrete went into it, but it's 325 mm thick, and it oversails the footprint of the building. So you can imagine the structural engineering challenges to get that to support the remaining building cantilevered above the concrete box beneath.”
At this point construction switches to Porotherm clay blocks which are wet plastered on the inside with a parge coat to give you good airtightness detail and rendered on the outside so is a very simple rainscreen cladding.
Each of the Porotherm floors then support concrete planks that are then suspended off the central spine wall which is again built from a Porotherm block but it's a solid core, one that's filled with concrete to give us some thermal mass within the building.
Finally ‘a timber frame bungalow' is perched on the top, which is the penthouse. This was clad in zinc.
A Bauder EPDM roof went on the very top… with one of Mike's most complex solar PV installations.
Have faith in putting the environment first
Mike concedes that he could have made more money by lowering standards but that's just not how he wants to operate.
“We're not all about the bottom line, we're all about the quality and the ongoing benefits that that building will give for its lifetime. So yes, we do sacrifice profit for the environment, which is a bold statement for a small company. Me and my wife have a modest existence. We're not particularly flash rich people, we don't need to be. We enjoy doing what we do. And as long as we cannot lose money on it, it would be nice to do another one and another one and another one.
Mike is proud of what he's achieved
Pride is perhaps the most interesting measure of this project.
Mike reflects on the factors that have contributed to these properties selling well and for good money.
“Would we have sold the whole of the apartments for over £500,000 without the curves? Because of location, probably yes. Would we have sold them for over that sort of figure without the Passivhaus certification? Probably yes. But these are always going to be the known unknowns in this journey of ours. I think looking back on it, it's a building that me and my team can be suitably proud of delivering. And the curves certainly do set it apart from anything else on the seafront.”
Find out more
Visit the website of Seaton Beach Developments
Visit the website of Classic Builders
Visit the website of Fords South West
Visit the website of Norrsken
Follow Mike Webb on Twitter
International Passivhaus Open Days
One of the best ways to understand what a Passivhaus is by visiting one. Fortunately the International Passive House Association organises Open Days twice a year, once to understand summer comfort and then again to see how Passivhaus comes into its own in winter.
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