First, dig a big hole!
Follow this link to a timelapse film showing the preparation of the site along with other interviews and snippets from the build.
In the October issue of Homebuilding & Renovating magazine Charlie’s column explains how to approach the art of contemporary design.
If you wanted to build a modern home very much of its time, what would you do? Architectural designer and TV expert Charlie Luxton explains how to approach the art of the contemporary.
Will the 2015 home please stand up? Looking back at the early modernist masterpiece houses is a humbling experience. What is striking is that these early 20th-century buildings – 100 years old or so – still appear amazingly modern and relevant. Open plan living was coming into trend in the 1910s houses of Adolf Loos, and Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright were perfecting organic architecture and machines for living in the 1920s. Mies van der Rohe had sliding walls of glass and stripped minimalism in the ’30s. The Eames House of the ’40s was embracing mass-production and had already moved beyond modernist bombast and dogmatic aesthetics.
Surveying this pantheon of buildings, it is easy to wonder exactly what has moved on in the last 60 years — and that perhaps designers have all been doing cover versions ever since. However, there are issues and ideas being tackled by housing in 2015 that make them very specific to now. A number of trends can be seen in home design today that show where we are advancing and challenging the masters of the past.
Place and context have become an increasingly important concept in modern housing. The big criticism of much 20th-century house design is that it ignores local building styles and the important narrative roles houses play in the feel of a town or village. Limited availability of materials traditionally meant there was a unity of appearance to housing, often dominated by a local stone or brick. Modern transportation broke that relationship and the result has not always been positive. Buildings are not like cars, chairs or almost any other product. They do not move and therefore need to relate to their surroundings in a permanent and unique way. The best 2015 homes have a much stronger relationship to their surroundings through their materials, details and style. This contemporary vernacular is not about mimicking or copying (much as the planners want us to) but bringing together the specific character of a place and its buildings with those of your new home. There are so many wonderful design ideas to reference in the vernacular buildings of the UK, that starting from scratch with no reference to them seems so last century.
Another major failing of much contemporary architecture is that it doesn’t allow for the realities of time and ageing. Seemingly conceived in an idealised reality where time, weathering and decay don’t occur, the white rendered box (and its like) never look so good with green algae stains or if a beautiful white smooth plaster interior gets a boot scuff. It’s the illusion of perfection and while many buildings look fantastic in the publicity shoots, they age badly. Ageing is inevitable and good buildings should, like wine, add a new layer of beauty through it. Natural, traditional and interesting materials like brick, clay tiles, timber shingles, stone, wood or metal can not only tie a building into its location but can age beautifully too. The 2015 home understands this and embraces it.
Careful with Glass
For much of the 20th century, walls of glass were a real statement of modernity; expensive and hard to achieve. In the 21st century the folding sliding door is ubiquitous — a stock response to maximise a view or create a connection outside. The reality, both then and now, is that too much glass can result in overheating in summer and the opposite in winter. While this can be overcome through good design and modern technology the truth is that a wall of glass often lessens the impact of a view, whereas a carefully composed window frames it and heightens its effect. Acres of glazing do little for acoustics or creating a sense of place, often resulting in echoey washed-out rooms that have no soul. The 2015 house is sparing with its glass, preferring quality of view and performance of window over quantity. This includes glass balustrades — so last century….
Perhaps the main thing to have changed since the wonder of early modernism and defines good architecture today is its impact, or lack of it, on our beseiged environment. Superficially, at least, house design may appear to have not advanced much in the last 100 years, but functionally instead; how well insulated, sealed, ventilated and serviced they are has changed fundamentally. Many of these 20th-century masterpieces were awful to live in – too cold, too hot, too draughty and a nightmare to maintain – and it’s taken the intervening years for technology to catch up and make them comfortable and affordable to heat. Increasingly, automation and integration of systems are key to further reducing energy consumption, achieving more with less. Low energy consumption, embodied energy, internal air quality and responsible sourcing of materials are central to the 2015 house.
The Emergence of Fun
The modern home has for many years been a very serious place where people who drive German cars and eat muesli live in grey crisply ironed clothes.
The white rendered, glass walled, tight arsed, shiny hard house has had its day. The 2015 house has wit, humour and idiosyncrasy. It can parody itself, be quirky, irrational and fun. It references and responds to both its site and surrounding buildings. It cares for the planet, ages gracefully yet maintains the ambition and lessons of the modernist masters. Every building, no matter what the budget, is an opportunity to make the world a little better and the crop of 2015 shouldn’t waste it.
Charlie is a regular columnist for Homebuilding & Renovating, which is one of Britain’s most successful self-build magazines. In the September issue read Charlie’s Design Masterclass on the secret to a successful barn conversion.
The secret to a successful conversion is working with the existing building, rather than shoehorning in ‘traditional’ domestic features, says designer Charlie Luxton.
With a practice in rural north Oxfordshire I’ve been lucky enough to work on lots of barn conversions and I love designing them. I relish the challenge of creating a functional, dramatic home while maintaining the core ‘barn-y-ness’ of the building. For me, the Litmus test for the success of any conversion is that, if led blindfolded into one and then unmasked, you should immediately know what kind of building you’re in. Too often conversions obliterate and obscure a barn’s origins so that it looks and feels like an ordinary but oddly proportioned house, and not a celebration of the utilitarian beauty of the existing building.
In many ways, barns are a bit like relationships — if you hope to take one on because you want to change it, then don’t. If you can love it for what it is, quirks and all, then a barn’s life is for you.
Embrace the Functional Beauty
The recent changes to planning rules have opened up the possibility of residential conversion for many agricultural structures previously considered not worthy. Dutch barns (opposite, left), corrugated metal barns and pole barns are supremely functional. Embracing the ‘barn-y-ness’ of these buildings is even more important in getting the best out of this latest crop of agricultural buildings ripe for conversion. I find real beauty in their pragmatic simplicity, but you do have to work with their core character and make the structure, form and materials work for you rather than force them to be what they are not.
The barn form lends itself to so much of what we want in a modern home — space, height and massive openings for walls of glass. They allow for experimentation in affordable, interesting materials, too. Metal, timber, fibreboard, rubber, you name it, pretty much anything goes with these buildings — except trying to make them what they are not. They are not constructed from traditional house materials, for instance, so trying to reclad them in slate, tile, brick or stone will more than likely end up looking wrong. Nor are they ‘polite’, with regularly spaced portrait windows which conform to the Golden Ratio. They shouldn’t have porches, dormers, brick chimneys or fiddly domestic details. If you do want these features, go and buy a house! If you want to go on an adventure into design and a home full of architectural interest, barns are a good bet.
Getting the Interior Spaces Right
Another challenge with barns is fitting in all the rooms and functions necessary in a modern home without subdividing the space too much; again, think back to the blindfold test. I also always try and make a ‘moment’ in a barn conversion when you can understand the entire height, width and length of the original space; a memory of the raw, untamed building. Architecture needs drama and barns can provide this through wonderful uncluttered space — keeping this alive as you transform your barn is key to success.
The blindfold test should also apply to the interior design and fit-out. The interior and exterior should chime. This could be through simple, rustic, agricultural-inspired construction using traditional materials, or contrasting super-sleek modern minimalism (the Kitchen Architecture Bulthaup kitchen, above, being a prime example). It is not for me to say how it should be or look, but it must communicate and be in dialogue with the buildings roots.
When built, barns were not conceived for human habitation. As such, they usually have very few openings, but those openings which they do possess tend to be either massive – designed for loading and unloading industrial-scale machines and/or animals – or very small, for purposes of cross ventilation. Getting light into all the rooms without punching the building with too many new openings, is one of the single biggest challenges facing converters.
There are no hard and fast rules but I tend to start with the light and view, locating the principal habitable rooms where the main openings are, while accepting that some parts of the building will, most likely, be dark. Utility, plant rooms and WCs may only have borrowed light but if handled well and contrasted against spacious, light-filled living and circulation areas, they can be an interesting counter note in the wider composition of the design. Dark, cosier spaces may well lend themselves to snugs and living rooms used in the evening.
Do all you can to avoid new openings. Where they are absolutely crucial, consider them in the same vein as the existing structure. Fewer larger openings are nearly always better than multiple smaller ones. Single openings that span between floors or rooms so that externally they appear as one opening rather than two, can help maintain a building’s integrity. Barns were not generally designed with polite symmetry in mind, they are often a bit random and asymmetric, so try and continue that in your alterations. Most barns are a simple rectangular shape, so rooflights are key to getting light into the middle of the building while maintaining the monolithic integrity of the walls. Here too anything domestic is the enemy so think large single rooflights rather than multiple small ones.
This classic way of improving a terraced and semi-detached home – usually for a new kitchen – is a recipe for disaster if not designed properly. Charlie Luxton advises.
The side return extension is one of the most common domestic building projects. The millions of terraced houses that define so much of our urban landscape are ripe for this addition, but side return extensions need to be thought through properly. Get it wrong and this ‘improvement’ is not just disappointing, but can damage the light, flow and quality of your existing space rather than improve it.
The terraced and semi-detached home is in many ways a fantastic piece of design that provided good-quality, well-lit living space with sublime efficiency. However, the basic design is over 200 years old and in many ways reflects a bygone social structure with smaller separate rooms and perhaps, most problematically with today’s living habits, separate kitchens usually stuck out in the rear outrigger away from the main living space. The side return extension is the answer — and here’s how to get it right.
One of the big questions with a side return extension is whether to complement or contrast with the existing house. Both work well and while there are no hard and fast rules, the best approach is to think about the kind of new space you want from your extension. If you are trying to radically alter your interior space, knocking down walls and making big openings for inside/outside living, then clearly this is very different from the existing space in an old terrace. If you are doing this then I think you should contrast the design, expressing a new stage in the building’s life. If however you are proposing smaller French doors and maintaining (but subtly altering) the existing layout, then a more sympathetic ‘in keeping’ design can work. I just get disappointed when I see massive bi-fold doors rammed into a traditional-looking house — it looks incongruous, unsubtle and usually wrong.
Doing away with the separate kitchen by infilling the narrow strip of the garden adjacent to the house and squaring off the floorplan to create a larger kitchen dining room makes a lot of sense. It is often the only possible way of extending the house, but in doing so you can create new space at the expense of daylight penetrating the middle of the house. A large part of the genius of the terraced house design is that the only area that doesn’t usually get good daylight is the stairs. Putting on a side return extension can plunge one of the main rooms into darkness, making it far less usable — you will need to be creative with rooflights, ceiling levels and artificial light to keep the quality of space. One option is to embrace the dark and create an intimate internal room for the evenings that is the Ying to the bright kitchen diner’s Yang, or an alternative is to move toilets and utilities – rooms that do not need so much natural light – to the centre of the house.
A side return extension nearly always requires walls to be knocked down and there is always a temptation to take the easy route when doing this and simply put a steel beam under the joists of the existing floor above to support the rest of the building. This structure is then boxed in to create what the trade calls a ‘downstand’ — learn the name and learn to avoid it at all costs. This is because even though the wall has gone, the residual downstand has a big impact on creating the feeling of a new large single room. It divides the room, stops space flowing and makes the ceiling feel low and heavy. If you have very high ceilings you can design your way around a downstand. But for nearly all situations, go to the extra expense of pushing the new structure into the depth of the floor above and losing it. If you have to cut back on the cost of the kitchen and fit out, do so, as this can be easily improved at a later date — fiddling with the structure can’t.
To increase the sense of space in your new side return extension, try and create taller and/or vaulted ceiling heights in the new area that contrast with the old. This will draw the eye upwards and make even a small increase in space feel much larger.
Get the Pipes Right
Often the rear courtyard of the terrace has, over the years of retrofit and upgrading, become something of a spaghetti junction of services and plumbing. There are often manholes, waste downpipes, rainwater downpipes, etc. One of the first jobs in designing your scheme is to get a handle on how you are going to adapt the plumbing to allow for your new extension to shine. The alternative is boxed-in downpipes squeezing already narrow spaces, big ugly removable manhole covers smack bang in the middle of a new floor, and ugly waste pipes snaking around the roof of your pride and joy — I have seen it all.
The Right Approach
A well-designed, well-built side return extension can give a home a new lease of life, bringing it perfectly up to date for contemporary living. Like everything in building it needs to be properly thought through — so make sure you get the fundamentals right before you get carried away with the finishing touches.
All too often sustainable solutions are used only as a means of reducing energy bills. Charlie reveals how these features could improve the quality of spaces too.
For most, the driving force behind building a low-energy home is saving energy and, therefore, money. Undoubtedly the idea of saving the planet comes into it, but the reality comes down to low energy bills.
My design work is focused on new builds, extensions and refurbishments, all driven by a desire to be as sustainable as the client, brief and budget will allow. Through this I’ve come to believe that the reason for the take-up of sustainable building techniques is solely concentrated on money saving and payback, but people should instead be investing more in airtightness, insulation and triple glazing to create quality spaces. Still, calm, healthier and quiet — properly built, low-energy spaces are far nicer places to live. Once you’ve experienced low-energy housing you will never want to live in a draughty, cold old house again.
Comfortable, good for wellbeing, lower bills and doing your bit to conserve the planet — it sounds too good to be true. The downside is that while cheaper in the long run, low-energy construction costs more upfront. There are, however, some simple sustainable design principles that can be adopted to help make your home green.
One of the best things to come out of the eco sector is thermal modelling. This is the ability to use computer programmes to test the energy, thermal and water performance of a design as it evolves, and allows designers to optimise a building’s shape, orientation, windows and insulation to passively use the sun to do as much heating and lighting as possible. It goes hand-in-hand with a fabric-first approach rather than focusing, as many do, on how to heat the house through low-carbon technologies such as heat pumps, photovoltaic panels or biomass boilers. I would never design a new house without using thermal modelling to inform the process.
All these homes with large south-facing windows and lots of insulation are wonderful, but many new builds suffer from overheating. With our climate set to warm considerably over the next 50 years this is only going to get worse. Test your home for possible overheating at the outset using thermal modelling and design it out at an early stage.
The bigger the house, the bigger the bills (we calculate energy consumption through kW/m2/annum) — so try to make internal spaces work harder for you rather than just creating more rooms. Small can be beautiful and this will allow you to spend more money per m2 to get better quality spaces.
It certainly isn’t sexy, but to create super comfortable low-energy homes, insulation is your biggest asset. Critically we are not talking about a few tatty layers of fibreglass in the loft — we are talking a minimum of 300mm-thick insulation which is properly installed. It is a case of insulating as much as possible, and then some more!
The key to insulation is lots of it, but you must also have total continuity. Any gaps or bits of structure (lintels, masonry, timbers) that bridge the insulation layer not only lose heat but moisture condensates on the resultant cold spots too. This often leads to mould – a big health risk – so you have to be very careful that your insulation layer is carefully designed.
Windows are important to get right, especially as they are replaced so infrequently. A house will usually go through multiple boilers before any of the windows are replaced, so opt for triple glazing for new builds and at least double glazing for existing homes. It is not just the quality of the windows, but how they are fitted is equally important. Air leakage around windows is a big problem and using the right foams, sealing tapes and fixings is critical.
After insulation, airtightness is vital. This means sealing up all the gaps and holes in your building. Draughts and air movement within a dwelling have a huge impact on the comfort of a home. The perfect internal temperature for most in a well-sealed, draught-free house is 19°C, but if there are draughts then achieving 21°C is required for a comfortable temperature. This seemingly small rise in temperature will have a big impact on your comfort and energy bills.
After a house has been highly insulated and sealed, the biggest source of heat loss will be ventilation. People need lots of fresh air to be healthy and to provide this and maintain airtightness you need a mechanical ventilation heat recovery (MVHR) unit. This is a system that extracts warm, moist air from bathrooms, kitchens and utilities by passing it through a heat exchanger to preheat fresh air from the outside which is then pumped into the bedrooms, sitting rooms, etc. It provides up to around four times the ventilation rates in a normal home and filters the air for dust, pollen and pollutants. In a well-insulated airtight house it will halve energy consumption and give fresh, warm clean air — it’s one of the best bits of technology to come into the low-energy sector.
In terms of creating low-energy, comfortable but also healthy homes, good internal air quality is crucial. MVHR systems help by upping the ventilation rates, reducing moisture and filtering air that comes into the house, but I am also always very careful to try and specify low toxicity and low off-gassing materials. My rule of thumb is that if I would eat my dinner off it, I will put it in a house! Think about reducing the use of MDF, particleboard and petroleum-based products and consider materials with low toxin levels instead.
It is easy with all the additional complexity these issues bring to lose sight of the fact that your house should be joyful and inspiring. Sometimes low-energy architecture can become a little too worthy and rational. You need a bit of magic and sparkle in a project — don’t let low-energy concerns kill that. Whether you’re dealing with a new build or refurbishment, low-energy homes are not easy to achieve but once you do it, you’ll never go back. Super sleek £50,000 kitchens and cinema rooms are the luxuries of today; low-energy homes are the luxury of tomorrow.
All too often self-built and renovated homes end up as bland as off-the-shelf developer houses. Charlie reveals some simple ideas to make yours special.
Designing a house is a complicated business. There are an almost incalculable number of decisions and variables that shape the design process and, therefore, your home. Well-designed unique homes are desirable, lovely to live in and ultimately more valuable than off-the-shelf alternatives. But all too often self-builders and those carrying out major renovations end up – thanks to constraints of space and budget, a designer with limited ‘vision’ or simply timidity about anything out of the ordinary – with a bland home too.
To avoid being sucked into bland you need a good design early on — and you need to stick to it. I believe there are a few straightforward ideas that will help you (and your designer) create a home that punches well above its weight.
Stairs Need Space
Don’t simply shoehorn the staircase in. They can be mean, narrow and tucked away (as per developer homes) or have drama and excitement. Stairs are always an expense but with some clever design and not a lot of extra money you can transform stairs from a perfunctory necessity into a show-stopper. I tend to put stairs in a double-height space to accentuate the connection between levels and therefore creating additional interest.
Raise the Ceiling
One of the things that sets the bland mood in a new developer house is measly ceiling heights. Almost invariably 2.4m, and in many cases less, such ceiling heights create a slight feeling of claustrophobia and give wider, longer rooms an unsettling letterbox feel. The increasing invasion of downlights, smoke detectors, air ducts and speakers that litter ceilings only increase this top-heavy feel. The good news is that high ceilings make small rooms feel generous and are an absolute must for large spaces. Big rooms with 2.4m ceilings feel squat. You can easily attain that feeling of grandeur by designing ceiling heights of at least 2.7m and preferably 2.9m. The extra materials used will add cost to the build but it’s worth it for a luxurious feeling of space.
A Dressing Room
A master bedroom suite increasingly helps define a home’s value — the people using these rooms are paying for the house, after all. Dressing rooms are a real luxury and don’t have to use much extra space — a bedroom with less clutter can be smaller and still feel spacious.
A Larger Hallway
The impression you get when first entering a building sets the tone of a home. There is nothing worse than cramming into a small hall when you arrive at a house, so always be generous with your entrance. You only have to try and shuffle your family/friends in and out the door with bags, coats, dogs and wellies a few times before you understand how crucial the hall is.
A Big Front Door
As a central part of the arrival experience, the front door is always worth spending time and money on to get right. Much like the hall, it sets the tone. Go wide and go tall.
Position Windows from Inside Out
Far too often windows are placed to look symmetrical and neat on an elevation. The real function of windows is to create views and bring in light — not as a decoration for the exterior. I tend to start by placing windows from the inside out and then try to make the elevation work.
No More Tiny Doors
Why do people stick to bland standard-sized doors when a large door blank and an extra set of hinges cost just a few extra pounds? Don’t just go wider, go taller as it draws the eye up, accentuating height and space.
There is huge pressure on self-builders and renovators – especially with the growing trend in valuing houses using floor area – to do away with double-height spaces. This is a mistake — double heights don’t waste space, they make space. In many ways it is the perception of space rather than a measurement that defines how a home feels. I use every opportunity to connect the different levels in a building, with views and light creating interesting shapes, light effects and a dynamic experience.
Ever wondered what a society where most homes are self-built might look like? In the final part of his series, Charlie shares his vision and explains why it could, and should, revolutionise our whole attitude towards where we live.
In this country we are facing a housing crisis, with the number of houses built a year estimated at about 100,000-150,000 too few, and this has been the case for decades. Too few houses is pushing up prices and creating an almost generational exclusion from house ownership. We also have a crisis in the quality of new houses. A recent survey by NaCSBA (National Custom & Self Build Association) and RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) stated that 74% of us would not buy a house built in the last 10 years. In a society that defines itself by new things – phones, clothes, cars – the fact that so few of us want a new house is a crushing indictment of the state of our housing industry.
Step in self-builders, whom I believe can help save Britain from this crisis. However, at present, only 10-12% of homes are self-built in the UK – only 5% in England – whereas the European average is approximately 50% — that’s 10 times more.
In this mutant housing system of ours, eight large developers build around 60% of our new homes. In the 1980s this figure was 40%. The power and wealth generated by building homes has been focused into fewer and fewer hands, and a consolidation which is bad for competition, quality and quantity.
One of the key issues is the collective failure of a planning system which is meant to represent what we as a society want, and since at least the 1960s, there has been a growing opposition to building/development. This anti-build rhetoric was embraced by almost all but with consequences foreseen by few.
Perhaps one of the most damaging of these consequences has been a transition of planning departments from proactively ‘planning’ development to being almost solely focused on development control. The idea that we could somehow stop new housing on greenfield sites, especially with a growing, changing population, now looks naïve. However, decades of planning policies have tried to do just that, making it harder to obtain land zoned for development to the point where fewer new homes are being built despite soaring demand. It now seems that across most of the country the only way to get planning permission for a new house on a greenfield site is to be a huge company with an army of well-paid lawyers who can outmanoeuvre fund-ravaged planning departments.
Another unexpected consequence of focusing so much new build into a few companies is a strangulation of the building technologies sector. We live in a country of 64million with a proud heritage of invention and manufacturing, but bar a few notable exceptions nearly all the good new low-energy building technology comes from the continent. Interestingly a disproportionate amount of it comes from Austria, a country with a population of 8.4million but a self-build rate of 80-90% — coincidence?
The eight big developers responsible for so much of our new housing are risk adverse when it comes to new technology. When they are battling with a volatile housing market and the challenges of the planning system they’re not interested in the risk of using innovative technologies with all the potential liability that brings. Self-builders on the other hand are risk takers and love trying new technology and ideas, but with so few of them, many new innovations and technologies wither on the vine and force us to look abroad for the best and latest ideas.
I have spent quite some time trying to work out why we have become so anti-building. There is now so little benefit for communities where new homebuilding occurs, it is no wonder few of us want it. Congestion, road closures, slower broadband speed, stretched health and education services, the list goes on.
Now with the ‘big eight’, most of the building work is done by large-scale contractors to match the size of the developers and, beyond the million an acre given to the landowner, the rest of the money disappears down the motorway with the army of white vans at the end of a day’s work. What’s more, the big housebuilders generate around double the profits of their European counterparts. This money is not used to make better homes or spent in the locations where the houses are built; it goes to the shareholders, pension funds and company owners making the wealthy, wealthier.
The balance has tipped beyond being an equitable transaction to being totally one-sided, and the result is that very few people want large-scale housebuilding anywhere near them. This may sound far-fetched. Are we really weighing the pros and cons to draw complex conclusions about fairness and housebuilding? Quite possibly, yes.
If the efficiency and scale of the ‘big eight’ is a fundamental problem to the acceptance of local development, as I suspect it is, then self-build could be the antidote. Self-builders are inherently more inefficient than developers due to a lack of economies of scale and experience, however self-built homes are bigger and more sustainable — no surprise because if you’re building your own home you want to make sure it’s bigger, better and with smaller bills. If you also consider that the average person moves every seven years, and the average self-builder every 20, they invest not only financially but emotionally into the local community.
Many of our most beautiful villages and towns were built one house at a time, an additive process that has resulted in a rich variation of style and scale. Quite how we think we can ever maintain or recreate this effect by getting a few housebuilders to drop big blocks of homes from the drawing board of a second-rate designer I will never know. Self-build however can reintroduce this additive development and I believe result in better place-making.
Changing a piece of land from agricultural to residential increases its value by around 100 times. Given that the average self-builder spends more per plot than the big developers, we don’t need a Marxist collectivisation of building land to make a self-build revolution happen, just a few tweaks to the planning process.
If more people gained from the positive financial effects of decentralised housebuilding then resistance to new housing (NIMBY-ism by another name) would reduce. If new houses in your local area meant more money invested in the local economy, with the wealth it creates shared more evenly, then more people would support it.
I have no doubt that new housing will always be divisive, but the pill would be significantly sweeter if it created and sustained more local jobs and businesses. People are incredibly rational, and if housebuilding spread wealth right through the economy rather than focusing it at the very top, more would embrace it. And by God we need a lot more people to embrace it because we now have a cross-party political consensus to build a lot more houses.
We have entered a ‘how big is my building target’ competition in the run up to May’s election and 250,000 a year seems the kind of level it will be, but how are we going to achieve this? Will it be through a ‘business as usual’ approach by getting the big developers to build more tiny houses that most of us don’t want? I worry that it may and in doing so, reward the big developers despite their failure to deliver the quality housing that we deserve.
A big part of this building boom is to help drive growth in the economy, however it’s more likely to create poor-quality houses, debt, and fail to capitalise on its potential to stimulate the economy. I believe self-build can save us from this.
I may sound like a dreamer, an idealist; how could self-builders possibly build enough houses? Surely you need established housebuilders to create well-planned housing?
For better or worse, Margaret Thatcher stoked the capitalist in all of us and created a nation of homeowners. Now, George Osborne and his friends have the potential to make us a nation of housebuilders and in doing so shake up the inward-looking, greedy housebuilding sector and save us from another botched political scheme.
Charlie explains why, when looking to create a low-energy, sustainable building, it pays to take the time to research and get the insulation right.
When people are approached on the subject of insulation, it’s rarely met with enthusiasm. It’s seen as dull and unsexy, and I am often gently mocked for my nerdish interest in the stuff. But (and it’s a big but), insulation is the single most crucial thing in sustainable architecture in the UK. For many self-builders it is the low-carbon technology that beeps and sparkles with flashing dials that gets them excited. Heat pumps, rainwater harvesting and the like often command a disproportionate amount of their interest, design time and budget. However, in our climate, it is predominantly high levels of insulation that make low-energy buildings really work — the other stuff is just the cherry on the cake.
I have seen projects where the solar panels are on the roof, the rainwater harvester is in the ground, and the mechanical ventilation heat recovery system is threaded lovingly through the structure, but the walls are about as insulated as a northern lass on a Saturday night out! The sad fact is that, despite what the homeowners believe, this kind of set-up will never be a truly sustainable home – let alone comfortable – and while you can replace and update all those glitzy technologies in the future, the insulation is there for good.
If you are building a house and want to do it properly, then you need to get interested in insulation. The types available vary greatly and the choice you make will have a huge impact on your home. If you consider that we spend around 90 per cent of our lives inside buildings, then the quality of the internal air becomes a priority. Many types of insulation are made from petrochemicals and exotic gasses, and the long-term impact these have on human health is not clear.
Performance is another area to consider, as the effectiveness of one insulation compared to another varies enormously. High-performance insulation is often higher in price than the simple, lower-performance stuff, but going the cheaper, thicker route can provide the same level of insulation at no extra cost. The level of insulation (U value) quoted for a given construction is a theoretical measure and is always a best-case scenario. So if you are relying on a thin layer of super-duper foam to achieve your super-warm house, then any gaps or issues with degradation of the insulation will, over time, have a significant effect. Any house built now will, at the current rate of house renewal, stand for over 2,000 years, and there are concerns about the long-term performance of some types of insulation as they slump, settle, degrade, off-gas and get eaten by insects or even vermin.
And what about installation? Rigid insulation in solid sheet form can be hard to work with and needs to be carefully cut and fitted to the gaps in the structure of your house. If this is done badly you can end up with thermal bridging — heat going straight through the open joints. If you look at many houses with a thermal imaging camera, you will see multiple spots with little or no insulation where heat is being lost, leading to higher bills as well as the potential for mould, which will bring with it significant health impacts. Try and use multiple layers of rigid insulation and stagger the joists to reduce the chance of this occurring. In many cases, using flexible or blown insulation is better as it is more likely to fill all the little gaps and spaces — I am increasingly using blown insulation on my projects for its gap-filling properties.
Another issue around installation is keeping it dry during construction. This is critical, as getting it wet will significantly reduce the performance, and even when it dries out the effectiveness will be decreased.
My final point may seem esoteric, but I believe it reaches the very heart of sustainable building: the construction of a house produces a huge amount of CO2 even before someone has moved in and turned on the lights and heating. This is called embodied energy and is the energy used to manufacture, transport and erect a building. It needs to be considered in any project, as most types of insulation use a lot of chemicals and energy in their manufacture. Wood and cellulose fibre insulations, however, do not, and using them actually locks in the carbon from which they are made. Burning wood in a stove or boiler puts the carbon recently sequestered from the atmosphere back into the air (bad for global warming), so making it into useful insulation and sticking it in a house for hundreds of years is infinitely more preferable. The result is carbon-positive buildings that actually reduce the CO2 in the atmosphere as a result of their construction. With this way of thinking, thick walls of wood or cellulose fibre make the most sense in terms of lower bills, healthier homes and a healthier planet.
The world of insulation is very complicated and you need to do your own research, but if you are tackling a building project then you need to engage in this seemingly uninspiring area. Looks can be deceiving.