06 Mar 2018

Joe Stuart talks i-build through the process of creating his compact new-build

Small may be beautiful, but it isn’t always easy. In fact, creating a compact new-build to squeeze into a limited footprint in London, while meeting all regulations (and the high expectations of a design engineer building his own home) was a challenge of grand proportions for Joe Stuart of Warehome.

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Occupying a plot of just 9.5 x 4m, the house is a contemporary timber frame design using structurally insulated panels, on the site of a former coffin workshop in east London, and is the smallest two-bed residence permitted by London planners.

“I had been working in London, and unable to find anything that seemed worth buying for the ever-increasing prices,” explains Joe. “Being quite a practical and hands-on character, and having a passion for architecture, I thought I would look into the possibility and viability of building my first home instead.

“After researching for a much larger live-work project with a couple of friends, I took the estate agent to one side to see if he had something more in my price range. My reply to his question about my budget of ‘Let’s start from zero and work our way up,’ made him roll his eyes but did persuade him to pass his friends’ details on who were selling a little coffin workshop.”

Space seemed to be the biggest challenge for this particular project, but Joe was determined to create a home for Lina and himself that would live up to all of their requirements. He explains: “We wanted to create a light, warm, quiet and considered space that we could make our own – a clean canvas for our evolving styles and tastes over the coming years. Additionally, we both wanted the opportunity to work from home, so we designed the house to contain flexible office spaces that can be adapted as our family grows. After getting the basic needs in place and considering how each of us use different rooms and spaces, we carried out workshops with our friends and family to get their feedback. After all, we love having people around, so we wanted to create a space that they could enjoy with us.

“Due to the complexity of this plot, the revised and final planning permission took longer than expected. After acquiring the land in September 2012, I only secured the final planning permission in May 2015 for various reasons. This did seem to have a silver lining though as it allowed me to save more money, whilst also making the most of London’s inflating house prices.”

The build took 23 months to complete but this included a five-month delay due to initial contractor mistakes.

“I was keen from the outset to build this house to Passivhaus standards,” explains Joe. “It was something that seemed achievable with some extra scrutiny over the details and a consideration for how this would impact our living. The design of the build fulfills the prerequisites for Passivhaus, from energy requirements and airtightness. Physical tests have proven this standard already, so we are looking forward to completing the process to get full certification.

“I had always planned to manage the project but after my initial basement contractor falling at the first hurdle, it became paramount. With spiraling costs, I needed to focus on keeping the project true to its brief whilst negotiating for materials and services. This subsequently meant leaving my more-than full-time day job to focus solely on the build.

“I did all the architectural work on the project, but I did manage to work alongside a Passivhaus Consultant, Colin Potter, who helped to analyse the build and to ensure I was designing to the energy requirements. Additionally, some of my other architectural friends have endured countless detailing discussions – so a special mention to Mario, Brian, PJ and Ollie as a start!

“In addition to keeping the energy demands of the build down, I was keen to look at more efficient and sustainable solutions. This introduced me to phase change heat storage as well as the simplest move that all households can do: we moved to a 100% renewable energy provider. The interesting thing is that this can have a lower carbon footprint than installing your own renewables! So regardless of the efficiency of the home, homeowners can ensure whatever energy they are getting comes from hydro, or wind power, for example.”

Apart from elegant aesthetics and ensuring a sense of light and flow in a restricted space, safety and sustainable performance were also key considerations.

“The ground floor is finished in a clean white render whilst the upper floors are wrapped in a vertically orientated cedar cladding. This has been designed as an open rainscreen for added visual depth and helped by a waterproof and UV-resistant breather membrane behind; Tyvek UV Facade. We also used the Tyvek FireCurb membrane at the lower level for extra fire safety, especially whilst completing the build. All of these membranes have been taped and sealed in order to keep the house protected from external factors.

“The triple glazed windows are framed with black projecting reveals, and a large bespoke quad-glazed skylight opens out onto a secluded roof terrace.

“Internally, the clean white palette allows for fitted furniture and belongings to set the tone, acting as a gallery for our evolving style. Open, airy stairs create a vertical connection to all the floors both visually and for the function of airflow. Built-in storage maximises the usable space and ensures a clutter-free aesthetic.”

Choosing the best products for the project

Undertaking the kind of thorough research one would expect from a design and engineering professional, Joe says: “I chose the best products and combinations available. In short; with a great deal of research. In reality; I spent hours investigating and discussing products and materials with suppliers and other design professionals. Constantly questioning the reasoning for the choices to ensure the decisions were made on the back of the information gained, not because of a lack of it. This was instrumental in the development of several products and designs used in this house that are revolutionary. I needed absolute reliability when it came to quality and performance. This may be one of the smallest two-bed houses in London, but it will always be one of my most important projects, and an example of what my practice can achieve.

“Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, there are many things I would do differently. If I hadn’t learnt some new tricks along the way, it really wouldn’t have been worth the effort! But there are also a lot of things I would keep the same, and that is really pleasing to know.

“I would do the whole thing again without a shadow of a doubt. I think it's everything I hoped for and more. From a personal side, this house has already given Lina and I so much that we weren’t expecting. It was a real journey of discovery for us as a team and a couple, and so we have a real sense of achievement and satisfaction to complement our new home. I would recommend that everyone undertakes at least one project like this for themselves. But, for now, we will enjoy this one for a while, whilst I work on my clients’ projects to keep the buzz going!”.

Joe’s advice for anyone thinking about taking the plunge is: “Do it! Don’t be scared, but be prepared. Research, and then research some more. Be bold, be true to your own wants and needs, and challenge the status quo. It is your home that you are building not anyone else’s. Take advice from others, but use your own judgement as to whether you will follow it. And, most of all, have fun! Because if you’re not enjoying the journey, the result will never be as good!”.

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