14 Aug 2014

Double take: Couples build adjacent energy-efficient homes


In separate quests in find the perfect plot, two couples – both first-time self-builders – became great friends, consequently hiring the same architect to design highly eco-efficient homes right next door to one another.


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The small village of Kirk Yetholm sits just within the Scottish Border, boasting a picturesque rural landscape with plenteous rolling green vistas. Andrew and Elaine Torrance had long lived in the village, but Elaine’s worsening disabilities prompted the couple to look for a new home. Having lived with rheumatoid arthiritis for 33 years as well as a neurological problem, she has suffered multiple joint replacements from a young age. Although determined not to resort to a bungalow, her limitations made finding a suitable house within their beloved Kirk Yetholm near impossible.

“We were reluctant self-builders,” explains Andrew. “It was a means to an end because we wanted to stay in our village. We started to look around for plots and put the feelers out amongst people we knew. A plot came up in a stunning setting and we bought it, funded by a mortgage – although complicated slightly by having to wait two and a half years to sell our Victorian terrace as the market had just gone off a cliff!

“When we started on the self-build journey we went to see a timber frame kit house which was built to look like a traditional 1800s Scottish cottage. We considered this and then realised, why should we build a new home with pre-ordained design that mimics a house that is 150 year old? This was to be a new, modern 21st century home and we wanted to embrace and celebrate that. It was when we came back from seeing a kit house that we decided to get our own architect.”

The couple approached architect Keith Renton who established his practice in 1992 and specialises in sustainable building. Andrew continues: “I felt I knew enough about building to know that I didn’t know enough about building! Hiring an architect was the best decision we made, however the first design unnerved us – it was just so different from the home we had lived in for 16 years. We unpicked all the key features that Keith had put in, but actually ended up putting them back in bit by bit!”

A home for retirement

Numerous elements prompted Lesley Blackthorn and Pete Snell to embark on their self-build: a new challenge to sustain their retirement, the desire for a low carbon home and a return to rural living.

Lesley explains: “Information in the media about energy efficient building design and a visit to the Centre for Alternative Technology inspired us to build our own home. After reading a lot about green building techniques and passive house standards we were keen to build a sustainable home that would be a home for life.”

With a clear vision of their perfect location and building, the couple decided to relocate from York to the Scottish borders, so subscribed to plot-finder websites, drew up a short list of a dozen plots and visited them all in a week. As chance would have it, the plot next to the Torrance’s met all their requirements, being a good size, within a lively village, a flat landscape with a south-facing aspect and planning permission already outlined.

Andrew and Elaine had already started their project when the couple bought the second Kirk Yetholm plot, so the Torrance's were able to offer advice and support to their new neighbours. They were also able to recommend Keith, who loved the opportunity to build adjacent eco-homes.

Lesley continues: “We understood from our research the importance of a good client/architect relationship and Keith was a perfect match as he shared our values and vision. We were clear about wanting natural, low-embodied-energy materials, but were prepared to compromise to remain within budget and achieve good energy performance. Keith was especially helpful in suggesting products and solutions that met our needs.”

Meticulous budgeting

The main challenge for Andrew and Elaine was locating and connecting the services, an obstacle that pushed them £60,000 over budget.

Andrew illustrates: “This was obviously bothersome, but we managed to find the savings. My main aim was to ensure that both our architect and builders knew we had to bring the build within budget. The reality is that we are both in our fifties and dragging a large mortgage with us into retirement simply wouldn’t work. The project ran to a detailed itemized schedule of works and if anything overrun on costs we meticulously compensated elsewhere.”

The couple didn’t set out to build a passive house, they merely wanted an energy-efficient house that was cheap to run and maintain. “We were not aware of MVHR or other energy efficient features prior to employing our architect," continues Andrew. "However, we were easily convinced that high levels of insulation, triple glazing, no central heating and MVHR was the way forward, and for this we are eternally grateful. I would strongly recommend any self-builder to do the same – why wouldn’t you?!”

Surpassing expectations

Alongside Keith’s guidance, the Torrance’s looked through magazines to get ideas and inspiration for material and product selection. “We simply knew what we liked when we saw it. Our new home was to have simple, clean lines, products that minimised ongoing maintenance and met our sacrosanct budget,” Andrew continues.

Render and partial cladding alongside a slate roof soften what is a simple, modern-looking cube, which has extensive glazing to the main elevation. The interior is open-plan and designed to benefit from maximum light and views. An internal double-height balcony adds light and interest, and a wood-burning stove is built into the staircase providing an interesting focal point to the living space. Despite the modest design, the home boasts many interesting angles and perspectives.

Lesley and Pete, having originally envisaged a timeframe of three years, moved into their new home only seven months after the groundworks started! This was due to using a highly efficient structural insulated panel (SIPs) construction method. The finished home is a two-storey part rendered, part timber-clad building with a slate roof, a porch on one side and veranda to the front. Windows are triple-glazed, floor to ceiling at the front of the house, with minimal glazing at the rear north side.

Organic landscape

The site was originally home to a large dairy facility which sat on the edge of the village conservation area. The new properties have incorporated this space into the residential part of the village and has become a natural transition zone from the village street to the surrounding countryside. Fields encircle both homes and the use of natural materials help them blend into the stunning surroundings.

The exterior of both homes have been transformed into a blissful Eden. Lesley and Pete have created their own orchard, vegetable garden and wildlife area. The couple have worked hard creating a garden by working with the existing landscape and using materials already there, for example, rocks unearthed during the build have been recycled to create the garden’s walls.

“We have created a cottage garden with wildlife area and an orchard on the sloping bank, all bounded by native hedging and have seen a huge increase in the variety of wildlife since we moved here,” explains Lesley. “The local community is intrigued by the property and enthusiastic about our garden. There have been many comments about how pleasant it is to walk down the lane! The space has really exceeded our expectations and we are very happy here.”

Andrew enthuses: “Our house is modern and unique and visitors from the village love the light and airy space – they can’t believe how warm it is, especially as we don’t have central heating! Agreeing what was for us a radical design involved a leap of faith and having been through the self-build process I’m now more aware of elements that could have gone wrong! But they didn’t and there would have been no point in employing an architect if we hadn’t taken the expert advice. Equally, all of the many decisions we had to make and that my wife and I argued, disagreed, agreed and compromised over have turned out really well.

“We are not serial self-builders. This house is designed to meet our future needs and we decided before starting the build that this was a place to spend the rest of our days – and so we shall! My advice is to know your limitations. Get an architect and select them with care. Have them with you through the whole build and with luck, the rest will take care of itself!”

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