19 Feb 2014

Crafting an ecohouse


Every issue i-build follows serial self-builder Will Anderson on his latest project journey as it unfolds. The story starts in a six-metre wide patch of South London mud between two magnificent self-build homes.



Most self-build stories don’t start at the beginning. They begin half way through, at the moment when the months or years of dreaming, planning and research finally begin to take shape on site; the day when the diggers arrive.

This story is no different as the groundworkers will soon be here, churning up the mud. I am nervous but excited and keen to get started. Having made a thousand carefully considered decisions about everything from parquet floors to solar panels, I’m eager to see the house become real, first in concrete, then in timber, brick, tile and glass.

If you want to build a home that you are going to love living in, the first thing to learn is patience. Every step along the way takes time, but it’s time well spent: finding the land, raising the money, designing the house, obtaining planning permission, specifying all the details and components of the building, getting the approval of Building Control, and finding the people to build it. Above all, don’t rush the design and specification. The more time you spend designing, the better the final result will be. The house my partner and I are about to start building is the fourth – and best – design proposed for the site.

We knew it was never going to be easy for our plot sits between two existing self-build homes which are radically different in style. To the left of the site is Tree House, one of the few genuinely ‘zero-carbon’ houses in Britain. I know a lot about this house because I built it a decade ago; you can read the story of its construction in 'Diary of an Eco-Builder' from Green Books. Designed by Peter Smithdale of Constructive Individuals, it is a rather lovely example of organic modernism, drawing on the forms and materials of the natural world. To the right, beyond an intervening garage, is the Slip House, an über-minimalist glass box designed by Carl Turner Architects. Both houses are striking and architecturally distinctive, so our challenge has been to design a building to go between them that stands proud in its own right.

Traditional and horticultural inspirations

We have met this challenge by designing something quite different again. Our principal source of inspiration has been the English Arts and Crafts movement - the creative highpoint of the late Victorian and Edwardian period. The architects of the Arts and Crafts movement shared an approach rather than a singular style: a commitment to craftsmanship and to quality; a love of traditional materials, especially when locally sourced; logical, functional design; and a judicious use of ornament, inspired by nature. The outcome they all sought was utility married to beauty: buildings that worked well and were a delight to inhabit. A century later, this brief still feels like a good place to start.

But don’t write me off as a backward-looking romantic, for the house will also boast an exceptional environmental specification including cutting edge construction methods and technology. A key goal is to drive our heat losses down to the point where almost no active heating is needed in winter - the principal aim of passive house design. We will also be paying close attention to the other key concerns of ecological design including construction materials, water consumption, waste and biodiversity. Above all, we want the house to be a healthy and happy place to inhabit that will be looked after for hundreds of years.

If you are still unimpressed, here’s an additional idea at the heart of the design: we want the house to be edible. Or, more precisely, and to deflect any questions about witches and gingerbread, we want the house to sustain a horticultural ecosystem that will enable us to pick something for breakfast from the walls of the building at any time of year. This ecosystem will include a prominent conservatory, small but intensively planted gardens, warm walls for espaliered trees, rainwater collection, a cool fruit store, and serious composting. Welcome to The Orchard.

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