06 Jul 2021

10 Things Every Self-builder Wished They Knew Before Embarking On a Pre-fabricated House-building Journey

In the first lockdown, “the entire planet” spent 35% more time at home (Al Jazeera News). One result was that we gained a better understanding of what we want and need from our homes. As things begin to settle, many people seek to move to a forever home, and many want to build one. We asked the team at Kiss House to tell us 10 things self-builders wished they had known before embarking on a pre-fabricated house-building journey.

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1. Joined up thinking in the design process results in a better design and a better home
Getting your design right at the start is crucial to getting the home you want. Look for an experienced, multidisciplinary team with expertise in the areas that are most important to you. For example, if you want a Passivhaus, make sure the team has done it before and aren’t cutting their teeth on your project. When it comes to prefabricated buildings, you need to make sure that the design and delivery process are fully aligned. Ensure that the manufacture and build process is worked through by your team during the design process, so that what is designed can be delivered without compromise. This will result in a better quality outcome and will avoid problems.

2. Turnkey may not mean ‘turnkey’!
Turnkey, by definition, is “a home where you can turn your key in the lock and move right in” (Cambridge Dictionary). It is therefore understandable that people opt for turnkey services expecting them to include everything. However, many turnkey offers do not, by any means, include everything.

Exclusions can be numerous and discovering that essential items aren’t included will add significant extra cost when you’re well into a project. Most turnkey offers do not include planning and other fundamentals like groundworks, and some can exclude items like stairs and kitchens. Always check exactly what you are getting, scrutinise the small print, and if something is important to you, make sure it is specified.

3. Some building systems are better than others
The quality of build influences the quality of our living experience. Building systems play a key role in determining the comfort, health and energy efficiency of a home. Still, often they are not given adequate consideration because self-builders don’t understand the differences. Some building systems have integrity and are built to last, whereas others don’t. A focus on low cost in the short term never pays off. A 10-year warranty is not enough. Consider what materials are being used, the embodied carbon, adaptability and overheating.

4. Fabric should always come first
It is important to build smart, and getting the building fabric right is fundamental to achieving a high-quality outcome. If your budget is tight, never forget that kitchens and gadgets can be added to and upgraded later if necessary, but it is not nearly so easy to rebuild your walls and relay your slab. Focusing on high-quality materials, exquisite joints and junctions, insulation and air-tightness is always worthwhile. Ask your team how they work, speak to those they’ve worked for in the past and ask them about what it is like to live there – is the house draughty and dusty? Are there cold spots? Any signs of damp or other problems.

5. ‘Greensheen’ is misleading
Always question what terms such as eco-home, environmentally friendly, green design, thermally efficient and sustainable really mean. It is not uncommon for unsuspecting consumers to be misled by unclear information designed to present products as environmentally responsible without any specific data or evidence to back the claims up. Quality standards are essential, and terms like those above are very vague. A good rule of thumb is only to accept claims backed by facts or specific and measurable standards.

For an objective and measurable quality standard, look for Passivhaus, the international gold standard of building. If a building is ‘built to Passivhaus’ but not certified, it is not Passivhaus. There is zero guarantee that it has been through the meticulous planning, modelling and testing process required to achieve certification. Without certification, there is no guarantee that the building will perform as well as a Passivhaus, meaning the comfort and energy efficiency is not guaranteed either. Ask searching questions and request evidence to back up vague claims.

6. Passivhaus buildings are exceptional
Many people discover Passivhaus towards the end of their self-build journey and wish they’d known about it sooner. Passivhaus buildings are guaranteed to provide optimal occupant comfort with clean air, a constant ambient temperature year-round, little heat requirement etc. The best way to achieve Passivhaus is to work with an experienced Passivhaus designer from the outset so you can avoid the time delays and additional costs of having to revisit and rework your design and specification, or worse, still have to review planning!

According to Lloyd Alter, Design Editor for Treehugger: “The three most important things about passive houses are comfort, comfort and comfort,” because, “they are really comfortable to live in.” The Passivhaus Trust says: “Passivhaus buildings achieve a 75% reduction in space heating requirements, compared to standard practice for UK new build, as they use very little energy for heating and cooling.” Passivhaus can reduce heating bills to less than £10 a month.

7. The embodied carbon of the materials used makes a huge difference to your environmental impact According to the Architects Climate Action Network (ACAN): “Embodied carbon emissions account for up to 75% of a building’s total emissions over its lifespan.” There is enormous potential to displace high embodied carbon content products (steel and concrete) in the buildings we live in by using materials with low carbon values. Bio-based materials such as timber are high performing, less damaging to the environment and create a healthier living environment.

There are substantial health benefits to using timber in your project. Wood for Good lists numerous studies that demonstrate how timber reduces stress levels, lowers blood pressure and heart rate. Not only that but: “cognitive abilities (have been shown to) increase by 61% in green building(s)”. If you build better, you can live better and reduce your environmental impact. Ask your team about the embodied carbon in your designs, get the calculations and challenge them to do better if necessary.

8. It is possible to build healthy buildings
According to the Good Homes Alliance, poor quality in new housing, such as inadequate ventilation, cold and damp spots, poor soundproofing etc., is bad for your health and costs the NHS an additional £1.4 to £2bn per year. Damp causes mould, and humidity causes dust that can trigger nasal congestion, wheezing, chest tightness, coughing, throat irritation and asthma. A good living environment is key to a healthy home. Passivhaus homes are the healthiest homes to live in and should be considered by anyone looking to build a healthy living environment.

Many people report that living in a Passivhaus benefits their sleep, lowers symptoms of chronic pain and asthma and reduces allergies. Consider the air quality in your build, get advice from your team about air filtration and mechanical ventilation and heat recovery. You won’t regret it.

9. Buildings have internal climates (all that glass can comes at a high price to your comfort!)
We all know about the hot and cold spots in our homes – the cosy corners you want to curl up in versus the dark and chilly corridors or rooms you’d rather avoid. Our thermal comfort is affected by the orientation of our homes, the outside shading, where the sun comes up and goes down, plus the amount and quality of glazing.

Many self-builders are seduced by fully-glazed elevations, and architects can get carried away with large-scale glazing to achieve a modernist look with plenty of natural light inside. However, you should always proceed with caution because there is always a price to pay, and no one wants to live in a greenhouse. A space filled with natural light and sunshine is a wonderful thing, but not if, at times, it is unbearable. Likewise, having to close out the light with blinds defeats the object.

Too much glass leads to overheating and glare which is a bad thing. Think about an optimised glazing ratio. Do not use too much or too little glazing. Think about the positioning of your windowsills to avoid overheating.

A constant, ambient temperature year-round, whatever the weather outdoors is possible. It takes planning and great design and is embedded in achieving the Passivhaus standard. Imagine never being too hot or too cold, no nasty shocks to the system as your toes touch a cold floor and cool air prickles your skin. Always prioritise your comfort in your self-build project. There’s no point in having a beautiful home that’s uncomfortable to live in.

10. The way we occupy our homes is changing
The pandemic has meant we’re spending more time at home doing a greater mix of activities (often at the same time). Think about the peak of lockdown when we might have had homeschooling alongside work meetings. Our spaces need to be flexible, and the trend towards open-plan living may not always work in the future. Building in flexibility is one way of future-proofing our homes. Likewise, if you are thinking of building your forever home, it’s worth considering if it will enable one-storey living and wheelchair access. Scrutinise layouts, think about your life’s practicalities and requirements, and the activities that are important to you now, plus how this might change in the future.

Conclusion
Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes the home as: “A kingdom of its own in the midst of the world, a stronghold amid life’s storms and stresses, a refuge, even a sanctuary.” We hope you found our 10 points helpful. At Kiss House, we aim to consider all of these factors and more as we seek to pre-empt occupant needs. Our offer is end-to-end, or you could say truly ‘turnkey’, and is delivered via a process that aims to take care of everything to eliminate stress and uncertainty wherever possible. Self-building is not for the faint-hearted, but for those who embark, the rewards can manifest.

We’ve developed lots of resources, including factsheets and a list of free online resources in the sustainable built environment should they be of interest. If you’d like further info on what we do, you can visit our website below.

Further information....

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