19 Aug 2022

A Home Fit for an Architect

From the heavily-insulated, suspended ground-floor slab to the wildflower meadow growing on the roof, the new home that Alison Mottram, Principal Architect at SISCO Architecture, has designed for her family can be seen as an exemplar of sustainability and energy efficiency.


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As an Architect and an advocate of contemporary design, Alison’s long-held ambition was always to build her own home. So, when the opportunity arose to build upon a greenfield site on the outskirts of a rural community called Easton, she embarked on the design and build of ‘The Meadow’. Here, Alison answers a few quick-fire questions about the project from our Editor, Rebecca Kemp.

RK: How did you approach finalising your design brief?
AM: We knew we wanted a home that would hopefully be our ‘last’, so we won’t have to move as we get older. Therefore, we made sure there was a downstairs bedroom and en-suite and space for a lift installation later.

RK: Did your project need to cater for any special requirements?
AM: No, not really. Although the downstairs bedroom was important to accommodate my husband, Phil’s, elderly mother, who we were keen to have come to stay.

RK: How and why did you choose this plot?
AM: The land owner had received planning in principle in early 2019, which, at the time, was a very new type of permission to build. Being so new, selling agents didn’t recognise it as permission and advised him to get the ‘technical details consent’, which was the next approval stage. He called my practice to enquire if we could do this for him, and we gave him a fee, which he accepted. So, not having visited the site before quoting for the job, I decided to travel to Easton to have a look. When I got there, I was blown away by how amazing it was. ‘The view’ over the field towards the church was mind-blowing, and I knew immediately that this was the site I had been looking for. I phoned Phil and said: "You’ve got to come and look at this site." He did, and like me, he knew it was the location for us.

RK: How long did it take to gain planning permission?
AM: We purchased the site in August 2019 and submitted the technical details application at the beginning of October 2019. We received our permission in February 2020. Thankfully, the local authority, planning department and planning committee loved the design. The planner recommended approval, and the committee approved it unanimously. Contrary to what most laypeople think, planners like innovative, contemporary design.

RK: Were there any challenging aspects to the project and build?
AM: I had decided that a timber frame would be the best option to achieve as high energy efficiency and airtightness as possible. Unfortunately, the structural engineers appointed to do the structural design were not as experienced as they should have been in detailing the steelwork necessary for my design concept. Therefore, the steelwork for the balconies was inadequate and had too much movement to be safe. This resulted in all the steelwork being re-designed and replaced – thankfully, not at our cost. It did cost us about a month of time though, which was frustrating.

RK: Did you project manage the build yourself?
AM: Not initially, as I appointed a builder I had worked with in the past. However, I soon realised he didn’t really have a clear understanding of the project/drawings and was relying on me more than I had expected. I soon realised that I should just do it myself.

RK: How did you approach material and product specification?
AM: As an architect, I have ideas about what I like and dislike. So, the choices I made were based on my experience.

RK: How does the property respond to passive house principles?
AM: We took the passive house principles as far as we could, but our budget meant that an entirely passive house build would not have been achievable. We earned an A rating for energy efficiency, which was our goal.

RK: How long did the project take?
AM: We were on site for 14 months, and we predicted 12. Considering our build took place during a pandemic where at times, some of the workforces were self-isolating after catching COVID, we think this is pretty impressive.

RK: Did you remain within the original budget?
AM: We were on budget. Again, I’m really proud of this. Whilst at work, I tell my clients not to change their minds during the build; otherwise, unforeseen costs will occur. So, the rule I adhered to was to make up my mind about what I wanted and stick to it. I also had all my prices sorted before we started building, so the spreadsheet of predicted costs was pretty accurate.

RK: Please provide an overview of the interior and exterior space.
AM: The house’s exterior comprises three interlinking ‘boxes’ of brick, zinc and larch timber. The roof is flat, which enables it to sit low on the site compared to how it would if it had a pitched roof. The colours, buff and soft greys, were chosen as they are not harsh or bold, so everything fits in well in its rural location.

RK: What does the local community think of the new property?
AM: Being contemporary and ‘different,’ the house has received mixed views. I would say most people absolutely love it and tell us so. However, a few would have preferred something that ‘fitted in’. We didn’t build it for anyone else, though. We made it for ourselves, and we absolutely love it – not a day goes by without us telling each other!

RK: What was your vision for the exterior/landscaping?
AM: We have called the house ‘The Meadow’ as the site is quite big and much larger than any other home we have ever owned. We knew we wanted a huge area of wildflower meadow, having seen the wildflower turf installation at the Olympic Park in 2012, which was simply stunning. The fantastic thing about wildflower turf is that it changes through the seasons and only has to be cut once a year, making it very low maintenance.

RK: How did you decide which plants to use?
AM: I did have an idea of what I wanted and passed this on to our landscape designer, who came up with a planting plan which we adhered to about 50%

RK: How does the garden respond to the surrounding landscape?
AM: Very well, we now have three areas of wildflowers at the bottom of the garden, the front under the hedge and the side of the house. As the house is adjacent to a field at the centre of the village, which has a variety of wildflowers, it fits into the landscape very well.

RK: Have you incorporated any exterior furniture, flooring, sculptures or water features?
AM: We have a wonderful David Harber ‘Torus’ sculpture in the garden. We bought this direct through his website. He always has a stand at Chelsea Flower Show, where we have been now several times. His sculptures are often incorporated in the show gardens at the show, and this is where I first saw his work.

Determined to keep the supply chain as local as possible, Alison looked to English Brothers Structures in nearby Wisbech to supply and erect the closed panel timber frame exceeding Part L requirements. Heavy-duty timber girders also support the flat roof with its 5.4kW array of PV panels amidst the swaying meadow grasses. Just to ensure none of the sun’s energy goes to waste, Alison’s engineer husband, Phil, decided to buy a Tesla Powerwall with 13.5kW/hr battery storage capacity, which will keep the LED lighting and low-energy appliances running for a good while. However, maintaining a hot water supply for a 277m2 home with four bathrooms – plus heating in the colder months – also required an integrated approach to the mechanical services.

“Although we were looking to use as many local suppliers as possible, our plumber, Adam Buckingham, suggested consulting OMNIE in Exeter because of his previous positive experiences working with the company,” explains Alison. “Basically, OMNIE specified the entire system from the 9kW LV heat pump, with their Staple underfloor heating system installed across the entire ground floor, which is split between a polished concrete floor in the main kitchen-living area and engineered wood for the other rooms. Then, upstairs, the UFH switches to OMNIE’s LowBoard system while the Zehnder MVHR system is installed in the smaller of our two plant rooms: the main one downstairs, where the 300-litre hot water cylinder and the indoor unit for the heat pump are located.” The MVHR extracts from the ‘wet areas’ like the kitchen, utility, bathrooms and the plant rooms, then feeds tempered fresh air to the living spaces and bedrooms.

Reflecting on the project’s success, Alison concludes: “We have been delighted with the real-time data we see on the house’s energy performance, including the energy we are taking in from the sun as well as the water and room temperatures that are being maintained. Since understanding the OMNIE range and the detailed specification service they offer, we have decided to specify the company’s underfloor heating systems and other ranges for several clients. From an architect’s point of view, it is so useful to have a supplier who will provide all the necessary information before an order is placed so you can weigh the benefits. We want to include all that information in our tenders, but many companies do not want to take that risk.”

The compact and very quiet running LV heat pump is located on a side wall of the house, close to the ground-floor plant room, with the main controller also wall mounted nearby. Alison is further using the OMNIE app, which is compatible with iPhones and other devices, offering precise monitoring and control of the various room spaces.

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