A les­son in sus­tain­abil­ity

Ar­chi­tect Ian Arm­strong spe­cialises in build­ing en­er­gy­ef­fi­cient homes for his clients, but had to put his skills to the test when cre­at­ing his own con­tem­po­rary abode in Corn­wall

Build It - - EDITOR’S LETTER - WORDS RE­BECCA FOS­TER PHO­TOS PAUL RYAN-GOFF

De­spite his strong back­ground in de­sign­ing en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly prop­er­ties, pro­fes­sional ar­chi­tect Ian Arm­strong still found con­struct­ing his first fam­ily home a chal­lenge

Ar­chi­tect Ian Arm­strong had long dreamt of un­der­tak­ing his own self build. In 2010, af­ter a four-year search for the per­fect plot, an op­por­tu­nity fi­nally arose for Ian and his wife Lisa to re­alise their vi­sion. How­ever, Ian wasn’t im­me­di­ately gripped with ex­cite­ment at the prospect of tack­ling his own project. “It felt like some­one else’s scheme,” he says. “Be­cause I do this day-in, day-out for clients at the prac­tice, Arco2 Sus­tain­able Ar­chi­tec­ture, it wasn’t un­til I moved in that it re­ally hit me.”

For Ian, track­ing down a site in his de­sired area – that also fell into a suit­able price bracket – proved chal­leng­ing. Hav­ing lived and worked in the re­gion for years, he didn’t hes­i­tate when a semi-ru­ral plot with out­line plan­ning per­mis­sion for two new houses came onto the mar­ket. “e two units were be­ing sold to­gether and the ven­dor didn’t want to break it,” says Ian, who took friend and fel­lowdi­rec­tor of Arco2, Nathan Davis, to have a look. “He didn’t have a clue what was go­ing on un­til we ar­rived. He hadn’t been ac­tively look­ing for a site, but he wanted to self build – so we went for it.”

A fit­ting de­sign

e ex­ist­ing plan­ning con­sent was for two fairly un­re­mark­able, tra­di­tional-look­ing houses. How­ever, Ian soon set about tweak­ing the orig­i­nal pro­posal into some­thing with greater vis­ual ap­peal that re­sponded to his own brief, as well as the unique char­ac­ter­is­tics of the site. “Fam­ily and friends of­ten say to me that de­sign­ing the house must have been an in­ter­est­ing process, in­volv­ing an amal­ga­ma­tion of dif­fer­ent aes­thetic el­e­ments I’d seen and liked over the years. But ac­tu­ally, it doesn’t work like that,” he says. “e aim of any de­sign is

for the build­ing to be­long to its site. I an­a­lysed the views, the sun’s path, wind di­rec­tion and trees be­fore cre­at­ing the plans.”

As such, the house’s strik­ing, con­tem­po­rary form re­sponds largely to the plot’s tri­an­gu­lar shape. e ground floor re­lates to this three-

‘‘ Fin­ish­ing the house was prob­a­bly the best part of the whole process. I’ve got my week­ends back now, fam­ily’’ and I can en­joy spend­ing more time with the

sided foot­print, while the up­per-level twists above it to cre­ate a par­tially can­tilevered storey. “e ro­tated first floor was be­cause I wanted a roof fac­ing due south for so­lar pho­to­voltaics,” says Ian. “Nathan is self build­ing next door, so fo­cus­ing the view from the top floor into our back gar­den also cre­ated more pri­vacy.”

An in­te­rior lay­out fit­ting the Arm­strongs’ life­style was also a key part of the brief. “We’ve got two chil­dren, so it was im­por­tant to fac­tor in where we spend most of our time as a fam­ily. We’re not huge cooks, so the lounge be­came the heart of the home,” says Ian.

Smooth sail­ing

While nav­i­gat­ing the plan­ning process throws up chal­lenges for plenty of self builders, Ian’s project was given the green light with­out any is­sues. In fact, he in­tro­duced the scheme to the par­ish coun­cil by pre­sent­ing them with a model of the house he’d crafted him­self. “I had 3D vi­su­als, draw­ings and other prece­dent build­ings that Arco2 has done in the past,” he says. Ian also be­lieves his care­ful, sus­tain­able ap­proach to the build helped him win favour with the plan­ners. “I was able to talk with con­vic­tion about what I was do­ing and the rea­sons be­hind my choices. e lo­cal of­fi­cers are also fa­mil­iar with the prac­tice’s other work, which helped,” he says.

Ian’s sus­tain­able strat­egy for the build was a key com­po­nent of the project ob­jec­tives. “Build­ing en­ergy-ef­fi­cient homes is what Arco2 spe­cialises in as a prac­tice, so if I didn’t achieve some­thing that per­formed well on this front, I’d have missed the mark,” he says. Ian be­gan with a fab­ric first ap­proach, pri­ori­tis­ing air­tight­ness. In fact, although the house isn’t a cer­ti­fied Pas­sivhaus, it was con­structed to meet these high stan­dards of per­for­mance. e prop­erty fea­tures a ma­sonry sec­tion that was de­signed to pro­vide good ther­mal mass.

is zone stores heat through­out the day and dis­places it to the rest of the build­ing over a longer pe­riod. e rest of the house was con­structed us­ing a tim­ber frame. “Us­ing this sys­tem en­abled me to set the two struc­tures apart to get as much in­su­la­tion as I wanted into the walls,” says Ian. “e void be­tween them is 400mm in to­tal, filled with a ther­mally pro­tec­tive layer of sheep’s wool. An­other ben­e­fit of this setup is that be­cause the two frames aren’t con­nected, it stops ther­mal bridg­ing.”

As well as tak­ing a fab­ric first ap­proach to the construction, Ian also gave plenty of thought to how the build­ing would utilise en­ergy. “e house was de­signed so it earns us money to live there,” he says. A 6kw so­lar

PV ar­ray has been in­stalled on the roof to gen­er­ate elec­tric­ity, and the cou­ple re­ceive cash­back pay­ments from the gov­ern­ment’s Feedin-tar­iff. e elec­tric­ity the pan­els cre­ate is used to power an air source heat pump, which gen­er­ates warmth for the home’s cen­tral heat­ing sys­tem. As a re­sult, Ian is able to take ad­van­tage of sub­si­dies from the Re­new­able Heat In­cen­tive scheme (RHI), too. “When I com­pare the elec­tri­cal con­sump­tion me­ter to the gen­er­a­tion one, they’re at a sim­i­lar level. at tells me that our home’s en­ergy us­age bal­ances out,” he says. “e prop­erty has ac­tu­ally achieved the high­est En­ergy Per­for­mance Cer­tifi­cate rat­ing in Corn­wall as far as we and build­ing con­trol are aware. It’s some­thing to be proud of.”

A rain­wa­ter har­vest­ing sys­tem has also been in­stalled. “ere’s no bet­ter feel­ing than flush­ing the toi­lets and do­ing your wash­ing with rain­wa­ter that’s essen­tially free,” says Ian.

Hands-on ap­proach

In April 2013, the project fi­nally got out of the ground. Keen to keep labour costs to a min­i­mum, Ian did as much of the construction work as he could, with the help of fa­ther-in-law Char­lie. “For ar­eas that were more spe­cial­ist, I did bring pro­fes­sional trades in, but it was Char­lie and I who did the lion’s share” says Ian. “He de­serves a huge credit – he’s still help­ing me out with some of the landscaping at the week­ends. I think he se­cretly loves it.”

For Ian, one of the big­gest chal­lenges of the construction process was be­ing avail­able to be on site as well as run­ning Arco2. “I wanted to be able to spend time build­ing, but my only real win­dows were early in the morn­ing, late at night or at week­ends,” he says. “e project has taken up ba­si­cally all my free time for three years, so I

sup­pose one of my big­gest re­grets would be not hav­ing had the time to de­vote to my young chil­dren.” De­spite miss­ing out on fam­ily time, Ian found the construction process ex­tremely sat­is­fy­ing. He picked up some new skills along the jour­ney, too, in­clud­ing stonework and brick­work. Even though he’s not an ex­pert in some of the jobs he tack­led, Ian is pleased with the over­all level of work­man­ship and fin­ish­ing. “I can prob­a­bly look at the build­ing and pick out a few things that aren’t per­fect. For ex­am­ple, the joints of the fas­cia boards might have been done bet­ter by spe­cial­ist car­pen­ters. But I know I’ve done them, I’m happy with them, and if some­one else had done it I wouldn’t have the same sense of sat­is­fac­tion.”

Man­ag­ing money

anks to Ian’s hands-on ap­proach, he main­tained a tight rein on his bud­get. How­ever, there were still a few set­backs that pushed the over­all costs up to £222,000 from the orig­i­nal £200,000 he’d

en­vi­sioned. Not one, but two thefts from the site set the project back in terms of time and money. “e so­lar pan­els on the roof were stolen. ey were up and run­ning, so the peo­ple that stole them were tak­ing their lives into their hands.” Not long after­wards, the on-site stor­age con­tainer got bro­ken into and all of Ian’s tools were nicked, too. “ese hic­cups slowed me down and the de­lays prob­a­bly ended up cost­ing me more in the long run,” he says.

e thefts weren’t the only bud­get set­backs. “With the two new houses that were go­ing to be on the site, the elec­tri­cal de­mand was high and we had to in­stall a trans­former,” Ian says. “So, just get­ting the util­i­ties con­nected cost a lot more than we’d bud­geted for.”

The fin­ished prod­uct

In­side the house, Ian was keen to main­tain a bright and airy feel. To achieve this, he stuck to a min­i­mal colour palette through­out. “All the walls and ceil­ings are white, but I went bold with all the skirt­ings and ar­chi­traves, which are black,” he says. Gloss white kitchen units work in har­mony with con­crete work­tops and floor­ing down­stairs, while an oak en­gi­neered prod­uct has been spec­i­fied as the floor fin­ish up­stairs. “ere’s un­der­floor heat­ing (UFH) down­stairs set di­rectly into the con­crete sur­face, pow­ered by an air source heat pump (ASHP),” says Ian. “Up­stairs we’ve not in­stalled any heat­ing, so I wanted a ma­te­rial that’d be warmer un­der­foot.”

A vi­brant liv­ing roof forms an­other part of the Arm­strongs’ green self build strat­egy.

e se­dum cov­er­ing adds an at­trac­tive vis­ual flour­ish, par­tic­u­larly dur­ing the flow­er­ing sea­son in spring.

e plant­ing blend that Ian spec­i­fied re­quires min­i­mal main­te­nance, and pro­vides an ex­tra layer of in­su­la­tion to pre­vent up heat loss from the house be­low. is el­e­ment also as­sists the drainage of the build­ing by ab­sorb­ing a large amount of rain­fall, there­fore slow­ing the run-off of liq­uid into the house’s gut­ter­ing sys­tem. Fi­nally, it pro­vides an ex­cel­lent new habi­tat for in­sects and but­ter­flies.

A re­ward­ing jour­ney

Now that the house is com­plete, Ian can fi­nally re­lax and en­joy the fruits of his labour. “Fin­ish­ing the house was prob­a­bly the best part of the whole process. I’ve got my week­ends back, and I can en­joy spend­ing more time with the fam­ily,” he says. De­spite all the graft in­volved, Ian has en­joyed a pos­i­tive self build ex­pe­ri­ence. “As an ar­chi­tect, hav­ing that hands-on construction ex­pe­ri­ence is re­ally use­ful. Now I have a full ap­pre­ci­a­tion of how things go to­gether.”

For Ian, an­other high­light has been the chance to teach the kids about sus­tain­abil­ity. “I wanted this to be an ed­u­ca­tion tool to give my son and daugh­ter a bit of a head start,” he says. “ey’ve been en­grossed and re­ally un­der­stand the value of sus­tain­abil­ity and en­ergy – that’s a life les­son they’ll be able to take for­ward.”

The com­bi­na­tion of a glazed floor up­stairs and ten­sion wired balustrade al­lows light to flow through­out the stair­case area

Be­low: The lounge is ori­ented to get the best of the sun through­out the day. It fea­tures a wood­burner which, due to the prop­erty’s ef­fi­cient heat­ing strat­egy, has never been turned on

The dress­ing area in this bed­room is sep­a­rated from its sleep­ing zone thanks to a half height par­ti­tion wall

The glass floor and monochrome palette added some wow fac­tor up­stairs

The un­usual shape of the build­ing has been care­fully planned in or­der to best cap­ture nat­u­ral warmth and en­ergy from day­light

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