MAY / JUNE 2017: PRIORITIES, COMPROMISES, DECISIONS.

When it comes down to it, what really matters?  Priorities, and deciding where these can be compromised, playing one off against the other, is a big part of the design process.  Even if there was a generous amount of money (which there isn’t), there would be constraints to shape the design of the house.  When money, and therefore internal space is tight, the exercise becomes one of making that space work really well, and if something isn’t working, maybe it has to be discarded.  Every now and then the process brings about an inspired ‘light bulb’ moment when the constraints result in something special that will make a real difference to the space inside the house; like a glass balustrade linking upstairs with downstairs.

The list of essentials I gave to Steve Mason, of SRM Building Design were;

  • A small, two bedroomed, one and a half storey house with a floor area of between 75 and 80 sq.m. requiring a very low input of energy; as near to Passivhaus standard as possible within the cost constraints, highly insulated in an airtight timber frame structure with mechanical ventilation with heat recovery (MVHR).
  • The interior to be light and airy, well connected to the surrounding garden spaces.  Living, cooking and eating spaces to be open plan to give a feeling of spaciousness.
  • Views northwards up the valley of the Water of Fleet towards Kenlum Hill are visible from the first floor of the house.
  • The living space should accommodate my weaving floor loom; a significant bit of furniture 1.25m wide and 1.6m long, with working space needed around it.
  • A utility space with storage for a bicycle (hanging vertically), washer, freezer and muddy boots.
  • Porch space (unheated, and not insulated, to save on costs) as a place to unload before entering the house proper.

Several versions of plans for a small house went back and forth, with scribbles and alternatives on tracing paper.  The loom made a tour of the house; starting in the living room, then having a small garden room to itself, before it became clear that it really didn’t fit anywhere in the living space and that part of the brief had to change – compromise number one!  Its final position is on an enlarged landing which forms a gallery overlooking the living space.

sketch 2

Early version

After several iterations the floor area had crept up – while we weren’t looking, I think, so a pruning exercise followed.  Several tweaks brought the internal floor area closer to the target of 80 sq.m.

sketch 1

Evidence of much discussion!

The need to provide a room useable as a bedroom and bathroom on the ground floor means that an upstairs bathroom can be reduced to just a toilet and handbasin to reduce floor area.  Access to the utility room is provided from a glazed porch running along the northern elevation, allowing less circulation space in the hallway.

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Ground floor plan

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First floor plan

The house will be heated mainly by solar heat gain through south facing windows; windows on the other elevations are limited to the area needed for adequate internal daylight levels.  All windows and doors will be energy efficient, triple glazed, timber framed, with aluminium cladding if the budget will stretch to it.  Projecting eaves will shade the windows from sunlight in summer while the sun is high to help reduce the risk of overheating, while allowing sunlight and heat to enter the building in winter.  A pergola structure clad with deciduous climbing plants along the southern elevation will also help reduce summer overheating.

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Garden elevation

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Side elevation

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Site plan

Eden Insulations will manufacture the timber frame in their factory in Appleby, with 300mm wide ‘I’ beams forming voids which will be filled with recycled cellulose insulation, contained by specialised boards and membranes inside and out to control vapour and air movement, the whole thing carefully taped up with very strong and very sticky tapes.

The Green Building Store will provide the design and installation of the MVHR system, slotting ducts through the building to collect warm, stale air from kitchen and bathroom areas to be removed from the building.  The heat from this air is recovered and added to fresh incoming air which is delivered to the living and bedroom areas.  A summer bypass allows cool air to be drawn in during the night to cool the house during warm weather.  The house will have no central heating system or other source of heat other than a small wood burner for very cold, overcast days.  All the sophisticated calculations say that it will work, and keep me warm and cool when needed – it has worked for decades in Germany and other countries, so there shouldn’t be any need to worry it won’t work in Gatehouse.  As they say, the proof of the pudding …

Plans are now ready to submit to Dumfries and Galloway planners for approval, and building

contractors are being sought …

In the meantime I continue to dream about the garden; more on that next time.

Starting out

APRIL 2017

Why build a new house; it looks like a lot of unnecessary bother.  Why not just buy one that’s already there?  Questions answered to myself many times over many years; developers don’t build beautiful, small houses the right size for one moderately creative person, much less with a good sized garden.  Existing small houses (or any sized houses for that matter) are generally lamentably inefficient in their energy needs; not enough insulation, leaking warm air from all their numerous gaps and not taking advantage of all that free heat from the sun; and all of these deficiencies difficult and expensive to remedy.  So the ambition to build a small, energy efficient and perfectly formed house for myself has been around for practically decades.

Why Scotland?  It’s always attracted me; politically slightly more left leaning than England, a strong sense of it’s own identity, great scenery, the best access to land for walking and cycling in the UK, and weather (mostly) not as bad as reputed, as well as family members living there.  Met Office records give a detailed picture of the regional variations, showing significant parts enjoying less rain and more sunshine than Kendal, Cumbria (which, it has to be said, is not difficult).

So here I am, the proud owner (or more accurately guardian / custodian / safe keeper, as it’ll be around long after I’m gone) of around 770 square metres of land on the northern edge of Gatehouse of Fleet, Dumfries and Galloway, near the coast between Kirkcudbright and Newton Stewart, with permission to build a house on it.  The view up the valley of Water of Fleet is lovely, there will be walks from the doorstep, and the sea is not so far away.  Memory Lane, the road is called, which makes me wonder what memories will be made there.  The house will be small; around 80 square metres in total, and the finance available is also small – the aim is to build it for £100,000.  So it will need the creative use of inexpensive materials and modest ambitions; not a big problem, as I’ve never wanted a fancy kitchen or a roll top bath, and if I haven’t got much storage space then I just need to get rid of some stuff.

There are all sort of reasons to keep a blog recording the adventure – to let friends and family know how things are going, for myself to look back at when it seems that nothing is moving forward, or when it’s finished and I’ve forgotten all the trials and tribulations, to show that lovely, light, warm, small houses can be built for reasonable costs; a ‘not very Grand Design’.  The aim is to make monthly updates as regularly as possible.

The first proper site visit brought a nice surprise; the soils samples were nice sandy loam with few stones (at least in the six holes I dug).  On the acidic side, so a new experience as I’ve only made gardens on alkaline soils.  I expected heavy glacial clay needing much cosseting and lots of grit and organic material, but no, ideal soil for growing food is what I have; a great start.  Next will be a planning permission for what I want to build, rather than what is permitted under the current consent.

So it’s all systems go at last; which feels amazing after all the years to trying to get this project going – but also daunting, exciting, and sometimes (usually in the middle of the night) overwhelming.  But as someone once said, ‘onwards and upwards’ is the only way to go, and taking one step at a time is the only way to get to where you want to be.

Panorama S small

Starting out

APRIL 2017: STARTING OUT

Why build a new house; it looks like a lot of unnecessary bother.  Why not just buy one that’s already there?  Questions answered to myself many times over many years; developers don’t build beautiful, small houses the right size for one moderately creative person, much less with a good sized garden.  Existing small houses (or any sized houses for that matter) are generally lamentably inefficient in their energy needs; not enough insulation, leaking warm air from all their numerous gaps and not taking advantage of all that free heat from the sun; and all of these deficiencies difficult and expensive to remedy.  So the ambition to build a small, energy efficient and perfectly formed house for myself has been around for practically decades.

Why Scotland?  It’s always attracted me; politically slightly more left leaning than England, a strong sense of it’s own identity, great scenery, the best access to land for walking and cycling in the UK, and weather (mostly) not as bad as reputed, as well as family members living there.  Met Office records give a detailed picture of the regional variations, showing significant parts enjoying less rain and more sunshine than Kendal, Cumbria (which, it has to be said, is not difficult).

So here I am, the proud owner (or more accurately guardian / custodian / safe keeper, as it’ll be around long after I’m gone) of around 770 square metres of land on the northern edge of Gatehouse of Fleet, Dumfries and Galloway, near the coast between Kirkcudbright and Newton Stewart, with permission to build a house on it.  The view up the valley of Water of Fleet is lovely, there will be walks from the doorstep, and the sea is not so far away.  Memory Lane, the road is called, which makes me wonder what memories will be made there.  The house will be small; around 75 to 80 square metres in total, and the finance available is also small – the aim is to build it for £100,000.  So it will need the creative use of inexpensive materials and modest ambitions; not a big problem, as I’ve never wanted a fancy kitchen or a roll top bath, and if I haven’t got much storage space then I need to get rid of some stuff.

There are all sort of reasons to keep a blog recording the adventure – to let friends and family know how things are going, for myself to look back at when it seems that nothing is moving forward, or when it’s finished and I’ve forgotten all the trials and tribulations, to show that lovely, light, warm, small houses can be built for reasonable costs; a ‘not very Grand Design’.  The aim is to make monthly updates as regularly as possible.

The first proper site visit brought a nice surprise; the soils samples were nice sandy loam with few stones (at least in the six holes I dug).  I expected heavy glacial clay needing much cosseting and lots of grit and organic material, but no, ideal soil for growing food is what I have; a great start.  Next will be a planning permission for what I want to build, rather than what is permitted under the current consent.

So it’s all systems go at last; which feels amazing after all the years to trying to get this project going – but also daunting, exciting, and sometimes (usually in the middle of the night) overwhelming.  But as someone once said, ‘onwards and upwards’ is the only way to go, and taking one step at a time is the only way to get to where you want to be.