Peter Roberts packs a lot into his life, and it’s easy to see why he never previously had enough time to fulfil his dream of building an energy-efficient, eco-friendly house. “By the time I was 15 years old I had a pretty clear idea about what I wanted to do as a career, and then it was a question of getting the skills to do it,” he explains. “I’m 58 now, and it’s taken me this long to get around to building my own home simply because I was too busy with other things.”
This is no feeble excuse. Peter was at the time Professor of Regional Planning at the University of Liverpool (he is now Professor of Sustainable Spatial Development at the University of Leeds) and he also chairs the Academy for Sustainable Communities — part of the Government’s drive to create local communities fit for the 21st century. Awarded an OBE in 2004 for services to regeneration and urban and regional planning, he has written a number of books and is involved with numerous associations. With such a background Peter found it impossible to live in a standard house without making certain adjustments, including fitting solar hot water panels to the roof and eliminating draughts — simple measures which helped to reduce his previous home’s energy consumption by around 20%.
Despite this success he was itching to put his knowledge to the test by building from scratch, and was lucky enough to already own a plot in the form of the large garden to his village home in West Yorkshire. “There were problems getting access to the site,” he says, “and we had to work out a solution which involved slicing about one metre off the garage attached to the existing house, which then gave us a driveway down to the new property. Apart from that there were no real planning issues at all, and the vast majority of people were very supportive and positive.”
Peter used basic principles to design a house for the site, but was careful to avoid what he viewed as expensive options like geothermal heating. He gave his rough sketches to an architectural technician to convert into a final set of drawings, basing the dimensions on those of a typical Pennine upland barn.
The new stone-faced house has been designed to suit its location, and is not a daring architectural statement but a simple two bedroom home for Peter and his wife, Jo, designed to maximise passive solar gain from the sun and built using environmentally kind products right down to the water-based paints and timber kitchen units.
“I like to sum up the house with the term ‘eco-eco’: economically viable and ecologically responsible,” Peter explains. “It’s a very subtle balance and one that is often ignored by volume housebuilders, who prefer to stick to the same designs and standard layouts in order to save money. Thinking about the site and its orientation is the first step to designing an energy-efficient property, because heat from the sun can play such an important role if north-facing walls are minimally glazed and the majority of glazing faces somewhere between south-west and south-east. We live in a hilly area, and making use of natural hollows in the land to form a protective wind-break is another way that a site can work for rather than against you — it just takes a little thought.”
The Roberts decided to build using a highly insulated 140mm timber frame, creating an airtight shell which has doubled Building Regulations requirements. Keen to use local labour and materials, they found EcoHomes Ltd, based in Brighouse, West Yorkshire, who constructs energy-efficient and environmentally friendly timber frame houses.
“It was a pleasant surprise to find a company based just a few miles away,” says Jo, a retired palliative care nurse. Building work began in November 2004, when a garage was constructed on the site to store materials, and the house itself took just under six months to complete, partly due to the fact that the timber frame panels were fabricated off site and erected in a matter of days prior to being glazed and insulated.
“We wanted the roof to be covered with Yorkshire stone slate, but it costs a fortune and is difficult to make airtight. A local firm manufactures reproduction stone slates which were approved by the local authority, and it’s virtually impossible to tell the artificial product from the real thing,” says Peter.
The couple have tried to use natural materials, and specified creamy-yellow semi-random sandstone to clad the external walls. They used reclaimed beams above the double-sided brick fireplace which stands between the sitting room and the dining hall and houses a solid-fuel stove. Softwood timber window frames were stained using a solvent-free product, all of the sustainable hardwood joinery was made by a local craftsman and the kitchen units are solid wood.
The property is quite low and the gallery space set into the roof accommodates the master bedroom, en suite and a study. Downstairs, the entrance/dining hall is overlooked by the gallery, with glazing and roof windows drawing heat into this central double-height ‘heat well’, where stable, engineered oak flooring has been laid over the zoned underfloor heating. There is another study on the ground floor, a sitting room, kitchen, utility and en suite guest bedroom.
Every last detail of the building has been specified to ensure that the Roberts’ house is as environmentally friendly as possible. Heat from the sun is harnessed via solar hot water panels on the roof, and a mechanical ventilation heat-recovery system extracts warmth from stale, moist air in the wet rooms and uses it to prewarm fresh air which is introduced into the living areas and bedrooms. “It consumes barely any energy and costs about £10 a year to run,” says Peter, who predicts that the new house will cut their energy bills by 60% when compared to their former home.
“Jo and I wanted to fund this project ourselves,” continues Peter, “and once we sell our old house, we’ll be mortgage-free. It’s been a fascinating experience and one that was definitely worth waiting for.”
Building in Your Garden
Officially classed as ‘brownfield’ land, garden plots have recently been the subject of much controversy, with those who build on them accused of ‘garden grabbing’. However, most of the hostility is aimed towards mass-developers that squeeze as many houses as possible onto one plot, as opposed to those creating one-off homes. In April 2009 the Conservatives announced that if they came into power at the next election they would change the automatic status given to gardens as ‘brownfield’, thus making it harder for self-builders to develop. As the law currently stands, the plot must lie within a defined settlement boundary, so check the Local Plan. Both the original and the new house must have adequate garden space, decent access and create no loss of privacy for neighbours. If you build in your own garden then sell off your current home to relocate to the new house, you do not have to pay Capital Gains Tax as you are selling your Principal Private Residence.