When Andy and Alison Nicholls first contemplated building their own home they were most definitely more keen than green. “We had no particular interest in saving the planet,” admits Andy. “After years spent living in leaky old properties it was more about keeping warm in winter and avoiding the draughts.”
From this small beginning incredible results have sprung, and the Nicholls are now the proud owners of what claims to be the first ever carbon-positive house to be built in the UK. This claim is based around the fact that the couple’s home locks away more CO2 than was emitted during its construction and manufacture — including transporting the entire building from Germany and even running the house for the first few years.
Type: Kit home
Cost: £625,000 (£2,050/m²)
Build time: 4 months
“We owned a small 1930s holiday bungalow on an exposed village site overlooking the sea near Padstow,” says Alison, “and when our four children grew up and left home we decided to downsize from our Tudor farmhouse in Worcestershire and extend the bungalow to create a permanent home on the coast. Builders’ quotes for the work were around £100,000, which seemed quite high, so we came around to the idea of knocking it down and replacing it with a new blockwork house.”
Once again the Nicholls gathered quotes for the work, but Andy was still not totally comfortable with their plans. “The last thing we wanted was another high-maintenance, draughty building, and as a former timber merchant I have a real passion for wood. Rather than buy a timber frame kit in the UK, though, I decided to research importing one from Germany. I’ve only ever owned three cars in the past 25 years – all Mercedes estates – and I really appreciate the high quality of German workmanship. I figured their houses would probably be the same.”
Andy travelled to Germany to visit several companies specialising in exporting their prefabricated houses abroad, but ultimately chose Baufritz – the German pioneer in ecological timber house construction. This would be the company’s first ever UK house, and managing director and architect, Oliver Rehm, visited the Nicholls’ coastal village site and worked to adapt their original design to suit the modular system.
“We’d already gained planning permission to replace the bungalow with a two storey house, working with a local architect who took on board our ideas for a traditional Cornish cottage style to the front – complete with dormer windows and slate hanging – and a more contemporary rear façade,” says Andy.
With revised planning permission in place it was time to manufacture the various elements of the timber framed house in the German factory, using non-chemically treated building materials, and natural products and building methods. Only the best-quality organically forested larch and spruce wood goes into making a Baufritz home, and the company undertakes extensive tree-planting schemes – promising that, because the materials used are 100% biodegradable, each of their homes can be completely returned to nature in several generations if required.
External walls are 400mm thick and packed with Baufritz’s patented wood shaving insulation, which is proven to be highly thermally efficient. These shavings are made from off-cuts from the manufacturing process and are protected from fire, fungus and pests using a natural treatment made from soda and whey.
The thick walls are breathable, ensuring that condensation is removed from the atmosphere faster than it can be generated, which makes for a comfortable and fresh environment inside the house. Airtightness is a crucial factor in saving energy, and the Nicholls’ home was designed with windows and doors already in place.
The result is an ultra-fast build time. In fact, the entire house shell was craned into place and erected on Andy and Alison’s site in an incredible two and a half days, despite adverse weather conditions with 35-mileper- hour winds, sleet and hail storms.
A further seven weeks saw the interiors fitted out by another team of Baufritz workmen, who tackled the electrics, decorated using non-toxic paints, kitted out bathrooms, laid flooring and generally completed the house ready for the Nichollses to move straight in.
“After so many months of planning it was a fantastic sight to see our new home taking shape literally as we watched,” says Andy, who took on the role of project manager and had organised a Cornish groundworker to demolish the bungalow and dig out the gently sloping sites in readiness for the basement of the house, which was also constructed by a German company.
Problems arose when some of the British workforce clashed with the German crew, however, and Andy was left attempting to calm the men who were trying to work on site together. The language barrier was a major hurdle, and attitudes towards the build differed wildly. “The German workers were astonishingly efficient, and wouldn’t stop for any breaks once they’d eaten breakfast,” Andy continues. “They were also extremely hard on themselves, setting almost unachievable targets each day and becoming quite upset if these weren’t met. Once the groundworks were completed the only British tradesmen we needed to employ were roofers to lay the slates, and this took three months to complete, which was really frustrating. We also chose to use a local company who developed a toxin-free kitchen to suit the ethos of the house, but Baufritz could have supplied that as well if we’d wanted.”
In fact, everything from the high-quality sanitaryware to wall tiles, oak flooring, organic wool carpets and internal doors were all selected during a whistlestop trip to Germany, when the Nicholls spent a frantic two days choosing from the company’s range of options – a process which normally takes far longer but was condensed to suit their needs.
“It was quite stressful making all the decisions in such a short space of time, and then realising that we couldn’t really change our minds, because the next time we saw these things they would be in the UK,” says Alison. “We tried to choose the cheapest of everything because the quality was still absolutely superb!”
Externally, the new house is partially clad in greypainted timber and is tile hung on the front elevation with traditional reclaimed Cornish slate, which Andy provided to ensure that the building sits comfortably in its traditional surroundings. The hipped roof incorporates three dormer windows to the front and one to the rear; painted timber windows are double glazed and the cills are made from powder-coated aluminium.
The 305m² house has a self-contained basement, a sun lounge and an inviting terrace area overlooking the sea, and the combination of a wood stove, Aga, six square metres of solar panels and a borehole providing fresh spring water from beneath the house means that the Nicholls’ utility bills should only total a few hundred pounds every year.
“It’s actually quite disappointing not to be able to try out the underfloor heating on the ground floor and in the bathrooms because the house is already so warm,” says Andy. “When we started out we were unaware of all the various eco options available, but Baufritz gives you quite a comprehensive presentation when you first visit them and we are now both well and truly converted.”
Not only is the couple’s new home totally draughtfree – which was initially one of their major requirements – it has also been fitted with ten decentralised reverse fans with heat recovery to ensure that they enjoy consistently good air quality and save valuable heating energy.
A high-performance central vacuum has been installed, with a filter system to eradicate fine dust, and a unique protective shield of thin layers of carbon and a layer of natural gypsum board was applied to the walls and roofs and then earthed – dramatically reducing the amount of electromagnetic radiation penetrating the building. All of these healthy elements have been jointly developed by Baufritz with doctors and building biologists to enhance the occupants’ well-being.
“It’s certainly a very different experience finding a company so helpful and willing to please,” says Andy, a ceramicist, who has recently completed a slate-hung workshop with a camomile planted roof in the garden. “We wanted the Mercedes of houses and I think we got it. Nothing was left to chance, the build time was extraordinarily fast and the finishes are superb. UK housebuilders really could learn a great deal from them.” To coin a German phrase: vorsprung durch technik – progress through technology.