With no mains gas in the village, and without the option for an oil tank in the garden, Joan and Richard Barker had to find an alternative way to heat their new home. The answer was to build a house that was so well insulated it wouldn’t need a space heating system.

Joan and Richard started their self-build journey by breaking Rule No. 1 in the self-build canon: ‘Don’t buy land without planning permission’. However, rather than taking on some wild speculative punt, what they did in fact purchase was a tiny plot, measuring just 12m deep with 17m of road frontage, at the top end of their garden. When forced to find an alternative way to heat their new home, the couple used a combination of SIPs, solar hot water panels and a woodburning stove to create a conventional looking house with no central heating.

They had lived there since 1993, renovating and extending an old cottage situated on a hillside lane, and had found that the land further up the lane was going to be turned into a small housing estate. Previous developers had overlooked this small piece of brownfield land, adjacent to their garden, because it was deemed uneconomic to develop.

“We decided to make an offer to buy it,” recalls Joan. “Part of our reasoning was that we didn’t want anyone else trying to build a house there, but we knew at the outset that we stood an outside chance of getting planning permission, and we were quite excited about the possibilities that this tiny piece of land opened up for us. We paid just £10,500 for it.”

Having both recently retired, and with their children having left home, Joan and Richard were in any event ready to downsize to something a little easier to look after. However, the project they were about to embark on was anything but hassle-free. The first architect they encountered put in an application for a house which was turned down flat. A subsequent planning application was accepted in 2003, but Joan and Richard themselves didn’t like the design.

The couple were not in a hurry to build, and knowing the difficulties of changing the planning application, they decided to do some research and look at their options. Joan took the bit between her teeth and drew up another design herself, with a floor layout that she could live with. “I changed almost everything – roof heights, which involved excavating into the hillside, roof pitch, depth – but I was at last happy with the design,” she says. In October 2006 this third application was passed. Joan then handed the drawings over to Rod Mill of Sancton Drawing, who detailed the project for Building Regulations approval, and who gave great help and guidance.

The couple were informed that the adoption of the road by the local council would be completed in January 2007 and this would make access and drainage arrangements much easier. However, legal problems delayed the adoption, which was to have consequences on their subsequent build.

Joan’s research had found that the tight site had ramifications for the scheduled design. The village had no mains gas and there wasn’t enough room to place an oil tank in the garden, because there was barely any room for an outside space at all. Joan investigated ground-source heat pumps, but the absence of any garden meant that the heat source would have to be drawn from deep boreholes, which added 50 per cent to the installation cost and made it uneconomic for them. So she came to the conclusion that the best option was to build a house so well insulated that it could be kept warm without a space heating system.

“At first, I was drawn to using one of the insulated concrete formwork systems (ICF) with a SIPs (structural insulated panels) roof which would create valuable living space in the attic,” recalls Joan. “However, I ended up switching the whole build over to SIPs, simply because it gave a much narrower wall profile. Any extra wall thickness shaved valuable space from the inside and I thought that, as the house was small enough already, I didn’t want to lose any more space. So there was a trade-off to be made between low U-values and sensible wall thicknesses. I had hoped initially to get the overall U-values down to around just 0.1, but in the end had to compromise at 0.2 to save space.”

There were other issues with this site that rendered it close to unbuildable. In particular, the fact that the road was unadopted made life particularly difficult, because the local council forbade connection directly to the main drain while the adoption process was uncompleted. Luckily, Joan and Richard were able to sidestep the problem by connecting onto the drains of their old cottage.

There was also no room on site for storage and the owners of the road forbade the use of it for storage of materials or equipment. Neither could they close the road to get a crane in, and without a crane, there would be no SIPs roof. However, here they had another stroke of luck. The plot backs onto a primary school playground and they had a good working relationship with the headmaster, who was happy for them to use the playground for storage and craning, as long as it all happened during the summer holidays.

A plan was falling into place, but now there was also a degree of urgency creeping in, because the planners had indicated that they were unlikely to get their planning permission renewed. So, the build had to take place during the summer of 2007, with the road still unadopted.

This very same summer brought devastating floods to Yorkshire, and although their hillside site wasn’t directly affected, the original groundworking crew were continually getting called away to other sites and their tight timetable started slipping badly before they had even got out of the ground. “We had to get the SIPs erected by the end of August, before the school term began,” says Joan. “It was touch and go whether we would do this. In fact, our SIPs suppliers, SIPs at Clays, were marvellous and were able to work around some of the problems the groundworkers left them with. In all, they were on site for two weeks, and were thoroughly professional.” Joan hired a local builder to undertake the brick cladding, roof tiling, internal fit out and plumbing and electrics.

Fast-forward to today and the house is finished to a very high standard. It is flood wired with Cat 5 cable and a speaker system, has a Junkers floor in the living room and the roof is fitted with solar hot water panels. Joan thought about adding photovoltaics as well but was put off by the cost. Instead, she opted for Sandtoft’s Calderdale tiles, which are compatible with Solar Century’s C21 panels. And, if and when the price for photovoltaics comes down, it will be an easy job to switch over.

Project Details

  • Name: Joan and Richard Barker
  • Build Cost: £195,000 (£1,800/m²)
  • Build Time: 1 Year
  • Build Route: Architect
  • Region: Near Beverley, East Yorkshire

How To Build a Home Without Central Heating

Joan and Richard’s house doesn’t have a central heating system. Here’s how they keep warm.

Triple glazed windows; mechanical ventilation system; solar panels for heating hot water

The design principle has been to first insulate the structure to a very low level. 142mm-deep Kingspan TEK panels have been used for this for both walls and roof sections, giving a U-value of around 0.2. Using SIPs (structural insulated panels) also makes the house very airtight – another important feature for a low-energy house. The Swedish windows (ABOVE LEFT) are triple glazed with a U-value of just 1.0.

The house also has a mechanical ventilation system with inbuilt heat recovery. This draws warm air from the ‘wet’ rooms (the kitchen, utility room and bathrooms) and preheats the incoming air, which is piped into the ‘dry’ rooms (the living room and the bedrooms, ABOVE MIDDLE).

What little heating that is required is provided by one of two methods. On the really cold days, Joan and Richard light a woodburning stove in the living room and the resultant heat is circulated around the house via the ventilation system. On milder days, when Joan and Richard don’t feel the need for a fire, they run a solitary 2kW electric convector heater, usually on the quarter setting, so the house stays warm with just 0.5kW of heating. The only additional heating is in the upstairs bathroom where an electric underfloor heating element warms the ceramic tiled floor. Hot water is provided via a solar panel on the roof (ABOVE RIGHT), augmented by an electric immersion heater, and is stored in a large unvented cylinder.

How Is It Working So Far?

Joan and Richard are pleased with the results, having lived in the house during construction through the winter months of 2007. The winter quarter’s electricity bill was £300, which for an all-electric house is very low. They anticipate that perhaps half of this bill is for lights and appliances, 30 per cent for hot water via the immersion heater and just 20 per cent for space heating via the underfloor heating mats in the bathrooms and the occasional use of the convector heater in the lounge. “The one room that seems to be cold is the utility room, where our dog lives,” says Joan. “Being deemed a ‘wet’ room, it has an extract vent, not an inlet, and because we keep the door closed most of the time, the warm air doesn’t get through from the kitchen. I think we can easily solve this problem by shaving something off the bottom of the door so that the air circulates better. All in all, I am amazed by how warm the rest of the house has been throughout the winter. When we first moved in, it did take a day or two to get comfortable, although once a good temperature is established it is maintained with very little extra heat input at all.”

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