“We built our own home because it was impossible to find an affordable house that fulfilled all our wishes,” explains Laurence Steijger. This might sound like the familiar cry of every self-builder, but Laurence and his wife, Monique, had a very specific list of requirements which many people in the UK would find totally alien.
The couple are Dutch, but have lived in numerous countries, including Switzerland, Germany and Sweden – where highly insulated, well-sealed buildings come as standard. Moving to England 10 years ago proved to be something of a culture shock when it came to the standard of housing they rented, and the Steijgers were keen to create a home which would better reflect their green values.
As an energy consultant, it was Laurence who took charge of developing the design and incorporating energy-saving materials and technologies. “Our first thought had been to develop a system of hot-air central heating,” he says. “It’s a concept that the Romans used, and one that was interesting enough for our architect, Alan Newton, to agree to help us design. When the first quotes came in, though, it became clear that this idea would be unaffordable – so we decided to go for a passive solar house instead.”
Building Regulations relating to energy efficiency may have tightened in the UK, but what the Steijgers proposed exceeded anything dreamt of by most building control officers. Their new two storey detached home was built using a super-insulated timber frame, and incorporates active and passive solar principles. A single high-efficiency wood stove is all that’s needed to heat the house. Other than that, the only heat required comes free from the sun’s rays. Consequently, their total energy bill is a meagre £240 for an entire year.
In addition, the permanent ventilation system has a heat-recovery unit, which means high air quality, low moisture and low heat loss. Any surplus heat – particularly that taken from the utility room – is used by a heat pump to provide hot water. A 5,000-litre rainwater tank supplies the toilets, washing machine and outside tap, while 15m² of solar panels create around 1,000 kWh of electricity from daylight each year.
“Finding our plot wasn’t easy, because we wanted as many square metres for our money as possible so that we would have enough space to grow food and keep chickens,” says Monique, a business analyst. “It was important for us to live within easy reach of main roads and a railway station, but we also wanted somewhere relatively quiet. At last, with our architect’s help, we found this building plot in Derbyshire.”
The plot in South Normanton is almost 1,000m², and had previously been used as allotments and for keeping horses. Bordering fields, its peaceful location in the middle of town was perfect. Once cleared by a JCB, the barren-looking plot appeared to double in size. “While we were waiting for the build to begin, we started working on the garden,” says Laurence, who created an organic vegetable plot. “We were picking our first broad beans while the foundations were still being dug.”
When it came to the layout of their home, the Steijgers needed to consider a number of factors. Not only did they require four bedrooms and two bathrooms, they also wanted a home office for Laurence’s consultancy business. The main living/dining area is open plan to the kitchen, and there are two storage rooms on the north side of the property.
These, and a full-width double-height conservatory on the south side, provide heat buffer zones – rather like adding an extra layer of clothing to trap warm air. The planners were keen to support such an environmentally conscious building.
“Building with our timber frame material of choice – Masonite – was not without its problems,” says Laurence. “The first package company pulled out of negotiations because they couldn’t find suitable joiners to build an airtight house, and the second one went bust just before we were going to order. Luckily, we found a very good builder who – although lacking in experience with the system – was eager to learn and acted as our project manager. It cost more to erect the frame on site, but we’re pleased we took this route because the house is so well built.”
The foundations are fairly standard – with one exception: a 20cm layer of Styrofoam insulation material, topped with a 10cm concrete slab, ensures that the floor is extremely well insulated. At this stage, the rainwater tank was also buried in the back garden, and the Masonite I-shaped spruce beams arrived from Sweden. Some recycled wood was used in their production, and the pumped-in cellulose insulation is made from eco-friendly recycled newspapers.
“The softwood windows and conservatory were glazed with low-E glass and, once the house was watertight, work started inside,” recalls Monique, who took charge of the finances as well as all of the decorating internally. “By the time we finally moved in, there was still a lot that needed to be finished. It meant carrying our stuff from one room to the next – which kept us very busy!”
Despite another full year of work to complete the house, the couple still thoroughly enjoy living in their new home – concluding that it functions even better than they had expected. In summer, the living room remains relatively cool with the conservatory door closed, and in winter this space is warmed by the wood stove. On sunny winter days and in spring and autumn, the Steijgers can heat the house by opening the conservatory doors and making use of passive solar gain.
“The rainwater tank has not yet been empty and the heat pump supplies us with pressurised water,” says Laurence. “After six years in a typical English house with a gravity system, it’s so nice to have a powerful shower at the perfect temperature, without having to waste water by running it for ages first.”
It was Laurence who built the kitchen, laid floors and made cupboards. He then went on to construct a hen house, using leftover cedar to match the cladding. The couple’s quarter-acre site is now a haven for wildlife. It includes a pond and a self-sufficient kitchen garden designed to organic guidelines, with manure sourced from a nearby pigeon racing club – which surely has to be the last word in recycling.