Vision is a much over-used word in self-build circles — as in, ‘We’re glad we had the vision to appoint such a brilliant architect,’ or perhaps, ‘We had the vision to imagine this three-acre greenfield site as the setting for our new dream home.’ But no one could argue the fact that real ‘vision’ is just what Jackie Strube and Alan Stone had when they took on what must surely have been one of the most unattractive plots in Britain — and went on to create a sleek, sustainable new house for themselves.

The couple, who had lived in a terrace in Brighton for 13 years, set out with the aim of building something as energy efficient as possible but couldn’t face giving up living within close reach of the seafront and town centre. After months of searching for something that they began to suspect wasn’t there, they stumbled upon a rather unusual bit of land coming up at auction – and it looked a million miles away from what they expected a self-build plot to look like. “It was very small,” begins Jackie, “and wedged in between two rows of terraces – it had been used for years as a builders’ yard. It had access from the street down a sloping driveway and when you got to it, it was small and almost triangular shaped. It was covered in debris and a plentiful supply of discarded mattresses as well as a rusting car.”

Not a terribly appealing proposition then, one would think – but it gets a lot worse. The 150m² site was in fact completely overlooked on three sides by the backs of the terraces next to it and came with planning permission for a disabled-use bungalow – the site only getting consent for development strictly on the basis that it had a limited ridge height no higher than a single storey with flat roof, not exceeding the height of the neighbours’ fences.

Not entirely surprising, then, that the couple were able to purchase the plot for £86,000. They then set about working out quite what to do with it. “We knew we wanted something that would have a minimal impact on the environment, in terms of energy use but also in terms of the immediate vicinity. In a way, the plot being in such a bad state helped us to gain local support for our plans, because anything would have been an improvement on what was there,” explains Jackie.

Ollie Blair from local practice DRP Architects was called in to help come up with a design that met the environmental requirements but also satisfied Jackie and Alan’s needs for viable and comfortable living accommodation in the best way possible – for this was to be a family home. “It was a small area to work with and we knew that we had to make the maximum of any space that we could create,” explains Ollie, who goes on to describe the two key difficulties in the design as a lack of “space and light”.

The resulting house is certainly one of the more enterprising solutions to a difficult site we’ve ever seen. Hidden behind large wooden gates and based on a broadly T-shaped design, life in the house revolves around the open plan space which contains a kitchen, dining area and living space. Two bedrooms and a bathroom are situated in the other section of the house. Every space is used – a corridor doubles as a library, a small recess behind the front door is host to the utility cupboard. The house was built in timber frame, which the couple opted for not just because of the perfectly valid sustainability argument but because it could enjoy low U-values on the thinnest possible wall depth. For a house this tiny – the total floor area is just 80m² – there is no sense of tightness or clutter. Whilst this is helped by the fact that the couple bought lots of new furniture and cleared out their collectibles before moving in – much of the retro-chic new furniture was bought on eBay – it’s also down to the mastery of a really clever layout.

This is a scheme that really squeezes out every last dash of space from the limited amount available on the site. A lot of the build cost went into the site preparation, in particular digging down as much as possible to enable extra volume without breaching the ridge height restrictions; secondly, the exterior walls of the house were built right up to the boundary, to ensure the most efficient use of space. Yet at the same time, although the house doesn’t have much of a garden, there is a surprisingly pleasant outside courtyard-style space accessible through the double doors of the main bedroom. It all feels unbelievably tranquil. “It’s very quiet. We can’t overhear anyone’s music,” says Jackie. You’d also think that a house of this size and in this overlooked position would feel dim, but thanks to a series of strategically placed roof lanterns, vertical light – the most consistent of all lights – streams in, infused throughout with the help of neutral interior themes.

In addition to the incredible use of space and light, it’s the eco features that make the house all the more impressive. Fed up with paying soaring fuel bills in a cold and damp terrace, the couple determined to make their new home as cosy and manageable as possible. First of all, despite its many problems, the site was south facing, so Jackie and Alan made the decision to make all south-facing rooms have sliding doors to enable as much light as possible to enter, therefore maximising solar gain. The floors are all polished concrete (i.e. concrete poured in situ and sealed) which not only looks great and enables the underfloor heating to work incredibly well, but also acts as an impressive heat store for all that passive solar gain and for the underfloor heating.

Along similar lines, a sedum roof not only reduces the physical impact of the house on those overlooking it – from the back bedrooms of those neighbouring terraces it must just look like a nice bit of garden – but it also helps to collect rainwater (although the thermal performance of grass roofs is a point for debate). Outside, the paving is made up of shredded recycled tyres that feel rather bouncy to walk on, while the rainwater is collected in old barrels. Inside, low-voltage lighting works alongside sheep’s wool insulation to reduce energy consumption. Even the interiors have a green theme – the remarkable orange worktop is made up of recycled glass.

“It has been quite a gamble,” says Jackie, “but it has worked.” It most certainly has – the house is a masterclass in the joys of small living and is testament to the belief that only in the constraints of a plot such as this and eco objectives such as Jackie and Alan’s, can such a pleasing and innovative solution be reached.

Project Details

  • Name: Jackie Strube and Alan Stone
  • Build Cost: £200,000 (£2,500/m²)
  • Build Time: 10 Months
  • Build Route: Main contractor
  • Region: Brighton

Permeable Driveways

October 2008 sees the introduction of the ‘Future Water’ legislation by the Government. This legislation states that homeowners who want to pave over their driveway with a non-permeable surface, such as tarmac or concrete, will be required to obtain planning permission. The alternative is to use a permeable surface such as gravel or permeable paving for the driveway or front garden (which won’t need planning permission). The Government is enforcing this legislation due to the impact that surface run-off has during flood situations. One of the leading solutions on the market is Hanson Formpave’s Aquaflow permeable paving and SUDS system. It allows rainwater to filter down the sides of the block pavers, through a layer that cleans it (making the rainwater PH neutral), and into a subbase under the driveway. This cleaned water is then stored and released at a controlled rate back into water courses to avoid flooding, or a pump can be fitted allowing homeowners to harvest the rainwater and reuse it for non-potable purposes.

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