Small Energy-Efficient Home for £35,000

Still kitted out with its original shop fittings (one shelf was even stocked with chocolate bars and Pot Noodles), the building was showing serious signs of neglect, including settlement and a roof in desperate need of replacement.

The couple approached the vendor, agreeing to purchase the building subject to receiving planning permission and successfully securing a change of use.

As an architect, Clare was well-placed to develop the design, with Oscar, a structural engineer, bringing invaluable knowledge. Clare’s proposal saw the fabric of the building, in particular the original brickwork and shop front, retained, with a new first floor timber frame extension added.

A striking mix of white painted brickwork with black painted timber cladding above was proposed as a nod to the ‘black and white’ Tudor buildings found throughout the town. The cladding proved the main sticking point with the local planning department however, who favoured white render, in keeping with adjacent properties.

Fortunately the conservation officer could see the merit in this element of the design, and the application was subsequently approved. After completing on the sale, the couple parked their converted van on the driveway, ready to roll up their sleeves for what would become a very hands-on project.

Working to a Tight Budget

One of Clare and Oscar’s main ambitions for taking on this project was to create a home that would leave them with little to no mortgage. And so they set themselves a tight budget — and kept a close eye on costs throughout the build.

“I created a thorough budget plan before we started,” begins Clare, who acted as project manager. “If, in the course of the month, we overspent, I’d then look to how we could save money elsewhere. I was constantly reviewing the budget plan.” Savvy specification was also key. Of course, the couple saved money on professional fees, but even so, their incredible build cost is as much down to taking on most of the build themselves. They estimate they completed around 90% of the work between them — from underpinning the foundations right at the very start to insulating the building, installing the timber cladding and creating all the joinery.

A Hands-on Build

Clare and Oscar estimate that they took on around 90% of the building work themselves — including insulating and laying the concrete floor slab; installing the mechanical ventilation heat recovery system (pictured below, top);  fitting the kitchen (pictured bottom) and taking on all other joinery within the building, among many other tasks on site.

Recognising the need to get the building watertight as swiftly as possible, they hired trades to complete the roof. They were also aided by a local carpenter when building the first floor timber frame extension. (Kind neighbours were of great help too; one neighbour even plated up a roast dinner for Clare and Oscar every Sunday.)

The First Floor

Clare and Oscar opted for rough-sawn timber cladding for the ceiling and walls of the first floor living/office space, to add texture to the walls and keep plasterboard to a minimum (as a means of eradicating ‘wet trades’ from this project).

A wall of storage (built by the couple) provides a home for many of their possessions — including a slimline cupboard specially designed for their snowboards

This living space also opens up to a small terrace

Passivhaus Principles

Just before taking on this project, Clare qualified as a Passivhaus-certified designer. As such, the project provided the “perfect test bed” for applying Passivhaus principles.

The decision informed some of the major construction decisions.

  • Posi-joists were used for the first floor to accommodate ducting for a mechanical ventilation system
  • The couple excavated the existing concrete slab in order to add 200mm of insulation. This was topped with concrete, which the couple polished themselves to create an inexpensive and robust floor finish for the kitchen and bedroom.
  • The existing cavity walls were insulated with Celotex, and the breathable timber frame first floor extension insulated with Warmcel, an insulation made from recycled newspaper.
  • The whole building was then wrapped in an airtight membrane, with service points and window and door openings sealed.

“We’d have liked the house to have been certified,” reflects Oscar, “but our (very tight) budgetary constraints meant we couldn’t afford to specify certified products and pay for the certification process.”

This well-insulated, airtight home has provided an added bonus — minimal running costs. The low-energy design also removed the need for (and added expense of) a boiler. The house is heated by two 400W electric heaters and a 55W towel rail instead, with hot water provided by a tank concealed beneath the staircase, which was exactingly designed to accommodate this feature.

Clever Storage Solutions

A studwall between the staircase and the Passivhaus-certified front door provides a lobby space. This wall also doubles up as useful storage with long drawers incorporated under the stair and a place to hang coats.

The Staircase

Smooth birch-faced ply has been used to clad the staircase — which the couple built themselves. The concrete slab was stepped down beneath the staircase in order to accommodate the 90litre hot water tank and washing machine beneath.

The ‘Shop’ Window

The bespoke triple-glazed window, created by local joinery company Manley & Son Joinery, emulates the former shop window, and frames the south-facing view towards the church opposite. (Elsewhere, the triple-glazed windows were specified from Rationel.)

The couple now grow beans along the front window not simply for the produce — the greenery was always an integral part of Clare’s design, with the vines providing solar shading in the summer months (and lending privacy).

The kitchen bench seats fold up to provide additional deep storage

The Kitchen

The couple created the birch-faced ply kitchen doors themselves, pairing them with Ikea carcasses to create a bespoke kitchen on a budget. The robust, practical stainless steel worktop was one of their biggest spends at £1,000, but both agree it has been worth the investment. Appliances were specified second-hand or as seconds, again helping the couple to remain within budget. Introducing open shelves rather than wall units adds to the illusion of space in this small home.

The Bathroom

Plywood cladding was continued down the length of the bedroom and bathroom — creating a sense of flow between the kitchen and bedroom.

The bathroom facilities have been split into two — allowing the toilet to be accessed while the shower is in use. The couple stepped the concrete slab down along this side of the build — this allowed  for a high-level ventilation gap to be created between the two spaces and space for hanging clothes at high level in the bathroom.

A separate shower room and bathroom with WC allow for greater flexibility

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