Eco-house or just …. a house ?

Of course it’s going to be an eco-house! Isn’t it pretty much compulsory for all self-builds to be eco-homes?

We want an environmental, ecological, toasted wheatgerm and hand-knitted jumper kind of house; of course we do. Who wouldn’t?

However, if I’m blogging the design and build of our house then I suppose it would be useful to explore what we are aiming for in the design and the motivations and reasoning behind it in a bit more depth, so here goes….

Since we have lived in it, we have been trying to make our (Edwardian terrace) home’s carbon footprint as low as possible.  Admittedly we have gone for the relatively low-hanging fruit – we haven’t stripped the entire house back to bare walls and started from scratch.  But I checked the meters, then turned down thermostats, insulated, draft-proofed, re-checked the meters, hung duvets under curtains, installed a woodburner that heats the water, and solar thermal too, and kept on checking he meters.  I even founded my own NGO about 8 years ago to encourage others to make their own homes more sustainable.  It was called eco-renovation network and was established of a frustration of policy makers focusing effort on lowering energy use of new buildings while ignoring the millions of existing new homes.

These efforts have left me with a house that does, admittedly have very low gas and electricity bills, but it isn’t really properly warm,  has irritating residual drafts, and where you are only really guaranteed a steaming hot bath on a hot summer’s day, when you least need or desire one.  The disadvantages and challenges of retrofit have become very evident to me during the years of my (admittedly relaxed) mission to greenify my house.  Older houses are not designed to be sealed units, and will become damp if you seal them too much, solid walls have a high heat capacity but are hard and expensive to insulate, and our hot water tank is in the attic where the heat that leaks from it and the pipework is useless to warm our home.

So I have come to the conclusion that you can only go so far with an old house and this is my opportunity to see what can be achieved when you start from scratch.

The next question hanging on everyone lips now is ‘Well what exactly is an eco-house then?’

Is it a house which has very low energy use? Or perhaps it’s a house with renewable energy made on site, or a house whose materials have a low embodied energy – being made with recycled materials or those that take only low energy to make.  It could be a naturally-breathing house made with traditional materials and techniques, or perhaps one made with modern and technological ecological materials manufactured from natural products and minimising chemicals and petroleum products.  What about a home that makes space for nature, with swift and house sparrow next boxes, bats in the attic and a wildflower meadow in the garden?

Confused? You bet I am.

In the end, though, it comes down to what you are trying to achieve and what your priorities are. Having measured my own carbon footprint for years I know that our current lifestyle in the city does have a low carbon footprint. Work, school, activities, friends and leisure are all a walk, cycle or, at most, a bus-ride away.  And we live in a small terraced house, sharing two walls with neighbours, and having a relatively small volume of air to heat within the house. Moving to the country, where everything (except the countryside) is a car-ride away is only going to increase our carbon footprint in total.

It is clear that building ourselves a house on the west coast of Scotland is not going to decrease our carbon footprint, so what do we want it to do? Our priorities are that it is as sustainable as it can be, in materials choice and in energy consumption. We want to use wood from a friend’s sawmill just across Loch Linnhe in Morven, we want to take advantage of the boggy plot to make a little stream, pond and wildlife-friendly garden. We sought out and found a south facing plot so that we can take advantage of solar gain in the design. We would like to use ecological and recycled materials where possible and build a masonry stove, like my in-laws had in Switzerland to heat the house very efficiently.

That is a long wish-list. We will have to see how far we get with it.  So in the meantime we’ll just call it the House at Cuil Bay. But if anyone asks – it is an eco-house – of course it is!

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The Evolution of the House at Cuil Bay

I said that I would do a blog on the various iterations that the house has gone through on the long road between twinkle in the eye in January to planning permission-ready this week.

So here I present a kind of ‘Decent of Man’ for the House at Cuil Bay.

We started with a veritable Cambrian Explosion of ideas and sketches. The single-story flat-roofer went extinct early on. But a couple of designs made it into the computer software.

The first was a barrel-roofed house reflecting the shape of the big red barn in the field by the plot…we ruled it out right away

At the same time we saw a pitched-roof, slit window house with one of the rooms a single story on the end.

Next came a set of three variations on a solar-gain design: First with a single pitch sloping room on the back…

Then with the roof on the back room sloped up to the back (not pictured). And lastly with both roofs single pitch

We preferred a conventional pitch and so the next design made the front more attractive

However, never satisfied I asked for a change in orientation and general look and the house became this… ..Now we really were getting somewhere. I liked this one a lot.

But the quantity surveyor told us it was way over budget so I asked Matt to look at making it smaller. The next was a bit smaller but rather odd looking – the turret had a raised battlement behind which the solar panels sit. It had lost the eves and reprised the box-extension theme.

Back to what we liked originally and a shrinkage in the ‘east wing’. What you can’t see from this picture is that it is looking a bit awkward around the side you can’t see. But still too expensive and a few things that didn’t work yet in terms of layout.

Now we are pretty much there. Smaller, and a lower roofline but a change in entrance configuration to allow for utility room.

And at last, on 2 October, this is the house that went to planning (I think). As far as I can see this house is pretty much identical to the last apart from the addition of the wood/bike shed (and an extra car!).

We’re going to planning!

The final dots are going on the ‘i’s and crosses on the ‘t’s and our house is nearly ready to go to planning.

After a monumental amount of work from our devoted architects (55north/John Gilberts) we are at this stage at last.  There appears to be a huge number of documents associated with planning and these will all be up on the public website soon.  When they are on the web I will link to them here.

One of the many documents is a design statement where many of the surrounding houses have a starring role.  Its a bit of blurb all about vernacular, character, building form, prevailing textures and the like.  It’s classic architect-speak.  My favourite phrase ….

‘The interior style of the house is reflected in a confident modern exterior style rather than a pastiche’

The Yearly Review

It’s been nearly a year since we saw the plot at Cuil Bay on an Oban Estate Agent’s website. So it seems a good time for a look back at progress.

When we visited the site the weekend of the Glasgow September holiday last year, I imagined that we would be well into the build by now …. what wishful thinking that was! However, we now have a design of house that we really like. It is exactly what I was hoping for, despite being unable to articulate it. It is now on its 6th permutation and we think we may even be able to afford to build it – just.

I’ll get round to putting the various permutations of design on the site at some point: a kind of ‘descent of man’ for the house at Cuil Bay. Changes have been made as we move towards the house we yearn for, to bring the staggering cost down, but also in response to comments from our neighbours after I sent them a letter introducing ourselves with initial designs for the house.

Most recently we sent our designs to the planning department to get initial advice on the design. Since January, when I called them to discuss the application and they were happy to chat things through with me, they have changed policy and now only accept queries regarding the pre-application process in a format akin to that of a full planning application.  The sainted architects duly sent in the designs but these were returned a couple of weeks later with the comment that the extent of the plot was outlined in black, not in the required red.

Having submitted something very similar to full planning, we received comments, generally supportive, with the main issue being orientation of the house.

So, changes having been made (again) we are now almost ready to submit to planning permission.  The plot already has outline permission. We are only awaiting the results of a topographic survey which will enable Matt to place the house at the right height on the plot among the other houses and landscape, and also determine whether we will need a retaining wall behind the property.

We’ve also had an enginner and a digger and driver on site to dig the holes and look at the conditions of the ground.  The results were encouraging: the water table is very high (we already knew that) meaning that we can’t use a conventional septic tank, but the ground conditions are close to ideal with bedrock overlain by gravel which means that we will be able to use strip foundations and the excavations will be a bit cheaper than we had anticipated.

So, in short, we are ready to go….. well ready to go with the monumental planning effort, then building control, then builders, then…..perhaps it’s best if I just don’t think about it.

First Design Your House …

I suppose I’m just a wannabe architect.

I have images of what this house might look like bumping about in my head, morphing and circling.  I spend the moments between laying my head on the pillow, and my flight through sleep, trying to solve the problem of how to fit a bathroom between a door and a window. I spend stolen moments while children play at the park, or while peeling potatoes, trying to work out what happens when two sloping roofs meet (that one took a trip to the scrap paper drawer and a bit of origami.)

It’s nice to have an inner life again.  Welcome activity for the mind, displacing the constant rolling of to-do lists, and the buzzing of urgent tasks.  Reminiscent of the feeling in the run up to finals as facts and concepts birled around my mind trying to grab onto everything else and wrap it up in a theory of everything.   Or the challenge of trying to work out the way the international financial system works after a programme on Radio 4.

I have actually started to get quite opinionated about what this house should be like over the months of the design process.  I know exactly what I like when I see it, but can’t put my finger on exactly why or explain what I want in the abstract.  In short, I must be utterly infuriating for any architect to work with.

At the start of the process, our architect Matt asked me to send photos of houses to give him an idea of the kind of thing I liked.  I totally failed.  In all those years of looking for a plot secretly, I hadn’t felt that the project was concrete enough to actually venture into the real and start capturing images of what I wanted.  And then things started happening really really quickly.

Matt sent me some photos of houses he suggested I might like – all stunningly beautiful, all flat topped or barrel roofed and all utterly not me.

So what do you like, he asked. “Well I like…eves” – I couldn’t think of any other way of putting it.  I don’t know whether it is the product of being married to a Swiss, but I do like eves, and steep slopey roofs and the distant ring of cowbells on the alp…..  I couldn’t help notice that most of Matt’s house designs didn’t have eves, in fact they didn’t have many jutty out bits.

Matt soldiered on, with incredible efficiency and he and his colleague produced reams of beautiful drawings of potential homes for me.  They started with a trio: tall and barrel-roofed, reflecting the large red corrugated barn next to my plot; low slung, single story with a flat roof; and two-story steep pitched roof, with a flat cube to one side.  Nope; Nope; Nope; was my ungrateful response.  I took the liberty of having some ideas of my own, mulling indulgently through the possibilities, and sketched them out, trying to explain it to the architects.  It had a slopey roof and eves.

What I discovered was that things that are eminently possible in my head, often turn out to be completely impractical when it reaches the realms of the real world.  Stairs for example are strange things to get your head round, and it really matters where they are. Rooms need to have doors that can be opened and closed. Weight-bearing walls hold up the roof or floor. You need to be able to stand up while going to the toilet.

The next iteration of design bore no relation, to either the original three drawings, nor to my own. This time they called me in to give me the blurb before presenting me with the options.  Architects are good at blurb. I wonder whether they go to blurb classes at architect school.

They had me convinced: what I really wanted was a house of two stories, wood-clad, with a single-pitched metal roof and big windows across the front.  More or less as far as it was possible to get from the outline planning consent on the plot (one and a half story, harled and slated, 45 degree angle roof, windows predominantly vertical). The design progressed to incorporate a couple of my suggestions – it was part harled, part wood and returned to a conventional roof-shape.  They had also done a lot of work making the front of the house look lovely with large south-facing windows in all the main rooms and a balcony all across the front.

Whenever I spoke to them I was convinced it was right, but when I came home, I had niggling doubts that chased the plans and ideas from my head and kept me awake.

Feedback from neighbours following a letter I sent round the neighbourhood to introduce ourselves and our plans for the house, suggested that, in general, they thought the house not suited to the site so, with weight of neighbourly opinion behind me, I met Matt to discuss the project.  It was, of course no problem to change the designs and, in fact, a relatively small tweak: keeping the floor layout in the main, but changing the orientation by 90 degrees and changing the windows gave us something much closer to what I was looking for.

Since then we have had a couple of re-sketches, but we are moving incrementally to something I am beginning to get rather attached to.  The excitement has been rekindled and I have started to imagine what it would be like to live there…at least I had until we heard back from the Quantity Surveyor.

It was bad news: our plans massively outstripped our budget. And I mean MASSIVELY.  What a blow.  Yet another rethink looms.

Postscript.

A rethink on my wannabe-architect ambtions is probably also in order.  Setting aside the decade of retraining I’d need, and the question of intrinsic aptitude; if architects invest a fraction of this emotional energy in their projects (and I suspect they put in a great deal more) then they can keep their jobs.  I think I’ll stick to what I’m good at (while retaining the prerogative to be opinionated about my house!)

Photo: Garbh Bheinn in Ardgour taken during a walk from Cuil Bay

At Last the First

It’s harder than I thought to write a blog about the process of building our house.  It’s not so much the Mañana attitude, though I suffer from it, but because I am actually finding the whole thing quite difficult to put into words for public consumption.

It wasn’t until we had bought the plot, engaged the architect, spoken to Scottish Water and SEPA to ensure water and drainage was likely to happen, and actually had the very first initial plans drawn up that I actually told some of my friends that we were building a house.  Many don’t actually know yet – it hasn’t really come up in conversation.

It’s strange really, we are building a house that we are not going to live in for some time, in a beautiful, small community on the west coast of Scotland but we live in Glasgow.  It’s something I secretly always wanted to do but knew I never would. Our jobs are in Glasgow, the kids are happily two of more than 400 at primary school.  We have school, shops, cultural pursuits galore, choir, beavers, brownies, athletics, swimming, piano, football, tennis (yet the world does revolve around the children….) all within walking distance.  And the beauty of Highland Scotland is close at hand when we have need of it.

I have always been of the opinion that second homes are a scourge, sucking the life out of struggling rural communities, pushing prices up and ensuring that youngsters leave for the city’s bright lights and jobs as soon as they can.

So what has changed?  Well I suppose the thought that we will be going to live there in the now not-so-distant-future is one.  The time when children are fledged and work becomes more flexible (here’s always hoping) now resides in the realms of the imaginable, rather than in another universe.  Things seem more possible, and the world opens up as the terror and seat-of-your-pants parenting of the early years fades into mere chaos.  Only a couple of years ago the pressure of work, which I felt qualified for, and caring for my young children, which I certainly didn’t, created a peculiar tunnel vision.  The insight needed to imagine things could ever be different was suppressed in favour of day-to-day survival.

Also it was the plot, our hoped-for but never spoken-of, Eden.  I had been surreptitiously looking for a building plot for years. I would happen to drive past plots I had seen on the internet on the way to ‘somewhere’ and say casually “Oh – a plot – let’s just have a quick look, seeing as we’re just passing”.  Our filing cabinet started to complain as one section grew thicker that its allotted space with plot particulars.  “Just out of curiosity”, I said.

In fact the very act of calling up an estate agent to ask them to send particulars, was a significant move from plot as secretly harboured desire, to plot as reality.  The need to put voice to my wish, gave the project a level of certainly which had not previously existed, not even in my conciousness.

But in all our searching and visiting, in virtual and real worlds, none captured us. Insurmountable obstacles rose up in my mind “could we live here?”, “perhaps something better will come up”, “how would you get here by public transport?”  But eventually the right place found us.

In searching for the particulars of a building plot we had seen in passing, Google suggested I look at a plot in a place that I hadn’t dared hope one would appear.  It was in Cuil; a scattered settlement of homes around the rim of a raised beach, with the massif of Beinn a Bheithir, the Ballachullish Horseshoe, rising steeply to the north; and the islands of Lorn, with Mull beyond, visible across the bay to the south.  It was the place where, on countless occasions, I had donned an enormous rucksack to start the walk to Leachnasceir, the remote and rugged one-room cottage which we have had the immense privilege of co-owning for the past 10 years.  And the vendor of the plot was the same man who, more than 40 years ago, had given a lease to a Geologist with a vision to rebuild a dilapidated croft cottage across a bog and a moor from Cuil Bay.

By serendipity, we were planning a visit to Leachnasceir for the long September weekend and I called the landowner, who we have got to know in the years we have been visiting Cuil.  I took my daughters on the understanding that the younger one would avoid the usual verbal jousting and mutual name-calling games she plays with the retired farmer, in favour of diplomacy and persuasion.  But my concerns were unnecessary.  A simple “Erm….I’m interested in buying your plot”, resulted in a “Well we’re interested in selling it to you.”  And that was that. (Save for the subsequent months of protracted solicitor-wrangling – presumably so that they could justify their vast fees…).  In the end I had to drag the 6 year-old away mid flow through the immortal insult  “you are wearing a girl’s cardigan and you are soooo old.”

And then there was the urge to build a house that was future-proofed. A place without constant drafts whistling through despite hours grovelling under sinks and behind kickboards with insulation and expanding foam. A place where the solar water heating and wood burning stove were an integral part of the house rather than tacked on in a less-than-ideal retrofit.  A place which would be properly insulated, properly low energy, and where we would not be living on top of each other and even have space for guests, and our children’s guests.

And what about the second home issue?  Hummm… well we’ll be renting the house at Cuil to pay its way until we make the move.  At present we’re thinking holiday lets so that we will be able to enjoy it at those times when it is not occupied.   I could write a whole blog on this but will stop here – perhaps another day.

So here we are.  I have reached the stage where I have, not only bought the plot, got the initial plans, and am waiting for the budget cost estimate from the Quantity Surveyor,  I have even gone public with the fact. I guess it really is going to happen at last.

I’ll try and keep you posted.

PS the photo is taken at the shore in Cuil Bay – the fisherman’s bothy and the cow.