A modem, self-built house set in a West London conservation area

This house shows how a steel frame can create a lightweight, easy-to-huild house which looks very elegant. A sunspace traps the sun’s energy and provides additional living space.

Planning permission in a conservation area

This house comes as something of a surprise. Set between large Victorian villas and terraced cottages in a suburban neighbourhood in Ealing, it is uncompromisingly modern in appearance with a single pitched steel roof floating above a box covered with a gridded pattern all over and a double-height steel and glass winter garden to one side. The self-builders, John Brooke and Carol Coombes, never imagined at the outset that they would be living in a house which would be anything other than conventional in design with brick walls with small windows and a pointed roof on top; the site is in a conservation area, and they assumed that the planning authority would only approve a building which, in the jargon of planning legislation, “would preserve and enhance the visual amenity of buildings and character and appearance of the conservation area”.

John and Carol interviewed “at least ten architects, most of them uninspiring” until they talked to two young architects who were the offspring of friends and just setting up in business after coming out of big, well-known, design-led practices. They proposed something much more adventurous. This design was supported by the conservation officer in the planning department, and eventually (after 15 months) the development control officers responsible were persuaded that a modern house would not compromise the quality of the environment of the conservation area. In fact the new house is a very positive addition to the scene, sandwiched as it is between a row of developer-built, ‘traditional’ houses of the worst kind and a 1950s bungalow.


A site at the end of the garden

The site was formed by combining the end of the garden of the large Victorian villa occupied by John and Carol and their three teenage children and a number of lodgers together with the site of a group of lock-up garages bought after a stand-off with the developer of a group of adjacent houses. John and Carol would not sell part of their garden but were able to buy the garages to make a viable single house plot. They do small-time property development and lettings, and intended to develop the site sometime with a house for sale, but when John took early retirement from the BBC they decided to build a new house for themselves instead.

The courtyard plan

One of the consequences of the amount of glazing and the.

First floor plan showing the stairs in the unheated courtyard. Below: Ground floor plan showing the large winter garden. OVERLEAF Left: The roof appears to float above a box with a gridded pattern of tiles. Right, top: The slender steel position of the stairs is that life is lived in the public gaze, especially at night, so ingenious arrangements of blinds have been installed in the bedrooms and to the front of the courtyard.

Modernist self-build

The roof appears to float above a ‘box’ clad with ceramic tiles, with a continuous strip of glass between. The tiles form a very precise grid, which emphasizes the modular nature of the design and which is punctuated by a picture window to the living-room overlooking the back garden and a slot to the study overlooking the drive at the front. This box in turn appears to ‘float’ above the garden, and pools around the building emphasize this. The paving in the courtyard extends beyond the glass walls which enclose the courtyard; this reinforces the impression of the courtyard as an enclosed part of the garden. The effect is precise and modern, and in contrast to the somewhat folksy appearance of many self-build houses.

A self-builder’s ‘road map’

The avoidance of bricks and blocks and the use of lightweight construction on a modular grid with a steel frame with timber joists forming the floors and roof and composite I-beam studs in the external walls came about because John and Carol were going to build the house themselves. The modular grid gave John a ‘road map’ to find his way around the layout of the building. Frame construction is adaptable, because none of the walls carries the weight of the building; they can be relocated at will, and doors and windows can be created in any position. This has allowed the division between the house and the courtyard to be formed of fully glazed sliding doors on both floors. The steel frame, formed of standard sections, structural hollow sections (SHS) and parallel flange channels (PFC), is light in weight and slender. Steel is also a very adaptable building material as it can be formed into any shape you wish. The steel frame is positioned inside the external walls to avoid heat being conducted to the outside through the steel forming a cold bridge losing heat and creating a condensation risk.

Trouble with foundations

The ground conditions of heavy clay with a number of trees nearby suggested piled foundations. This form of foundation can be advantageous for self-builders as it can significantly reduce the amount of heavy digging and concrete laying required, provided that reinforced concrete beams linking the piles just below ground level known as ground beams can be avoided. In this case some ground beams were required, and in addition the potential simplicity of piled foundations was compromised by constructing a concrete trench to gain access to extensive and essential storage space below the house. One of the worst moments of the build was when the formwork for this trench burst when the concrete was being placed, almost sending quantities of unmanageable concrete into the trench. This was narrowly avoided, whilst the formwork, which had been constructed out of oriented strand board (OSB) rather than the more expensive but stronger plywood, had to be repaired and strengthened, all while the ready-mix concrete driver was pushing to complete pouring the remainder of the load because his truck was blocking the road, much to the dismay of the local residents and police.

The self-build process

John worked full-time on the project, acting as labourer to his full-time carpenter Terry, while Carol was in the old garden shed (which acted as site hut), on the phone for a large part of the day organizing supplies or down the road placating drivers whilst lorries blocked the road making deliveries. John also directed operations, and made sure that the assembled experts knew what they had to do – and that they got paid every week. There are some advantages to being an inexperienced self-builder: you take nothing as read and seek the right advice, unlike experienced builders who are used to making all sorts of assumptions about how to do things, including techniques with which they may not be familiar, such as piling or steel roofing – and some of their assumptions may not be correct. There are limitations of course, such as not having the experience to know when to take shortcuts, and to know the level of accuracy appropriate to different operations. John describes setting out the building ready for piling as one of the scariest moments. Although there is a moderately high degree of tolerance at this stage, the important thing is that the frame is accurate, level and square, as otherwise everything that follows becomes a real problem. Also critical was setting the level of the drains so that there was sufficient fall to drain towards the connection with the drains serving the old house.

It can work both ways, of course: John recounts

how he found that one of the steel fixers had found it awkward to get the drill in to make holes for the resin anchors that hold down the steel frame to the roof of the winter garden, and had just stopped drilling when it became difficult, leaving the anchors only half as deep into the concrete padstones as they should have been. There was therefore a risk that the roof would fly off in a high wind. With some lateral thinking, a way was found to drill the holes to the correct depth and so to ensure that the bolts were adequately glued with resin into the concrete supports. Generally, however, everybody from the truck drivers and delivery people, equipment hire company, builder’s merchants and building control inspector, were extremely interested and helpful.

The day started with a get-together in the shed at 7.00 to make sure that the necessary information and materials were to hand. The packages of information from the architect were generally clear and available in good time; however the structural engineer used all sorts of abbreviations which were completely obscure to the uninitiated. As is so often the case, a great deal of effort was expended chasing suppliers; and as is also often the case, it was suppliers abroad who were the most reliable (the ceramic tiles from Germany and the perforated steel decking to the stairs from France arrived complete and undamaged on the appointed day). Co-ordinating the supply of the glazing was difficult, because there are many sizeable double-glazing units in the house, all of which are made of glass which is toughened for safety and laminated for security, and which all had to be measured on site before ordering. This meant that the frames had to be in position before manufacture could commence, which took three months. Meanwhile, the building was open to the elements and not yet secure.

Moving into an unfinished house

The workforce was increased from time to time by children on holiday from university and others, and some operations such as the glazing were subcontracted. The building process started with demolishing the garages in August 1999. As is usual in the early stages of building, the structure proceeded relatively quickly and the roof was on by December. The family moved in on 1st October 2000 with the house unfinished, surrounded by mud and equipped with a Portaloo and a Camping Gaz stove but no front door; they had to wash their hair under a tap in the garden before going off to work.

The five of them could impose on friends no longer, having moved five times over the last year. The floor tiling went down in May 2001, which has been considered the completion date – although there is really no such thing as a time when a house is complete – and since then John and Carol have established a beautiful new garden which extends into the winter garden, and they have also built a garage – which in the way of many garages does not house a car, but is a studio for Carol who is a painter.

The cost of the original house was £310,900, which John and Carol consider good value although this is slightly more than twice the original budget.

The environmental strategy

The house is designed with small openings on the north to reduce heat loss, and with the winter garden on the south, which is double-glazed and designed to capture passive solar gains. The winter garden is provided with manually controlled vents at the top to prevent overheating. Cool air is drawn in from the undercroft below the house over the pool, which also keeps the humidity up for the benefit of the plants. However, it occasionally gets too hot on the sunniest of summer days, especially when the vents are shut because nobody has got around to opening them, or if everybody is out. The walls and roof have a high level of insulation provided by 200-250mm of cellulose fibre. A gas condensing boiler drives an underfloor heating system with a sophisticated 5-zone control system (which suffers from over-sophistication – changing the batteries in the five thermostats is more trouble than it’s worth). One sophistication that has worked well is the central vacuum system: just plug your hose into the outlet in each room – no more lugging the Hoover up and down stairs. The light fittings on the columns had to be purpose-designed and commissioned by John and Carol as no suitable designs at a reasonable price were available in this country. The bespoke design proved economical, as well as fitting in perfectly with its position, even if the wiring was awkward to thread through the steel structure to the fittings.

Time for some improvements

John and Carol are very at home in their new house, and now feel very comfortable with its modern design, even though it was not what they had in mind at the outset. They put their trust in their designers, and have had to find out about ‘the rules of

modernism’, as John puts it, although inevitably there are a few things they would do differently – and now four years after moving in they are about to put some improvements in place. The amount of planting in the winter garden gives a wonderful feel of living in a garden, but has limited the usefulness of the space, especially when full of people at a party; the cooker hood is too far away from the cooker (so that it does not project below the line of the kitchen cabinets and spoil the clean lines of the kitchen), and so cooking smells can be a nuisance upstairs; the automatic controls for the vents in the roof of the winter garden, which were (regrettably) omitted to save money, could be added at a cost of £2,000; nuisance from the noise of people on the steel treads on the staircase could be prevented; and fitting the seals around the doors to the rooms which were manufactured with grooves to take them would improve the sound insulation. In other respects, this innovative self-build house has worked very well, and John and Carol have created a beautiful, energy-efficient home which shows that a low-environmental-impact house can look any way you want – ancient or modern.

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