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Self-Building A Passivhaus

After two years of caravan life, our clients and self-builders Pete and Sally moved into their new build Passivhaus home. We discover where it all began, the challenges they faced and how it transformed their lives - starting from scratch.

Pete and Sally’s new chapter all began back in the summer of 2015, when they fell in love with the views from a dilapidated bungalow they found during their search to get back on the property ladder after years of renting in North London. Despite living 87 miles away, with no knowledge of the local area or any definite visions of what they wanted, they bravely took on the challenge to self-build their new forever home.

By early 2016 they were working with an architect who helped them formulate their ideas and turn them into reality; an exterior accented with zinc and featuring lots of glass to enjoy the views that they fell in love with and an open plan contemporary interior with minimal décor. It was during this process that they were introduced to the concept of a Passivhaus: a voluntary building standard for energy efficiency aimed at reducing the building's ecological footprint. An extremely rigorous build standard but one whose aims they really identified with. In 2017 they left London, bought a static caravan to live on site and Sally resigned her position to project manage the build.

We all know that there are challenges with any build project but were there any that stood out for you?

“The number of decisions is enormous and there are times that you need to make them there and then, with no time to consult your other half who is hundreds of miles away at work and no time to consider your decision, and that can be quite nerve wracking. But we have found that we look back often, with the benefit of hindsight, and marvel at how something that seemed so huge and insurmountable at the time, all worked out in the end.

Keeping the house in an acceptable level of cleanliness during the build was also a major challenge. Some might say ‘what’s the point?', but for us it was always important at the end of each day to try and get the mess back down to where we had started in the morning. We knew it would be a messy business, but we underestimated the amount of dust and dirt created on a daily basis.

The most fundamental challenge was probably not having a main contractor, and doing the whole overseeing ourselves. We wouldn’t have wanted to do it any other way as it gives you complete control over the workmanship and the way things are done. It also gives you a far better understanding of exactly what has gone into your home and how.

However it was so easy to trip up, at the end of the day we were novices in building a house and not appreciative of the process that needed to be in place to allow each trade to get on. Not forgetting all the little things that didn’t necessarily fall down to a particular trade, which would have been looked after by a general builder. Thankfully we had some wonderful people working for us, who did look after us in that respect and ASJ Design was also great support here, a real comforting feeling to have that sound advice in the background.”

Why did you choose to bring onboard an interior designer and what were the benefits to that process?

“Although we had employed an architect to design the house, we soon realised we had spent the budget for the architect but still had the internal layout and finishes to finalise - so we had to fly solo from then on! Having spent weeks head scratching to find better arrangements for the master suite, we knew we needed help and were introduced to ASJ Design.

All concerns were dispelled when Amanda came back with full renders for the new bedroom and ensuite with the wardrobes incorporated so that we could see exactly how it would look. It was such a relief and we absolutely love the resulting master bed and ensuite area. It feels very luxurious, without compromises and fitting for such a house.”

“We then went onto thinking about how to merge or separate the kitchen within the open plan living space and we really got ourselves in a bit of a muddle on this one. Amanda was great, she listened and came back with ideas to achieve what we were after. I don’t think we would have got there without Amanda’s help. She was able to illustrate so clearly the mistake we would have been making if we had stuck with our original idea to make the kitchen so much more enclosed.

Amanda always made sure we consider very practical aspects when furnishing and designing the interior. I love her on a daily basis for all those tips that come into their own as we use the house more and more. She steered us through lots of different parts of the house, inside and out.

She was as involved as we have wanted, there to put a whole look together or to hold my hand as I felt my own way and encourage me if I’m on the right track. When we had problems with a supplier, she was more than happy to step in and add her weight and worth to a situation which has ended up with a more than satisfactory outcome.”

What were the highlights to the build?

“One of the biggest jumps forward that we felt through the whole build was when the downstairs floors were tiled and finished. It was so rejuvenating to cover up the concrete floor we had lived with for so long that created so much of the dust.

Another was watching the oak go on the stairs after living with first a ladder for over a year and then temporary ply covered stairs for so long. Although the top highlight was having your first proper shower and bath after two years of caravan life - wonderful as it was!”

Do you have a favourite new spot?

“Pete’s is definitely on the leather sofa in the snug! The snug is all that he wanted and imagined it to be, an evening sanctuary after dinner and a long day at work to settle down.

I don’t have one particular spot yet as we haven’t finished furnishing the house. For now, I enjoy gradually adding bits to different parts of the house and appreciating the way that brings another part of the house to life. I do love cooking at the kitchen island and taking in the views across the living space to outside and beyond. I've never had that before and it is just how I'd imagined it would be.

We absolutely love waking up in the morning as our bed faces the window with the same views across the fields as the kitchen. When the electric blind comes up and reveals the view, sometimes sunny, sometimes misty, it really is a lovely feeling and moment.”

How has your new home improved your way of living?

"It has to be the open plan living space, we no longer feel you are shut away when you are preparing meals. It’s a joy to cook and still be in the centre and best part of the house, it makes family gatherings so much more social. Having such a lovely home makes everything that was once a chore in the home, not so much…

To be able to move around the house with so much open airy space, whether it’s as you go up the stairs with the views, or making up in the lovely big bathroom with such good light, is very therapeutic and relaxing. It is a very easy house and home to live in.”

Whether you're a self-builder, or looking for a team to hold your hand, ASJ Design is here to turn your visions into a reality. Get in touch today and find out how we can help.


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