Eco Diary - Part 1

Richard and Sophie Hawkes get started on their first self-build


Over the last few months, I’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve been told ‘you must be mad’. Mad to sell our beautiful Tudor house in a Kent village, mad to buy a plot of land to build our own home, and even madder to move into a caravan on a muddy building site when our first baby is due in a few months. But to us it makes perfect sense.

Building our own house and living a more sustainable lifestyle has been a long-held dream for my wife Sophie and I. As an architect, I’ve always harboured a desire to craft a home that would be perfectly suited to our personalities and way of life, but the right opportunity has never presented itself – until now, that is.

When we discovered that an idyllic plot in our village was on the market, the chance proved irresistible. Located in a quieter part of the village, we’d always thought it would be a great spot to build a house, so in July 2006 we crossed our fingers and submitted a bid. However, we found out that 13 other people were in the running, and so a nerve-wracking wait ensued while it went to sealed bids. Gallingly, we just missed out, coming second. Then in October we had a fantastic surprise call, the sale had fallen through and the plot was ours if we wanted it.

Great news, but I hadn’t even put pen to paper for the design, having thought we’d lost out on the site. So while waiting for the sale to be completed over the next three months, I spent every spare minute scribbling and making models. Although we knew we wanted a contemporary architectural solution for the site, I was having problems creating a coherent form that fulfilled our desires for a light-filled, open-plan living space that would still feel discreet within its context. But at 5am on a Sunday morning in December 2006 I had my eureka moment – using an arch as the main design feature with the house basically slotted underneath.

The arch itself will be made from 26,000 clay tiles, which will be dug up, made and baked less than four miles from the house. It will be completely self-supporting, stuck together in thin air with plaster of Paris, thanks to timbrel vaulting, the same technique that Gaudí used for many of his structures. Although this method has been around for years, this will be only the second time it’s been used in this country, the first was for a sustainable conference centre in Dover, also completed by our builder.

The house will have a very strong eco agenda, something I’ve been passionate about since college where I focused on sustainability. The whole shape of the building is designed to harness the sun’s energy – large expanses of glazing on the south elevation will capture its heat, while solid walls on the north, east and west sides will help to retain it within the building.

Rainwater harvesting will provide the water for the toilets, washing machine and dishwasher. Solar collectors on the roof will generate the power for our heating and hot water, but instead of standard radiators or underfloor heating, we’ll be using a mechanical ventilation heat recovery system, supplemented by the solar panels. The system pulls fresh air in from outside and passes it over a heat exchanger, which transfers the waste heat from the stale extracted air into the fresh air before distributing it around the house. For cloudier days, we’ll have a small biomass boiler to charge the phase change material thermal store (effectively a big heat battery). The windows will be triple glazed and argon filled, the engineered timber beams for the frame will be made from recycled sawdust, while recycled newspaper will be packed into the walls as insulation. The building will be clad in locally coppiced sweet chestnut, English cedar weatherboarding and local clay red brick. We’ll have a 300mm thick living roof over the main arch covered in native flora and fauna.

This house will signal the next phase of our lives: one where we spend more time together, live a healthier, more sustainable lifestyle and, for our sanity’s sake, create a home that comes in bang on our budget. Let the fun commence…

Richard and Sophie’s adventure continues in part 2 and 3


Words: Beth Myers  Images: Richard Hawkes

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