Building a house with serious eco-credentials doesn’t have to mean scrimping on style and comfort
Will Anderson and Ford Hickson's quirky and stylish home proves that the common misconception that anything worthy must be dull isn't true when it comes to building an eco-friendly house. The first thing that strikes you about the couple's South London pad is its sleek design – the planet-saving materials and measures paddle along quietly underneath this graceful swan of a house. No living in the residential equivalent of a hair shirt for Will and Ford: comfort and style remain uncompromised, despite squeaky clean green credentials.
Building their own home had long been the couple's fantasy, and when Will embarked on a part-time Master's degree in energy and sustainable development he gained the practical know-how needed to make the dream real. But before Will could get down to the nitty gritty of carbon footprints and solar panels there was a more mundane hurdle to clear – finding a plot.
This is no easy feat in London, where even parking spaces are at a premium. 'I walked down Clapham High Street knocking on estate agents' doors to see if they had any land and of course they just laughed at me,' Will says. 'But there was this classic moment – one of those memories you hold on to for its absolute brilliance and clarity – when I'd been to every agent but one and turned back towards home. Then something made me try the last one and, sure enough, some land had just come on the market.' The bottom half of a garden, the plot was so overgrown with vines and brambles that it took at least five minutes to force their way through the gate. The asking price for 180sqm of uncompromising wilderness was £150,000, but as Will says, 'that's not bad for Clapham'. The night after the first glimpse of their future plot he couldn't sleep a wink for excitement.
Gaining permissions, placating neighbours and designing meant that two years passed before they could break ground. Not least of their problems was a mature and magnificent sycamore tree in front of the house, rubber stamped with a preservation order. 'We had to work around it, but in the end it became an inspiration,' Will says. Sure enough, its shape and texture are reflected all over the house. The bars on the dramatic iron gates, which stand out in an otherwise Victorian terraced street, are directly drawn from the twists and gnarls of the branches, while the handles replicate the sycamore's seeds. The curve of wood on the house's frontage mirrors its graceful yet sturdy trunk. Inside, the staircase is made of rough-hewn tree trunks.
Substantial foundations were needed to support the house without disturbing the tree. Reinforced concrete piles nine metres deep were driven into the plot and topped off with a concrete slab. 'People don't think of concrete as a green building material, but they shouldn't dismiss it,' Will says. 'Its production does generate high levels of emissions, but its durability is excellent, which is very important to the eco-profile of the house.' The tree also inspired the house's timber frame, which is made from sustainable FSC accredited wood.
The couple haven't tried to squeeze too many rooms into a limited plot. The top floor is given over in its entirety to one large, light-filled multi-purpose space. Most of the decorative touches are thoughtfully eco-conscious. The richly-oiled teak parquet floors are reclaimed – each block painstakingly cleaned and laid by Will himself. In the kitchen-living area, the stained glass panel – made by Sarah McNicol – lets in light from the brighter laundry room. The stunning back garden fence, comprising shards of autumnal gold and umber, is actually scrap metal – this and the front gates were both created by metal-worker Jonnie Rowlandson.
Much of the furniture is second hand and even the panel of stylised floral wallpaper in the bedroom is a Twenties remnant. The colour palette is equally deliberate. From the collection of diminutive verdigrised and bronzed vessels (by ceramicist Grace Collins), to the beautiful silvery green of the Kirkstone floor slate sourced from Cumbria (highly durable, cool in summer and warm in winter) and the delicate rust on the metalwork outside, everything is rendered in muted shades. Despite its busy location, the Tree House is a restful place to be.
So far, so thoughtful, but it's behind the scenes that Tree House really fulfils its owners' brief. The ultimate goal was to be 'zero carbon' – generating at least as much energy as they consume. The first step was to minimise the building's energy expenditure as much as possible. Walls are insulated with a recycled newspaper product, and the roof and floors lagged with phenolic board, the highest performance insulator on the market. To make the house even more snug, it is completely air-tight. 'It was tricky to get right,' Will says, 'but the secret is in the detailing. Wherever two building components meet there can be air transfer.' Recycled plastic sheeting wraps the house inside and out, and even the traditionally heat-sucking cat flap has properly sealed and separate in and out doors for the couple's four cats. In summer, open windows provide the necessary ventilation, but in winter a heat recovery system hidden behind the laundry door brings in fresh air and dispenses with stale.
With a site on an east-west axis, Will wasn't able to angle glazing towards the south to absorb the suns rays passively. Instead, he covered the roof in photovoltaic panels, generating more than enough electricity to satisfy the household's needs. A ground source heat pump supplies the underfloor heating system. The couple are also ahead of the game when it comes to saving water. All the taps, toilets and appliances are ultra water-efficient. The shape of the roof is designed to siphon rainwater down into the tank in the garden, which is used to keep the garden pond replenished and water the garden.
So far, the couple haven't received any energy bills. Instead, the postman has visited with a cheque paying them for the power they've put back into the grid through their special two-way electricity meter. Eco-friendly, stylish and money saving-is there anything this house can't do?
Architect: Constructive Individuals www.constructiveindividuals.com
Timber frame manufacture: James Jones and Sons www.jji-joists.com
Cumbrian slate floors and worktop: Kirkstone www.kirkstone.com
Salvaged teak floors: Lassco www.lassco.co.uk
Windows: Swedish Timber Products www.swedishtimberproducts.co.uk
Roof windows: Velux www.velux.co.uk
Phenolic board insulation: Kingspan www.kingspan.co.uk
Recycled newspaper insulation: Excel Industries www.excelfibre.com
Photovoltaic modules: Solar Century www.solarcentury.co.uk
Ground source heat pump: Ice Energy www.iceenergy.co.uk
Underfloor heating: OSMA www.osmaufh.wavin.com
Kitchen: Stephen Edwards www.ecointeriors-uk.com
Low-flush toilets: Green Building Store www.greenbuildingstore.co.uk
Compact fluorescent lighting: Megaman www.megamanuk.com
Stained glass: Juicy Glass www.juicyglass.com
Metal designer: Jonnie Rowlandson www.argonautdesign.co.uk
Words: Kate Riordan Photography: Edna Van Der Wyck