This environmentally friendly West London home is a cool, light space that scuppers any eco preconceptions
Zac Michaelis must be the envy of all his classmates. At six years of age he already has a sought-after address in Notting Hill and lives in one of the most spectacular examples of environmentally friendly design built in the capital. Add to this the fact that his home has an indoor swimming-pool, BFG-size beanbag, pop-up TV and a slide besides the stairs and even his teachers could be forgiven for occasional pangs of jealousy. But once you have met any member of the Michaelis family, any grudging feelings soon melt into admiration. You see, they are jolly nice and, over the past two years, they have been busting a gut to prove that eco-friendly architecture can be cool rather than a dull and worthy practice.
Zac’s dad is the architect Alex Michaelis of Michaelis Boyd Associates, known for designing sleek urban watering holes like the West London restaurant 192 and the Somerset hotel, Babington House. Yet the house he has built for himself, his paediatrician wife, Caroline, and their children is far from flash externally. A very ordinary, 6ft-high brick wall is the only mark that this project has left on the leafy avenue. Press the silver buzzer though, and you enter a different world. Sinking into the ground in front of you is a vast, white cube, its surface broken by expanses of glass. A curved entrance ramp pulls you towards an imposing glass door. This is more the Michaelis we were expecting.
Due to strict planning restrictions on the site, the vast majority of the house had to be built underground. ‘I saw the plot 13 years ago, ‘I hate stairs everywhere and corridors. It's a big, open space here’ rang the planners and asked if I could build something here,’ explains Alex, ‘but they said absolutely no way.’ The streets had originally been set out to include an empty plot in order to create a sense of openness in the heavily built-up area, a common tactic in Edwardian North Kensington. Unfortunately, in the intervening years, the plot had become a dumping ground, scattered with defunct washing machines and fridges and home to a skulk of foxes (who subsequently attacked the men Alex employed to clear the area). Two years ago the developer who owned the site was granted planning permission. But there was one slight hitch. Any house built on the sight could be no higher than 6ft. Alex leapt at the chance, bought the plot for the equivalent cost of their Victorian terrace, and set to work digging a 4m deep hole, removing 1,000 cubic metres of London clay.
Alex is a self-confessed eco obsessive, who recycles pretty much everything and drives an electric car. His present crusade is to develop an environmentally friendly air-conditioning system, and he looks genuinely upset when talking about the waste problem currently plaguing the construction industry. So it seems strange that his house is made principally from concrete. ‘There really wasn’t any other solution,’ he explains apologetically. ‘We had to support the surrounding buildings and other materials just aren’t up to scratch when building this deep.’
Even so, concrete does have good insulating properties, and keeping the house snug has been one of Alex’s key strategies in creating an energy efficient home. ‘We’ve sourced our materials from all over Europe to get the most eco-friendly results, 'he says. ‘The windows, doors and roof lights for example, all come from Denmark. They have the same insulation efficiency as a brick wall, which is way beyond what is generally being done in the UK.’ The walls are laced with Kingspan thermal wool insulation, he has incorporated under-floor heating, and a sedum roof traps the heat and gives oxygen back to the environment.
According to Alex, ‘the way the house is designed, it’s so well insulated it hardly needs heating.’ Nevertheless, he has installed an ingenious system to service the house. A borehole, 100m deep, taps into the earth’s aquafere providing the water supply. Once this water has passed through a heat pump, it provides hot water, heating and the pool. Hot water solar panels, and photo-voltaic panels which provide electricity, take the pressure off the heat pump and the swimming-pool works as a heat sink for the rest of the house, maintaining the temperature of the pool throughout the building.
These are big, impressive eco gestures, but they’re pricey. So what’s the relevance of the house to the rest of us? ‘At the moment eco friendly designs are more expensive,’ Alex admits. ‘We’re way behind Sweden, Norway, Switzerland which sell the technology I’ve used in the equivalent of the Ideal Homes Exhibition.’ But he adds, ‘As people in the UK become more environmentally aware, the costs will reduce. We simply have to move in this direction. Sustainability and environmental design are going to be the critical words in planning and architecture over the next 20 years.
Main Contractors: P&N Construction www.pnltd.co.uk
Strategic Construction: www.strategicconstruction.com
Sub Contractors: Arup (Alternative Energy Design) www.arup.com
Energy systems: Earthcare Products www.earthcareproducts.co.uk
Borehole drillers: DSC services www.dsc-online.co.uk
Electric car: Drivelectric www.drivelectric.com
Solar panels: Solar UK www.solaruk.net
Insulated glazing: Facadeexperten ApS www.facadeXperten.dk
Grass roof system: Greenfix www.greenfix.co.uk
Baths and basins: Alternative Plans www.alternative-plans.co.uk
Bathroom fittings: Davroc www.davroc.co.uk
Kitchen: Bulthaup www.bulthaupoxford.co.uk
Lighting: Delta Light www.deltalight.com
Modular Lighting: www.modular-lighting.co.uk
Waterproofing systems: Cetco www.cetco.com
Fireplace: Geoflame www.geoflame.co.uk
Swimming pool: Ocean Pools www.ocean-pools.co.uk
Blinds: Silentgliss www.silentgliss.co.uk
Glass rooflights: Lister Glass 020 8969 5682
Garden Installation: Rod Tootell 07958 712 776
Corian Slide: Westwood Fabrications 020 8579 8815 www.westwoodfabrications.co.uk
Words: Cathy Strongman Images: Chris Tubbs