Green Fingers - Real Homes


This renovated cottage is not only a template for eco-building, but also for running a home on an energy-saving budget

If first impressions are important when buying a house, it’s little short of a miracle that architects Tom and Liz Miller completed the purchase of Drummer’s Cottage in Suffolk.

'We walked in and it smelt of dead dog,' says Liz of their initial visit to what is now her family’s home in the village of Beyton. ‘But it had a lovely feel to it. We came through the door and knew it was right. It turned out that previously an elderly couple had been here for years and had been extremely happy.’

One has to take the Millers’ word that the house felt lovely then; it certainly speaks for itself now. When they bought it in 2002, the two-bedroom cottage was damp and neglected. After the Millers’ ecologically sensitive transformation, Drummer’s Cottage is now extended and radically improved, and was shortlisted for the Grand Designs Magazine Awards’ Best Eco House in 2006. Tom was the architect, Liz his consultant, and the ethos behind its renovation was their desire to minimise energy use, both in materials and in running the house.

Judging by its new housing stock, much of Suffolk seems addicted to bland, computer-designed executive houses, but Drummer’s Cottage straddles the old and the new, with a few nods to the county’s agriculture. Their aim was two-fold: to refurbish an ordinary cottage in order to suit modern expectations, and to demonstrate that, with careful design and selection, any project can be low-energy and inexpensive.

The project was carried out in two phases, on a sub-£72,000 budget using low-energy principles. Firstly, the Millers restored the original part of Drummer’s Cottage, then they added a two-floor rear extension, erecting a locally-sourced larch frame around the existing single storey. Their first task was to take out the concrete and rotting wood in the old section and replace it with a breathing, heated stone floor.

‘Installing under-floor heating was another environmental decision,’ says Tom. ‘It’s efficient because of the way that it makes you perceive temperature.’ In other words, the soles of your feet tell your brain that it’s warmer than it is, and consequently you might not switch the central heating on.

The conventional approach to a sizeable building project is to construct first and decorate later. In contrast, the Millers cut down on chemicals and materials and avoided applied finishes. They used a self-colouring white gypsum plaster, rather than the normal pink, while other areas of brickwork remain painted but unplastered.

Thermally efficient windows made from untreated timber were imported from Norway, and arrived painted with a breathable, low-toxicity, lichen-green linseed paint. This same principle of low-maintenance continues outside. The new part of the cottage is clad in larch and over time, the colour of the wood will change to grey in the weathered sections and honey-coloured in those directly in the sun.

Intellectually, the house draws on many sources. Tom’s professional inspiration has been David Lea, a renowned ‘green’ architect based in Wales with whom Tom and Liz spent two years living and training. Tom was also influenced by the English architect and designer Charles Voysey, of the Arts and Crafts Movement. ‘Voysey talks about how plaster should look as if it was once a liquid,’ Tom says. ‘We didn’t want to plaster in the traditional way – we didn’t want steel edgers or to use plasterboard.’ Liz picks up the theme. ‘The trick is to find a middle ground,’ she says, ‘to do it so it’s not mechanically perfect, but isn’t just bumpy. You don’t want it to look too much like an Italian restaurant. Texture is something that is missing from a lot of modern houses, and what you see in this house is what it’s made of, and that contributes to the health of the building, too.’

In designing the new section of the house, Tom used ‘the language of outbuildings’. In the garden, the substantial shed is used as his studio, and the larch cladding of the new section of the house resembles this rather than the original cottage. The exterior wall of the new section moves in and out, adding light and shade, and creating a transition between the old and new parts. The huge kitchen bay window is double-glazed and can slide all the way across leaving a glorious, frameless void.

From the table I gaze around at details that flow from both necessity and choice of materials. Head height was at a premium in the new section as the foundations are higher here than in the existing cottage, and, to give an impression of height, the new floor was sited at the top of the joists rather than at the bottom. The surface area of the timber frame has split attractively since its construction.

Drummer’s Cottage is a genuine eco-house with its understated commitment to green principles often hidden away. For example, the extension has ‘reversible’ concrete pad foundations rather than a sizeable single slab. This not only reduced the quantity of materials used, but also allows for a future change of use.

‘Much of the world’s energy goes into the production of concrete,’ Tom says. ‘We didn’t want to use more than we could help.’ Such ecological commitment is everywhere, as long as you know where to look. The larder is in the north corner of the house, naturally the coolest part, while the roof is insulated with cellulose fibre insulation, made from recycled newspaper.

The outside of the house cleverly fulfils Tom’s desire to complete the project on a budget – their thrift being another example of minimising waste – and allows the building to communicate with Suffolk’s agricultural culture. Thus, the gleaming galvanised steel drainpipes are the type more usually seen on farmyard barns, and a shining corrugated sheet of the same material acts as a discreet, fireproof barrier between the house and the oil tank.

Upstairs the design raised not only architectural challenges but diplomatic ones:  namely their neighbours’ anxiety that they may be overlooked. ‘We were limited in the ways that we could see outside, so we used roof lights and carefully sited side windows. In the end, these limitations led to imaginative solutions,’ says Liz. ‘The restriction of not being able to overlook has resulted in a richer space, especially in the bedroom. There’s nothing better than sitting in bed on a Saturday morning and looking out of the side windows across the green through the mist.’

Rather than squeeze a double bed into a small space, leaving just a few inches to walk on each side, Tom constructed a full-width, built-in frame, and its detailing is both romantic and practical. On one side of the bed, a heart shape has been cut into the wood, beneath which is a recessed storage cupboard. The bed frame is made from a tropical hardwood called ipe, and the wood is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). ‘We decided that using a little bit of tropical wood was okay for a special feature like a bed,’ Tom says, ‘as long as you know it has been sourced properly.’

In a very real sense, Drummer’s Cottage is a living, breathing example of eco-building techniques. But with two young children dashing around its relatively raw interior, is it a safe environment for a growing family? On this point, Tom is unequivocal. ‘We wanted to do all of this without using chemicals, especially with small children around,’ he replies. ‘There are no toxic paints or preservatives in the house and I’m less worried about a small splinter than living with a lot of formaldehyde glue in the house,’ he says. ‘One is reversible, the other isn’t.’

Useful Contacts

Architect: Haysom Ward Miller Architects
Contractor: Salisbury Bros 01449 740 515
Windows: PC Vinduer og Døre 020 7486 0631
Natural Building Technologies:
Timber floor finishes: Eva Johnson
Kitchenware: Green Building Store
Ironmongery: Allgood
Woodburner: HWAM

Words: Peter Conchie  Images: Emma Lee


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