A retired eco building enthusiast fulfilled a dream to create an ultra low energy home by upgrading a barn he originally built in North Yorkshire using ‘Passive House’ principles
Images: Green Building Store
When Pete Smith heard that his new family home had passed the Passivhaus airtightness test with flying colours, he stood on his head to celebrate.
Friends and family of Pete, who is now 72, were not surprised at this eccentric gesture. The retired college manager is known for doing things his own way. His energy-efficient retrofit of The Barn House in Great Busby, North Yorkshire, is the crowning glory of a lifetime spent innovating and renovating. A low-energy home built along Passive House principles, it now achieves 0.4 air changes per hour.
“I was brought up by my grandfather and spent most of my childhood in his shed in the days of thrift, making do with whatever timber he could get hold of,” he says. “The first skill and pleasure I learnt at a very young age from him was to make architectural and technical drawings, anticipate problems, and then modify the drawings.” He went on to study philosophy for five years at Sheffield University and the London School of Economics, “which had little connection with sheds,” he admits.
Pete eventually became head of the faculty of health, care and basic education at Middlesbrough College of further education, and lived in a large, old Victorian house in Middlesbrough for 42 years with his wife, Joy, and their three children, William, Emily and Tom, who are now in their thirties and forties. The family renovated this home over the years before selling to a neighbour and moving into The Barn House in 2017.
The original barn originated while they were living in Middlesborough, 32 years ago. Despite being “pretty hard up,” Pete had managed to persuade Joy that “the logical thing to do” was to borrow enough money to buy nine acres of agricultural land at the foot of the Cleveland Hills. He recalls that this was a massive undertaking at the time, especially as the children were young, and there were lots of demands on time.
Nevertheless, here Pete and his family built a 16 x 9 metre portal frame barn – the frame being recycled from a previous agricultural building – added an outdoor stage, a wood-fired hot-tub and a secret log cabin. “For many years we used the barn as an opportunity for our children to engage in forest school type activities, hold mini rock festivals, and carry out various teenage nefarious exploits about which I know nothing!,” he laughs.
The barn was the venue for 10 wedding parties for family and friends, including Tom and Emily’s own nuptials. And surrounded by nature with a two-acre wood planted by Pete and Joy, it was also home to a vegetable growing scheme for young people with learning difficulties and disabilities, which Pete ran for several years following his retirement.
Then, five years ago, thanks to the change in Class Q planning law, which allows certain buildings with an agricultural purpose to be converted into dwellings, Pete gained permitted development rights to turn the barn into a home.
The Yorkshire planning consultancy Rural Solutions handled the prior notification to Hambleton District Council, and their architect did a day’s work on the necessary sketches.
The curtilage of the build was restricted to about 400 m2, which allowed for subsequent development of a double garage and carport, fire escape, terrace and loggia.
“It took five years to – nearly – finish the conversion to a very comfortable house,” he says. While he supervised the build, Joy “kept the home fires burning,” and looked after the family and their aged parents.
“We moved in just over two years ago, and I still have plenty of little things to finish off, including the second fix on two bathrooms,” continues Pete. “I did most of the work but had invaluable help from Meheri, an Eritrean refugee who I trained up as the air tightness champion.”
Pete met Meheri though Joy, a retired sixth form English teacher who volunteers with the Methodist Asylum Project (MAP) in Middlesbrough. “He turned out to be quite remarkable, seeing as he was a shepherd in a remote village in Eritrea where all the buildings were of adobe, and there was no electricity,” says Pete. Meheri now works as an Uber taxi driver in Birmingham.
Pete sourced the rest of his build team as locally as possible, speaking to people in the Middlesbrough building trade for recommendations; an electrician, Ecodan (under-floor heating) installers, a tiler and plasterer, excavator driver, and a layer and polisher of the floating concrete floor.
Pete’s son William did some first fix plumbing, but the rest he did himself, along with brickwork, joinery, dry lining, insulation and window and door installation.
In the early stages of his project, Pete engaged the services of Phil Bixby of Constructive Individuals, a ‘Passive House’ specialist architect, to help him devise a low-energy building designed using the Passive House Planning Package. He also engaged a structural engineer to check the load-bearing capacity of the recycled beams, and The Green Building Store in Huddersfield, west Yorkshire, to advise on and supply the kit, including an MVHR system. However, he undertook the design and planning of the building and service routes for the two-storey, 220 m2 house himself.
How did he organise such a complex project without becoming overwhelmed? “Psychologically I found it very helpful to divide the project into small discrete components which when they were complete, I could stand back and admire the end result,” he replies.
Downstairs there is an open-plan double-height living and music area, a kitchen, dining room, circulation area, staircase – hand-built by Pete out of reclaimed Dutch elm, like some of the internal doors – and a lobby. Also on the ground floor is a fully accessible bedroom/play room, wetroom and utility room housing the MVHR and other technical apparatus.
Upstairs, the main bedroom has an ensuite and wide access to the internal balcony, where 4.5 metre external shutters open to a fine view of the Cleveland Hills. There are two further double bedrooms, both with French door access to a balcony, an ensuite, and a smaller box room.
The use of reclaimed materials has helped to bestow a sense of solidity, character and depth to what was effectively, once a rough and ready barn. Around 90 m2 of used scaffolding boards for flooring, hand-made bricks from St Patrick’s church in Middlesbrough and Northallerton prison, and 100 metres of redwood timber from a demolished railway bridge helped to slash the project’s carbon impact. There was also extensive use made of new (but scrap) stainless sheeting from a local lift manufacturer which had moved production to India. This was used as shower boards, some sills and kitchen shelving.
And, ever-thrifty, Pete saved a selection of Victorian panelled doors which his neighbour had thrown out years ago; now, weathered to a fine grey, they have found a place downstairs. Pete estimates that using all these reclaimed materials instead of sourcing new prevented the release of at least 40 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Externally, he points out that the terms of permitted development assumed that the original, weathered board-on-board cladding in local vernacular style would be retained. The large external shutters were made of scaffolding boards, which have weathered to a similar soft grey.
The design aimed to fit in with what he calls an “agricultural industrial aesthetic”, its form following function. The outer barn wall was protected with board on board rainscreen cladding. The inner box was made of 18 mm structural ply, 220 mm timber studwork, Rockwool insulation, and Kingspan panel boards – which he bought as ‘seconds,’ to save up to 40 per cent on standard prices.
There is a 50 mm void around the inner box of the building with numerous ventilation channels to prevent moisture build up on the inner structure. There are also 70 mm holes in the structural ply to allow for transmission of moisture-laden air.
Inward-opening triple-glazed timber windows, entrance doors and tilt and slide doors were chosen for their energy efficiency and were finished in a neutral cream (RAL 9001) inside and out. These were carefully positioned in the middle of the insulation. “They are somewhat set back, with splayed reveals to allow more daylight into the building,” explains Pete.
“Most of the external window frame is covered with insulation so the windows appear virtually ‘frameless’.”
The house is all-electric with heating provided by an air source heat pump, supplemented by a maximum efficiency airtight woodburning stove, with all firewood produced on site. “It costs about £2 a day to run everything,” says Pete. “And there’s an extreme comfort you feel throughout the house. Everything is the same temperature. If you turn it off, it will only drop by one or two degrees a day.”
He’s less impressed with the noise factor created by having a double-height, open-plan living space and concrete and wooden floors with no carpeting. This is further exacerbated by the 10 mm between gap door heads and frames required in Passive House design. Sound travels easily throughout most of the building, despite the inclusion of Rockwool between ground and first floor. “I’m working on the problem before grandchildren want to stay for thrash metal sleepovers!” he smiles.
The Green Building Store designed, supplied and commissioned the MVHR system, a PAUL Novus 300 MVHR unit, for the project, and Pete installed the system himself including insulating the ductwork pipes. He says that the ducting “went together like a dream,” and he’s pleased that the system is very quiet.
This would be demanding enough for a younger man, but Pete took it mostly in his stride. “The main challenges were around not getting daunted by the size of the undertaking, which involved design, procurement, scheduling and all the detail of project management, including project managing myself,” he says. “There was also the concern that my back might give out – although I did lose at least 30 mm in height from lugging heavy materials around! In the event I found that building was probably less damaging to the back than sitting at a desk.”
In a further move to help the planet, Pete plans to plant another half acre of trees for carbon sequestration. He is justly proud of his achievement: “I can hold my head up at meetings of the local action group against climate change” – but even prouder of the fact that he is passing on his skills to the next generation of his family.
“My wife and I brought up our children to be immensely practical and I am proud to say that my four-year-old grandson, Fonzy, could use a handsaw very effectively when he was two!” It’s perhaps not an approach to be recommended for every self-build project, but certainly Pete’s story should be an education in itself.
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