Where you live has a huge impact on your mind, body and soul, and the solution to making your home the refuge it should be doesn’t require expensive or fancy eco designs.
Christopher Day’s architectural approach is known as ‘consensus building’ – he designs homes based on what the future occupiers come to agree they want, deviating from the current practice of embracing tried-and-tested guidelines, methods and designs suggested by experienced architects.
After all, you would normally hire an architect so s/he can tell you what you don’t know. The client is a novice; architects have a wealth of knowledge and experience that must be factored in, what matters is how happy you are in your home.
For Day, user-experience is key to the design. To set the tone here’s a passage from his new book The Eco Home Design Guide that deals with context; your home’s social heart, he says, needs to be a “focally warmed space”. In other words, snug living rooms make us feel secure and cosy while a bright uncluttered room allows us to relax.
He adds that context also affects ‘the entry experience’: “to leave the outer world behind, is a front door opening straight into the living room sufficient? Or do you need a gate, front garden, porch and hallway? These are things for the whole family to discuss.”
The future of house building
As recently as 10 years ago, energy efficient builds were often written off as too expensive to achieve, and quite frankly, not worth the effort. Today, they’ve become the norm.
When reading Christopher Day’s comprehensive and easy-to-follow house building guide – aimed at home owners and specifiers – it becomes clear that future generations will in the very same manner, not see it as unusual to talk about community-owned facilities.
Think of the days when farmers used to share agricultural equipment; despite the obvious advantages this is now a rare occurrence. In the home we each want to have our own washing machine, boiler and solar panels. However it makes much more sense to share these.
Day points out there are ways to keep things clean, tidy and organised but he doesn’t touch upon the convenience aspect; wouldn’t everyone want to use the washing machines at the same time, say, on a good drying day or at the weekends?
That said sharing does provide considerable savings: it minimises capital cost, embodied energy, raw material and energy use. You could apparently save 35-40% on your electricity bills if you partook in equipment sharing!
House building costs are reduced too – think of the savings associated to not having to build a utility room. And so Day has a section within the Site Choice and Planning chapter dedicated to grouping homes.
Ireland is full of residential estates which could be put to use. ‘Eco’ communities such as Cloughjordan, Co Tipperary, exist already, (in this case it relies on district heating, one mega boiler feeding heat to the whole estate), but more can be done.
Striving to be happy
Day starts off the book with the simple question, why build an eco-house? Nowadays eco has in many circles come to mean energy-efficient due to the easily quantifiable cost savings. But there are many other, at times surprising, aspects to consider, including mental health.
A chapter that you won’t find in every house building book is the one about keeping your spirit and soul healthy. It’s common knowledge that daylight makes everyone happier but did you know it’s recommended to spend at least an hour outdoors in the day time? It’s amazing to think most of us can’t achieve it.
Day then goes on to delve into the concept of psychological space and sensory nutrition. “Uncluttered spaciousness is about freedom from pressure. It’s calming; it relieves stress,” he says. “However, this isn’t only about generous space to move in, so doesn’t necessarily require expensive floor space. Low windowsills let the soul breathe out [bearing in mind child-safety, e.g. any glass below 32’’/800mm should be toughened].”
He argues for a balance between liveliness (traces of chaos that signal life) and calm (minimalist simplicity), stimulus and predictability. A calm expanding space can feel sterile but “clutter clogs up life”. He says it’s this balance between sensory starvation and order that needs to be achieved.
In terms of materials, for example: “Tiled floors are no softer than concrete or terrazzo, but, being sized for hands not machines, they look softer [an effect enhanced if the colours are warm].”
Or: “Unpainted wood looks, feels and smells life-friendly. Plastic doesn’t.” He also has a clear mistrust of mechanised systems largely due to the potential consequences if there’s a power cut, e.g. for mechanised ventilation systems or indeed for anything that’s automated such as blinds.
Tips for warmth include subtly shaving off edges from your exposed beams to give them a more inviting feel and not be afraid to tile a room by eye instead of with a chalk line; while this is not to everyone’s taste Day argues “mechanical ‘perfection’ has nothing to do with life”.
It is fortuitous, he adds, that imperfect tiles, bricks and pavers – ‘seconds’ – are cheaper than factory-standard ones.
The Eco-Home Design Guide is structured along the lines of the age-old questions of Why, Where, How, What and When. Did you know that at the same temperature, moist air feels cooler than if it were dry? Of course you do! You live in Ireland…
For the uninitiated he goes through the physics of air movement, temperature, how insulation and airtightness work and pretty much anything else you need to know about how your home and the systems you install will perform, ventilation being a critical factor.
For instance he advocates the use of underfloor heating and wall panel heating instead of radiators. The heat expelled, he says, is much more ‘delicious’ – radiant heat from pipes in the walls and floors will only need to reach 19 degC to provide the same temperature effect as radiators’ (dust-laden) convection heat at 22 degC and, he argues, with better comfort.
Also consider internal shutters if you have the space to open/slide/fold them; Day says that if they’re draught sealed and insulated they will make a considerable difference on winter nights when closed. Also, a mirror finish will help reflect light when open and reduce heat loss when shut.
He’s got a keen eye for DIY too; for instance if you’re removing floorboards try punching the nails through rather than try pulling them out, or if you plan to build your own door go for a boarded type (see drawing).
The theme of future proofing is of course prevalent, addressing old age and/or the eventuality of becoming incapacitated. For instance, ensure light switches are positioned low enough to be accessed from a wheelchair and if you introduce wall supports have them centrally located over the basin instead of at the sides to keep your centre of gravity aligned when using them.
When designing your hallway make sure it’s wide enough to allow for the staircase to be fireproofed to rent upstairs in later years – this requires very little additional floor space to achieve as compared to a standard hallway width. Of course make sure corridors are wide enough for wheel chair access and that there are no steps down to access key rooms such as the kitchen.
Overheating is an interesting topic as it’s not something at the forefront of most of our minds but it should be a consideration too. Day says one of the lessons he’s learned over the years is to be careful with the amount of south facing glazing (e.g. large expanse of glazing on gable end) you’re introducing as it can get too warm in summer and chilly at night if there are no shutters.
North facing walls are another interesting topic which he regularly comes back to; one option is to build a sheltered firewood store against it, another is to mound earth or judiciously plant climbers.
In fact landscaping in general is fascinating territory; Day says that planting trees and hedges in your line of sight, on a diagonal axis, will lead you to believe the plot is larger than it is.
Above all, maximise the amount of green you can see from the windows, as opposed to hard landscaping. Apparently in hospitals patient recovery times are greatly increased when there are green views available!
Finally, the last section dealing with ‘Who’ is full of helpful information for self-builders in particular, with insights into how builders will and should price the job and how to manage a situation where you build your house with friends.
The Eco-Home Design Guide, Principles and practice for new-build and retrofit, by Christopher Day. Published by Green Books www.greenbooks.co.uk
ISBN 9780857843050, 256 pages, with a foreword by the Prince of Wales. Paperback £24.99, also available as hardback, ebook and on Kindle.