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Matthew and Muiread Kelly’s connection to the land made this selfbuild cottage project a very instinctive one, helped along by Matthew’s engineering background. But there were still plenty of surprises in store…

Lavender. This is how Matthew and Muiread started their self-build project, by planting this fragrant and calming plant around what was to be their building site.

“We wanted to achieve an English cottage feel, with rosemary tiles, red bricks and the plants that go with it,” explains Matthew. “Due to their location, the small lavender bushes were protected from the machinery we had on site.”

But the couple wasn’t exclusively tied to this particular style. “We’d seen a television programme that showcased an oak frame; we really liked that look so we put some in the conservatory,” adds Matthew.

Thick, well insulated walls and a roughcast finish complement the style. “When the sun sets on the red brick chimney, I just get that feeling we did it right.”

Horses for courses 

Finding the right spot was a very natural process – they were able to build on a site provided by Matthew’s father.

“We went for planning and got permission to build a house with stables beside it,” he continues. The planners were mostly concerned about the location of the house, not being near enough the stables, so they moved it closer.

“There’s a real connection to the land here,” says Matthew. The build started in October 2012 and took a full year to complete.

While he approached architects he felt they all suggested styles that were too traditional for his and Muiread’s taste.

“We wanted to push things out a bit more, and specify above and beyond what was needed in terms of renewables and energy efficiency,” comments Matthew. “I come from a civil engineering background so from the beginning I took a keen interest in the design and any eco-friendly attributes we could give it.”

He spent time working out what to install and how. “I did a lot of back of the envelope calculations, for U-values and sorting out what was required in terms of insulation and heating. It was my hobby at the time and I really enjoyed it, it’s very satisfying to get to have such an input in your house design.”


He and Muiread altered some of the basic design features they were working with to ensure their heating needs would be kept to a minimum.

“We went with a rectangular shape with sunroom, south facing glazing, the compromise was that we built the house to be symmetrical to prevent heat loss. We fine-tuned it all ourselves to achieve a U-value below 0.1 W/sqmK on the entire building envelope.”

Matthew had previous building experience as he’d helped his dad build his house five years earlier. “My father actually helped out a lot on our house even though he was a proponent of the traditional methods and I was more of a view of getting the house airtight! He was flexible enough to take on board modern building methods and lend a hand with things like scaffolding and insulation.”

Matthew oversaw the entire project, from the groundworks which he did himself with a man in a digger, to organising tradesmen – he got a local joiner to install the roof and hired an electrician who was really helpful with the lighting schedule and design.

“I put down the ground slabs myself, also insulated and criss-crossed all of the vapour permeable membranes with airtightness tape to ensure a tight fit. Building control came on site maybe three or four times, they even checked the timber staircase,” he comments.

Bespoke designs often mean more leg work to find the right materials; for instance Matthew still remembers how expensive the thermal wall ties were at 62p each to span the eight inch walls and how they had to order the rosemary tiles from France as they didn’t want concrete but clay.   “They have indentations in the middle for a worn effect, which we really like,” he adds.

Also thicker walls meant heavier foundations so more concrete and steel. “We’d factored this into our budget but it’s something to keep an eye out for – every decision has a knock-on effect,” warns Matthew.


Powered by nature 

But then came the hard choices – what type of heating system exactly, combined with insulation levels and ventilation? “We originally thought of going fully passive, to have a zero energy requirement, but we were too nervous to go all the way,” he confides.

“We wanted to use renewables and ended up choosing a heat pump along with two solid fuel stoves, each with their own airtight, external air supply.”

“As we installed a heat recovery ventilation system and made the house airtight everywhere else we had to make sure we didn’t add any uncontrolled ventilation via poorly sealed holes in the wall. For this reason the cooker’s hood uses recycled air, to minimise the number of openings we had to make in the external walls.”

The ground source heat pump provides heat and hot water and is controlled by thermostats outside which are linked to the local weather station to achieve the desired range of temperatures throughout the day.

In a move to achieve minimal heat loss they even chose to install quadruple glazed windows.  “They were very heavy!,” exclaims Matthew. “It made installation a bit trickier than I expected but thankfully I didn’t have to do it myself.”

The underfloor heating screed is six inches thick covered by 10mm stone to ensure the heat gets stored in the concrete mass. “The floor doesn’t feel warm but the house temperature stays constant, and we achieve this at a low cost,” says Matthew, whose only energy bill stands at £80 per month which includes not only the heat pump but cooking, lighting and other electrical requirements.

“The house is always warm but you don’t get that 21deg C feeling you might in a house that uses radiators.”

While the stoves weren’t required to heat the house, Muiread and Matthew wanted to have the naked flame look. “It’s a great addition in winter although they do get too hot so we have to load them very lightly to avoid getting scorched!”

To further his green agenda, Matthew recently installed photovoltaic (PV) panels on the stables roof to generate electricity from the sun.

A canny investor, he availed of grants for his eco choices; he got £3,500 towards the heat pump installation and he estimates he will be getting roughly £1,000 for the next eight years (this scheme is no longer available).

Every year the PV installation should roughly provide £600 in renewable obligation certificates (ROCs), save him £300 off his electricity bill and offer approximately £100 in income from selling the surplus to the grid. Which means his energy needs are covered by the panels.


Picture perfect 

For inspiration on finishes Matthew and Muiread turned to magazines and foraged around salvage yards. “We found our oak beams for the sun room and porch from a local manufacturer,” adds Matthew.

“For the kitchen we went for a funky slash country slash old farmhouse style. I wanted to go with paving slabs but Muiread said ‘no’ so we went with large format tiles made of natural stone and opted for parquet in the sunroom.”

The house has been designed to have the look of the old traditional English home but with all of the modern features hidden. You cannot see their fridge or dishwasher, nor can you see the music system built into the ceilings of most of the rooms.

Among the priorities for this build was to incorporate a photography studio for Muiread, which means some elements fell by the wayside. “We haven’t put any floor finishes in the bedrooms yet,” adds Matthew.

The studio, which was built behind the house, was originally intended to be a double garage. As Muiread decided to set up her business during the build, they amended the plans and created a purpose built studio with plenty of space to capture portraits. This has worked really well for Muiread, allowing her to balance work and home life, which, with the stove lit in winter is a very warm and welcoming ‘office’.


Considering how smoothly this self-build went, what advice do they have to share? “The most important thing is to have a clear picture in your head, know what you want from the start and prepare everything in advance to get exactly that,” says Matthew.

Part of their dream was to cultivate an orchard; they now have 15 fruit trees, five of which are apple, and raised beds at the back garden. Life is good!

Site size: ¼ acre + 10 acres for horses
House size: 2,500 sqft

Walls: 8 inch cavity walls, outside blocks on flat edge full filled EPS beads
Roof: 150mm sprayfoam wall to roof insulation to avoid thermal bridge, 500mm fibreglass on floor
Floor: 200mm PIR board, ufh on top with 6 inches of concrete
Windows: quadruple glazed, U-value of units 0.6 W/sqmk
PV Panels: 4 kW[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]

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