joe and lina's Passivhaus in London

An affordable Passivhaus build in east London

Despite a major construction setback, the results of this first-time self-build are impressive

By Jayne Dowle | 10 February 2021

Building an affordable Passivhaus wasn’t the original plan for Joe Stuart and his girlfriend, Lina Nilsson. While they embarked on a self-build journey as a way of circumnavigating London’s sky-high house prices, it was circumstance that lead to this project steadily ramping up its sustainability credentials.

Every self-build project turns into a learning curve, but there can’t be many as steep as this one. In November 2015, the couple’s dream of building a compact, 115sqm two-bedroom house on the site of a former coffin workshop in east London had dissolved into a huge 3m-deep hole in the ground.

The couple were in despair. The failure of this first attempt at excavation literally swallowed up £30,000 of the original build budget of £160,000, with nothing to show except mounds of mud and puddles. But, despite the mishap, the final build cost still came in at around £100,000 less than the average property price for London at the time.

The timber-clad exterior of Joe and Lina's affordable Passivhaus in east London, as featured on Grand Designs in 2017

Joe Stuart and Lina Nilsson’s compact Passivhaus build in east London. Photo: Fiona Walker-Arnott

Problems with the basement

To maximise the potential offered by this tiny urban plot, which measures only 10m by 4m – about the size of two car parking spaces – Joe decided to site one third of the structure underground, and line it with insulated concrete, to contain a bedroom, plus a workspace and utility area.

The slim plot meant that Joe had to be able to use every available inch of it, so instead of creating a frame to support the walls as they were excavated, he was forced to leave it to chance that they wouldn’t collapse.

But after digging all the way down, in typical Grand Designs fashion, the weather turns and the hole starts to fill with rain water. Before Joe can finish installing the waterproof concrete walls, the earth begins to fall in and the exposed walls weaken and bow, leaving vast gaps.

The minimalist black kitchen in Joe and Lina's affordable Passivhaus build from Grand Designs

The kitchen cabinets are veneered ebonised ash. Photo: Fiona Walker-Arnott

Finding a solution

The disaster saw client and contractor part company, and it took more than four long months to find another company prepared to undertake remedial action and complete the dig.

‘The basement was the most obvious frustration,’ says Joe. ‘Luckily when Cormac (of specialist groundworks contractors M.J. Rooney) came in with his open ears and reasoned approach, not only were we able to build the rest of the basement, but he was able to rectify all the original problems.

‘From then on, I used trusted friends and colleagues to push the project in right direction,’ he says. ‘Most of the time I was working on my own or with a labourer on site. Suppliers also helped out massively when working on new solutions.’

The bathroom in Joe and Lina's Passivhaus

The bathroom in Joe and Lina’s Passivhaus. Photo: Fiona Walker-Arnott

An affordable Passivhaus

This setback made him consider not just his home and the team who built it with him, but the entire direction of his life. Joe gave up his job as a design engineer to focus on every aspect of the build, while Lina supported both of them financially, helped in no small measure by his parents, who remortgaged their own house in the Midlands to contribute towards the budget.

Although the original purpose of the build was to sidestep London’s sky-high property prices, the intention wasn’t to build an affordable Passivhaus. But as work progressed, Joe became increasingly interested in making his design as eco-friendly as possible. The house was awarded full Passivhaus accreditation, and Joe is now a full-time architectural designer and Passivhaus consultant, running his own company called Warehome.co.uk.

He even went as far as designing a special insulated bracket, a critical element of the Passivhaus construction method: ‘It allowed me to separate and insulate the cold concrete walls from the floors, which in turn meant I could use the ‘floating’ floors as a thermal mass to help control the temperature of the house,’ he says.