Inspired by a traditional timber barn, Tom Gresford has created a Passivhaus-certified home that sits perfectly in its rural setting.

The West Berkshire skyline was once dominated by a desolate, imposing-looking water tower. Today, it has been replaced by an equally dramatic yet visually pleasing timberframed Passivhaus designed by architect Tom Gresford. From a distance it resembles a simple agricultural building, but take a closer look and you discover it to be a sharply designed, contemporary interpretation of the timber barns that the county is known for. Using only a fraction of the energy consumed by the average house, Tom’s home is not some futuristic dream, but a superinsulated, airtight abode that requires no active heating or cooling system. Much like the deserted water tower, his energy bills are a thing of the past.

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‘I wanted my home to show how you can build an incredibly high standard of house that costs virtually nothing to run and is very environmentally friendly,’ explains Tom. ‘However, I didn’t want the unwelcoming appearance that sometimes characterises sustainable buildings, and I wanted it to feel part of the local vernacular.’

The land, bought at auction, was previously owned by Thames Water, and came with the overbearing and rather ugly water tower but no planning permission. ‘It was a really interesting site that suited development in a village, but the vile water tower overshadowed the adjoining houses,’ admits Tom. ‘Before we went to planning, we invited all the neighbours to view the options we’d put together, so they could look at the drawings, see what we were doing with the site, and then select a scheme they liked.’

Tom’s first proposal for a bespoke timber-framed and hemp-insulated house went to pre-application planning advice, and the response looked very positive. With just a few minor alterations to some of the windows, he submitted a full application and it sailed through. Fastforward a couple of weeks and, feeling pretty frustrated, Tom had to ditch his plans when he discovered the cost of hemp insulation was proving to be prohibitively high.

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Undeterred, Tom looked into switching to a passive house concept, and was delighted to discover this would reduce his costs by a whopping 25 per cent. He was introduced to Mike Jacob of Trunk Low Energy Building, a specialist in passive houses, who put him in touch with Irish company MBC Timber Frame. It was the lucky break he needed and finally the project began to take shape. ‘Once we knew we were going to use MBC’s system the process became easier,’ says Tom. ‘Its factory builds the frame and guarantees the airtightness, thermal-bridge-free design and U-certified values, which are three of the five criteria that are critical for a Passivhaus property.’

Work commenced on the project last year, in April 2015. Within just a couple of weeks the timber frame was constructed, and the building was fully completed in only a few short months. Although it was a swift build, the property itself wasn’t created in a traditional manner, as Tom explains: ‘We had a project manager but instead of using one main contractor, each package was tendered out individually, which meant we could get the best value for each job. Luckily, we had an enthusiastic team, who knew the specifics of passive house delivery, and our project manager was a genius co-ordinator.’

To boost insulation, Tom fitted external motorised blinds, which automatically deploy when the house reaches 21 degrees centigrade to help reduce overheating. Triple-glazed windows – another essential passive house criterion – punctuate all four facades. The smallest openings are placed on the north facade, where most of the heat escapes, and also on the east elevation to provide privacy. ‘We had the classic Grand Designs scenario of the glazing being delivered late, but we ploughed on and shifted things around to accommodate the four-week delay,’ explains Tom.

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The house features a fairly typical layout, with the main living spaces on the ground floor and bedrooms and bathrooms upstairs. The house is reached via a small paved court, and a path leads through a beech hedge and across the main garden to a front door set back into the facade. A deliberately tight entrance porch squeezes you down a narrow corridor and releases you into the eight-metre double-height hallway, so when you open the front door you find yourself in the centre of the house. ‘This is intended as the physical representation of the relief of coming home after a long day,’ explains Tom. ‘The joy of returning to the nest, of being safe and warm, and spending time with family and friends.’

A central staircase, which separates the living room from the kitchen and dining area, frames the utility room and study nook. The lack of ground-floor doors – there are only two – accentuates the importance of the internal vistas through the house. The garden to the west is raised by 40cm above floor level, allowing for full views of the pretty West Berkshire countryside while relaxing or dining outside.

The scheme throughout is neutral and calm, but with plenty of character thanks to the abundance of ash wood sourced from a Norfolk forest. Tom opted for a simple palette throughout his home, and the bespoke kitchen was also created in smoked ash. The only place that Tom cracked was in the master bedroom, where he plumped for spruce plywood doors that conceal the en suite. ‘The idea is that you have a secret room. It’s just a bit of fun, really,’ he says.

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‘The house is as easy to live in as any normal home yet costs virtually nothing to run,’ he continues. ‘It could be entirely self-reliant if a suitable number of photovoltaic and solar thermal panels were fitted to the roof.’ In fact, installing panels could earn him cash in the long term, thanks to the Government’s Feed-in Tariff scheme, which pays homeowners money for electricity they generate and use from photovoltaic panels or wind turbines.

It’s been a steep learning curve for Tom, but he’s keen to build more passive houses: he’s setting up in business with Mike Jacob from Trunk Low Energy Building to deliver a passive house building, design and project management service. ‘We’re offering an integrated design and delivery company,’ says Tom. ‘So instead of choosing a separate architect and project manager, we’ll do the whole thing, so clients have cost-certainty from the beginning.’

Sharp design combined with clever project management sounds like a winning combination to us. ‘Passivhaus has been a revelation,’ says Tom, ‘but the devil is in the detail. The difference between a Passivhaus and a normal build is getting it exactly right.’

Words: Andrea Manley, Photography: Quintin Lake

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