Dream green home becomes reality

Q & A with Andrew and Christina Wallace, Green Open Homes hosts

St James Lane Saturday 7th & Sunday 8th October

MHSG member Annabel Rutherford meets Andrew and Christina Wallace, who are building their dream home – a passive house in central Muswell Hill. They have a lot to be excited about and are showing the build to lucky visitors as part of the Muswell Hill Green Open Homes season this October.

Q Why are you building a passive house?

A It is something that we have wanted to do for about 10 years. We were inspired by watching the TV programme Grand Designs and then started to visit passive houses during the annual Green Open Homes event and learnt more about the benefits of living in one. We also visited the National Self Build & Renovation Centre in Swindon. Passive houses are the best for energy efficiency – they have a managed atmosphere which provides consistent levels of comfort, including humidity, carbon dioxide and fresh filtered air, as well the right temperature 24/7, meaning much lower energy bills. Edwardian houses are so drafty. We once lived in one in Finchley.

Q Where is the site?

A We are building a two-bed house on a tiny plot of land on St James’s Lane in central Muswell Hill – our favourite part of Muswell Hill. It’s an infill site. The site had a garage that was used as a car body repair shop, which attracted fly-tipping and was unsightly.  It was long abandoned; we found all the old body-spray cans in the back of the garage when we demolished it.

Q What is the house like?

A The house is in a conservation area and had to be low profile, so it has a ground floor and a basement. The latter really added to the cost. There are two bedrooms and an office in the basement. The bedrooms open out onto a sunken courtyard at the back which acts as a lightwell. Upstairs the house has a very light living room/kitchen/dining area. There is a small enclosed courtyard at the front and a dedicated parking space, which has an EV charging point. Although we have run out of money for an electric car.

Q What will the interior be like?

A We love the biophilic feeling. This kind of interior design is very calming: humans are surrounded by natural materials such as wood which brings them closer to nature. The ground floor of our house is all timber. You would be surprised at how beautiful it feels. We also plan to have lots of plants.

Q Are you having to clear out lots of knick-knacks to get the minimalist look?

A We have been trying to minimise our belongings for a few years, to be ready for a minimalist life, but it’s hard and we still have a lot of stuff even though we have been getting rid of things for years.  

Q When are you hoping to move in?

A It is still a building site, so that’s what MHSG visitors will be seeing. The interior and exterior still need fitting out. The project has taken a while. In April 2019, we started talking to the owners of the land, we should finish in early 2024.

Q What is the best thing about the house?

A We have aways wanted to live in a detached house so we can play loud music without affecting the neighbours. In the past we have lived in flats and terraced houses and could always hear our neighbours. We are so looking forward to the peace and quiet. Not only is the house detached but it has triple glazing and the ceiling will be acoustically treated with sound-deadening material to create a calm, peaceful environment.

Q How did you find the land?

A We originally thought that we would have to move outside of London to build a passive house, but we love Muswell Hill and wanted to stay near our family. We looked on the Haringey planning website which has a section on refused permissions. That’s where we saw the site.

Q Can you tell us more about the planning permission process?

A The owner of the space had previously made two unsuccessful planning permission applications to build a house but these were rejected. The first proposal was too large for the site – it was the same height as the original houses next door, rather than subservient. The second proposal was a small ‘housing estate’ style house, of no architectural merit. The planners deemed that it detracted from the original street scene and needed to be single storey above ground level only.  Our application was successful because it was to build a low-profile ‘eco’ house. The fact that this house was to be our home may have helped us to get a sympathetic ear from the planners.

Q You approached the owner and agreed a price subject to planning permission. Does this mean you bought it in the hope you’d get permission? 

A No, it meant we risked our own money on paying for the planning application – if we failed we didn’t have to buy the plot, but if we succeeded we could buy the plot at the pre-agreed price.

Q Who helped you obtain planning permission?

A Alan Crawford of Crawford Partnership (an architecture practice in Muswell Hill) helped us with the planning permission process. He has a successful track record in getting permission for infill sites like this and was very helpful. The MHSG also supported our planning application.

Q Why did you choose the architect Joe Stuart to design and build your house?

A He had built his own passive house with a basement. Most architects haven’t done this configuration before to passive standards. He runs an architectural practice called Warehome and appeared on Grand Designs in 2018, which is where we saw him. He built a very small house on the site of a former coffin workshop. We also wanted a highly sustainable construction, and to use as many non-toxic building materials as possible, and build the house to high sustainability standards, which all are Joe’s passions.

Q How did you choose the builder for the project?

A The builder is known by Joe Stuart and has a good track record. He likes working with Joe because Joe’s construction drawings are very detailed and are very ‘buildable’.

Q How much is the project costing?

A The plot was 343K, the build should be 500k, but will probably be more due to the incredibly high construction-price inflation, particularly a shortage of carpenters and skilled trades, who seem to be charging 50% or 100% more than two years ago.

Q Any compromises?

A Loads. For instance, we wanted timber cladding for the exterior, but the conservation officer wanted a brick finish as the house is in a conservation area – even though it’s low-profile and hidden behind a wall. Brick slips are being added at great expense and are very carbon-heavy. We also had to keep the house low profile to maintain the ‘gap’ between the original houses on the street. That’s why we had to do the basement, but it was very costly.

Q Any top tips?

A Seek to learn from other people’s experience, each step of the way.  When we told friends we were going to search for some land and build our own house in Muswell Hill, many of them told us it was impossible. But we sought help and advice each step of the way from experts and people who have done it before. That is why we went with Warehome for the building phase – they’ve built exactly this type of house before.