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readers’ homes 53

Eco chic

The Smiths wanted to create a sustainable home for their family and for their business, so used natural materials and renewable technology to create a flagship property Words STEPHANIE SMITH Photos COLIN POOLE

Build It July 2014


he twin aims of moving to Cornwall and building an eco home had been on Ruth and Mark Smith’s agenda for several years before they took the plunge. Living with their toddler Wilfred in an Edwardian twobedroom terraced house in Brighton, with baby Megan on the way, the plan began to take on more urgency. “Mark’s family are from Cornwall,” says Ruth. “It’s where he grew up and we both felt it would be a great place to bring up our children.” Trained as an environmental engineer, Mark felt increasingly drawn to sustainable building projects and knew that this was where

Extensive solar PV panels make the house self-sufficient in its use of electricity, and blend surprisingly well with the large glass rooflight

his future lay. “I really wanted to create an eco house myself – design it, help with the construction and get my hands dirty. If I could gain experience with every aspect, it would be helpful to others when I was building something for them,” says Mark. But with the price of land high and suitable plots scarce in Cornwall, their initial search was fruitless. Thankfully, a convenient solution was close to home: Mark’s parents, who run Bosinver, a holiday cottage complex near St Austell, agreed to lend a hand. “They let us use some of their estate to build on,” says Ruth. “It’s part of a very large site, so there were no land fees, just construction

readers’ homes 55 THE SMITH FILE Names Mark & Ruth Smith Occupations Mark is a builder/ chartered engineer & Sally is a teacher Location St Austell, Cornwall Type of build New build STYLE Contemporary construction method Reclaimed timber frame with straw bale infill Plot size 600m² Land cost Gifted (parents bought in 1998 as part of a farm) House size 200m2 (2,153ft²) Build cost £210,500 cost per m2 £1,052 (£98 per ft²) VAT RECLAIM £60,000 Mark and Ruth with children Wilfred and Megan. The couple wanted to prove that stylish and eco-friendly design need not be two separate things

building work commenced October 2010 building work TOOK 30 weeks



A little bit of magic and a lot of love went into building this


costs. This obviously made a huge difference, and enabled Mark to really get his teeth into the project.” It was important to the Smiths that they used only local companies and materials, or those with approved environmental policies – with nothing imported from abroad. “We looked at everything in detail, and since we had a blank slate, we could remain true to the eco credentials of the project,” says Ruth.

Creative concept A local architect, Sally Jones, came on board at the beginning of the project (autumn 2009) and worked with Mark on the design. “We considered various options for the construction, including rammed earth walls and straw bales,” says Mark. “In the end we went for the latter, in conjunction with lime render on the outside. This meant it would be more in-keeping with the vernacular cottages nearby.” Consent for the design sailed through planning, and approval was granted in March 2010. Mark’s advice for anyone thinking about their own eco build is to get the planners involved at an early stage. “If you’re embarking on a project like this one, it’s worth taking on consultants to help you through the Building Regulations and planning glitches. For around £700 − a tiny part of the budget − we were able to get a non-standard building through the approval process really quickly,” he says. “It’s no time to be timid when you are planning your dream home,” he continues. “Start off with the best possible outcome, and then be prepared to have it scaled back, rather than the other way around. Never be afraid to go for it as far as houses are concerned. Don’t compromise on what you want.” Seven months after consent was granted, the foundations and concrete floor slab went down, ready for the rest of the house to take

shape. “It has a pitched roof with enormous solar panels on the south side to get the most out of the sunshine, while the bedrooms and bathrooms are located at the back on the north side, and have smaller windows to conserve the heat,” says Mark. Inside, the ground floor has an open plan kitchen, dining and living space, plus two bedrooms and a bathroom; upstairs, a mezzanine floor contains two further bedrooms and another bathroom. Unusually, the supporting timber frame is made using reclaimed wood. “We found it at a local salvage yard, DRS in St Austell, and it really was in a massive stack of what looked like rotting rubbish under a hedge,” says Mark. “It was rescued from an old psychiatric hospital in Bodmin. But I could see that the wood was sound and was going to look beautiful.” By the beginning of 2011, the property “still looked like a barn, with a frame, a roof and no sides,” says Ruth. “But Mark, his father, plus two builders and two carpenters − all local of course − set to work, and in a matter of weeks it began to resemble a home.” The double glazed timber windows were all produced locally, too. “We looked at triple glazed units, but most of these are made in Scandinavia,” says Mark. “We wanted to stay true to Cornwall, plus because everything else is so efficient, and we were able to install it all from scratch rather than have to adapt an existing building, we realised we didn’t actually need them, which was great.”

Quality and character With the shell of the building completed, spring saw the final push. The Smiths focussed their attention on the interior scheme: “We were really determined to show that environmentally friendly and stylish could go well together,” says Mark. “You don’t need to be all ‘hair shirt’ about it − there’s nothing wrong with a bit of luxury and


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readers’ homes 57 some colour − so we focussed on good quality products in the kitchen and bathrooms. Most of the furniture is bespoke-made by local carpenters using native wood, too, which is actually very cost effective and you get exactly what you want.” One of the biggest hits with the couple was the eco friendly paint, by the Cornish Lime Company. “It actually smells nice,” says Mark, “and it’s the first time I’ve painted somewhere and not felt ill from the fumes. The colour range is really natural as well, so you can get a feeling of old walls, but in a new house.” When everything was finished, Mark and Ruth held an open day to educate people about sustainable building. With its reclaimed frame and straw bale walls, the house is zero-carbon rated and selfsufficient in terms of energy, using solar PV panels and a ground source heat pump to provide electricity, heating and hot water. “The concrete base acts as a thermal store, lowering running costs,” says Mark. “There’s even an LED screen in the hall where you can see how much energy is being produced, used and saved at any time. “We wanted something contemporary and comfortable and we’re really proud of what we’ve achieved,” he continues. “The open-plan

we learned... environmentally friendly new builds may be cheaper than you think and, with rural councils keen to promote them, are easier to get approved. certain renewable energy sources, such as solar PV or solar thermal, are a no brainer, as they are so cost effective and easy to install and run. For other technologies, you need a good company to help you evaluate and choose the right solution − we came across a lot of conflicting advice before we chose our supplier. Get your company to show you some of their projects and meet their customers.

In the guest suite, the bed came from friends, the chest of drawers was bought in a Brighton flea market and the bedside cabinets were found in a shed Original Style’s Juvela mosaics were used to highlight the curved wetroom wall. All the bathroom fittings were selected for their water-saving abilities

The reclaimed timber frame originally came from a hospital and was bought from a salvage yard; it has given the house a timeless character

Build It July 2014


readers’ homes

living area matches the high-quality fittings. We were careful to go for bespoke furniture from local craftsmen and use vibrant colours everywhere. It means the eco credentials are tastefully fitted in rather than being obvious, and it also helps other people see what they could do themselves.”

Moving on With their children now reaching school age, the couple have had to have a rethink about living here full-time. “Being in an isolated

position with peace and quiet is ideal for the holiday cottage business, but not so convenient for play dates and local amenities,” said Ruth, “but we had no illusions about this being a forever house, as driving for miles to school is not really eco friendly.” So saying goodbye to the property and moving to nearby Penryn has been an acceptable alternative. “We’ve called the house Lowen, which is Cornish for happy,” says Mark. “We always knew that this wasn’t a long-term home for us; it was more a dream we wanted to achieve. A little bit of magic and a lot of love went into building it.”

closer look

Shelter from the storm… The veranda is one of the Smiths’ favourite features. It was built in exactly the same way as the rest of the house, with reclaimed timber columns and a glass and slate roof, so there’s a seamless transition between the outdoors and indoors. “It’s great to sit out when it’s raining and watch a storm roll in while you’re sheltered from the rain,” says Mark. “It’s also a great space to hang the washing out in any weather, knowing it’ll dry and won’t get wet!”

T h e ve ra n d a

Total build cost breakdown

Floor plans


Ground floor

Cost m2


Total cost

Solar PV, thermal & heat pump £285



Rainwater harvesting








Timber frame











Rendering & landscaping




Furniture & decoration











Labour Fees

Grand total

First floor

Useful contacts

House plans re-created using ARCON 3D Home Design Software. Tel: 01252 267788 Email:

Build It July 2014


Architects Sally Jones 01637 830180 Purl Design 01726 812212 Carpenter John & George Edyvean 01726 850803 Renewables ZLC Energy 01726 390390 www.zlcenergy. Lime rendering Natural Building Solutions 01392 202133 www. Kitchen Creative Home Interiors 01841 533676 Reclaimed timber frame DRS Reclamation 07773 367484 Sanitaryware Tiles & Interiors 01326 377045 Bespoke mirrors and clock Driftwood Mirrors 07815 541859 www. Windows David Salisbury 01278 764444 Roof slates Truro Reclamation 01872 510807 Carpets Axminster Carpets 01297 32244 www.axminster-carpets. Eco friendly paint Cornish Lime Company 01208 79779 www. Stove Cosyhome Stove 01872 510204 Cabinet Lucy Turner 01326 374191 Holiday let enquiries Bosinver Holiday Cottages 01726 72128

Built It July 2014