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Trying it at home

Burd Haward Marston Architects has completed its first new building, a self-build house in a conservation area in Ealing, west London. Its experience shows that many of the key elements of the the Segal Method, as set out in the AJ 15 years ago (5.11.86), are just as applicable today It is an attitude of mind rather than a system of construction.

Walter Segal's involvement in self-build started in 1971, when one of his clients phoned him to announce that he had dismissed the carpenter who was carrying out work on his new house, near Woodbridge in Suffolk. The client, a schoolteacher, had simply decided that the work looked so straightforward that he could save himself some money by doing the job himself.

Now, as then, a can-do attitude is the main prerequisite for a self-build client. Burd Haward Marston's client, John Brooke and Carol Coombes, had no building experience, but Brooke argues that they were well qualified for the task in other respects: 'With Carol being a painter, and me being in the BBC, we are used to having long periods where you didn't know what something is going to look like, and having to keep our cool and go with it.'

The attitude is one of rigorous simplification of the whole building process from design to completion.

'Conceptually, the design was completely influenced by the fact that they were going to build it themselves, ' says Catherine Burd of Burd Haward Marston.

In terms of planning, the house is fairly simple, in that it is set out on a grid and arranged according to a straightforward diagram: the accommodation is on one side of the site, and is as compact as possible, leaving room for a glazed courtyard on the other. The two-storey, enclosed side of the house contains an open-plan kitchen/ dining/living room and a study on the ground floor, and bedrooms and bathrooms upstairs. It is surrounded by thick walls to the north, east and west. The courtyard is flanked by a glazed wall to the house on one side, and a brick 'garden wall' to the other. It contains the staircase and a small mezzanine sitting area - both of which are galvanised steel. They were originally to be timber, but the fact that they are steel maintains the purity of the diagram by ensuring that the space is read as a single, double-height space.

The process of simplification also applies to the structural approach and Segal's edict that:

The process is rethought from first principles to derive simple yet effective ways of dealing with the fundamental issues of building construction, such as tolerances and thermal and moisture movement.

The client is perfectly satisfied that the chosen structural approach is not only completely comprehensible, but pretty much inevitable. The ground conditions made piles preferable to slab foundations. And, as Brooke puts it, 'having got the piles in place, it then seemed logical to have a steel frame' and having got the frame in place, it was also easy to put glass wherever we could.'

Building it was a little more intimidating. 'Although the clients were keen to carry out all the building work themselves they were really worried about setting out, ' Burd recalls, 'so we decided that we'd put up the steel frame and they could wrap it themselves.' The lightweight steel-framed superstructure established the appropriate tolerances (see structural account).

It is spanned by Masonite timber studs, enclosed in timber sheathing. This, in turn, is 'wrapped' with a clay-tile cladding system which is both easy to install, and precise - the client was determined to avoid the 'folksiness' often associated with self-build.

11after the rain 12 the potting shed doubled as a site hut 13 the house is at the bottom of the garden of the clients'previous home 14 self-build takes advantage of all available labour Elements are reduced to their essentials to obtain maximum economy of material and effort.

While Segal favoured timber frame, and has a 'folksy' reputation, 'we realised we had to throw out preconceptions like 'we have to do it in timber because it's sustainable'', Burd recalls. 'I think steel worked out really sustainable because we used so little of it.'

Foundations and groundworks are reduced to a minimum.

In this respect, the Brooke Coombes house deviates from the norm. Poor subsoil, combined with the close proximity of existing and removed trees, meant that ground movement could be a problem. This prompted the design team to opt for piling. There are also concrete retaining walls to the basement storage area and ponds. 'Putting the piling in was the lowest point, ' says Brooke. 'It rained and rained and rained.'

Construction is quick and economical.

A significant advantage of embarking on a self-build project is that the building process can fluctuate to suit available resources - building up momentum, for example, when university-aged children are back for the holidays - and can be planned to suit other commitments. As a fanatical gardener, John's main concern was that sufficient time and care should be taken to move plants from the old garden into the new. In this instance, the advantage of selfbuild was not that it speeded things up, but that it could be infinitely prolonged.

Work on site began in September 1999, and the architect cites a completion date of March 2001, but in reality, it is difficult to pinpoint the moment at which construction ends and gardening begins. The potting shed has served time as the site hut. The side wall to the courtyard - currently exposed brickwork - will not really be complete until it is dense with climbing plants. The fact that the garden is very much an integral part of the scheme means that the project will be a 'work in progress' for some time, and possibly indefinitely.

The simplicity of the construction documentation makes the whole process 'transparent' and easily understood by someone without experience, who can thus become involved in controlling the process.

Quantity surveyor Jonathan Moulton produced a simple cost plan - described by Burd as 'a model of legibility' - as soon as the outline design had been decided. The initial cost plan came in at about £250,000, compared with the budget of £150,000, but the straightforward, elemental breakdown made it easy for the client to make informed decisions as to where the necessary cost savings might be made. The most fundamental saving was the decision to replace the proposed basement with a smaller 'undercroft', which houses cool air, providing ventilation to the courtyard, and doubles as storage space. Plans to heat the courtyard were also abandoned.

In the event, cost increases related to changes in brief, specification, or simply the passage of time, led to a total project cost of £310,874, which both architect and client consider to be good value for money.

Working drawings were designed to be as legible as possible, but the architect was keen to impose limits on the client's ability to control the process.

As Burd puts it: 'With self-build the whole relationship between client and architect becomes confused, ' and the decision to use steel was, in part, a bid to limit the extent to which the contractor/client could use its initiative. 'If we had made it in timber, they could have made the details up at every turn.'

Inevitably, the client did introduce changes - notably the channel of running water which flows through the conservatory, providing cooling and humidity, rainwater storage for plantwatering, and a home for fish.

But, says Brooke: 'We were very aware of the danger of tweaking the plan, and making lots of little changes. In fact we were very surprised at the way the original design actually endured.'

They are very adaptable and easy to extend.

The glory of having a user who is also the contractor is that it should, in theory at least, be relatively easy to introduce structural alterations as circumstances change. In true selfbuild tradition, the Brooke Coombes house has been designed with flexibility in mind. This works at a microlevel - a 'storage zone' has been set at a uniform height on the bedroom walls so that storage can be added as necessary, without disrupting its proportions - and at a macro-level - partition walls between the children's bedrooms can be removed as they leave home.

The whole process produces buildings that are not monumental or heavy, or which 'encircle' the personality, but rather they encourage a feeling of lightness and optimism - buildings of their time to be used and enjoyed.

Although there is no obvious reason why a desire to build one's own home should go hand in hand with the quest for 'lightness', the two often seem to go together. Brookes and Coombes admit that at the start of the process they had very little idea of what they wanted, 'other than an ambition for having something light'. As they started to translate this vague yearning into concrete form, the wish-list expanded to include 'connection with the outside, level changes, and simplicity - we didn't want lots of little rooms'.

Nevertheless, this is a house with a profound respect for privacy. In stark contrast to the loft model with little separation between sleeping and living space, the distinction between night and day is celebrated. The fact that the staircase is placed outside the accommodation zone means that the trip to bed involves a foray into semi-outdoor space (in winter the conservatory is five degrees warmer than outside).

While the loft model may suit a young couple, this exaggerated distinction between private and public parts seems particularly appropriate where parents and teenagers - both in need of privacy - are sharing a home.

The drawback to having the staircase in the courtyard - along with the pitfalls of lightness and transparency - are neatly summed up by Coombes:

'If you want to wander downstairs in your nothings, you're completely on show.'

Conclusion.

Architect and client - and even initially sceptical neighbours - are delighted with the result.

The Brooke Coombes house is 'of its time', and exactly suited to its owners' needs. Clearly, the relationship between architect and self-build client can work, provided the architect is prepared to approach its own role with a degree of flexibility, and the client, in turn, knows where to abdicate responsibility and defer to the architect.

Despite the fact that it offers an ideal opportunity to break free from traditional housebuilding, it seems that the architectural profession has not yet learnt to 'talk up' self-build.

Brooke and Coombes very nearly ended up with a traditional home. 'As we were in a conservation area, ' says Brooke, 'it never dawned on us that we could do anything else.'

Exploratory conversations with various architects - 'we interviewed at least 10, most of them dreary and middle-aged' - did not so much as touch on the possibility of doing anything more adventurous.

The main hurdle seems to have been an cute failure of communication. After giving a talk about the completed project, Brooke was approached by one of the architects whom they had decided not to use. He praised the house, and said: 'You probably didn't realise that I could have done something like that, ' before conceding: 'It never occurred to me that you would go for it.' The failure had been one of 'bedside manner' - an inability to convey and receive the necessary information, while reassuring the clients that they were in safe hands.

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