High performance in a barn-style home - Spaces NZ
High performance in a barn-style home

High performance in a barn-style home

On a mission to create a healthy home without costing the earth, this architect's rural new build has a warm heart that's fully certified.

Words by Cassie Doherty

You know something is amiss when Joseph Lyth is feeling the cold.

As a Yorkshire lad, he grew up in a 300 year old farmhouse with ice on the windows, yet is still shocked at the state of some New Zealand houses. “We’ve got an issue of performance here,” he says.

After a stint in London, Joseph and his wife Sarah visited Auckland in 2016 and liked it so much they stayed. The houses they lived in, however, were another story.

“We were renting a room in an old villa in Grey Lynn and it was the kind of house that had a vent in the ceiling that you could see glow worms through in winter, it was that cold and wet. Then we moved into a little granny flat in Murray’s Bay: single-glazed, barely insulated.”

When they started a family, this became a problem.

“Our first child, Lily, was coughing every winter – asthma, inhalers, all sorts of issues – and we were hating it. And then we had our second child, Emily, and the same thing was happening. We just couldn't do it any more.”

Luckily, Joseph is an architect at Respond Architects, and at the time was a newly certified Passive House designer. Together he and Sarah made the decision to build.

“What is the priority? It is a healthy envelope. So if we're going to do it, let’s do it properly. Let’s design a Passive House.”

Bolstered by a small inheritance from Joseph’s grandmother Joyce after she passed, the pair spent a year looking for a site that was affordable with plenty of space. When they found just the spot, 1.4ha in a rural area on Auckland’s North Shore with expansive valley views, it was time to start designing.

So what is a Passive House? There are five basic principles: site-specific insulation, high-performance glazing, airtightness, mechanical ventilation with heat exchange, and minimal thermal bridges.

“I’d first learned about it in university back in London,” says Joseph. “Interestingly, I do remember thinking, why would you? It’s basically a thermos flask with a ventilation system stuck on it. But once you dive deeper down the rabbit hole and learn why, it all makes sense.”

The house exterior is Resene Scoria. “It's beautiful. When it’s really sunny it’s a warm cherry red, but when it's a bit more overcast, it's got that sort of rusty brown look to it. It informed our material choices inside as well.”
The rope light in the kitchen is by Superlux, chosen to complement the high ceilings. “Because we've got quite a small footprint, we’re using heights to create space,” says Joseph. The kitchen is gradually being completed as time and budget permits.

Unfortunately the builder’s quote on the initial design was twice as much as expected. Plus, to satisfy the bank’s mortgage requirements, the house had to be larger than envisaged to increase its value. For the sake of the budget, this meant paring back to the essentials.

“It was a real exercise. How can we mitigate the upfront costs, what can we do later or do ourselves? We basically put our money into the things that really count.”

They switched from concrete water tanks to plastic, and deleted the varnishing of the ply walls from the builder’s contract.

“I took every day of annual leave I had and came on site to help bring down the labour costs. If I'm being honest, it probably didn't help that much with the budget but it did give me valuable experience from the builders’ perspective and I learned a lot.”

The house is built using SIPs, structural insulated panels, from Formance. It’s basically a sandwich, says Joseph: expanded polystyrene between two layers of strandboard.

“It’s your insulation, it’s your structure, it’s your interior lining if you want, and it’s your air barrier as well. So while the product itself costs more, it does several jobs. It's also much quicker: our walls went up in two days.”

The concrete sinks that Joseph cast himself are modelled after a large butler’s sink in the farmhouse where he grew up in the Yorkshire Dales. “I designed the big bowl with enough room to wash big roasting tins because we love a good roast.”
Large triple-glazed doors and windows capture the views. Instead of a typical sliding door to the deck, Joseph chose a fixed glass panel with a door. It’s more suitable for a high-performance house, reduces the breeze and saves money.
A Resene colour expert helped create a cohesive palette of seven colours for the interior doors. The oak laminate flooring throughout the downstairs area is from Bunnings.

Functionality doesn’t trump the form: the house has been designed in a classic barn style.

“You think of shelter, you think simplicity, you think robustness,” says Joseph. “And because it’s a rural location, we didn't want something massively modern. I can literally see another red barn across the valley so it sits into its context really nicely.”

The home is full of texture with the exposed strandboard of the SIPs and the ply-lined interior walls.

“My preference is for materials that have got character,” says Joseph. So much so, he has added even more. He built the forms and cast the concrete sinks himself, and installed the sheet copper splashbacks.

“We were concerned that we might have gone a bit overboard with the texture, but I think they all complement each other, and we love seeing the developing patina on the copper and concrete.”

All that texture inside meant colour was tricky to add. “My oldest said she wanted a pink door for her bedroom. It was a good idea but we didn’t want every door pink, so we went to Resene and worked with one of their colour experts to come up with a palette that adds to the journey through the house. It makes me happy when I see the doors, I do love a bit of colour.”

The home is 170sqm. “I cut my teeth doing loft extensions in London, so fitting a lot into a small space is something I'm quite experienced with.”
“Our kids had a habit of drawing on the walls,” says Joseph. “So plywood means we can sand it off. If at a later date we get bored of the plywood we can whitewash it or we can line over it.”
The multi-purpose mezzanine is currently used by the family as a music room.
The sustainable vinyl bathroom flooring is by Inzide.

Also pleasing is the performance of the Passive House: the environment inside the home is monitored by Tether sensors so the family can keep an eye on carbon dioxide levels, temperature and humidity.

Now with three children including baby William, all health issues are resolved. “Emily was just hacking for the month before we moved in and within a week she was fine.”

Joseph says this was the first certified Passive House he designed. “It’s great to use yourself as a guinea pig.”

A fully certified Passive House is a vigorous process, and needs to be considered right from the concept stage. But Respond Architects can still apply the principles to any degree to create a higher performing home that is warmer, dryer and more energy efficient.

“We're not purists. As a practice, we completely understand that not every single project can be fully Certified Passive House. But we want to improve every project because every little step is a good step as far as we're concerned.”

Images: Dan Scott Photo

“Carpet is one of the worst things you can put in the building for embodied carbon, because the maintenance, repair and replacement. So that's why we quite like rugs and throws.”
The ceilings are painted Resene Half Sea Fog, with the texture of the SIPs strandboard still visible. The shadow gaps between the SIPs and the plywood are to highlight the concept of the interior being slotted into the envelope of the house.
Glimpses through the slot windows add to a feeling of space. “They always remind me of medieval castles,” says Joseph.
The house fits effortlessly into its environment. Soon Joseph plans to inset a bath into the deck.
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