More than a roof over their heads

Laurie O’Flynn visits a North Cork eco-friendly house which blends style, upcycling and fuel economy.

WHEN Angie and Roger Nagle decided to build their own home near Mallow, Co Cork five years ago, they wanted quality, warmth and comfort, which is something they hadn’t experienced in their previous boom-time home.

“We lived in Lucan and in winter we were frozen all the time because of the poor quality of the house. We were shocked when the house next door sold for €500,000,” exclaims explains Angie — who is from Alaska, where houses are still comfortable at 40 degrees below zero outside.

More than a roof over their heads

Besides quality they wanted a home as eco-friendly as possible, so Angie googled ‘eco architect’ and found Clare-based architect, Miles Sampson. He was the first and only architect they called, and he is also the reason that their home is now fully certified as a passive house which was previously open to the public one day a year. That national Open Day is this weekend (see details end of story,) so those interested can see for themselves how a home can be bright and warm even without an oil tank out the back and radiators in every room.

While the couple have no background in construction they were a match made in Heaven when it came to getting stuck into the process of house building, which saved them a small fortune. Angie was more than capable of driving a small digger used to lay the pipes from the on-site well, they roofed the garage themselves and put the grass roof on both the house and garage. They also helped install the insulation, and Roger did all of the quantity surveying and ordering of materials.

More than a roof over their heads

For anyone not so enthusiastic about rolling their sleeves up, simply shopping around can also save a lot. “It pays to shop around. For the timber frame, some quotes were twice what we paid for it, and our price included the airtight test,” explains Angela.

Angela is the founder of the Baby Market, a business which runs pop-up markets around the country selling second-hand baby goods. Families can sell unwanted baby gear to de-clutter and make some money, a far better alternative to just throwing things into landfill.

The couple have a love / hate relationship with waste. While they hate waste from an environmental perspective, they love what it can become with a little imagination, and their home is dotted with upcycled pieces rescued from skips.

More than a roof over their heads

Rather than stumble unsteadily down the steps outside the back door to get to the garage or the paddock, there is a salvaged slide for little ones, and probably not so little ones too. In the study is an impressive lamp made from pipes and a broken lamp found in the dump. Old fridge doors have been transformed into handy storage units in the garage, and old presses have been reworked and turned into flower boxes or put sideways and revamped to create stylish storage units.

It helps that Roger is very talented at woodwork and general DIY, as the floor-to-ceiling shelving in the study shows. The house was completed four years ago and the cost-conscious couple found that the price of building a passive house isn’t much different from a traditional house.

However, how many people in a ‘traditional house’ can say that they spend just €400 a year heating their home? There are just four radiators in all of this 2,400 sq ft four bedroom house, plus two rooms with underfloor heating. The key to keeping it comfortable is making sure it is airtight, having enough insulation without thermal bridging and making the most of solar gains with the correct orientation so that living areas are south facing and utility areas are north facing. There is just one north facing window.

More than a roof over their heads

There is a heat recovery ventilation system warming incoming air, a wood pellet stove to heat the water in winter and solar panels that do the job in summer.

When making initial enquiries with Miles Sampson, Angie explains that he warned them he wouldn’t work with them if they intended to install an open fireplace. They had no such intention, although they did go for a wood burning stove in the end.

“It is a simple and sensible approach that’s about conserving warmth rather than heating a house. The way to do this is to insulate very well, make the property airtight and install a heat recovery system. It’s a simple principle but it takes know-how and experience to build it properly.

“Irish builders are improving in this area and Ireland has led the way ahead of the UK, but there is still a lot to be done on it though,” says architect Miles Sampson.

More than a roof over their heads

Passive houses aren’t always known for their interesting design elements. This is changing however, he says. “Before, passive houses were very boxy but there are a lot more interesting shapes now. The design of this house is a bit unusual. It’s not your typical big white box. It is an eco house by design, such as in the overhangs of the roofs which help shade the windows, so there is a combination of design and practical elements. Angles reduce heat loss by making the house smaller, so there is less space to heat.”

If there wasn’t a good reason for angles to maximising solar gain Angie Nagle would be having none of it. “There is no need for so many angles in houses. They create more waste and more expense,” she feels.

Whatever about angles, no matter how many planet-saving good intentions people have, if they don’t start with a good design then the house won’t reach its maximum potential.

More than a roof over their heads

“The most important thing is to start with a good designer so you can get the right light and the right technology in the right place. If you have a good design at the top of the pyramid, it spreads out to the rest of the project. It’s hard to make up for poor design,” says Mr Sampson.

Inside, Angie and Roger decide on the layout of the rooms. At ground level are an open plan kitchen/living area, bedroom, wet room, utility and large play room which may become two rooms in time. Upstairs are the main bathroom and three bedrooms, one of which has an open bathroom area complete with shower, toilet and sink with nothing to hide behind except a low wall. 

Angie says people either love it or hate it, there is no in between. It certainly isn’t for the faint hearted. At the moment the biggest driver of cost for passive houses is the shortage of builders more than the materials, explains Miles Sampson, noting the plumber was the biggest cost on this project. 

More than a roof over their heads

For builders who want to upskill, the Passive House Academy in Ireland offers training courses for tradesmen. When asked about BER ratings, Mr Sampson says it is a step in the right direction, but there is room for improvement. He says that the Building Energy Rating system is based on CO2 emissions and not on insulation, so the focus isn’t on reducing the energy needs of the house, it’s on reducing CO2 emissions. 

In other words a poorly-insulated house with a renewable energy source could get a higher rating than a passive house. With the European approach moving more towards passive house standard, homes of the future will hopefully eliminate the terrible problem of fuel poverty. 

Once you pay for your insulation, good design and sustainable heating system at construction stage, then there should be little more expense to keep warm. 

“Using traditional building methods, you end up paying again for what you already paid for. There are many options to upgrade properties but people can’t afford it. People don’t put the heating on to save money which is unfortunate. Fuel poverty affects more than old people. 

“There is no excuse not to build something close to a passive house as standard. It means that people are not locked into high heating costs in their older years,”points out Mr Sampson. 

The passive house philosophy focuses on minimising the use of fossil fuels, and while the government likes to talk the talk about supporting renewable energy, it doesn’t walk the walk. 

“The main problem is that the government is not purchasing electricity from renewable sources at a reasonable rate. In Ireland the ESB pays nine cents per kilowatt. In the UK the price is over twice that amount. To encourage renewable energy, you need proper payment for it. 

“People with young families are more aware of the next generation coming and the importance of doing something about fossil fuels. Otherwise the world won’t be a nice place for future generations. The onus is on everyone to help the environment, not just by building passive houses, but also by reducing energy use.” 

Roger and Angie Nagle’s house near Mallow, Co Cork was Miles Sampson’s first passive house project: he has worked on four more since then, including one in Ballinspittle, Kinsale in Cork open tomorrow as part of this weekend’s Open House sessions with the Passive House Association of Ireland. 

See Dozens of near-zero energy build and passive houses, plus a factory and college buildings, are open to the public this weekend. See also: , 


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