Stunning self-build is a lesson in great design

This self-build home in Sheffield is a triumph of intelligent and inspired design and clever construction. Sharon Dale reports. Pictures by Dug Wilders Photography.

It is best known as a 1982 hit for Fun Boy Three and Bananarama, but “It ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it” is also very good advice for anyone applying for planning permission.

READ MORE: This eight-bedroom Victorian townhouse in York is for sale

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It's a melodic summation of why Jo Mallows and Gail Cooke were allowed to build on their garden plot when multiple attempts by previous owners had failed.

Their winning approach was a combination of great architecture, good advice from a planning consultant and a genuine wish to build sustainably.

The result is the Hen House, a beautiful, contemporary home that has been praised by everyone from the editor of the Royal Institute of British Architects' RIBA Journal to judges of the Sheffield Design Awards.

Jo and Gail's self-build journey began when they decided to downsize from their four-bedroom 1930s house in Bradway, which sits on the rural fringe of south-west Sheffield.

Keen to stay local and keep their panoramic views of the city and the moors beyond, they hatched a plan to construct an energy-efficient home in part of their one-acre garden.

“The idea came after the garden was covered in snow. It became a blank canvas and made us realise that there was an opportunity right under our noses,” says Jo.

Selling their house and using a mortgage from the Ecology Building Society would help fund the new-build but first they had to convince the planning authority.

Advice from planning consultant Susan Cowley and an innovative, site-sensitive design by Paul Testa Architects were invaluable. “Our plan was also on a much smaller scale than the previous applications, which also helped,” says Jo.

“The former owners had tried to get permission to build blocks of flats on the land two or three times but it was thrown out at the appeal stage.

“We worked closely with the planning department on pre-application and got planning permission first time, with no opposition.

“It is proof that local authorities will back well-considered, designed, functional and sustainable builds.”

The couple's discreet two-storey house is based on Passivhaus principles, which mean that it is airtight and uses solar gain to radically reduce energy use. It also has triple glazing and a mechanical ventilation and heat recovery unit from the Green Building Store in Huddersfield.

Construction was a challenge as the property is on a steeply sloping site, which Jo and Gail describe as “a tree-filled ravine”. A good structural engineer was a must, along with a sturdy plinth.

The house has an L-shaped ground floor built from black engineered brick and a lighter, timber-framed first floor clad in Eternit cement board and topped with an asymmetrical cedar shingle roof that wraps around the building.

“The wrap-around roof is possibly the most outstanding external feature of the house,” adds Jo.

“It's certainly the most commented on by neighbours and passers-by who stop to admire it.

“Most importantly, we love it. It has such warmth and texture and enfolds the house into the landscape.

“Then there's the bonus of the shingles changing colour over time, as they blend tonally with the grey cement board and blue-black brick.”

The bedrooms are on the ground floor, which is naturally darker and cooler. The main, open-plan living space is on the upper floor. The entrance hall is now home to an office and cloakroom and leads to a large sitting, kitchen and dining area, which the couple have separated with a plywood room divider.

The stand-out feature upstairs is the balcony, which has sensational long-range views and doubles as a herb garden.

Work started on the foundations in late May 2017 with Simplicity Construction of Sheffield as main contractors and Frame Technologies the timber frame specialists. The build took just under a year and was completed in early May 2018.

It went 35 per cent over budget because of a geological survey and extra construction costs due to the difficult site, though Jo and Gail saved money by decorating the house themselves.

Moving in was easy. The couple carried their belongings down the garden, leaving behind what they no longer required.

Running costs are minimal thanks to solar gain, airtightness, insulation and the MHVR unit, although the supreme energy efficiency meant they had to ditch plans to install a woodburner.

“We moved in just in time to enjoy a glorious summer to the full. Unsurprisingly we have made much use of our balcony, which opens directly off the living room. Having a tree-top view is really special, and has totally shifted our focus and sense of place,” says Jo.

“Inside the house, we love the light-filled spaces of the entrance floor, framed at either end of the building by huge triangular-framed windows.

“Solar gain was intense at times over the extraordinary summer but will be a gift throughout the majority of the year and help heat the house when working with the mechanical ventilation and heat recovery system,” adds Jo.

The couple have named their new home The Hen House – a reference to the chickens that used to occupy the site.

“A self-build home is a unique opportunity to create something that makes a statement about you, your values and how you live. For us, that was about reducing our environmental impact, using less space, less energy and living in a sustainable way,” says Jo.

“There's still plenty of work to be done on landscaping, but we want to take our time with that and let the house dictate garden-design as it settles in, and after we've experienced all of the seasons in The Hen House.”

Choosing an architect: Choosing an architect who shares your values and understands what you want to achieve is obviously critical to self-build success. Paul Testa immediately understood our motivation and vision, and his experience of sustainable build led us to decide Passivhaus design was the route for us.

“One of the most enjoyable and creative parts of the project was the design phase, which was a truly collaborative, iterative process. Paul wasn't in the slightest precious, and never played the ‘but I'm the architect card'.

“He was also very patient as we 
went through the various pros and cons of flat roof versus pitched, wood burner or not etc, listening to our ideas and trying to steer us to the right solution for us and the site, rather than for him.”


Paul Testa Architecture,

Crowley Associates, planning consultation,

Jon Carr Structural Design,

Simplicity Construction, main contractor,

Frame Technologies Ltd, timber frame,

Green Building Store, windows, doors, and MVHR design and supply,

Ecology Building Society, mortgage lenders,