Light vs Performance

by Mike Hardwick
18th December 2012

Self-builders often want light and airy homes with lots of space, that are cheap to run while being easy to maintain. The words ‘light’ and ‘airy’ usually translate to lots of glass and open plan living, while ‘cheap to run’ means insulation and airtightness in preference to traditional heating systems.

However, glass is one of the worst materials in terms of thermal performance and has an insulation value of around eight times less than solid walls. I do worry that these two highly desired requirements are mutually exclusive.

So I was surprised when I read an interview with Kevin McCloud in the property section of The Sunday Telegraph a few weeks ago. He said, “I don’t enjoy living in a white box flooded with light. I like shadows, small spaces, old furniture.” The interview got me thinking…

I can see where our desire for light and space comes from. We are told what houses should look like and from an early age we tend to draw square homes with pointy roofs, a front door in the middle, windows in each corner and smoke curling out of the chimney. Mass-market developers have used this image to construct housing estates that fulfill this ideal. They are also built to a budget, so they tend to have tiny gardens and sometimes even kitchen units from which the doors fall off after a couple of years.

It’s no wonder, then, that the natural reaction of self-builders is to rebel against this orthodoxy by aiming for huge open plan spaces with acres of glass. However, you need to think carefully about what you are letting yourself in for. Poorly considered large glazed expanses can encourage overheating in summer through excess solar gain. In the winter when the sun shines infrequently there will be huge heat loss and increased fuel bills. It may be heresy, but while I understand the logic behind opting for super insulation and airtightness over central heating, I still don’t trust even a moderately glazed house with no heating system to be warm and cosy in winter.

Modern open plan rooms tend to be minimally furnished with no curtains to deaden the sound and they can be prone to echoing. They can also be a nightmare to keep clean, especially for families with young children. So unless you can afford to hire a cleaner, you might want to think about who will be keeping the house in good order. I suspect the novelty of a huge home will soon fade if it falls to mum. By all means, design a dwelling that you would love to live in, but be careful what you wish for!

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