Library House was made on a limited budget but with high environmental ambitions and design values. Its architect, James MacDonald Wright, explains how
I bought the east London plot in 2009 to develop for a house, but hadn’t the money or time to do it. Then, the practice became busy with other projects including Caring Wood in Kent. We didn’t start the main build until 2019, and finished the house during the pandemic.
I was always interested in developing low budget housing specifically for the rental market. It has been said that Caring Wood had the obvious advantages of a generous budget and a family client. I like to think that the Library House, which was designed as an affordable rental home with construction costs of £340,000, is a response to that observation.
The site is a 4m-wide infill plot between Edwin Cooper’s grade II listed Clapton Library in Hackney and a terrace of cottages fronting directly on to the pavement. It had been vacant for decades, although foundations suggested there had been a house there once.
It’s a very simple, two-bedroom home of 84m² designed around three equal principles of affordability, sustainability and quality.
We targeted the AECB Building Standard and went for a heavily insulated, airtight envelope, with a view to monitoring ongoing energy performance to help inform our subsequent residential projects. I pay the electricity bills and the tenants reimburse me, so I know exactly how the house is performing compared to the original design calculations.
The Library House sets up a dialogue with its neighbours, sometimes echoing their proportions and character, and sometimes contrasting. We used white bricks on the elevations to tie in with the adjacent terrace, and incorporated tiled slips for the window head details in reference to the architecture of the library building, which I like very much. I often went there to work during the build – it made for a remarkable site office.
We introduced a Corten slot between the cottages and the library, employing a perforated panel to the upper bedroom,and a Passivhaus front door at street level.
The plan form for a lot of small Victorian cottages is that the stairs sit behind the entrance and against the party wall. However, as the site was already so narrow, we instead put the staircase in the centre of the plan to give the front kitchen/dining room its full width. We also created something quite sculptural with a structural curved bookcase that supports the Douglas fir staircase. The shape on plan references the arches of the library next door. There is a small courtyard garden off the rear sitting room and two bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs.
The Library House feels very tranquil. It has a timelessness, a flavour that I like to think runs throughout my work. A lot of this is down to the pared back palette of natural materials such as timber, stone and Corten. In addition, we have a lot of bespoke crafted details, like the built-in storage constructed from sustainable spruce. There’s hardly any paint and we used environmentally friendly treatments for the spruce, so there aren’t the volatile organic compounds you might normally find, which probably also contributes to the calm ambience.
We tendered the project and worked with a small local contractor we knew before, but hadn’t previously built anything on that scale. It turned into quite a collaborative effort.
For the structure, we used a Larsen timber truss, and clay rather than concrete blocks on the party walls – Porotherm from Wienerberger. We liked the effect of the parge coat so much that we decided to use it as the internal finish.
We wanted to use local and economical materials where possible, which was a challenge. For the 7000 white bricks, we began looking at quite expensive ones but ended up choosing one from BEA that cost 67p each, but when used with a French mortar produced a beautiful limey quality. The window head slips were left over from Caring Wood. The 75mm-thick Corten-clad Passivhaus front door was an extravagance, necessary for thermal and acoustic performance benefits.
The walls are quite thick – generally about half a metre – and well insulated. Windows from Velfac are triple glazed. There’s one small kitchen window at the front, with a very thin blind to let in as much light as possible while giving privacy. A second blind can drop down at night so that you’re not on view when the lights are on.
At both front and back we have perforated Corten screens shading the bedroom windows. I love the shadows these create – I wanted to achieve the remarkable quality of light you get from Arabic mashrabiya panels.
Whenever possible we source local materials. The flooring is Blue Lias stone from Somerset – local compared with, say, stone from overseas, which would have been cheaper. The bathroom taps are from Barber Wilsons, a century-old company in Tottenham.
We’ve been economical in many ways. We made the kitchen out of plywood with spruce cladding and in the bedrooms, instead of building wardrobes, we put rails and shelves with a blind you can pull over them.
The house meets all the criteria of the RIBA 2030 Climate Challenge, although it was already on site when that was launched. As well as its high-performing building envelope, it has solar panels on the roof and a whole house MVHR unit on the landing. We calculated the space heating to be a tenth of the requirements of a new build house under current Building Regs – and it has performed even better.
It’s the first time I’ve been a client commercially. It was a challenge – at the end we completely ran so short of money that I had to do the brickwork for the garden seating plinth myself – to the amusement of Danny, our builder. And when we needed handles for the many built-in cupboards, I took off my leather belt and Danny cut it up to line the fingerholes that we’d cut in the doors instead.
In terms of lessons learnt, we’ve known for years about the importance of environmental performance, and we’ll keep taking that further, even beyond what we’ve done here. Keeping things simple and using local materials is essential, and that is certainly something we’ll also be continuing.
Looking ahead, I’d like to do a scalable rental scheme. In the UK houses have to be far more sustainable, and that must apply to the rental sector too.
This is the first in a new series of architect’s accounts about designing and making their buildings
1.3 ACH@50Pa air tightness
10 solar photovoltaic panels producing 2.8KW
17kWh/m2 annual energy use
750W heat load to maintain 20°C in winter
515kg CO2/m2 embodied carbon
£340,000 construction costs
Architect: Macdonald Wright Architects
Client: James Macdonald Wright
Structural engineer: Osbourne Edwards
Sustainability consultant: Conker Conservation
Main contractor: DanEco Build