Among the trees it takes a few seconds to make out Jon Broome’s house. There are trees outside and trees inside. The entire place is built around a couple of dozen Douglas fir trunks. “They’re very strong, rot-resistant, they don’t need to be treated with chemical preservative and they are great value at about £30 each,” explains Broome as he pats the wood approvingly.
One of the country’s leading eco-architects, Broome built the house himself and earlier this year published a book, The Green Self-Build Book, to share his experiences and expertise with the growing band of people who dream of creating their own environmentally friendly home.
Designed to fit in and around the established fruit trees, Broome’s family home in Forest Hill, south-east London, is an unconventional shape comprising a big central living space surrounded by smaller rooms set at different angles. There is a great soaring roof finished with turf, and windows that range from floor-to-ceiling expanses of glass and long horizontal slots to catch the sun, to projecting windows that frame the views.
“Visually, there is a lot going on here,” says Broome. “I’m interested in experimenting with the shapes of rooms, different roof heights, a mix of open and enclosed spaces, and interesting textures and colours.”
The exterior is wrapped in timber boards interspersed with coloured panels in yellow, blue, grey and white. The Douglas fir trunks are clearly visible as supports for the roof and walls, giving the overall impression of a treehouse for grown-ups. The interior is almost completely lined with wood, reclaimed oak flooring, Douglas fir timber boards for the ceiling, open-tread timber stairs, and the kitchen is encased in plywood panels that have been left in their natural state. With pieces of modern furniture, it feels welcoming and warm.
'Nowadays, ideas about eco-friendly construction are moving into the mainstream'
Now a decade old, the home stands as a laboratory of ideas for Broome’s work, which includes projects for clients such as housing associations creating award-winning, innovative and energy-efficient homes. He has also designed a series of intriguing one-off eco-homes around the country. “The green building story has come a long way in recent years,” says Broome. “Even as recently as 10 years ago, environment-friendly construction was very small-scale, but things have changed dramatically, and today the ideas are moving into the mainstream. Everyone knows about the benefits of green building, sourcing local materials and energy efficiency.” He adds that his recent home designs are so energy efficient they no longer need heating systems and that bills for cooking and hot water can be reduced to about £30 a year.
His interest in this field was nurtured in the late Seventies and early Eighties, when he worked with pioneering self-build architect Walter Segal. Broome and his sister, Jenny, built their own timber-frame home in Lewisham for £15,000. “Then, when I met my wife, Rona, we needed more space for a family and found this plot.” The site had been part of a tennis club 50 years ago.
“By the time we saw the place it formed the garden of a large house and the owners wanted to sell off part of it. The site was too good to miss, it was perfect,” he says.
The story of designing and building is chronicled in Broome’s book, which follows the twists and turns of fulfilling the ambition of building a dream home. Responding to the plot and its mature trees, the house was designed to make the most of natural sunlight with big south-facing windows. The north side has small windows and is sheltered from cold winds.
The interior plan was made as flexible as possible with a bedroom wing for the children — Alex, now 16, and Zoe, 14. There is also a separate guest bedroom and bathroom, and a cosy sitting room that leads into Broome’s studio. The main bedroom and bathroom suite is upstairs. Broome also designed in features such as high levels of insulation to keep heating costs to a minimum, water-saving devices such as spray taps and ways to make the most of natural light through rooflights. Every order for materials was carefully considered, from the type of drainpipes to making sure that the Douglas fir was grown in Britain.
The house took two years to build. “There are surprisingly few things I would do differently,” reflects Broome. “But I would make the house much more energy efficient and sustainable if I was doing it now.” He adds that he would also pay more attention to the ease of maintenance and building in more space flexibility. “While our knowledge about green building has grown considerably, there’s still plenty to learn,” he says.
* Jon Broome Architects (020 8291 9167; www.jonbroome.co.uk; email: email@example.com).
Building an environmentally friendly home
* Anyone planning to build an environment-friendly home should think carefully about all aspects of the design and build. For example, position the house to make the most of natural sunlight and warmth and provide shelter from the cold.
* Take a look at reducing water consumption. There is a good range of products on offer, such as water-efficient loos, showers and taps. Invest in a couple of water butts for the garden.
* Take care to reduce your energy consumption by designing in energy-saving features, especially high levels of insulation. Think about the position of windows and rooflights for natural light.
* Research building materials; try to source locally produced goods and use as many natural materials as possible.
* When it comes to gadgets, take care to balance the installation cost with the return. Solar thermal panels are a good investment for heating water. However, photovoltaic panels for generating electricity are still very expensive. It is better to think of ways of reducing your electricity use; choose energy-efficient appliances and don’t leave items such as televisions on standby.
The Green Self-Build Book, by Jon Broome, is published by Green Books (£25).
Pictures by Edmund Sumner