My Modern House: architects Anna and Russel Hayden on building a Passivhaus for comfort and wellbeing

Anna Hayden: “After building a Passivhaus, we’ve slept through thunderstorms and even a police car chase that ended in our next-door neighbour’s front garden! ­The triple glazing cuts out almost all external noise.

“We do open the windows though. I think there’s a myth about Passivhaus builds that you end up living in some kind of sealed box, but that’s not the case.

“We used to live in a lock keeper’s cottage by Regent’s Canal in Islington. It was really beautiful, but we completely ran out of space with two small, very energetic young children.

“We were looking for a bit of a project. We started looking at moving outside London to get a bit more space for our money and we wanted a better work/life balance. We settled on Stockport because it was a good opportunity to be near my parents.”

Russel Hayden: “The house we found was originally built in 1961 and had only one owner before us, who hadn’t done anything to it. Before we bought it, the house had lain empty for 10 years, so it was an ideal project.

“It was a very ordinary, straightforward house, built using brick block cavity walls and a timber-framed roof.”

Anna: “But I think what we liked about it was that sense of ordinariness. The challenge we set ourselves was, how do we take something quite standard and bring it into the 21st century?

“What we wanted was a special, beautiful space, without doing too many structural changes. We were interested in having spacious, light interiors that would be very comfortable to live in.”

Russel: “I had always been interested in the sustainable side of architecture and Passivhaus but had never had a chance to design one.

“Essentially Passivhaus is about increasing the environmental comfort and energy efficiency of a house. This is achieved by wrapping it with a lot of thermal insulation, reducing thermal bridges, making it very airtight and providing a mechanical ventilation system that heats incoming air using outgoing warm air.

“What we found was that building to Passivhaus standards requires a different mentality to typical building work. You have to be incredibly careful because every surface needs to be insulated and airtight.”

Anna: “I didn’t know a lot about Passivhaus before we started the project. When I started finding out more I became completely sold regarding the comfort and health benefits. What I really love about the house is not just the way it looks but also the way it feels.

“Although we are pleased by how it looks, the main benefits of the house are that it has improved our sleep, we don’t have any draughts, it’s quiet and feels calm, temperatures are stable, and we have very little dust.

“I had knee surgery last year and spent three months in the house, not really leaving. It made a big impact on my recovery because I was comfortable, so I really believe in the power of architecture to make people feel better.”

Russel: “We also built a cedar-clad extension and I have opened my own studio from there, designing Passivhaus houses. It’s great because I get to see our children more – that’s the true benefit of working from home.

“Pretty much all our furniture comes from our house in London. We have an eclectic mixture of bits and pieces but tying it all together is the industrial parquet flooring, which extends all the way through the house. It keeps everything calm.”

Anna: “We also reused materials that were already here. There were steel shelves in the garage and we put them out in the garden during the build, where they weathered. By a happy coincidence, they fit exactly into the garden posts. There was cedar cladding in the dining room from the 1960s. We had it sandblasted and reused it in the hall.

“I think we have definitely achieved our goal of making somewhere comfortable to live. I’m a total convert; I wouldn’t ever live in anything but a Passivhaus now.”

Anna and Russel, if you moved, what would be the first thing you’d take with you?
Anna: “We have some nice ceramic pieces from South Africa, where we lived for six months. There’s one circular piece in our bedroom that is incredibly delicate and simple in form. It’s the first thing I wake up to.”
Russel: “There’s a parabolic wooden bowl on the windowsill downstairs. It balances perfectly and gives me a lot of pleasure.”

What do you think it means to live in a modern way?
 “Combining design and beauty with comfort. Living in this house means my definition of modern living is about wellbeing, about improving one’s physical and mental state.”
“For me, modern living has to be about Passivhaus. The science behind it is so compelling, it seems inevitable that eventually all homes will be constructed using Passivhaus principles. Everyone has the right to live this comfortably.”

Is there a property on The Modern House website that’s caught your eye?
“The huge Harrietsham House, a former industrial building in Kent.”
“The delightful extension by Barker Shorten in Hooe. Simplicity is everything.”

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Read more: Green Pastures: contemporary eco homes outside London