Daring to be different

Ex-headteacher Joan Morters opted for a timber-built passive house system and a roof shaped like butterfly wings for her retirement home


Former teacher Joan Morters’ self-build story is an inspiring lesson in daring to be different.

As Joan herself says: “What’s the point of building a house from scratch that looks like everyone else’s – you may as well go out and buy one that’s already been built. Make it unique.”

And there’s no denying that the retirement home she’s created for herself stands out as nothing like the norm in the village of Ramsey Heights, deep in the Cambridgeshire fens.

Not only has Joan opted for an energy-efficient, timber-built passive house, she’s also chosen an eye-catching inverted aluminium roof design that resembles the wings of a butterfly.

Not surprisingly, the 135 m2 two-bedroom property has attracted a fair of amount of interest locally. Joan reveals: “I’ve had people stop and take pictures of the house, although people are getting more used to it now.”

Construction finished in April 2019, but the journey to that point began in earnest three years earlier when Joan finished a career of more than 40 years in teaching, the last two decades as a primary school headteacher.

She jokes: “Headteachers are used to being busy, so I thought a project like building my own house would help to keep me occupied for a few years!”

The idea of self-building was partly inspired by many years watching TV shows like Channel 4’s Grand Designs, a programme which also contributed to Joan’s growing awareness of the environment and living in a more ecologically friendly way. “I saw how new technology and design innovation could reduce the need for fossil fuels, while allowing for modern design and creativity, and this interested me hugely.”

In June 2016, Joan worked out how she might apply such technology to plans for her own new home. “I attended an event at the National Self Build & Renovation Centre in Swindon and discovered a British company called Beattie Passive. They convinced me of the ecological benefits of a passive house system.”

Just a few months later, in January 2017, Joan’s search for an appropriate plot of land finally brought success: “I wanted a sense of open space but somewhere that was still just a two-hour drive from London. When the land in Ramsey Heights came up, with its fantastic views of the fens, I did my research to make sure the area had the facilities I wanted, visited in person a few days later and bought it for £105,000 soon after.”

The next challenge was to find an architect who could not only help make Joan’s ideas a reality but who was also familiar with the demands of working on a passive house. “Beattie Passive recommended Cambridge-based Mole Architects because they’d worked with them before. I checked out their website and just loved their designs.”

Ian Bramwell, director of Mole Architects, picks up the story: “Joan has been an amazing client, she is very determined and was decisive and right from the start, a key design instruction from her was making the most of the flat fenland landscape, which means you can see for miles. To get those stunning views, she suggested an upside-down house with most of the living space upstairs.”

The result is a first floor that comprises an open-plan kitchen, dining and lounge area, an ensuite master bedroom with countryside views looking east to catch sunrises, and a west-facing balcony that’s reached through patio doors and supplies a wonderful vantage point to watch sunsets. Downstairs is an integral garage, study, utility room and a small guest bedroom.

However, another of Joan’s important stipulations for design was that she wanted her new home to be her ‘forever’ house, somewhere she could live for the rest of her life, and climbing stairs becomes more difficult for all of us as we grow older.

Ian says: “We’ve done quite a lot of self-build houses for people in retirement and we understand that this involves thinking about their mobility in the future. Joan’s in good health now but she wanted to think ahead. So, a wheelchair lift was incorporated into her plans early on, as was ensuring the rest of the house is wheelchair-friendly through having wide enough doors. There were also little touches like power sockets placed at waist height for less bending when Joan’s older. In addition, the groundfloor guestroom can be converted into a carer’s accommodation, if needed.

“A low-energy passive house with its super-insulated design should also provide some reassurance around heating bills, keeping them to a minimum. That’s important to a retiree like Joan who is living on a budget. And it goes hand in hand with her very strong desire to cut her carbon footprint.”

The striking roof design, which could also be described as being upside-down, was not something on Joan’s original wishlist. She reveals: “I knew what I wanted in a lot of areas but on this I wasn’t dogmatic, I had an open mind – it sort of happened along the way, working in partnership with the architect. I liked the sketches I was shown and, again, because I’m a fan of Grand Designs I’m conditioned to considering new ideas and was already persuaded that different can work.”

Ian explains: “Working with Joan we looked at a number of different roof options. The thinking behind the final shape was to achieve a lightness of touch and its arrangement means the facade facing south can have taller and higher windows. A normal pitched roof would have meant lower windows, which would have presented planning issues around overlooking the neighbouring bungalows. So, the windows on the south side first floor are quite high, almost above eye line, which means you can’t look down into the neighbours’ properties.

“We drew inspiration from award-winning Australian architect Glenn Murcutt – he often designs buildings in big landscapes that touch the earth lightly and have very expressive roofs. We’ve admired his work for many years.” He adds: “Joan’s roof certainly stands out. Let’s put it this way: she doesn’t have to give detailed instructions when giving directions to where to find her in the village, she just tells people to look for the house with the butterfly roof!”

The look of the exterior walls and materials used outside were also decisions worked out between Joan and Ian, and project architect at Mole, Susie Newman. Overlapping rough-sawn larch cladding boards will eventually weather down to a soft grey colour, while at ground level, where one can touch the cladding, there is a finer timber that’s stained white. The cladding was partly inspired by fenland agriculture barns, and also the huge stacks of pallets that you often see in this part of the world come harvest time.

Central to creating a home with ‘green’ credentials is the passive house timber system installed by Beattie Passive, which is completed using closed panels, insulated with micro beads. Combined with Velfac triple glazing, the result is Joan has no need for gas-fired central heating, although there are two small electric panel radiators she can use. A mechanical ventilation system ensures that fresh air is brought into the house, but it is also capable of cooling internal temperatures when needed and recovering heat from expelled air to raise the temperature.

On the roof, which was craned into position by Beattie Passive, are six solar panels that are capable of producing up to 10 kw of electricity a day. This provides most of her power, although she’s also hooked up to the grid: “My target was to cut the power I use, not to be self-sufficient. I may put up a wind turbine at some later date but that does need further planning permission,” she says.

Joan’s main living space is filled with plants, and she has tried to reduce the use of petrochemical materials through choices like using Marmoleum flooring, which is made of sawdust and cork. Just one other example of an ecologically driven interior design decision is using hemp and silk for her curtains – hemp is said to be more sustainable than cotton as its production uses less water. Says Joan: “I’ve spent hours and hours looking into these ecological and sustainability issues – both to do it properly and to stay within my budget – but I enjoyed doing it.” She also persuaded a carpenter working on her home to make a TV table and shelf out of the kitchen work surface off-cuts.

A garden wrapped around two sides of the house meets the design stipulation for outside space at Joan’s self-build creation. When completed it will include a wildflower meadow, walk-in vegetable cage (that means netted to keep out butterflies and birds for you non-gardeners), a domestic polytunnel, a Japanese zen garden area and half a dozen fruit-bearing trees. Here too, Joan has tried to be green with a shed made of recycled plastic and builders’ ‘waste’ like pallets, cladding off-cuts and left-over plastic sheeting and membrane incorporated into garden structures like a bin store and raised beds.

During construction, which began in the summer of 2018, Joan lived in nearby rented accommodation so she could be on site most days for at least 30 minutes to an hour: “You’ve got to be there to make sure things are happening and costs don’t get away from you. I always had a finite budget,” she says.

While the majority of the project managing was dealt with by her contractors, plus Ian and Susie at Mole, Joan did “do a bit” herself, including buying the windows and kitchen, organising the electricity and telephone/internet connections and arranging the scaffolding and welfare unit for the timber frame installation.

She explains: “As a primary head I’d had some big projects to deal with at schools – replacement windows and heating – so I’m used to dealing with build projects to some extent. As a head I was also used to managing people, whether it be teachers, cleaners or catering staff, and you learn how to get the best out of them.”

Not content with a house that looks so different, she’s also decided to give it an unusual name – Wuduhus: “It’s wooden house in Anglo Saxon. A friend’s son is at Cambridge University and his friend is doing a PhD in ancient languages – he gave me the word.”

But being prepared to be different doesn’t mean Joan’s kept apart from the community where she’s made her new home. Far from it, she’s immersed herself in that community straight away, becoming a governor of a local primary school and getting involved in nature conservation projects. She’s also a regular visitor at a nearby gym.

On top of the price she paid for the land, the final cost of construction for Joan, including professional fees, was about £400,000. Funded by the sale of her former home in Reading and some savings, she’s now mortgage-free. She’s delighted with what she’s achieved: “I feel really content and happy that everything’s working well, and I’m now looking forward to putting the finishing touches to my garden.”