Through the keyhole: It's all in the detail
PUBLISHED: 11:21 06 February 2017 | UPDATED: 11:21 06 February 2017
Precise planning paved the way for a perfect Passivhaus project, as Chrissy Harris discovers
I COULD tell I was going to like Colin and Chris Pilcher’s house long before I got to the doorstep. Their e-mails to arrange our visit were clear, polite and their directions included four options, depending on where I was travelling from and whether I wanted to take the scenic route through the village or a more direct road from the M5. These are just the sort of people, I thought, who pay exactly the right attention to detail and this will translate well into a house they have built from scratch. Turns out I was right. Higher Pytte in Clyst St George, near Exeter, is unbelievably well designed, to the extent that every socket is in the correct place and every light has been fitted to give the perfect shade at all times.
The garden has been beautifully landscaped by them to ensure it changes with the seasons and follows the sun as it dips low in the sky, reflecting the reds and pinks of the Siberian dogwood planted by the glass doors at the back of the house. Colin, 69, and Chris, 65, have thought of everything – even drawing out diagrams to arrange their furniture – to ensure their home suits their needs exactly.
“You probably think we’re really sad!” says Chris.
No. I think they’re brilliant. This couple, who by their own admission aren’t getting any younger, have gone without holidays or any sort of break for years to create a house and garden that has become the talk of the neighbourhood. Local commuters have been known to change their route so they can pass by and catch a glimpse of the poppies in the summer. When the weather’s good, workers from the nearby Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue Training Academy come and stroll around the garden’s expertly planted flowers and shrubs during their lunch breaks.
“We don’t mind at all,” says Colin, a retired bank manager and former owner of a local French polishing business. “It gives us great pleasure to think that other people can enjoy what we are doing here.
“It’s become a kind of open house! We had a couple down from Bristol for the afternoon yesterday because they were thinking about building this sort of property and wanted to see what we had done.”
Higher Pytte is helping to blaze a trail for ‘Passivhaus’ building. The term refers to a standard that was developed in Germany in the 1990s, which means a house has ‘excellent thermal performance, exceptional airtightness with mechanical ventilation’.
Basically, it means this place is a green as they come and has no central heating. The Pilchers have only to open and close windows to adjust the constant temperature of their home.
“I love it because I tend to feel the cold,” says Chris. “We’re so pleased with it.”
But it could all have worked out so differently. Higher Pytte started out as a wreck of a 1800s cottage which Colin and Chris bought with the intention of doing up and adding a modern extension.
“But then when we went to look around,” says Colin. “Some of the windows were held together with tape and there was water coming in under the skirting boards.
“It was all wrong and we just thought we’re going to fight a losing battle and throw good money after bad.”
The ‘get out of jail’ card was to knock it down and start again. The couple knew the building was not listed and they loved the location.
“It’s south facing, gently sloping, edge of the village and you can get to the main road in two or three minutes,” says Colin, who says he and Chris do their location research very thoroughly, having owned seven houses and rented many more in their lifetime.
“We’ve been mad about property all our lives, absolutely mad and we’re quite picky, aren’t we?” says Chris, before Colin laughs and says: “Quite picky? We’re ridiculously picky!” admitting that the pair used to drive and park outside their potential home at night to get a feel for the traffic noise (there isn’t any).
The original idea was to rebuild the cottage exactly as it was but the planners weren’t keen, so it was back to a very blank drawing board.
“It was a case of: oh crumbs! What are we going to build?” says Chris, explaining how she spent weeks sifting through piles of magazines and trawling the internet to at least come up with an idea for the outside of the building.
The pair, who were renting a one-bedroomed house nearby, then commissioned a local architectural technologist (Thomas Shillitoe of Exmouth-based ArchitEXE) to sort out the inside, with the only stipulation being that they wanted lots of storage space.
Once the room layout had been decided - four bedrooms and plenty of open plan living space downstairs – Colin and Chris were left to do what they do best: the detail.
“We worked out what furniture had to go because we had way too much,” says Chris, a retired bank worker and PA. “We worked out what we would keep. For instance, I knew I wanted a light in that corner and on our plan we did little things like: should we have the bed this way or that way? Where should the chest of drawers go? Will there be a lamp on it?
“We do put a lot of thought into things and we’re quite precise. Well, you make a mistake and it ends up costing you.”
The results are stunning. This house is beautifully clutter free but not clinical because there is such a careful blend of old furniture with new.
It’s a clever home put together by two very thoughtful people. If only they took commissions…
Passionate gardeners Colin and Chris have spent hundreds of backbreaking hours creating a magnificent seasonal garden at Higher Pytte.
Since moving in two years ago, they have cleared away up to 35 years’ worth of brambles and weeds before planting more than 60 trees, 1,500 native bluebells, 500 wild daffodils, 300 lavender plants and more.
They painstakingly replanted ‘millions’ of snowdrops, storing them in old mushroom crates until the building work was finished before dotting them around the garden. In the summer, focus shifts to the Mediterranean-style section, with its 300- year-old olive trees.
The woodland area comes into its own later on in the year, with plenty of evergreens and autumn flowering cyclamens.
“The garden kind of repeats itself, there’s always something out,” says Chris.
“We’re out there all the time. We try and stop ourselves a little bit now!”
The couple’s grandchildren, Benjamin, four, and Edward, 18 months can often be seen riding their toy tractor around the paths.
Bees love this place too. Chris and Colin had a hive installed and experts have been impressed with the high honey-production levels because of the sequence of flowering.