Designing your oak home for life

Words from Craig Alexander – a Chartered Architect within our in-house Architectural Design team


What is a home for life?

‘A home for life’ is one which is adapted or adaptable to future changes in your living arrangements. It’s well worth considering these as early as possible in the design stages of your self-build, particularly if you are planning to stay in your house for a long time.

Small changes at the design stage can avoid expensive or difficult adaptations later down the line. Please keep in mind, this doesn’t mean just considering stair-lifts and grab rails!

Adaptability can mean different things to all of us; from accommodating ageing parents, to allowing for an expanding family, or perhaps downsizing as children move away. A home that’s adaptable may incorporate a study or snug to later be converted to an accessible ground floor bedroom, or be carefully designed to allow for an extension in future years.

An oak frame house has the potential to be just as adaptable as any other self-build but we do recommend considering your ‘home for life’ arrangements as early as possible in the design process so they can be incorporated in your planning submission.

Defining spaces with your oak frame

While oak frames are well suited to open plan layouts, by considering the positioning of oak frame posts and features, you can create a sense of defined spaces or zones which are interlinked, without feeling too open and exposed. The frame and beams retain visual separation without the need for formal walls which interrupt the flow of movement and natural light. As we design in bays, these can be enclosed using internal walls or left open. This is particularly useful when considering a spacious open-plan layout for a future when you may be less mobile.

An additional benefit of working with oak is that the frame is the load-bearing element, holding up the first floor and roof. This allows internal walls to be changed and repositioned more easily in the future. This means you can consider future adaptations which would be more difficult with load-bearing internal partitions.

Working with oak allows the design to develop with the principle of ‘bays’ of accommodation, it is possible to therefore extend in a similar fashion by simply adding another bay on to your house. Another popular design feature is to consider an additional space to compliment the main body of the house, such as a single storey oak frame sunroom or orangery which can be built in the future.


Adding additional space with a ‘room over’ garage

In addition to considering adaptable living spaces within the house, many of our clients incorporate an oak frame ‘room-over garage’, which can provide fantastic adaptable and resilient accommodation; from a room for children to practice loud musical instruments, and get space outside of the house, to the easier conversion to an annex for family members. The same principle applies to structural green oak frame ‘garages’- separating the structural frame from the wall and roof panels allows for easier conversion of garage buildings in the future.  Many of our clients choose to live in their room-over garage while their house is built!

Designing to meet Building Regulations

While an oak frame lends itself well to impressive open plan spaces, it’s perfectly possible to include corridor spaces. We recommend a minimum width of 1200mm to allow for future wheelchair access. Similarly, consider including wider doors, both external and internal, as they make access easier for those with a wide range of mobility requirements, as well as ease of moving furniture.

Building Regulations set out a requirement for an ‘accessible threshold’ for the front door (which includes no more than a 1.5cm upstand) but we’d always recommend a similarly accessible door out to the garden, such as from a kitchen or day room.

Similarly, regulations include provision of an ‘accessible’ W.C on the entrance level of the house; however it may be worth considering including a ‘wet-room’ shower to further increase its usefulness alongside a potential ground floor bedroom.

Window heights are another, often overlooked consideration: Think about allowing for lower cill heights, particularly in living rooms and rooms which may be used as ground-floor bedrooms, to allow for views out, while both sitting and in bed.


Sustainability: designing a home for the future

Your home for life doesn’t need to mean considering practical access arrangements, it’s worth considering the ongoing running costs for your home, as it is likely that energy costs will only increase in the future. Building fabric is another important consideration, providing the opportunity to integrate both low running costs and a comfortable internal environment. Having a structural oak frame inside the envelope of the building allows the external walls and roof to provide excellent thermal and airtightness performance, uninterrupted by primary structural considerations. To this end, Oakwrights provide ‘encapsulation’ panels for external wall and roofs, manufactured off-site in our workshops to exacting standards. While all our WrightWall products are pre-fabricated to provide the highest level of energy efficiency, our premium WrightWall Natural panel system is built to meet PassivHaus levels of insulation.


Service provisions

An oak frame also works well with metal web timber joists, which provide a generous void within the first floor to run pipes, cables and drainage. These can be easily trimmed, or a ‘knock-out’ panel created at the design stage to allow for a future lift, which is an increasingly popular consideration as there are several compact and visually attractive platform lifts now on the market.

It’s also worth considering good services provision- both providing good and accessible positions of switches and sockets now, but also allow for improvements and alterations in the future. An oak frame allows for the opportunity to incorporate a ‘service void’ on the inside of the building envelope, a 25-50mm space between the plasterboard and insulation to allow for ease of access to the wiring and plumbing, for both first-fix and future adaptations.

Our 5 take-aways for designing your oak frame home for life

  1. Work with an experienced Architect or Designer to develop your brief, with both immediate and long term likely eventualities in mind.
  2. Give due consideration to the thermal performance of your house, investment in additional insulation provides long term cost savings, unlike some eco-measures which can stop working over time, or need maintenance.
  3. Consider accessibility in bathrooms, for example step free wet-rooms and showers with walk-around screens are a great luxury, regardless of your current levels of mobility!
  4. Allow for space in your hallway for a future platform lift, a more visually attractive alternative to a stair-lift, which can act as a storage or airing cupboard until required.
  5. Underfloor heating allows for radiator-free walls and easier reposition of furniture and layouts, ideal for adaptable ground floors.
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