Shawm House

A Northumberland house by Mawson Kerr is self-built to Passivhaus norms


Rob Rhodes

Located in Coldtown in a beautiful but exposed Northumberland setting, Shawm House (old Northumbrian to ‘warm oneself’) responds to a challenging brief and a constrained budget. It was self-built by the client, who had no previous building experience, for his retired parents.

Deemed in open countryside by the local planning authority and in the curtilage of a listed building, the project was granted planning permission due to an ‘exceptionally high quality of design’. The house consists of a timber-frame new-build that links to an existing stone stable block, all ‘anchored’ to an existing stone wall that acts as a shield to the prevailing winds.


The design is contextually driven, with a barn-like form, locally sourced materials and framed views. The layout draws on the historic Bastles of the area, placing the living space on the first floor, though for spatial quality and views rather than defence. The house is wrapped in a thick larch ‘blanket’ that envelops the roof and walls, below which is a highly insulated and airtight building.


Living and working on site, the client manufactured the entire timber frame in an old hay shed using a specially designed jig. The larch cladding was sourced from the Borders and trees felled from the site have been used for the bespoke built-in-furniture, kitchen, tables and stairs. The stone to the gable end of the house and garage was sourced from Northumberland.


Architect Mawson Kerr drew on its experience of Passivhaus design, implementing the principles with super insulation to both the new and existing elements, triple glazing throughout, and a highly airtight construction (beyond Passivhaus standards) coupled with integrated photovoltaics and a biomass boiler. Rainwater harvesting, attention to accessible design and low maintenance inside and out all contribute to the holistic and sustainable scheme for the elderly owners. Great care was taken to avoid thermal bridging; the whole timber frame sits on foamglass blocks, the structure above the huge frameless triple-glazed corner glass window is entirely cantilevered in timber.


The RIBA North-East jury report states: “Shawm house is quiet simply special. It isn’t often that you visit a self-build or professionally procured house that is immaculately constructed, sensitively conceived and has heart and soul with which it impossible not to make an emotional connection. Shawm house has a remarkable story. Whilst living and working on the site this house, built by Richard Pender to provide a more manageable home for his ageing parents, delivers a building that tells a story at every turn. You feel connected to the history of the Pender family, the historic farms and bastilles visible across the Northumbrian fells and are provided with a wonderful series of carefully framed views of the rustic Northumbrian landscape. Working in partnership with Dan Kerr the project architect, Richard Pender has developed from scratch an enviable understanding of construction methodology and technologies, new practical skills and an undeniably keen eye for detail. The building was constructed by Richard on site, in an existing barn were he structured a bespoke jig to enable him to create the buildings timber frame, before applying timber cladding and other finishes to create a house that connects to immediate features such as an existing walled garden but more over sits comfortably in the landscape context.

The project team has combined its knowledge of Passivhaus construction with an ethos for sustainable design, and aligned this approach to a strategy for using materials available on site and from local sources to conceive a truly sustainable, low-energy and low-impact proposition. The execution of this design is of the highest quality, with an exceptional understanding of construction sequencing and coordination and tightness of details. The finish quality is evident in the building’s appearance and exceptional performance criteria, not least its exceptional airtightness.

Beyond the remarkable achievement of constructing this building with little support from professional contractors, Richard would not have been able to deliver the project without the practical knowledge and careful care and attention offered by the project architect, and the timely and thoughtful input from his parents. Dan Kerr managed to retain an architectural vision whilst planning how Richard could build the structure himself whilst ensuring that the carefully considered needs of Mr and Mrs Pender were adequately accommodated. The level of consideration given to the construction process and interfaces between materials new and old is understated yet beautifully composed. Nothing is overstated, yet emphasis, legibility and clarity are given to each element with a balanced and pleasing weighting.

Shawm House will be a perfect home for Richard’s parents and is indeed one of Northumberland’s finest homes. Moreover Shawm House is a standout example of what is possible with clarity of thought and exceptional and focused deployment of an architects skills.”


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