Chestnut Farm Is a Modern Prefab That Doesn't Look Like a Trailer

But to meet the zoning rules, it is designed to be a "caravan" or mobile home.

Chestnut Farm Exterior

Richard Chivers via Bowerbird

Seen from afar, English zoning regulations can seem somewhat eccentric. The property that Chestnut Farm is parked on is not zoned to permit a house but did have existing planning rights for two "caravans," defined as "a structure that is designed for human residence and can be transported by road," much like trailer or mobile homes in North America. Remarkably, there is a Caravan Sites Act 1968, which was actually written to protect people who lived in caravans from being evicted by greedy developers, something that happens every day in North America.

two units seen in distance

Richard Chivers via Bowerbird

What is so wonderful about how PAD Studio designed these caravans is that it is a good model for building lots of houses, whether they have to be caravans or trailers or not.

master bedroom
Look closely near the left and you can see a pile.

Richard Chivers via Bowerbird

Let's start at the bottom. The house sits on helical piles—my favorite foundation. No concrete is necessary: The piles are screwed into the ground and when the house has to be moved or is at the end of its useful life, they can be unscrewed, leaving no trace. When I spec'd out my dream house, it was on helical piles. No worries about radon or moisture, and easy detailing; you can build a floor the same way you build a wall or ceiling.

house floating above grade
House floats above grade.

Richard Chivers via Bowerbird

"Raised above the earth on removable piles, the home touches the ground lightly, floating above the wild landscaping in which it is immersed. Part of the client brief was to create a minimal impact home that could be removed from site in future, returning the location back to its original undeveloped state."
end of house on pile

Richard Chivers via Bowerbird

Above grade, the house is built of Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs), a sandwich of foam and wood panel, usually Oriented Strand Board (OSB). The architect tells Treehugger these SIPS are "a combination of locally sourced timber frame and sheathing board with a high insulated rigid board." They wrote earlier that "a SIPs construction method was chosen for its speed of assembly, the airtight quality of the build and because it could be assembled off-site."

end of house floating

Richard Chivers via Bowerbird

"The strategy for the house was to create a contemporary, low lying building crafted from local natural materials to help the building harmonise with this beautiful location whilst minimising the impact of the dwelling on its surroundings. The home is clad in UK Sweet Chestnut, which in time weathers to a beautiful silver hue - the verticality of the timber echoing the surrounding Chestnut tree woodland."
Plans of units

Pad Studio

The plan seemed a bit eccentric at first, with the two separate modules connected by a glass walkway when normally these might be mashed together into a "double-wide." But there is a real logic behind this:

Interior view of kitchen

Richard Chivers via Bowerbird

"The building has been designed to be flexible and future proof; each of the rectangular forms which create the home can work as part of one integrated home connected by the walkway, or as two independent dwellings each containing a kitchen, bedrooms and living space. The western form houses the main living spaces and enjoys a generous open plan kitchen/living room with a full glazed wall at one end. The eastern building is predominately designed to house the main bedrooms but also incorporates a kitchenette and snug living room space."

The levels of insulation, airtightness, and type of ventilation are all Passivhaus-ish, but PAD Studio tells Treehugger: "We never use the term as whilst we adhere to the principles and push the regulations to the best achievable our clients did not want to do the full testing and certification which would certify it as a Passivhaus."

This is to their credit. There are so many "Passivhaus inspired" or "it's Passivhaus but we didn't want to spend the money on certification." It's not Passivhaus if it's not certified, so this is the straightforward and honest way to deal with it.

view back toward living module

Richard Chivers via Bowerbird

Chestnut Farm hits a particular chord for me personally. Twenty years ago I convinced one of Canada's biggest modular builders to let me hire the most talented architects to design modular homes to high standards of energy efficiency. I believed that offsite construction had a lower environmental impact and delivered better buildings in less time. I even wanted them "built on stilts" or helical piles. I wanted to build lots of Chestnut Farms but turned out to be a better writer than I was a prefab salesman, so here I am today.

the happy owners
The Happy Owners.

Richard Chivers via Bowerbird

Pad Studio designed Chestnut Farm for a particular situation, where it legally had to meet the criteria for caravans. But it demonstrates all the virtues of offsite construction, with the bonus of being concrete-free and treading lightly on the land. It's the way we should consider building everywhere.