How an innovative rebuild turned a Victorian house in Hackney into a model for low-carbon building

 (James Retief)
(James Retief)

When Dora Taylor bought her Hackney house with her partner, Danny Hubbard, in 2018 she knew it had a lot going for it; a bay-fronted Victorian terrace, with a good-sized front garden, right next to Victoria Park.

“I really like this house style, and the idea of watching the world go by from the garden really appealed to me. It’s a beautiful green part of London with lots of cafes and people, but it still feels relaxing,” she says.

There’s no such thing as the perfect property though, and in this case, the downside was the kitchen. Taylor’s many-stranded career includes being a chef, writer and podcaster, with a passion for sustainable vegan food and a recently completed MA in food anthropology.

She needed somewhere to prepare food for her vegan catering business and a place where she and Danny — a horticulture teacher and community gardener — could cook together.

The couple needed somewhere they could cook together and entertain friends (James Retief)
The couple needed somewhere they could cook together and entertain friends (James Retief)

“We love to cook for friends but the kitchen was dingy and cold, and too cramped for people to sit with us as we prepared dinner,” she recalls.

The couple realised that they needed to reconfigure to gain more space, as well as bring in more light. But they knew that any renovation work would have to align with their shared ethos.

“We act in accordance with our values throughout our lives, from what we cook and eat to only buying second-hand clothes, to holidaying by train not plane, so we needed the project to be as low-carbon as possible,” says Taylor.

That might have involved an exhaustive quest to find a like-minded architect, but Taylor and Hubbard managed to connect with the right practice with just a post on the Nextdoor neighbourhood app.

What it cost

  • Demolitions and structural alterations: £17,000 + VAT

  • New structures in hardwood timber and LC3 concrete: £60,000 + VAT

  • Windows and doors: £35,000 + VAT

  • Kitchen: £17,000

  • All other renovation and construction: £165,000 + VAT

  • TOTAL: £280,000 + VAT

They asked for an architect to help create a sustainable home with as little waste and as much recycling as possible and their search caught the eye of Cairn Architects, a practice with offices in east London and Edinburgh.

Sustainability underpins everything we do,” says Cairn’s founding director, Kieran Hawkins.

“Dora’s project was smaller than many that we work on, but her environmental commitment and her openness to new ideas offered wonderful opportunities to explore making a home in ways that are both quite radical and satisfyingly low-tech.

"We were interested in Dora’s approach, she wanted to avoid any work that wasn’t absolutely necessary. And we clicked on a personal level and that’s the best indicator that a project will go well.”

 (James Retief)
(James Retief)

The build involved just a small extension to the rear and side return, pushing the ground-floor bathroom up against the boundary wall to create a bigger kitchen with a glazed roof, maximising natural light. The ground floor at the back of the house was lowered, boosting the ceiling height and sense of space.

The trade-off was that the already tiny back garden became a mere lightwell. But at the same time, the job involved creating a proper roof terrace, now accessed via double doors off the study/third bedroom and there’s generous outside space in the front garden, where the couple like to spend time, especially as the house is on a low-traffic street.

It was in the material choices that the sustainability really got going. The project was the first in the UK to use LC3 limestone, aka calcined clay cement, for the ground-floor slab and foundations.

LC3 generates 30 to 40 per cent less CO2 in its production than standard Portland cement. “If LC3 was universally adopted by the construction industry, it would reduce total global CO2 emissions by two per cent,” explains Hawkins.

 (James Retief)
(James Retief)

The material palette here also includes wood-fibre, foamed glass and cork for insulation, and wood-wool panels topped with lime plaster as a breathable alternative to plasterboard — all specified to boost the building’s sustainability as well as its health and well-being benefits.

All the windows were replaced with new double-glazed versions that have made a big difference to the house’s thermal performance and general toastiness.

To choose the most sustainable options for the project, Cairn worked closely with Structure Workshop, structural engineers with their own copyrighted Carbon Calculator, “enabling us to make accurate calculations about the embodied carbon involved in each design decision,” explains Hawkins. Steel supports were swapped for sapele hardwood beams.

“This presents a trade-off: what most renovators want to see is a big, minimalist open space in their new home, but this is only made possible due to the strength of steel box frames, which comes at a huge carbon cost. Instead, we have two repurposed brick columns from the old external wall, and two sapele columns, and we have learnt to love them,” says Hubbard.

 (James Retief)
(James Retief)

To create the distinctive kitchen walls, Hempcrete has been used to fill a framework of UK-grown softwood. “Dora was keen to avoid putting up plasterboard and painting it with chemicals. Hempcrete has more character and is more aligned with her values,” recalls Hawkins. “I liked that hemp can be grown in the UK and that it sequesters carbon away,” Taylor explains.

Cairn Architects have nicknamed this project “the house made by many hands” stemming, in part, from the day when Taylor and Hubbard, architects Hawkins and Riccardo Bela, and contractor David Sheard filled each section of wall by hand.

“There are these visible, textural strata and you can see the character and the story in the walls,” says Hawkins.

While others might see Hempcrete as a functional material to be hidden away, here its earthy, brutalist good looks are celebrated.

“You can plaster over it and we looked at lots of different finishes, but we realised that we find it really beautiful,” says Taylor, while Hubbard adds, “we have also said that it’s like living in a giant Weetabix!”

Keeping the carbon low

How Dora and Danny followed the five Rs

REFUSE With the support of Cairn Architects, the pair were able to reject seemingly ubiquitous construction materials such as conventional concrete and plasterboard.

REDUCE The team dialled down the use of new and environmentally costly elements like steel, reduced here from whole RSJs to just footings supporting the timber columns, while Dora tracked down factory-second kitchen appliances with cosmetic faults.

REUSE Cairn Architects got on board with Dora’s plan to source second-hand and vintage fixtures and fittings, such as taps and door handles. The light fittings are Victorian while the reclaimed floors came from Bow Street magistrates’ court, via Salvoweb.

REPURPOSE The team considered all the waste materials on the project, reworking an old door into a sliding door for the upstairs loo, and making a window frame from old architrave.

RECYCLE As well as using materials that recycle waste items, from Hempcrete to Foresso, the couple used Gumtree to sell items locally from the pre-renovation house, such as the old roll-top bath and butler sink.

Taylor was determined to source the fixtures and fittings second-hand where possible. “We were already in the habit of buying second-hand furniture, lights and appliances, and had become quite good at sourcing things we liked.

"Re-using items like this is such a good way of reducing waste, and it also gives our home character as we often stumble upon things we wouldn’t have thought to look for,” she says.

For the kitchen, Taylor looked to local furniture-maker Liam Mooney of Xylo, who combined oak veneer cabinets with worktops in Foresso, which uses waste wood encased in resin, for a terrazzo-like look.

“I absolutely love the Foresso, it’s such a beautiful material. We chose a cream one where you can really see the chip within it and the colour reflects the natural light.”

Beyond the countertops, Taylor is feeling similarly positive about the whole project.

 (James Retief)
(James Retief)

“It was fun working with Cairn, they brought a lot of interesting ideas to the table and we could bring any crazy idea to them and they would run with it, think about it and then come back to us with options.

"The kitchen is such a joy to cook in, the way the space has been designed makes it really intuitive to use. We’re loving having friends round and cooking, eating and drinking together now there’s so much more room.

“The colours and textures of the natural materials are really soothing to live within, too. The bathroom also makes us very happy — the bright tiles, rooflight and warm tones of the timber makes us feel like we’re on holiday.”

What is hempcrete?

There’s much more to hemp than cannabis and CBD, with the seed making food supplements and animal feed, and the fibre being used for textiles and paper, as well as insulation in construction.

Hempcrete binds lime-render with the shive — the woody part of the hemp stalk — which is a low-value waste product.

Hemp is really good at capturing CO2 during its growth — absorbing twice as much as trees — and sequestering it away, with research suggesting that a square metre of Hempcrete can sequester about 110 to 165 kg of CO2.

Hempcrete can be sprayed on, cast directly on site or used in block form.

Find out more at

Where to source pre-loved fixtures and fittings

  • Dora’s top three go-to sites are eBay, Preloved, and Gumtree. All three allow you to search locally. On eBay Dora applies ‘condition’ filters such as ‘used’ and ‘refurbished’

  • Enviromate and Site-Spares offer bargain leftover building materials

  • For second-hand kitchen deals try The Used Kitchen Company, Used Kitchen Hub or Love My Kitchen

  • Rehome are a one-stop shop for kitchens, bathrooms, appliances and other home and garden items

  • The brilliantly-named Broken Bog specialise in vintage bathroom kit, especially colourful bathroom suites

  • H2O Appliances and Appliances Direct both sell refurbished appliances

  • Get to know your local reclamation yards, or try the Salvoweb platform where Dora sourced her timber floors

  • Dora used Bert & May for her reclaimed tiles, many reclamation yards also have a great selection