In order to compare different price offers from contractors, I wrote the specifications (Bestek in het Nederlands) and measured and counted the whole thing. I signed the contract with the contractor and so the price is now fixed. Unless I make changes, the price is not going to change. So there’s no risk of suddenly going seriously over budget.

Before I could write the specs, I had to decide on what materials to use, etc. At first the plan was to build a steel structure and wrap it up in a wooden frame which I could fill with insulation. Most passive houses are wood structured houses because you can use the entire thickness of the walls for insulation. I’d gotten a price offer and unfortunately it turned out to be more expensive than anticipated. So I decided to drop that idea and to build the traditional way, the way nearly all houses here are built. I had a nice discussion about this recently with American friends and so I realised that you may not know how we traditionally build. The main contractor here is the bricklayer, not the carpenter.

Houses here have cavity walls. The inner brick wall is the actual supporting wall. Then we have insulation. Then there’s a cavity, then the outer brick wall. The space between the facade and the insulation is to allow water to run off the back of the bricks. In our climate, we get a lot of driving rain: rain combined with fierce winds. The rain is pushed into the wall, the back of the bricks get wet too. In winter we also get a lot of frost/thaw cycles: rain during the day, frost at night. If the bricks can’t dry out, they’ll crack when it starts freezing.

This is typical for houses that are built in Belgium (well the North anyway), Holland, the UK (and Ireland perhaps?) and the North of Germany. Everywhere else in Europe, houses are constructed in a different manner.

One difference between the way we build here and Holland and the UK is where the windows are placed.

Over here, the opening for the window in the outer wall is slightly smaller than in the inner wall. The windows are placed from the inside and pushed against the outer wall. So part of the window frame is covered by the bricks. In the UK and Holland, it’s the other way around. It’s how I can immediately tell when I cross the border into Holland: you see more of the window frames. I suppose part of the reason is that in the UK and Holland, windows swing to the outside, whereas over here, windows are in-swing windows. The most common window is one that can both tilt as well as turn.
tilt and turn window

One advantage of our way of doing it is that things like solar screens can be nicely hidden away behind the bricks.

Now, the choice of bricks and windows is immense as well. There are hundred, if not thousand of different bricks to choose from and it greatly determines the look of your house. In the last couple of a years, we saw a lot of modern houses built in black bricks so I’m quite sick of those.

In the end, I decided on this brick .

As I don’t want to judge a brick based on one square metre, I drove around last weekend to look at houses built with  this brick.

Now there are different ways of bricklaying too. Another difference to the UK is that the mortar that is used for the bricklaying, isn’t the mortar you see on the façade. The joints are filled up afterwards. The colour of the joint changes the look as well. Quite often, they’ll mix a few bricks with the mortar so that the joints would have a colour similar to the brick.

A technique that we see more and more in modern is houses is glued brickwork. Instead of using mortar, a mortar based glue is used to create a thin joined brickwork. I rather like the look of it, but it’s more expensive because you have more bricks/m2 and contractors like to charge more for techniques that differ from what they’re used to.

The first picture is of a house with the brick that I picked, according to the traditional bricklaying techniques. The second picture is another house, same brick, but this time glued brickwork. You can see that the look is completely different even though it’s the same brick.

I certainly prefer the look of the second picture. So for a while I was a bit torn about what to choose. Is it worth spending more on glued brickwork? But, as luck would have it, as of last month, the brick that I picked is available in the ZERO format .

This is a new format of brick designed to have the look of glued brickwork, but built according to traditional bricklaying techniques. It’s a bit hollow at the top so that the mortar goes in there and a thin joint is created. I asked my contractor what the price difference would be and to my big surprise, it’s actually a little bit cheaper because the joints don’t have to be filled up afterwards. So yay! My façade will look like the second picture. That was an easy decision to make.

As for all the other decisions…help!