A Passion For Homes interview with Oliver Heath


You’ve appeared on our screens in many TV design programmes, which has been your favourite and why? D Child, Northumberland

I did this series called Dream Homes, which featured 5 people building their own homes from all over the country from the Isle of Sky down to Devon. The series featured all sorts of homes, and we looked at the inspiration behind them, the stories, so that was fantastic.

I’ve also worked on DIY SOS and that is probably the toughest programme to work on – the impact the design has on the people we are helping is very evident, it changes people’s lives, the impact is fantastic and so that is very satisfying.

I’m also just doing a series for a Norwegian company, it’s a whole different way of TV design over there and we end up working on houses next to beautiful fjords, it’s lovely and a treat for me.

What has been your most tricky or bizarre design brief? L Goldberg, Leicester

That’s quite a difficult question because every single project we do is different, there’s no repetition, every client is different, every building is different with different needs. The most difficult thing is managing the juggling act between the clients’ needs, budgets and timeframes, the site itself, the wish that I want to have some stylistic input, with the building planning and regulations and that is always the most difficult thing – to keep all of those things in check.

Keep the client happy, keep it in the budget, keep it happening within the timeframe, keep the planners happy and create a final output that I am happy to put in my portfolio. That’s quite a lot of different things!

So every project has its tricky parts if you want to get the best out of it. The budget can be the trickiest part, the time it takes me to source the best and the most reasonable products and materials to create the design, it’s not just about the budget for the materials, it’s the budget for the time it takes too. Very often clients may have an unrealistic view of what they can get for their budget, especially if they haven’t done a project like this before, as the labour can cost up to two-thirds of the budget, so it is about managing client expectations too.

We at A Passion for Homes think your contemporary designs are beautiful – where do you get your inspiration from?

We do a lot of research into images, looking around at what’s going on around us, taking inspiration from what’s going on in the world, reading magazines, architects magazines, homes journals, searching on the internet. I go to exhibitions when I can. I go to markets quite a lot where I see a lot of trends coming back, but seeing things coming back but in a different

way, or in a different way of putting things together. I’m always looking out for things, or different ways that things go together.

For example, I’m looking out of my window at the moment and there’s a building site going on and they are lifting some galvanised steel sheets and there are an orange ladder and a red waste chute and wow, those colours look good together – just looking around like that really!

What are your top 3 tips for successful interior design?

I feel that architecturally, education in this subject has been squeezed a lot so there’s less time to teach what’s important in design – design is never just about putting one thing next to another and that’s it, good design has to come from good conceptual ideas, and I fear there’s a lack of conceptual teaching or enough thought into this aspect. So when we set out on a project, it’s always about assessing what this person really wants from this building, do they want it to be relaxing, calming, involve nature?

What we often do after meeting the client is create a concept sheet, what mood and atmosphere do they want us to create and that’s our starting point – putting together images of textures, materials, lighting and atmosphere to generate how we want this space to feel at the end of the project. It’s not about choosing products or colours at this stage, it’s all about generating what the space is going to feel like. So there’s a really strong conceptual approach to each project.

The second stage of this conceptual approach is creating full plans and working out the functionality of the space. So at this conceptual stage, it’s about listening to the client, looking at the site using all senses and then engaging the brain, experience and skill to bring all of these things together to create a concept that brings the aesthetics and the functionality of the space together to solve the question that is in the client’s brief.

Then, once the client likes the concept, the project begins. There’s so much research and work that goes on behind the scenes including how the elements connect together and often this element of the design comes to me when I’m not thinking about it too much, when I’m cycling, or walking or making a cup of tea and I’ll go, ‘ahh this is how I’m going to make the connection between these things and solve the puzzle!’

For me, it’s about looking and listening to the client, not about getting on site and taking charge – using my eyes and my ears and thinking before using my mouth!

You’ve become a recognised expert in the field of sustainable building design and knowledge – is this an area of design you have always been passionate about and how has it developed?

I grew up in Brighton and I spent a lot of time either in the countryside or on the beach. When I was in my teens I used to teach windsurfing including how to respect nature to keep safe – if you don’t respect nature when you are windsurfing out at sea, then you will get into trouble, so these ideas about respecting nature have blended into my studies in architecture, which I studied for 6 years. And so, the idea of creating architecture that works with nature seemed to make more sense to me. I think this was always something I thought about, as I was always upcycing and dragging bits of wood out of the sea and going to scrapyards and markets. In fact, the idea of upcycing was always something that I loved, making things when I was 10 years old out of stuff that I had found, and these ideas developed as I got older. These ideas are covered in my last book Urban Eco Chic, which is all about creating aesthetically beautiful things out of eco materials.

I think it’s important that I use the opportunities I get to talk about these things in the media – about things that are important and affecting our homes right now and in the future.

What are the latest or predicted trend developments in sustainable and eco building design?

The rise of smart homes is a key trend – so homes where we demand more from every surface, so for example, instead of our walls being somewhere where we hang pictures, our walls could be surfaces that we use as insulators using insulating paints, or glowing walls to reflect light or using new technologies to grow plants. So when we talk about smart homes, we’re not just talking about the integration of technology, we are also talking about putting added bonuses into every single surface and because we expect more from our homes now, we should be expecting more from every product and element that we put in it.

In the next 10-20 years, we will see a lot more products and developments towards homes that are far more connected to the environment, far more efficient and healthier places to live.

What can people do from a small day to day level to improve the eco credentials of their home?

At the moment there are 14 million homes that need refurbishment, so what is most important is that people don’t just jump on the latest trend, but do the basics to make their home better such as insulating walls and ceilings, using low energy appliances, fitting a new boiler, stopping the draughts – simple things that have to happen over the next 5-10 years but that some people are very resistant to doing. Some people cannot actually be paid to insulate their lofts, that’s how bad it is in England! I hear stories from B&Q, that they are trying to pay people to insulate their loft, but people won’t do it because they don’t want the upheaval.

So many homes are no better, from a thermal point of view, as when they were built. So when we talk about the trends that might happen, the main one is that we really need to refurbish Britain’s homes to make them environmentally healthier and warmer.

Practical question from @ToolTalk1 on Twitter – what would you recommend to strip paint off an old metal Victorian surface door lock that’s got years of paint built up on it?

There’s a product called home strip – but you must be careful if you google this product!! – and this is basically a paint stripper that isn’t full of horrible acids, so when you use it, it doesn’t burn your hands and is much nicer to use at home, so I would recommend they use this product.

What next for Oliver Heath, what are you working on at the moment?

We’re working on a variety of design projects in the office at the moment, doing a bit of TV, and I’ve also started a social enterprise, which is basically helping people to connect with their neighbours via their shared local resources, such as a corner shop. If the local corner shop speaks to its neighbours then it can be selling things that people want, instead of just selling emergency items also stocking things that people actually want to buy. So at the same time as corner shops connecting with its neighbours also neighbours connecting with neighbours. For example, how many neighbours do you think own a ladder in your street? About 5? If you knew who owned a ladder, wouldn’t you rather ask to borrow one from your neighbour than go out and buy one? (Jo and Andrea – yes, definitely!). So, the website that we have created helps people to share products, but also knowledge, if you were looking for a recommended tradesman like an electrician or if you needed a recommended babysitter for example.

We’re working on the pilot project of this at the moment at www.yoolocal.com and the aim is to get local people to connect together to make small changes to their lives and hopefully once connected through the website they may work together on something more, like lending each other tools, sharing knowledge, getting their local shops to stock local and fresh produce and maybe much more.

This is just another strand to the work that we are doing and developing at the moment.
Many thanks Oliver for a fascinating chat with us; we look forward to covering the developments of www.yoolocal.com

Check out Oliver’s website at www.oliverheath.com for more information on all of the subjects discussed in this interview, Oliver’s blog and, of course, some beautiful photos of Oliver’s work.

Oliver Heath’s biography

Oliver Heath studied architecture at The Bartlett, UCL, is the director of Heath Design Ltd, which specialises in sustainable interiors, exhibitions and architecture. His practice has previously worked with a number of developers including Bio Regional, ING Real Estate and Barratt Homes. Eco exhibitions include a Green Living Centre for Islington Council, a recycled material stand for WRAP Eco Home Exhibition for the Geffrye Museum, London, and is currently working on a Green Living Centre in the heart of Brighton

His media career started in 1998 and has since worked on a variety of television design shows for the BBC1, BBC2, ITV, and Channel 4, and the Discovery Channel, including BBC Changing Rooms and most recently as a guest designer on the BBC’s DIY SOS. He is also the author of 3 books, most recently – Urban Eco Chic (published by Quadrille 2008) which describes the practical and aesthetic issues surrounding contemporary Eco interiors; making them achievable and aspirational.

In 2005 Oliver was a founding member of the online store www.ecocentric.co.uk which specialised in beautifully designed sustainable products. In recent years Oliver has acted as a media spokesperson for both the WRAP and the Energy Saving Trust, and has written for the Observer and Friends of the Earth, Earth Matters magazine. He is an experienced speaker on the subject of eco homes, regularly attending events such as Grand Designs Live, EcoBuild, the Ideal Home Show and the forthcoming National Home Improvement Show.

He has recently created a sustainable refurbishment of his own home which saw carbon emissions reduced from 10.9 tonnes to 2.5 tonnes, a project for which the practice won the BIID Eco Retrofit 2011 award and shortlisted in the Greenbuild Awards 2012. For more information and regular eco-design blog updates please
see: www.oliverheathdesign.com

Oliver Heath is a sustainable architectural, interior designer writer and TV presenter working on shows such as BBCs Changing Rooms, DIY SOS and ITV’s Dream Homes. His last book Urban Eco Chic is a practical and aesthetic guide to creating beautiful eco interiors and is now published in 7 languages around the world. He is passionate about making sustainable homes and lifestyles aspirational and accessible. He has recently started a social enterprise aimed at connecting neighbours to share skills, knowledge and to create groups. He believes that community is essential to help us all make the small changes to our lives to protect the future of our homes and environment.


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