Micro chic, eco style

It's hard to believe that Claire Potter's grade II listed cottage in Portslade, on the outskirts of Brighton, is just a slice off the house next door "We think it must have been the kitchen," she explains, "as there's a bread oven near what is now the front door." The property is essentially a 'one up, one down,' but thanks to Claire and her partner Mark's skills Claire trained as an interior architect at Brighton University it feels compact, but spacious, a well organised home, in no way cramped. The layout downstairs is conventional enough, with the front room leading to the kitchen and out to the garden, but upstairs something unexpected happens. The bathroom is on the landing. No, wait a minute, the bathroom is the landing. You almost have to walk through the huge tiled shower tray to get to the bedroom. "We didn't have room for a bath," smiles Claire, "we thought about installing a small hip bath, but opted for the shower in the end. Our friends find it a little strange when they use the bathroom!" she laughs. It sounds odd, but it makes sense within the space available and when you realise that Claire's desk is right inside the fireplace and that her laptop nestles cosily in the bread oven, having a bathroom for a landing doesn't seem that unusual at all.

Welcome to Brighton, home of the quirky, creative and very environmentally conscious. Brighton is, after all, the first constituency with a Green Party Member of Parliament. A fitting place for a designer with very Green credentials to live and work, not that Claire would choose to live anywhere else. "I was born and brought up in Brighton. It's not until you move away and then come back that you realise what a special place Brighton is. There are so many different and creative people here. When I was at university my friends were always amazed at the whacky things people got up to. I couldn't understand what they meant because I'd never known anything different. I guess I've always taken it for granted."

After university Claire and Mark worked at a variety of short-term and part-time jobs, saving up enough money to move to Morzine, a town on the Swiss French border, where they lived for five months and pursued their passion for snowboarding. They return there most winters, "There's something about the adrenalin rush with snowboarding and I love the winter, so it's the perfect combination." She grins. When they found the cottage on their return around 4½ years ago, it needed a lot of work modernising? "No, quite the reverse!" chuckles Claire. "It's a shame we didn't find it a couple of years before, as until then, it had been owned by the same person for 30 years and they hadn't touched it."

The previous owners of the cottage, built around1645, had bought it as a starter home. "They set about trying to make it into a typical square box more suited to a new house. Their main aim seemed to be to remove as many traces of the original features as possible," Claire remembers. "The walls were painted lavender, but the first thing we did when we moved in was to rip up the bright purple carpet that was in the front room and all the way up the stairs." Fortunately the couple were able to peel off the smothering layers of 'improvements' and restore the integrity of the original building, reinstating what they could and adding reclaimed, recycled and responsibly sourced items wherever possible. "The staircase is made from solid oak sourced locally in Sussex," says Claire with pride.

What is now the pantry was once the outside lavatory one of a pair built to service Claire's cottage the cottage next door. A right of way had to be granted across the garden in order for the neighbours to use their facilities, making it a somewhat inconvenient convenience! They have subsequently purchased next door's privy and turned it into a utility room, but the neighbours still have right of way across the garden to use the side entrance.

It was by chance, a couple of years ago, that Claire happened to see and then enter a competition to design an environmentally friendly garden for NS&I at the Gardener's World Show in Birmingham. Her winning design incorporated many unusual and recycled materials and contained 97% edible planting. Designing the garden inspired Claire to launch her design business and her studio now offers a broad range of services from consultancy through to full interior or exterior solutions for both domestic and commercial clients. Claire will even accompany buyers when they're house hunting, pointing out possibilities and acting as an advisor, helping to cut through the confusion surrounding the rapid advances and changes in sustainable living. She's recently been working on a project with Sussex University, sponsoring an award. "It's important to put something back," she feels, and it's interesting to work with the students and see how things have developed since she was at university. "Sustainability isn't something that's added on now, it's just the way it is. It's just assumed that the ecological angle is where everyone's coming from. Even larger corporations are becoming more eco-minded. Claire's own studio is a member of the Green Register of Construction Professionals. "We don't even use staples and all the inks we use are vegetable based." She's keenly aware that the eco message needs to be lived with integrity.

The studio will soon be based in an outbuilding in the garden, the origins of which are subject to some speculation. "Someone told us that it was common for teams of nomadic builders to build a place to sleep when they were working on building houses," says Claire, "or it could have been a storage unit of some kind, or even a pigsty; but I think it's actually been built at a later date, though it's in keeping with the house whoever built it used the same bricks and flint that are a part of the existing walls and house." It's a good size and will mean that Claire's desk can be removed from the inglenook and they'll be able to install a wood-burning stove into the fireplace. There's currently no heating in the house. "We've put thick curtains across the window and the door and that stops any draughts really and the walls are so thick that the heat and cold take a long time to penetrate." Surely it was hard this past winter? She laughs. "We just had to wear lots of jumpers, but there was frost on the inside of the windows on occasion." Claire is clearly an outdoor girl and doesn't mind the cold. Although she trained as an interior architect, around 60% of the projects Claire works on are outside. "I've always gardened," she says, "and it's great to be able to design outdoor spaces." Claire's own garden is an eclectic mix of interesting plants and ornaments made from recycled materials. The planting style is informal and creative, combining edible plants and herbs with shrubs and perennials. The garden may be modest in size, but Claire has managed to pack a lot in, including some bantam hens and a wormery. "We bottle up the 'worm juice' and give it away at Christmas!" She laughs. Delicious!

In the front garden, and in perfect scale to the cottage, is a micro-caravan, or eco tear-drop trailer, based on a design from the 1920s. Claire and Mark have designed and built the 'Green Bean' mainly from recycled materials, even using plastic bottles as insulation and solar power for lighting and to power the kettle. It comes complete with a 'built-in kitchen' and there's enough space in the main section to fit a double mattress made from recycled foam.

It's been a revelation seeing just how much can be achieved in a limited space, both inside and out and a fitting testament to Claire Potter's design skills and eco credentials that it all works so well. The couple certainly seem to be living the Green Dream, now all they need is a micro pig...

  • words Jo Arnell
  • pictures David Merewether
  • styling Lucy Fleming