June/July 2010

One Year On.....

It's now just over a year since the diggers arrived at Cropthorne to begin the groundworks. So this certainly isn't the
quickest build ever, but progress so far has been pretty good, especially when you consider that this is no ordinary house.

Mike Neate has now completed a significant amount of the external rendering – so much so that there's talk of
the scaffolding coming down soon.

The bulk of the electrical wiring was completed weeks ago, but Mike still had to finish a few cable runs,
so that follow-on work could continue.....

....such as installing the plasterboard on the ceiling of the main living area, ready for plastering in a couple of weeks.

Slowly but surely the airtightness membrane is disappearing behind the decorative finishes. We know It'll still be
there though – an absolutely essential component in a house with no space-heating system.

Simon and Keith are levelling the concrete for the garage floor. Lots of the bricks in these walls are the ones we
recovered from the cellar of the old house which was formerly on the site, so it's very pleasing to see them being reused.

Here we are – floor and walls in perfect harmony. The doors will be fitted soon, meaning the garage will be complete
apart from the electrical wiring, which, realistically, probably won't be finished until after we've moved into the house.

The guttering's already installed on the garage, and here it is going onto the house. Copper is an easily recyclable
material with a lifespan, in this application, of over 100 years, so it's highly preferable to the ubiquitous pvc.
Being electrically conductive it's easy to incorporate into an alarm loop.

Anyway, it seems to work, which is encouraging.

Of course toilets are often associated with grunting and straining, and in this case it's the sound of Jim and Keith
moving the composting toilet chamber, which weighs over half a tonne, into its final position.

These stainless steel chutes connect the chamber, in the basement, to the pedestals in the house above.
It's essential that they're vertical, for obvious reasons (to do with gravity).

Once in position, the chutes are cut to the correct length.....

......and given a quick spruce-up, ready for the insulation which they'll eventually be wrapped in. That's because the entire
composting toilet system will be connected to our MVHR* system, meaning the heat generated by the compost pile in the
chamber will be reclaimed and contribute to keeping the house warm. Probably not by very much, but it's a nice idea.
(*MVHR – will explain in a minute).

The composting toilet uses pedestals with no water-trap and so no U-bend. They're called straight-through pans, and they're
virtually impossible to get hold of in the UK. Luckily, we were put in touch with potter Tony Hall at Castle Hill Pottery in mid-Wales.
Tony normally makes giant garden flowerpots, but was very interested in the idea of producing two pedestals
for our composting system. Only a handful of potters in Britain do this so-called 'big-throwing'.

The drying-out process, using a large blowlamp, is a little nerve-wracking, but it does the job.

And here we are – essentially a modified version of one of Tony's rhubarb planters, with a lid added to take the toilet seat.
The next process is a test glaze, but it's looking very good so far, and should be fabulous in the finished bathrooms.

Back at Cropthorne there have been a series of preliminary air-tests, to check for leaks. This giant fan
de-pressurises the house, making it easy to detect air coming in from outside.

One of a number of leaks we found was around the round window, meaning more
air-tightness taping to sort the problem out.

If the house isn't airtight, the MVHR system – that's Mechanical Ventilation with Heat Recovery – can't do its job properly.
A major project over the past few weeks has been installing the ducting which feeds clean air into the living rooms
and bedrooms, and extracts stale air from the kitchen and bathrooms. A heat exchanger then recovers the heat from
the stale air, and uses it to warm the fresh air being brought in from outside. The whole idea is not to lose any heat.

The actual ducting is quite common, and is often used with air conditioning systems. But properly designed
buildings in the UK shouldn't need air conditioning, so here it's being used in a more environmentally benign way.
This duct will eventually deliver clean air to one of the bedrooms, and will be boxed in so you can't see it.

The job's not exactly difficult, but it's time-consuming, and needs to be done carefully so there aren't any leaks.

The major ducting-runs between rooms are in the basement, attached to the ceiling. These will be heavily insulated,
so that we don't lose the heat we're trying to reclaim. It's a shame to cover them up, because they look quite impressive.

If you're old enough, this may remind you of the ceilings of trendy 1980s wine bars.

And now the beginning of the final phase of the insulation process as these 250mm slabs of Jablite polystyrene-and-graphite
insulation are attached to the basement ceiling. Of course the walls and roof are already thoroughly insulated,
so this completes the overall wrapping of the house in a thick 'duvet'.

While Mike Neate's been working on the external rendering, plasterer Mick has been making a start on the inside.
We had some problems before with the lime plaster not adhering properly.....

....but with a few changes to the surface preparation, all now seems to be well.
The ceiling of this bedroom's completely finished, and the walls are waiting for a final skim.
Plastering seems to make a room feel significantly more complete, and interestingly, a lot more echoey.

The front porch will be seperated from the elements by these toughened double-glazed panels,
and as it faces north, we've used a lot of insulation in the roof too.

With seperate doors to the house and to outside, the porch will act as an air-lock, helping to reduce
heat loss in winter and prevent overheating in summer.

The large panels are quite heavy, so they had to be inserted carefully.....

.....but the end result, along with the newly completed render, makes the house look that little bit more complete.

In fact Mike Neate has finished rendering three of the four elevations of the house, and all of the garage.

The west elevation should be one of the most striking once it's uncovered.

Only having little legs, Max isn't very good at climbing scaffolding, so has to keep an eye on things from the ground.

Here's the completed south facade. The scaffolding will be removed shortly, unveiling the exterior of the house in almost
completed form. But the amount of work remaining to complete the interior, including plumbing and electrics, installing
two bathrooms and a kitchen, getting all the autonomous systems running, and finishing the landscaping, is terrifying,
and made all the more so by our having taken on more of the final tasks to try to control the overall cost.
We may be one year on, but how much further is there still to go....?