December 2010 – January 2011

Mud, Snow, Glass and Stone

The team from LeBrun Construction have continued with the clearing and landscaping,
preparing the external areas for paving and planting.

One important job was to dig the foundation trenches for the dry stone wall which will run along the front of the site.

Tim lays the concrete blocks onto which the wall will be built.

We had loads of these blocks left over from the construction of the house, so it seemed to make sense to use them up here.

There was a much smaller stone wall on the site originally, so we've broken it down carefully,
and all the stone from it will all be incorporated into the new wall.

Compared to outside, things were relatively quiet inside the house during the run-up to Christmas, but Graham
continued with various small but important jobs, including linseeding and grouting the terracotta floor tiles....

...and the encaustic tiles on the risers of the main staircase. A photograph doesn't really do these justice, but seen
'in the flesh' they look wonderful, and we breathed a huge sigh of relief that this particular gamble had paid off.

In goes our very first basin. This is a small hand-basin in the first floor toilet – you can see the top of the chute which connects
to the basement composting chamber, two floors below. For the visible waste pipes, we're using copper as it's more recyclable
than the usual PVC, also it'll look great if we can ever be bothered to polish it, which seems unlikely.

This isn't a modernist grandfather clock in the corner, it's a duct for the mechanical ventilation system,
which has now been boxed in, and should virtually disappear once it's painted the same colour as the walls.

More construction rubble was being cleared as Christmas approached, and work continued apace outside.

And a very warm welcome to the concrete which will form the foundations for
the pergola to support our photovoltaic array.

Most of it was poured in by the digger.....

...the remainder by hand. The PV array will be a large structure – 11 metres long and around 2.5 metres deep, but over
the course of a year it should generate considerably more electricity than we use, and also bring in
a significant amount of income from the power we export to the National Grid, under the feed-in-tariff scheme.

There have been quite a number of other small external jobs to finish off, and here Tim's getting ready to install
the inspection cover over the huge soakaway in the garden, which will receive all of our grey water.

So here's the main part of the garden levelled and almost ready to think about planting. A huge pile of topsoil which had
been here for months has gone, and the recycled bricks for the garden paving moved into place ready for work to begin.
If only it hadn't snowed....

And it was serious, no holds barred snow, combined with absolutely freezing temperatures.
Only one day seperates this picture from the one above, so just a week before Christmas, everything ground to an icy halt.

This snow storm, seen through frosted-up windows, was typical of these days, as the West Midlands endured some of the
coldest temperatures on record. One night the weather station in nearby Pershore recorded minus 19 degrees centigrade.

For many days it was too difficult and hazardous to make the three mile journey to Cropthorne,
and we had to leave the house to look after itself.

More snow fell on top of the original snow, which then froze.
There was some compensation in that the landscape looked stunning, but it was frustrating losing so many days of work.

Finally, just after Christmas things thawed to the point where travel became possible once again,
and Mike was able to get back to the plumbing, and try to make up some lost time.

The house was freezing cold by then though, and we had to try to keep warm with electric heaters, which rather goes against
the ethos of an ultra low energy house. A blowtorch, unfortunately, doesn't really keep you warm.

Nevertheless, putting the bath in felt like quite a significant achievement.

At last the snow cleared, and with the arrival of the new year, operations could begin again.
A while ago, when visiting an architectural salvage yard, we bought an old style street-lamp, mainly on impulse.
Now nicknamed the Narnia lamp, we decided to ask the LeBrun team to install a cable for it while they were on site.

The reasoning was that if we didn't get the job done now, it would probabaly never happen,
so in went a huge piece of ducting which we picked up on Freecycle.

The underground run is almost 80 metres, so it was with considerable relief that we saw the end of the cable appear.
Once installed, the Narnia lamp will produce a tiny warm glowing light, way down the garden where the orchard meets
the woodland. Whether or not it will also lead to a portal into a mystical and magical land where animals can talk,
and good battles evil, remains to be seen.

Back in the real world and after considerable delays the glass for our conservatory finally arrived.

First there had been a fire at the glazing factory
, then the freezing weather,
so it was very pleasing to see the installation going smoothly.

The glass roof panels were a little more tricky than the walls....

....but the team from Wow Glazing in Essex took it all in their stride.

There are still a couple of specially shaped end panels and doors to be installed, but the conservatory is now largely complete.

Which means that finally the water coming off the roof of the house can properly run away, instead of down into the basement.
We've been pumping out the basement after rain for around 18 months now, but now we'll be able to clean it out thoroughly,
ready for the final plumbing of the rainwater harvesting and other supporting systems.

A couple more internal jobs, including applying linseed to the conservatory doors prior to installation.

And a brief return to electrical work for Mike, while Simon installs the internal doors.....

....which we're very pleased with – especially the Vacant/Engaged bolt on the toilet.
We'll proabably treat these with a light oak stain, although they look good already,
illuminated by sunlight through the stained glass panels in the kitchen wall.

We really weren't sure if we should go ahead with building a pond, as it's an additional expense which could be avoided.
But we decided, rather like the Narnia lamp, if we didn't do it now we never would, plus the ground workers and all their
equipment are already here, and big diggers can dig big holes very quickly, and so relatively cheaply.

The earlier snow has given way to rain, and conditions for the ground workers have become decidedly sticky,
especially when using 'puddle clay', with which the pond is being lined.

This will be a natural wildlife pond, so nothing will be introduced into it at all – no plants, no fish, no soil.
The idea is to just leave it, and allow it to populate itself naturally, which it will do in time.
This is our contribution to the Million Ponds Project, which aims to reverse a century of pond habitat loss across the UK.

Another great wildlife habitat, for all sorts of organisms, is provided by dry stone walls.
And here's Calvin, Gloucestershire's 'Stone Man', making a start on ours.

Mike's been lending a hand labouring – delivering the stone which was salvaged from the original wall on the site.
This will be randomly mixed in as the wall is built, and the original lichens will propagate quickly to the new stone.

Calvin and his co-worker Tom have a wealth of experience between them, and have been moving on rapidly. Overall, if things
continue at this pace, by the next diary update we'll see significant progress, with many parts of the project nearing completion.
The dark days in the doldrums before Christmas have gone and the site is now a hive of activity.