January - February 2011

On the Right Path...

The long-running saga of the steelwork continued in February with the arrival of the internal balustrades.

Made from completely untreated welded steel rods, they're satisfyingly close in appearance to the balustrades of the
staircase at the Hôtel Cap de Castel at Puylaurens, France, which gave us the initial inspiration for the design.

Due to a slight misunderstanding about building regulations, they're eight inches higher than they needed to be,
but to reduce their height now would be extremely impractical and expensive.

The overall effect, though, is quite impressive.

The natural wildlife pond which was under construction in the previous update was soon completed,
and had to be filled with water fairly urgently, as otherwise the 'puddle clay', which lines it, would begin to crack.
The two pipes in the foreground were rigged temporarily to feed rainwater from the roof of the house into the pond.

While Dovetail Joinery of Cropthorne fitted the outer doors to the conservatory.....

...LeBrun Construction laid the external paving. This was extremely satisfying to see, as we'd dug these
bricks out of the ground ourselves over Christmas 2008, and hadn't really known if all the effort would be worthwhile.

But finally seeing the paths and patio taking shape erased any doubts, as these bricks from
the cellar walls of the house which stood on the site previously look great, and were in a sense free.

The gaps between the bricks won't be mortared, but will be brushed with sand and soil,
and then left to grow moss, for a really natural look.

At long last, the basement gets a proper staircase.....

...followed, a little later, by a handrail and balustrade....

....and finally a great big trap door, in case any large items need to be moved in or out.

Nobody knows how this happened, but in preparing to install our new front door, we discovered that the insulation
in the cavity above hadn't been properly completed, leaving several large gaps. Had we not had to modify
the opening slightly to accommodate the new door, this would never have been discovered.

But insulation is absolutely crucial in a house as energy-efficient as this, so Mike had a very dusty and unpleasant
morning stuffing Knauf Dritherm up into the void. We're pretty sure that all is now well, and we know the rest of the house is OK,
but if there are any doubts a thermal imaging camera survey, post-occupation, will show up any problems.

The paving operation went well, and had soon moved to the front of the house. We're using a 'green driveway',
which is formed from tough grasses, with an embedded mesh to take the weight of vehicles.
It starts with a layer of compacted gravel and recycled topsoil....

.....which is followed by the mesh. It's a reclaimed plastic material, made from recycled milk crates.
This particular system – Hauraton Recyfix (great product, terrible name) – has been used for the overflow car parks
at the O2 Arena in London, so it must be pretty tough.

Once the mesh is in place, it's covered with a mix of sand, topsoil and grass seed, which has to become established before
we can park on it. Basically, you end up with a driveway which looks like a lawn, which is free draining, has absolutely
minimal environmental impact, and looks much better than tarmac. Unfortunately you do have to mow it occasionally.

The dry stone wall has been coming along well, although not without problems.

Some of the stone from the quarry didn't really come up to standard, meaning we had to order a lot more of it.
It seems to be quite a common problem, as quarrying tends to be unpredictable at the best of times.

Unfortunately from an initial estimate of 14 bags of stone, we ended up having to buy 32 – more than twice what was
expected, meaning a considerable increase in cost, at a time when we really have to watch the pennies.
There's also a great deal of scrap stone left over, and we're trying to think what's best to do with it.
The one compensation is, we do have a very nice wall.

Quite a momentous occasion in a way – Project Manager Mike Neate's caravan has been removed from the site.
Mike's moved on to other projects now, although he still drops in here from time to time. The problem was that the
completion of the dry stone wall had closed off all vehicle access to the rear garden, where the caravan had been parked.
The solution was to use the digger to drag it close to the (now fairly large) boundary hedge....

....and then to lift it over.
A slightly unusual operation perhaps, but it all went smoothly and safely, and the caravan is now ready
to be towed away when the time finally comes.

With just the temporary 'site canteen' remaining, the view has certainly opened up,
with the house looking quite impressive from further down the garden..

A slightly tense time at the beginning of February, as the deadline approached for our solar water installation grant.
Having already been extended once, we knew we'd lose it if we didn't have the hot water system officially
commissioned by the 10th. Although the grant's only £400 – which isn't much compared to the cost of the whole project –
we didn't want to miss the opportunity to have some money coming in, rather than going out.

This put Mike under considerable pressure to finish the basic 'first fix' plumbing, install the giant 500 litre
hot water cylinder, and fill the system with water.

He got there just in time – meaning Steve and Ray from Llani Solar could come and complete the installation,
which had started a year before, when the solar panels were fitted to the roof.

Luckily the sun
was shining on the day of final commissioning, and we were all very pleased to see the system
start up immediately, and begin warming the half a tonne of water in the tank, entirely with heat from the sun.

With a little more plumbing completed.....

....by the following day the water was more than hot enough to wash our hands.
Although eventually the house will run entirely on rain water, for the moment we're using a temporary mains water supply,
and probably will do when we first move in, until Mike can complete construction of the rainwater harvesting system.

By now the team from Lebrun Construction had virtually completed the external works, and moved inside to attend to
the floors of the conservatory and front porch.

We didn't quite have enough of the bricks which we'd reclaimed ourselves, and had to buy in just one pallet
from outside to complete the job, but we did pretty well overall.

The last of the bricks were used up building a deliberately rustic-looking path down the garden, and with LeBruns main
digger now off site, Andrew had to borrow another one from a small child to complete the job.

The finished path will soon look as though it's been there for years and years, which is exactly the effect we were after.

Back indoors, Keith has been installing the frame for our brand new front door.
Regular readers may remember there was a c**k-up here, with the original door having been delivered with the hinges
on the wrong side. Other than that, there was nothing wrong with it, and it's still available to buy at a real bargain price.
With the replacement door now on site, all is looking good.

The internal doors are all installed now and Lizzie has been busy filling in any small imperfections ready for decorating.

With most of the plumbing completed a massive programme of pipe insulating got underway. One of the most tedious
jobs imaginable, but essential in avoiding 'dead legs'. These occur when you waste water running a tap until it
becomes warm, then the hot water left sitting in the pipes – which you paid to heat – goes cold again.
Multiply this by the number of hot taps in the UK, and that's a lot of wasted water and heat.

Making very good use of water, here's Mick, who returned for a final couple of days to finish the plastering.

And the boys from Green Earth Energy in Hereford, who arrived to construct the framework which will support
our array of photovoltaic panels, which should generate significant amounts of electricity.

PVs (as they're known) are more commonly roof-mounted, but we already have a large area of solar water-heating panels there.
Photovoltaics also work better at lower temperatures, so all in all a ground mounted system seemed to make more sense.

Although the mounting frame has been installed now, we won't be adding the panels and commissioning the system until later.
As you can see, the pond is now nicely full of water.

Here's Pete, from the Village Kitchen Company in Offenham, making a start on our kitchen cupboard installation.
The carcasses are made from recycled particle board, and the doors from zero-formaldehyde MDF.
The worktops – yet to arrive – will be from a sheet material made from recycled vending machine cups.

The aim now is to make the house habitable in the most basic sense – so we need a kitchen, a bathroom and a bedroom –
and then move in and complete the remaining work 'in situ'. Not living in the house, but having to spend so much time working
on it, is becoming very inconvenient. So although it'll be chaos at first, we're keen to try to move as soon as we possibly can.

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