March - May 2011

Staining and Tiling, Ramming and Rolling
(It's rollering really, as in paint roller....)

We're rapidly approaching the time when all of the site workers will have moved on, and we'll be left on our own,
so a lot of small jobs have been finished off, such as this oak cladding on the outside of the conservatory.

Mike's been continuing in his role as plumbing and services engineer – here installing the stale air exhaust
for the mechanical ventilation system....

....and here soldering together a small piece of custom guttering to take rainwater from a tiny section of roof
at the eastern end of the conservatory.

Nice and tidy, the water is now directed onto the glass roof.

All of our guttering and downpipes are complete now, so rainwater is being routed into the basement, and into two of the ten
storage tanks. The full rainwater harvesting system won't be completed until after we've moved in, but we had to install these
tanks to prevent the basement from flooding. Although there's been virtually no rain here for weeks, just a few showers have
already filled these former orange juice transport containers with 3000 litres (3 tonnes) of water. Yes, one of them is leaking.

Hopefully what will become a striking garden feature - the rammed earth turf wall - got underway in April.

Our project manager Mike Neate returned to work on the construction,
which began with some sturdy shuttering made from old pallets.

After some brief training and a bit of practice, Mike managed to do a passable job as a digger driver.....

....piling subsoil into the shuttering, ready to be compacted down in layers.

Could this be every boy's dream? Even boys who are 54 years old?

Back indoors, Keith, who's installed virtually every tile in the house, began work on the bathroom.

Plain white British-made tiles continue the theme of simple functionality. Installing simple inexpensive bathroom
equipment is one way of balancing the costs of a house which was significantly more expensive to build than one to
the minimum standard required by building regulations. In the long term, though, this house will be much cheaper.

Mike took a brief and rather welcome break from earth-ramming to install the shower over the newly-tiled bath.

Inevitably plumbing always seems to involve grovelling about on the floor.
But the bathroom's pretty well ready to decorate now.

More grovelling on the floor as Keith and Mike grappled with the rather tricky installation of the shower tray
in the room next door. Praise be for flexible waste connectors.

Back at the wall, and both Mikes had been working in shifts manually ramming the layers of earth down with sledgehammers.
It's crucial that the earth is fully compacted as otherwise the wall won't be stable, but the sheer physical effort meant progress
was slow, and with a mini heat wave arriving to make matters worse, it was decided that we needed an alternative strategy.

Which arrived in the form of what can best be described as a road drill. With an 'elephant's foot' attachment, as used for
tarmac road repairs, the ramming process became significantly faster, and significantly noisier.
But it did mean that Mike Neate was able to complete more of this particular job on his own.

As the layers built up, we added a plastic mesh (actually contractors fencing) to increase the strength and stability of the wall.

There was still a significant amount of manual labour involved, despite the tools we'd hired in,
but steadily the wall began to rise to the top of the shuttering.

Back indoors again, we made a start on the decorating.
Unfortunately after treating one complete door and frame with a beech stain, we decided we didn't like the colour,
and the only option was to strip it all off again. Overall this probably wasted five days for Mike.

Even after the entire process of building an unusual house like this one from scratch, the decisions about decoration and
colour schemes are proving to be some of the most difficult. Fortunately our second choice, an Auro wood stain based on
natural orange oils, looks much better, and also smells very nice when it's being applied.

The finished doors look great, and will eventually be given a coating of beeswax to protect them.

When building, correct use of safety equipment is essential.

As the side panel of the bath was being tiled.....

....Mike got on with painting some ceilings. The paint we're using, Nature Paint, is made from milk protein, Cornish clay,
and natural vegetable pigments. It doesn't contain any nasty chemicals at all, and it's microporous,
meaning our natural lime plasters will be able to regulate the humidity inside the house.
'Conventional' paint effectively coats everything in a layer of plastic.

Nature Paint is delivered as a powder, and mixed with water on site. A huge amount of fuel is used transporting paint,
but at least 60% of it is water. We could save a lot of pollution and a lot of money if we only shipped the dry ingredients,
which weigh less than half the equivalent liquid paint. You only need to mix the amount you need, which means less waste,
although if you do happen to have any left over, it's completely safe to compost it, or put it straight on the garden.

Once mixed it takes a little more effort to apply than petrochemical paints, but you do get used to it
An enormous amount of money, research and poisonous chemicals have gone into improving the 'usability' of mainstream paints,
and this paint has none of those. But it won't fill your house with poisons and unpleasant smells or cause headaches and allergies.

We could show you any number of pictures of paint roller-ing, because there's been an awful lot of it going on.
To minimise the risk of boredom these two should give you a perfectly good idea.

Much more interesting was the arrival of the first of our hand-thrown pottery composting toilet pedestals.
It was installed onto a bed of two-part tile adhesive.....

...and very carefully lowered into position, where it fitted perfectly. Unfortunately Tony Hall at Castle Hill Pottery has
been having trouble with these pedestals cracking in the kiln, so we're still waiting for the second one to be finished.
Hopefully it'll be ready in a week or two. We need to complete the toilet system and prime the composting chamber
with garden compost ready for use before we can move in.

This view, looking up from the floor of the compost chamber, won't be possible in the future.
Well, it will be, but it won't be very pleasant.

And so, back to the rammed earth wall, and with the final layer compacted down hard....

.....the first of the shuttering was removed.

And what a magnificent creation! You can clearly see how the various layers have been built up, to form
a surprisingly stable structure. This is one of the earliest and simplest forms of building, which goes back to ancient times,
although without the embedded orange fencing.

The whole thing was extremely hard work, but there's something very satisfying about building from the earth itself.

To finish it off, a rounded earth capping went on top, some fine plastic mesh to hold everything in place,
and then a layer of turf.

The turfs are held in place by hundreds of wooden kebab skewers. The roots should grow into the earth to create a 'living wall',
but due to bad planning the turf we used had been stored for over two weeks, and didn't look very well when it was unrolled.
We hope it'll recover. Plenty of rain would be ideal to keep this whole structure moist....

...but as you can see from the preparation work on the rear garden, rain is something that's been in very short supply,
leaving much of the ground like a dust bowl.

The only option has been regular watering of the rammed earth wall, in a bid to keep the turf alive. Fortunately a lot of it
seems to have recovered now, and some areas are just beginning to put roots into the wall.
Hopefully it will all become established eventually, then we can plant wild flowers into the turf as well.

The dry conditions have also been causing problems with the green driveway, which has needed regular watering.
Although it's not looking too bad, in a year with normal amounts of rainfall, this should have been well established by now.
As it is, there are still a lot of bare patches.

So with Mike Neate's work on the rammed-earth wall completed, the former 'site-office', and Mike's part-time
temporary accommodation, was deemed to be at the end of its useful life, and was taken apart.

It seemed like quite a momentous occasion, as this caravan had been so much a part of the house build,
and had provided welcome warmth and shelter during the worst of the winter months.
But within an hour or so it had been reduced to a pile of scrap.

'What has become of my former home?' wonders Max.

Talking of Max, this little elderly doggie, with the great big personality, has to move on too,
to a new life of retirement with Mike Neate's mum.

He brought enormous pleasure to everybody who met him, throughout the entire building project.
But now he, like his master, is leaving us.
So farewell, Maximillion, we shall miss you....

It's hard to imagine now, but for a long while this was the main site entrance, where all the deliveries were made,
and the contractors' vans were parked. Now, with the dry stone wall completed and the verge reinstated, it's virtually
back to how it was originally. We just need some rain to help the grass grow.

On the other side of the wall there was still a considerable mess left over from its construction. To have any hope of
establishing a front garden, the only option was to get stuck in and try to clear it all up, piece by piece.

A lot of the smaller fragments ended up as rubble, but we sorted out several tons of better quality stones.

Some of these were bagged and sold on eBay.....

....while the remainder were laid around the edge of the pond to provide a habitat and shelter for
all sorts of plants and animals. You'll doubtless also have spotted our two new visitors, Deirdre and Desmond, who now
drop in regularly to feed in our wildlife pond. Perhaps they, like us, are planning to move in permanently very soon.