May - October 2011

Welcome to Cropthorne

Keith was the last of the original building team to leave, staying on to help Mike with a number
of essential jobs in preparation for the move to Cropthorne, such as installing the front door.

And what a magnificent piece of engineering it is – with triple airtightness seals, and better insulation than the
average cavity wall. Regular readers may remember that due to an earlier c**k–up we have a second door very
similar to this, which is for sale at a bargain price. See here for the full details - it's probably just what you need!

For some time we'd had a problem with condensation in the front porch. Normally it would be kept dry by heat
leaking from the house. But with a house like this, that wasn't happening, and the porch wasn't drying out.
So Keith set to work installing two air-bricks, to improve the ventilation.

All completed – and several weeks on, the condensation problem has been cured.

In certain lights, the basement can be a scary looking place. It's not though – here Mike's preparing to clean any remaining
building dust from the MVHR* ground tube. It's essential to have an MVHR system in an airtight house, otherwise it would
become stuffy very quickly. It's also essential that the tube is clean, as the air in the house is drawn in through it, from outside.
*MVHR – Mechanical Ventilation with Heat Recovery.

At the other end of the ground tube, another opportunity to grovel in a hole in the ground..... a hosepipe is attached to a rope, to pull through to carry out the cleaning process.
The pipe was then dried by pulling an old bath towel through it.

The input to the ground tube, and so to the MVHR system, is through this air-filter unit mounted in the garden.

Finally before the system could be started the various air terminals had to be fitted to the ducting inside the house.
As well as providing ventilation and preventing heat loss, the MVHR also ventilates the composting toilet chamber,
preventing smells from entering the house.

While still preparing to move to the house, we were visited by all of the pupils from the local village school,
who were learning about sustainable building. To keep the numbers manageable, they came one class at a time.

In Mr. Coe's class, they learned, among other things, about our kitchen worktops,
which are made of plastic from recycled vending-machine cups.

Obviously a kitchen is pretty important, so the team from the Village Kitchen Company in Offenham pushed on with
the installation. The coffee-cup worktops proved very tricky to cut, because as soon as you use power tools,
they heat up and the plastic starts to melt, and sticks to the blade. Slowly and gently, seems to be the way to do it.

Mike worked alongside the kitchen installation team, completing electrical wiring and plumbing.

Professional painter Sally applying Auro vegetable-based 'Cropthorne Blue' paint to the cabinets.
She looks a bit startled at being photographed.

Possibly the only ponced-up designer appliance in the whole house – we chose this CDA hood because it was one of just
a few which could cope with our low kitchen ceiling. It has a very efficient recirculating filtration system, as you can't use an actual
extractor fan in an airtight house. Even in a conventional house, an extractor sucks warm air, which you've paid to heat, outside.

Mike performs a special country dance to celebrate the kitchen being almost complete.....

Another near-essential item in a habitable house is of course toilet facilities, and our dry composting system required
a bit of preparation. After a few problems with the hand-thrown straight-through pedestals cracking in the kiln,
Tony Hall at Castle Hill Pottery successfully produced our second pedestal..... You could say he cracked it.

But what a beautiful thing – our toilet pedestals are without doubt magnificent hand-made works of art.

In setting up the system, the stainless-steel chutes which lead to the composting chamber in the basement needed
to be purged of building dust and debris. The best way was to use a pressure washer.

Here the eagle-eyed may be aware of a genuine miracle in progress – an image of the face of Our Lord Jesus Christ,
appearing in the water flowing down the pressure-washed chute. Hallelujah! our composting chamber is blessed!

Post-blessing it was primed with a layer of garden compost. This was followed by a thick carpet of wood
shavings, and a lot of water. The idea is to create the correct environment for the bacteria which will
break down the waste once the toilet is in use.

Because the MVHR system extracts air from the composting chamber, it constantly draws air down
the toilet chutes, preventing smells from entering the house. It's still a good idea to keep the lid down, though,
but as we didn't have any toilet seats before we moved in, this had to do.

On the right, the enormous Paul Thermos 200 MVHR heat-exchanger and fan unit. On the left, Mike,
making the final duct-work connections. The Thermos 200 is an impressive piece of quality
German engineering, which, when switched on, didn't work.

Extensive tests, in collaboration with the suppliers' engineer, led to the surprising conclusion that the unit
had been delivered with two brand-new faulty fan motors. Of course, we couldn't move in without some means
of ventilating the toilet chamber, but luckily Mike had an old fan knocking around in a junk box.

It's not the tidiest of jobs, but this fan successfully provided our ventilation for three weeks, until we received
a replacement MVHR unit from Germany, which fortunately works perfectly.

Although building your own house might sound exciting and interesting, if you're doing work yourself, a huge amount
of it is incredibly hard and tedious. Cleaning the floor tiles was a case in point, but we needed enough rooms
completed to be able to eat, sleep, wash etc. Here Lizzie's cleaning the floor in our temporary living room.

The Spanish terracotta tiles had already been sealed with linseed during the building process, so after cleaning,
they needed a coat of beeswax and a polish
. A (very) cheap car polisher from Halfords proved ideal for
buffing up the skirting tiles.....

...while a second-hand professional floor polishing machine (from eBay) soon dealt with the larger areas of floor.
These machines are extremely powerful, and normally used on much smoother surfaces, so keeping this one under
control on these floors was a major struggle, akin, as Mike commented rather wittily, to wrestling a bison.

All we needed was a nameplate, so we knew where we lived, and we could move in, which we did.

From this picture you'd think the first lunch on moving day wasn't a particularly joyful occasion. But we were basically very
tired, having not just been getting the house ready for basic occupation, but gradually moving all the furniture ourselves
in our trusty people carrier, and getting our former residence in Evesham ready to put on the market. Phew.

We also discovered that we weren't the first to move here, as a pair of collared doves had already taken up residence
on our TV aerial. They've since successfully raised a family and moved on, without affecting reception.

On first moving, bedroom curtains consisted of old sheets attached to a TV lighting stand.
They still do, in fact.

Emptying our previous home into this partly-finished one, necessitated storing a lot of junk in the basement.
Who knows when we'll once again have enough spare time to use the Space Hopper?

We also moved in with an incomplete lighting system, so as soon as time allowed, Mike installed some of the more
critical light fittings. We now have an almost complete mains lighting system, but work on the independent 12-Volt
lighting and electrical system still has some way to go.

The installation and wiring continued – all very time-consuming, but essential. Aside from any other considerations,
the tragic and unexpected death of Mike's friend George, who was overseeing the electrical installations, has left us without
a qualified electrician to sign everything off.

Fortunately, all the finer points of the design had been worked out while George was still around, so Mike has been
able to carry on working in the meantime.

Another essential but time-consuming job was to connect up the telephone lines and the broadband router.
In an attempt at future-proofing, every room has its own separate telephone line, and CAT-6 ethernet connection.

One of the first rooms to be fully completed was also the smallest – our upstairs facility. And doesn't it look splendid?
The blue plastic bucket contains wood shavings, which are thrown down the toilet after doing a poo.

This keeps the compost pile aerated and at the correct density to encourage aerobic digestion.

In trying to prioritise the work based on only two workers being available to do it, we decided it would be good to complete
the main upstairs living room. So the tedious drudgery of decorating resumed – on the largest room this time, not the smallest.

The glulam beam is 11½ metres long, and had to be thoroughly sanded, then coated with wax and polished.
The end result, though, is very pleasing.

The main living room occupies most of the first floor of the house, and the huge ceiling comes down to just over
a metre from the floor, on the catslide side of the roof.

Applying two coats of paint, and painting round the edges and other fiddly details, took Mike seven days.

And so we moved on to the walls.

Access arrangements for finishing some of the fine details above the stairs
would have left any health & safety officers in a state of hysteria.

Often working late into the night brought rewards as decorating of the mezzanine neared completion.
Before too long, the whole of the first floor of the house should be complete.

One job we didn't have to do ourselves, as the boys from Greenearth Energy arrived to complete our photovoltaic installation.
The metal framework had been installed some time ago, but the panels have only just been fitted.

They connect to this SMA Sunny Boy inverter in the basement, and can deliver almost 2½Kw of power on a sunny day.
We can use the power ourselves, and any excess is exported into the local grid.

The main reason for the PV installation is to make the house overall carbon negative (i.e. a carbon sink rather than emitter).
However, since we began the project the Feed In Tariff has been introduced, which pays 44p for every unit of electricity
generated. (At the time of writing this is about to be reviewed downwards for new installations). Because the energy demands
of the Autonomous House are so low, it's likely that we will make money by living here.
Except that we're really being hammered for council tax.

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