Are we in yet?

I began this post at the beginning of March, but our working lives became so hectic that progress on the house ceased once again, and there has certainly been no time to upload photos during the past 4 months. Consequently the next few posts will be written retrospectively.

I don’t know of an official definition of being ‘in’ a house, but I think we are almost ‘in’! A rapid transformation has taken place inside our house over the past 2 months. All except the hall and the utility room now have carpeting or vinyl on the floor. Most rooms have a smattering of furniture. Lots of rooms have either houseplants or vases of flowers and the kitchen is now fully functional. In total it now looks far more like a home than a building site.

We have held a party for all of our ‘builders’, which was a lovely time to catch up with their news and for them to see how their handiwork has been part of our dwelling’s journey.

As with all journeys, there have been times when great strides have been made and times when progress is frustratingly impeded.

Laying laminate flooring, which should be a relatively straightforward task, is the only thing which we have attempted and been defeated by. We initially bought just 3 boxes of planks to cover the hall, but the next time they were on special offer we bought a further 20 boxes to install in the kitchen and the adjacent dining area and office.

Laying the first row was straightforward, but several hours later 3 very deflated people admitted defeat and got a credit-note-refund for 20 unopened boxes. Having read the product’s reviews it would seem that the manufacturers have now rectified the problem. Maybe we will be able to swap our 3 opened boxes for the improved version of this product.

Christmas sleepover

Six weeks before Christmas, Martin suggested inviting my Mum to stay for the festive season. Getting the house ready enough seemed an impossible task to me. We wrote down all the jobs that would need doing and I estimated that it would take 7 weeks.

However, Martin and Mum were determined that it should happen and Mum’s coach ticket was booked. She arrived on Friday 22nd December and by 10pm we had a bed made up in our guest room, and a flushing toilet and sink with hot and cold water in the downstairs wetroom. We even had doors on those 2 rooms – although they were not painted and had no latches! To ‘lock’ the wetroom door we had one end of a piece of string attached to the edge of the door and we wrapped the other end round the shower control.

By 11pm Martin and I looked at the our mattress which was standing on its side in our upstairs lounge. Our decision was instant and unanimous – flop it down and sleep on it exactly where it landed!

It was a bit like camping but in a warm house rather than a cold, flappy tent. Our elation was such that we contacted our fantastic house building friends from the village and invited them over for midday drinks on Christmas Eve. Plastic cups and crisp packets maybe, but definitely champagne time!

Snow, ice, water, heat

In Mid-December we awoke to falling snow and Martin’s sleepy voice telling me that we had forgotten to take the fabric cover off the nursery irrigation tank. A series of swipes with a mop filled my next hour as I walked round and round the tank. With each circuit I could reach a little further across as I had a wall of snow to stand on from the previous circuit. Eventually my task was done and breakfast was bliss.

The next day we had our first bulk delivery of lpg gas. This was an exciting event as it heralds the end of having to order and manouevre the heavy orange bottles that have provided our heating fuel for the last 16 years.

The following night temperatures fell sharply and by morning the pipes were predictably frozen in our mobile home. But on this occasion they didn’t thaw all day and, for the first time ever, the pipes had also frozen in the barn. Unfortunately the build-up of pressure coincided with the one night when we had forgotten to turn the stopcock off in the new house. Inevitably the water found the weak point in the system – a cheap-feeling plastic connector which had come with the toilet cistern – and forced it apart as we had yet to finish installing the clips that would have held it in place.

Ordinarily this would not have been too bad, as the water would have merely flowed across the wet room floor and down the central drain. However I had previously made the suggestion that we should lay a large piece of cardboard across the floor, and especially the plughole, to protect it from our gritty footwear. The result of this was that by the time we discovered the water leak, the cardboard had turned into a plug and the flood covered half of downstairs.

A wet-and-dry vacuum cleaner, a mop, a lot of throwing out of dripping cardboard, and a trip to buy replacement hardboard filled much of the morning. But once we had done all that we were thankful that we hadn’t yet fitted the laminate flooring, that the internal doors were up on a pallet, that the downstairs bedroom didn’t yet have carpet, and that the flood didn’t extend as far as the kitchen and the newly-installed cupboards.

Two days later the heating engineers commissioned the boiler and the house became warm and dry once more.

Indoor shoes

We’ve passed another couple of milestones. Firstly, we have replaced our ‘doormat’ with another carpet tile because our original one had become completely threadbare due to the number of times we have walked backwards and forwards between the house and the barn saying “I’ll just go and cut this” or “I’ll just go and get a …..”. But, even more exciting, we now change our footwear each time we come inside!

This is primarily because we have laid the vinyl flooring in both the bathroom and the wet room. We have also fitted the ceiling panels in the wet room and been surprised by the large size of the ceiling light that our electrician has installed in such a small room! We think it looks OK though.

We have fitted 2 wall panels in both rooms so that we could add the towel rail radiators. So, the central heating system is now complete, and leak-free! We had hoped that today we could switch it on but, with a light sprinkling of snow on the ground, our heating engineers had other ideas. Instead of commissioning the boiler yesterday, they merely turned up to drop a piece of gas pipe into the trench that we had dug. More phone calls, more delay, more layers of clothing!

Going round in circles

Now that Autumn is here, work on our plant nursery has taken a back seat again and we are cracking on with the house build. There are lots of jobs underway at the moment as we strive to reach a point where our electrician and gas engineers can finish their work.

All of the ceilings and most of the walls have now been painted, so the downlights and sockets can be finally fitted. We have installed most of the radiators, but cannot install the heated towel rails until the wall panels are in place. And the wall panels cannot be fitted until we have laid the wet-room floor and finished installing the bathroom cupboards and worktop. These jobs have entailed positioning toilets and washbasins in place to finalise the plumbing, and then removing them again to lay the vinyl.

We have fitted the kitchen cupboards but I need to make time to buy the built-in appliances, which can then be wired in. The gas hob is ready to be connected to the gas supply.

Outside, we have dug a 400mm deep trench along the back of the house. With hindsight, this could have been done using a mechanical digger right at the start of the build, but we weren’t then aware of the way in which the gas pipe for the hob would feed in to the main gas pipe. Now its proximity to the house posed too much of a challenge to risk damaging the oak cladding with the digger bucket. However digging heavy clay by hand – and repeatedly scraping it off the spade – has kept us warm on a chilly, but bright, November day.

Making connections

It seems to have been a long time since we began to install red pipework throughout the house as part of the mechanical heat recovery system. The details are given below in italics but this system allows all of the air coming into the building to be warmed by the air going out. The rate of flow is controlled and is set at a level which means that we need no other ventilation: no trickle vents in the windows; no other extraction fans; and no air bricks. Unfortunately the wrens and robins which currently roost and nest in the air vents in our mobile home will have to find alternative accommodation!

Last year we tied ropes around the 65kg heat exchanger to enable 4 of us to carry it up the stairs. This was quite a struggle and we then spent a considerable time trying to devise ways of raising it right up to its planned lofty position. Eventually we discovered that it was possible to take it apart and found that the two separate pieces were actually quite manageable!

Now we have finally installed the flexible, silver-clad insulated ducts which connect the distribution boxes to the heat exchanger, thus completing the system. To our great relief, the ducts just fitted in the very limited space which we had available. Another job can be ticked off our list!

We had delayed making this final connection because the white plastic pipework of the central vacuum system also needed to traverse the area. This carries dust and debris from 4 wall-mounted vacuum cleaner sockets to the static vacuum in one of the wardrobes. This central vacuum system is ideal for those of us with asthma as all of the exhaust air is channeled straight out of the house without reaching our nostrils or blowing other dust into the air before it has been vacuumed up.

Once again the Wikihouse  build system has shown us its benefits and its challenges. The hollow plywood walls were ideal for feeding the vacuum pipes through vertically, but our structural engineers had advised against drilling any holes in the 9 frames which form the structure of the building. Therefore the main horizontal pipe crosses the house just beneath the ceiling which is above the top of the stairs and hallway and is hidden by the rolled-over plasterwork.

The details of our heat recovery system: 4 red pipes, from the kitchen, utility room, downstairs wetroom and upstairs bathroom, connect to one of the two distribution boxes located in a void above the entrance to our spare bedroom. Once the electrical supply has been connected, the warm air from these 4 rooms will be driven through a third box – the heat exchanger – before travelling along a large black pipe to the outside.

Incoming air will travel along a second black pipe, through the heat exchanger to the second distribution box and will be delivered, via more red pipes, to the remaining rooms.

The 2 sets of air never mix, but they pass either side a large, thin, metallic surface which conducts the heat from one to the other.

Getting going again

We bought two taps yesterday. In the past this would have seemed fairly insignificant but it is an exciting step this time as it is the first thing we have done towards the house for over 2 months. We have had to be so self-disciplined to keep the house door firmly closed while we concentrated on our paid jobs.

Our electrician spent a few hours here one morning and our fantastic friends have done some painting in the hallway and the downstairs bedroom, but apart from renewing the site insurance we have done absolutely nothing.

When we began the house build everyone would say to us “You must be so excited.” but we had no time or spare emotional capacity to be excited then. Now it is a different story. Thankfully we designed the house so that we could live downstairs if we ever had to. Although we are perfectly capable of climbing stairs still, we have decided to concentrate on getting the downstairs rooms to a point where we could move in. Like so many other house builders, we shall finish the rest once we are living there!

So it’s been time to take stock again. The kitchen cupboards are built but need their appliances, cupboard doors and worktop fitting. There is still a small amount of topcoat painting to be done. The wet room needs to be fitted out and all of the flooring downstairs needs laying. Then there is the task of coupling up the external pipe work for the airflow system and fitting all of the radiators so that the boiler can be commissioned. A lot of work still, but the end goal is in sight and we aim to devote 2 full days each week to the task.

‘Safe as houses’

On 23rd February 2017 gale force winds raged for 5 hours and wreaked havoc across our part of England. Two of our polytunnels had their polythene ripped off their frames and our mobile home rocked gently during the biggest gusts. It was too dangerous to be outside unnecessarily, so the photo below was taken the following day when we had the forlorn task of cutting up the shredded polythene sheets and gathering the battens together. But the new house has walls that are so thick and windows that are so well insulated, we couldn’t hear the wind at all. We really were ‘as safe as houses’ while we worked in there.

The house is progressing slowly but steadily now that nursery work is once again taking priority. When the top half of the hallway was plastered, the temporary mezzanine floor was no longer needed, so for the first time we are able to appreciate the scale and beauty of the full height entrance hall. A banister wall separates this from the upstairs lounge and we have fitted a shelf inside this and inserted a plant trough. Hopefully some houseplants will get enough light to thrive in it.

Our electrician has been back and has successfully located all of the wires for the downlighters and smoke/heat alarms, so we have numerous wires dangling from holes in the ceiling, resembling some strange alien invasion!

After 3 weeks of work, interspersed with a 3 week gap, the plasterers finished their task, and out came our paint and the colour charts. We knew that we couldn’t leave many walls white, as I don’t like bright light and I would have to walk round with my eyes scrunched up all day. But we hadn’t realised that we had chosen kitchen cupboards which don’t really seem to match with any shade of paint! Eventually we decided on one which is vaguely mushroom soup coloured. By coincidence it is also similar to dried mud, so wet dogs can wag their tails to their hearts’ content and the dirt won’t show up too much!

Painting round the edges of rooms is one job that I do better than Martin does. So in the past, he has covered most of our walls and ceilings using a roller while I have done the fiddly bits with a paintbrush. Now, however, he is busy fitting out the kitchen, so I have had to rapidly learn to use a roller. This weekend a friend kindly shared her experience and expertise with me while her husband had the important job of making sure she didn’t fall off the platform! Teamwork at its best!

Getting plastered

Phew – we finally managed to fix battens everywhere they were needed and finish all the downstairs first-fix plumbing and door frames ready for professional plasterers to start work last Monday morning. Although we could have fixed and filled the tapered-edge plasterboards ourselves, we decided this was one job which would be done so much better by a skilled, experienced team. And our anonymous pair of plasterers have done a fantastic job so far. We now have walls that are as smooth as a beautifully iced cake.

And the plasterers are really enjoying transforming the interior of our Wikihouse. On some walls they can screw the plasterboard straight to the plywood sheet, while on others they are screwing it to our battens. Everything being so straight and precisely square is, apparently, a novelty.

Unfortunately everyone’s signatures under the stairs were covered over a long time ago, but the plasterers found their own way of leaving their mark – plasterboard screws form the shape of their initials for posterity!

The other wonderful thing about Wikihouse is that minor re-designs can be done quite late on in the build and without needing to consult an architect. We recently decided that the pipework for the dining room/office radiator really needed to be recessed in the wall – so we popped a wall panel off, removed the insulation, and then decided to recess the whole radiator. But then we thought it would also be nice to have shelving above the radiator. So Martin built a vertical box to hide the pipes, added two horizontal pieces of plywood, and we now have storage space for our accounts folders, catalogues etc. and for my teaching files. And when we eventually retire, the shelves will provide a home for civilised things like ornaments and photographs!


Battling with battens

It’s Christmas Day afternoon, 2016. I’ve just been into the house to close the windows. When I went in this morning to retrieve my camera, it was noticeably colder inside than out, so we opened the windows to let some warmth in! Because the house walls and roof have such fantastic thermal insulation properties they have kept out the strangely mild air that is here following the departure of Friday’s ‘Storm Barbara’.

Today’s lack of noise is also strange. There is a self-imposed ban on working on the house today, there is very little traffic on the main road, there are no trains running alongside us due to engineering works, and the birds have gone to roost for the night. Even our dogs are lying quietly by my feet, having had a mad chase round not long ago.

Because there is no mains gas on site, and to save us having to change gas cylinders over at regular intervals, we have had an underground lpg gas tank installed which will provide fuel for the hob and our boiler, which in turn will provide the heat for our radiators, showers and hot taps. The earth that the tank has displaced is still piled up in 2 large mounds which the dogs have adopted as their playground!

The down side of of this method of heating is that the pipework running around the downstairs ceilings occasionally has to cross over itself. The engineers who installed it were reluctant to set the crossing pipe up into the plywood, so we have had to lower the ceiling height to accommodate the downward bulge within the ceiling void. This entails using bigger battens, but wouldn’t have been much of a problem, except that the architects have cleverly calculated the window sizes such that the surrounding plasterboard will slot snugly against the window frame. Now we have come across the problem that if we lower all of the ceilings, we can’t actually open some of the inward-opening windows!

A combination of this, and the sloping ceilings upstairs, has meant that we have spent a considerable amount of time puzzling over the precise size and location of battens. What should have been a relatively straight-forward part of the build, has been an enormous challenge. But with the help of amazing friends, we have now got most of the interior battens in place, and all of the windows can open.