Early morning beeping

5am is not a good time to be looking for an instruction sheet. But one night in March, with the smoke detector preventing me from sleeping for over an hour, I finally decided to get up and swap the battery over.

As with all new builds in the UK, the smoke and heat detectors run off the mains electricity supply but they have a battery back-up in case of power loss. And, for reasons that I don’t know, batteries always choose the cooler night-time to decide that they are running critically low. The alarm then gives out a regular beep to alert the householder – every 23 seconds by my counting.

I got out of bed and peered up at the white plastic device in the ceiling at the top of the stairs. It wasn’t obvious how to open this one, so I searched through 3 different folders to try to find the instruction leaflet. But eventually I had to admit defeat and woke Martin to ask him to look in his file of instruction leaflets which I couldn’t find. By 6am he came up with the better idea of investigating the identical, but more accessible detector in the utility room. By standing on a chair beneath it I could clearly read the instructions embossed on the detector’s cover. If only I had done that an hour previously!

Confident that this was a straightforward task, we went back upstairs to silence the beeping detector. We unfolded the step-ladder which still lives in our unfinished bathroom and positioned it next to the banister and Martin cautiously climbed up while I held the steps. My husband is only 5 feet 8 inches tall, but even if he had been taller with exceptionally long arms, I don’t think he could have reached that detector. Defeated, we sat and puzzled how the electrician had managed to install the device so high up above the stairwell. He couldn’t have done it while the temporary mezzanine floor was still in place because that was removed while the plasterers were still here. He might have balanced precariously on the banister, but we had since hollowed it out and now had massive houseplants growing there. Before we had resolved the conundrum, we realised that the rising sun had started to shine through the east-facing windows. The extra warmth had refreshed the battery and it had finally gone silent all on its own!

Later in the day, we positioned a Wikihouse step-up upside down on the top step, added a sheet of plywood as a platform, placed the step-ladder on the plywood and had the help of a son to steady everything while one battery was removed and another inserted. Job done!

Now we just need to log how to do it, for next time, and tactfully suggest to our lovely electrician and/or architect that future instalments are placed in a slightly more accessible location!

 

Avoiding coronavirus

With the Prime Minister telling us last night to stay at home, we are so pleased that we have such a lovely home to stay in. We are still delighted with the design, style and functionality of our Wikihouse.

There has only been one moment when we have wondered if one of our decisions maybe wasn’t quite right. On a cloudy, dismal, grey afternoon in February we were cutting the last few wall panels for the bathroom. As we put each glossy grey-black panel in place the room became gloomier and gloomier.

There are no ceiling lights in that room and we have yet to install the wall lights, so we couldn’t even switch the light on to brighten it up. We muttered about having bright yellow towels and mats and bought a bigger mirror than originally planned.

Now that the sun is streaming through the skylight once more and reflecting off the white bath, shower tray, loo and washbasin, we are pleased with the effect and we might choose gold-coloured towels rather than vivid yellow!

Hopefully neither of us will get coronavirus, but if we do, we can distance ourselves from each other quite well in this house. One can live entirely downstairs, using the downstairs bedroom, kitchen, dining-room/office and wetroom, while the other can be confined to our normal bedroom, the upstairs lounge and main bathroom. Food etc. can be placed half-way up the wide staircase.

Since we are currently unable to deliver any of our plants, even though we are at the start of our main delivery season, I have come up with a new family motto: “Well-being before wealth”!

Getting going again

It’s two years since we moved into our still-unfinished-Wikihouse and we finally have time to reflect, time to really get going again with the build and time to update the blog.

When we first moved in there was still a huge amount of work that was still urgent, but once we had a fully functioning kitchen, a usable toilet and shower, and carpets throughout most of the house, we were able to take a breather. Life became more normal again as we found time to go out, catch up with friends and family, watch a bit of television occasionally and resume our annual camping holiday.

During those 2 years Martin has gradually finished the work that needed doing on the outside of the house. This was mainly fitting timber round the windows and doors and it was a job that he preferred to do by himself. I was only needed when the scaffold tower needed moving or to give an occasional word of reassurance or praise.

The corners of the house also needed finishing. The original plan had been to fill the corner with lengths of oak. However we had failed to order these pieces when we ordered the cladding and we now felt that, even if we could get what we wanted for a reasonable price, fitting them might prove a challenge. Despite our best efforts, not all of the cladding planks ended precisely where they should. So, we decided to go with second-best and to cover the corners in the same plastic-covered metal that we had used on the eaves. We weren’t sure what it would look like, but we are now delighted with the result. Each side has a neat, continuous frame, up one side, across the top and down the other side.

Inside the house, doors were hung simply because they were in our way. Unfortunately our local planning department had put pressure on us to get our mobile home emptied out and removed from site. This meant that we suddenly had to make room for the remaining furniture, for our excessively large collection of books and for family memorabilia. We no longer had a nice clear room for storing materials and for sawing and constructing in. Every job now takes longer as things have to be moved out of the way before work can begin and everything has to be cleared away again at the end of the task.

We wondered if we would ever get the place fully finished. Just one finished room would be nice! Then, back in September, Martin showcased his business at the UK’s largest horticultural trade show. There was a huge amount of interest in the peat-free young shrubs that he grows and we realised that, with my help, we could easily increase our sales in the coming years. So, I promptly handed in my notice and left my teaching job at Christmas. What a difference this has made. Whereas I would have been sitting here preparing lessons for the coming week and recording my students’ progress, I am instead recording our own house-building progress and feeling very proud of our achievement.

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.