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.

Roof work completed

November 5th and I had hoped that the tatty clothes that I wear for house-building would be stuffed with newspaper and burnt alongside the other guys at tonight’s village bonfire. Instead, I am still wearing them! But at this time of year we are able to spend many more days each week working on the house again.  Tell-tale signs are that my hair, which always has a mind of its own, has reverted to being shaped like the inside of a hard-hat, and breakfast-time conversations are once again punctuated with questions such as “Where is the TV aerial cable going to come in?”

The fantastic mild, dry Autumn that we are having, has allowed us to concentrate on getting the oak cladding on the outside. All the walls are clad to the top except for the fiddly bits round the windows and the corners. My fears that we would run out of planks of wood were justified, but with careful selection of previously rejected offcuts, we had exactly the right amount to finish the end that most people will never see! We have also fitted the gutter fascias, which cleverly hide the gutters from view (unless you are flying overhead!) and the barge board on the East-facing gable end.

The soil stack (the vent for the foul drainage) is finally finished. This involved working out precisely where the waste pipes for the bath, shower, sink and toilet would go so that we could ensure the joining boss was at the right height in the bathroom. Having fixed that position we could then work out the length of pipe needed to end a full 900 mm above the skylight to comply with UK building regulations. Unfortunately lots of decisions that we had made 3 months previously had to be re-made because neither of us could remember the outcomes of our earlier discussions!

With with the roof work all complete and the sides clad we asked the scaffolding hire firm to remove their scaffolding. They arrived on a very rainy Sunday morning so we stayed indoors while they worked. It was a real ‘wow’ moment when we came back out and had a clear view of the house for the first time. Some of the timber has already begun to weather. Eventually all of the golden colour will be lost and it will silver with age, just like its owners are doing!

One year on

A year after we began to build the wooden structure which is gradually transforming into our Wikihouse home, we have been able to step back and admire the fantastic achievements of everyone who has helped us get this far. After the first 2 frenetic weekends, the pace slowed, then slowed some more, ground to a complete standstill, re-started slowly and has now swelled to 2 or 3 days per week once again, with 3 patient friends from the village being our main source of help. On Sunday they successfully scaled the South face and managed a cheery wave as the final piece of oak cladding butted up to the gutter.

There are a few things which we would do differently if we were to turn the clock back, but mostly we are delighted with the house so far. Today we proudly showed off the fantastic inward-opening patio doors to some visitors and discovered that the top edge of the doors are higher than our planned height for the ceiling! I think we might have to use smaller battens at that end of the room! The other end will have to remain as planned because of central heating pipes crossing over each other.

Minor details such as these did not prevent the ladies from the WI enjoying themselves when they joined us for a coffee evening. When their programme of events was printed last November we weren’t sure what stage the house would be at. But fortunately our younger son has been storing some furniture in our largest downstairs room (which will one day be an office and dining room), so we made use of his settees, chairs, rug and coffee tables to entertain 16 members before giving them a guided tour.

Our current task on the inside is to finish routing bright red plastic air ducting around the house to join each room vent to the heat recovery unit. This has involved the emotionally agonising process of cutting hatches in the upstairs floor. In Wikihouses of the future – I am sure there will be many – these could be fully designed in to the original cutting file.

Airtight in April, Mothballed in May

Phew! With the mad rush of potting and plant deliveries out of the way for another year, and with the school where I teach having broken up for the summer, we finally have time to update the blog and start doing some work on the house once again.

In April we finished sealing round the front door and the new window, so we were able to arrange for a preliminary air-tightness test. This was to check that there were no major draughts which could be dealt with at this stage of the build, but would be difficult to sort once the house is completed. The first test involved fitting a fan into the bathroom window opening and sucking air out. This negative pressure made the green vapour barrier billow alarmingly into the rooms. In the second test, the fan was turned round and the air was blown in. The high internal pressure made the vapour barrier cling spookily to the walls.

Meter readings were taken at a range of pressures and the resulting data gave a figure of 3.3 air changes per hour. This meant little to us, but apparently it’s very good but not as good as the architects would like. However the main draught was around the flue for the gas boiler, which the heating engineers have since sealed. We are also confident that this figure will be lower once we have floor coverings in place and when the wet room floor is sealed in position. A final figure of less than 7.0 is acceptable to building control and we are certainly well within that already.

Marching on

March will be remembered for my Mother’s 90th birthday and for several emergency medical visits with 2 other family members. Thankfully both are now back to ‘normal’ but I have spent as many hours in waiting rooms as I have on house-building! Nevertheless, the house is progressing. The heating engineers have fitted a boiler for the central heating and hot water systems, but we are now waiting for the manufacturer to convert it to run on lpg as we have no mains gas. The electrician, Mark Garrett, has installed what looks like miles of cabling – even working on Easter Sunday and Monday to finish the job for us. And we have installed pipework for the central vacuum system. This posed a few problems for us as it is designed to fit into a traditional breeze block wall. But after a lot of thought, measuring and debating, coupled with a little bit of trial and error, we finally came up with a solution.

Outside, the cladding is slowly marching up the wall which faces East. It is the most visible and has the largest number of windows, so it has involved a lot of accurate measuring and each individual piece has been double-checked with a spirit level before being fixed in place. Because it is oak, the holes all have to be pre-drilled and countersunk before the stainless steel screws can be inserted. As the cladding goes up, so the pile of timber goes down and we worry whether we have ordered enough. I have visions of the final wall consisting of hundreds of tiny offcuts!

Also during March our work was regularly accompanied by birdsong from the hedge and we had visits from flocks of migrant fieldfares and redwings. These have now moved on as Spring weather has finally reached us. No longer are we having to add an extra three layers of clothing every time we come outside to work on the house.