Strawbale House

This blog is intended to chart our progress through the self-build process, from half-hearted plot-hunting through to completion of the build. The twist is that we're building the house from timber and straw (hence the blog title).

Click on the image at the end of each post to see that day's photos.

Saturday, 30 June 2007

June 30th - The first wall

No Melvin today, but five kids and three dogs on site to keep Mal and me on our toes. Late start, as a chunk of the morning was spent ferrying family around, and when we were on site the kids’ various and frequent calamities were a bit of a distraction.

Managed to get all the necessary dwangs in place to allow us to fit the bottom rail for all the load-bearing studwork. Several showers blew over – nothing too serious but enough to keep the mudbath nice and gloopy, and to make sure we didn’t enjoy the work too much. Didn’t make much difference to Hamish, who decided to impress Paris by lying in the stream, soaking himself from head-to-toe, then standing shivering and miserable for the remainder of the day!

Finished the day by erecting the first wall, the only windowless panel on the ground-floor at the west end of the snug. No work tomorrow, so hope it’s still standing on Monday…

Suddenly realised that I don't know whether the windows I've ordered are side- or top-hung. Really ought to check, I suppose! Also need to chase up the LVL beam and first-floor joists from Doves, as it looks like we'll be ready for them in a few days. This Mal character doesn't half shift. He obviously hasn't learned the British Builders' work ethic yet, and keeps forgetting to take his mid-morning breakfast, elevenses, hour-long lunch break and afternoon tea stoppage!

Ground floor 300607

Friday, 29 June 2007

June 29th - Ground floor joists

I had to concentrate on the day-job today, and only made it over to the site for a couple of hours in the afternoon. By the time I got there, Mal and Melvin had got all the ground-floor joists in place and a fair amount of the bracing done (using noggins or dwangs, depending which side of the border you're from!)

I spent the time drilling holes for the remaining anchor-screws (or frame fixings) and cutting dwangs and joists with my faby new sliding compound saw. Quite a slick operation, with each of us concentrating on a separate task, and Boston drilling holes at random!

Ground floor

Thursday, 28 June 2007

June 28th - Foundations complete. Let the fun begin!

A momentus day. At last, the foundations and blockwork are complete, and the carpentry – the “real work", as Mal calls it – can begin. Yesterday I spent an hour on site before breakfast taking delivery of and spreading the last load of concrete, which was used for the second half of the solum and the remaining cavity infill. Mal was at home looking after Michelle, who had discharged herself from hospital. I left Melvin a note calling off work for the day, and spent the day catching up on the day job.
Today we were all back on site for a full day with no weather interruptions. I had to nick off for an hour at lunchtime to ship an urgent order, so I missed the first timber being cut and fixed in place.
The last of the blockwork was knocked off by lunch, with much of my morning spent splitting bricks in half and using them as packers above the block vents. This was after scrounging some large-bore alcathane pipe from Neil to use as ducts for the incoming water main, which I installed in the north wall. These will be above ground-level, but beneath the steps to the back door, so will be well-lagged and protected from frost.
In the afternoon Hamish joined us and spent the time playing with Boston (and regretting ignoring my advice to bring a jumper!)
By the end of the day we’d fitted the DPC and the sole-plate on all the block walls, the timbers fixed every 800mm with anchor-screws. The first two floor-joists were installed and squared up just before the weather started to crack at 5pm. A good day’s work. Progress should seem much faster from now on, now that we’re on the timber frame. Had a quote from Rembrand Timber for all the windows, roof-lights and chip-board flooring. Apparently there’s been a fire at the UK’s main chipboard factory in Liverpool, which has reduced availability and therefore increased the price considerably.

First timbers 280607

Tuesday, 26 June 2007

June 26th - Solums

Had to get to site early to meet the concrete truck, which was coming to fill the cavity between the block walls, and to pour onto the solums I prepared yesterday. Decided to split the 9 cubic metre load between the two, to avoid putting too much pressure on the walls and risk bursting them.
Mal turned up around 9:30 and started laying blocks, and Melvin finally arrived around 11. I was involved in childcare and did a couple of runs to and from site with supplies, and, after school, Hamish, who had been dying to help, and who very quickly picked up the rudiments of pointing under Melvin's instruction.
A second concrete truck was due before close of play, but they phoned to report a machinery breakdown. This actually suits us better, as it will give today's blockwork a chance to go off.
With a following wind, the foundations will be complete tomorrow and the carpentry can start. This will depend largely on Michelle's health. She discharged herself from hospital today, and may need quite a lot of looking after for the next week or so.

Solums 260607

Monday, 25 June 2007

June 25th - Solum

Solum - now there's a new word for you. It was for me, at any rate. In this context it refers to the top layer of ground bounded by the foundation walls we've spent the last week or so building. The requirement is to make it as impervious to damp and burrowing beasties as possible, to stop both from causing problems under the floor. This is done by filling in around the walls, bringing it all to a level similar to the land outside the walls, then compacting it, laying a damp-proof membrane over the whole area and topping it with a couple of inches of concrete.

I had a digger booked for first thing, and met it on site shortly after 8am. Ten and a half hours later I finally left the site, well-knackered and yet again pissed of with another day of revolting weather. Through it all, with Mal and Boston between 9:30 and 3, we dug a trench and laid the soil pipe with risers for the kitchen, bathroom and utility areas at the back of the house and the WC at the front, created a services entry-point through the block walls, shifted humungous amounts of hardcore, levelled it, flattened it all with a whacker plate (see pictures below) and eventually had it ready for the damp-proof membrane, which I picked up from Walker Groundworks on the way home. I'd always thought using a whacker plate looks like a bit of a gas, but it's a real pig of a job. Steering it over rough ground is a constant battle, as it leaps around with a mind of its own, and the continual vibration rattles everything from your wrists to your teeth.

A long and very arduous day, but we're gradually getting closer to the fun parts - starting with the carpentry. A bit of a head-melt to see about £5000-worth of work being buried, never to be seen again, but satisfying in a strange way. Wish we could bury the bloody weather too.

Solum 250607

Sunday, 24 June 2007

Sunday June 24th - Wallowing in the mudbath

Another half-days desultory block-laying in incessant rain. Where the hell is it all coming from? We had Mal's 4-year-old Boston helping us. The little soul battered away quite happily for four hours without a murmur or complaint while Mal and I quietly fumed and cursed the rain. Mal brought the centre wall to five courses while I constructed the piers for the support posts.

Wet, wet, wet, and forecast to continue raining until at least Thursday. Still, at least we've kept more-or-less to schedule and can have the digger in tomorrow to do the backfill before the infill concrete comes on Tuesday. Who knows, we might even start the carpentry on Wednesday.

Michelle still showing little progress in hospital, so Mal's input is going to be limited for the foreseeable future.

Saturday, 23 June 2007

23rd June - Faltering progress

A barrage of illnesses in the family has combined with some of the most horrid June weather I can remember to bring the project to a grinding halt. It has rained and rained and rained for a week or more, with frequent cloudbursts and leaden skies. In an effort to keep things on track and get the walls up to a level where the digger can do the infill (scheduled for Monday), Mal brought the kids over today (Michelle's in hospital with pneumonia and pleurisy), dropped them here and headed for the site. Once Anna had struggled from her sick-bed and assured me she could look after the eight noisy weans, I joined him and set about building the piers to support the columns in the kitchen area. After about an hour the heavens opened yet again, the mortar turned to slops and we had no choice but to pack up and come home, drenched and pissed off. Tomorrow's forecast is better, so we'll try again.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

June 18th & 19th - more blocks

Dave's deserted us temporarily for a previous commitment to build a conservatory for a neighbour. Clearly much less enjoyably - working alone - but I suppose there's a chance that they might pay him! In his absence, Melvin and Mal have cracked on in much improved weather and at close of business today have brought both perimeter walls (i.e. outer and inner) to five courses, with just a single course remaining. It's all looking pretty marvellous (but then again, I'm easily impressed!) and the final level is going to be nice and high, giving us an elevated floor-level for belt-and-braces flood protection and a lovely soaring verandah overlooking the stream and the hills.
Laboring for two is a bit less arduous than for three, and I found time today to fill the hole in the existing building where one corner had started to crumble, with a couple of large stones falling out of the wall. That was after I arrived two hours late on site, having carried out a site survey in Wooler for an engineering company that wants a fire-alarm system. Difficult to get enthused about the day-job while the build is going on, but I'm going to need to maintain a good steady cash-flow to keep the wolf from the door and try to minimise the amount we have to borrow for the build. It will inevitably over-run its budget - they always do - and I'd like to absorb as much of the excess as possible with earnings rather than increased borrowing.
A £5000-load of timber arrived from Doves in the afternoon, but the delivery truck was unable to get onto the site to off-load. A very low tail-end was bottoming out at the bottom of the steep ramp onto the plot, and in the end he had to dump everything on the track at the top. Bit of a bugger, as the double-handling will slow things down and therefore cost money, but it can't be helped. Found that wall-ties for our extra-wide cavity aren't readily available, so I nipped down to Sharplaw farm and scrounged a roll of fencing-wire from Mick, and spent my last hour on site today cutting it into 500mm lengths with a bolster and bending it to shape.
Had a fire going for part of the day, and hauled a load of very wormey wood out of the shed and burnt it. Floor will need to be taken up at some point, as it's rotten as hell, but for the moment, while Mal is here, all efforts and resources are focussed on the house.


Saturday, 16 June 2007

June 14th & 15th - Blockwork

In the absence of any available brickies, I rounded up a motley selection of pals: Mal the Aussie builder / joiner / guru; Dave the artist, sculptor, landscape designer and retired civil servant and Melvin the, er... not quite sure what Melvin is. Don't think he's ever had a job as such, but tried a couple of uni degree courses for size and has nice hair (according to my beloved).
Arrived on site to find that the west end trench had collapsed still further, and spent the first half-hour shovelling the debris out and sweeping rain-water around trying to get it to drain away.
Dave's cement mixer wouldn't start for love nor money, and Melvin did the first mix by hand. Clearly this wasn't going to be sustainable, and after twiddling a hitherto unseen knob on the engine, the mixer spluttered into life, to enormous relief all round. The other three have all laid blocks before, so by default it fell to me to be their labourer. Steep learning curve, but by the end of the day I had the hang of juggling my tasks of fetching water from the stream in buckets, mixing and distributing batches of cement in a wheel-barrow with a pucture and piling blocks along the sides of the trenches - basically keeping the three lads supplied with all they needed to keep working uninterrupted. Hard work, especially for my weedy upper-body. Apparently the usual bricky:labourer ratio is 2:1, so I was having to work 50% harder than I should have!
Very happy with a first-day total of about 350 blocks laid, in pretty dismal weather.
Second day continued in a similar vein. Would have run out of sand before lunch were we not saved by a knight in shining digger, Neil Walker, who responded to my SOS with around a tonne taken from his own stock on the farm.
Weather cracked around 3pm, so we knocked off and headed for the pub, just like proper builders. Up to three courses on both skins all the way around, about 650 blocks in total, which I think is excellent considering the horrible weather, time lost at the start of the job and the fact that there wasn't a bona fide bricky to be seen.


Monday, 11 June 2007

June 11th - Concrete pouring

At last summer has arrived. For the past week large parts of the country have been basking in sunshine and temperatures in the mid 20s, while in Kelso the daily mist has lifted around tea-time. mountains of damp laundry clutter the house. But today was oh, so different!
Went over to the plot around noon to wait for the first load of concrete, which arrived after about half an hour. Each wagon from Blinkbonny Quarry brought between eight and nine cubic metres, or rather, the ingredients to make up eight or nine "cubes". Unusually, the Blinkbonny trucks mix the concrete on-site (see below), meaning that you only pay for what is used, rather than trying to calculate accurately in advance what will be needed.
Spent a few hours with Gregor and a succession of drivers pouring, levelling, cadjoling and smoothing, until I had to leave to get to Travis Perkins before closing time to pay for tomorrows delivery of blocks, sand and cement. Whoops, forgot to mention lunch. Anna turned up with Toby and Oscar and a picnic, which we ate on a rug spread on the rocky ground, watching the pouring. Not very picturesque, or peaceful, but at least Anna now has an idea of how it's all going.
By the time I left the trenches had swallowed something like 26 cubic metres, and to my eye would only need another couple. When I arrived today, the west-end trench had collapsed (see first picture), meaning more bloody concrete! Total looks like being about 30 cubes, at £68.50 each = £2055 + VAT, and that's before the cost of buying and laying the blocks, then filling the cavity to ground level with yet more concrete. Thinking of having a glass floor so at least I can appreciate where all the money went!

Saturday, 9 June 2007

June 8th - Dug!

Nipped over in the morning to find four men from Walker Groundworks on site. One to drive the digger, one (Gregor, the boss) to supervise, one to drive the tractor / dump trailer for 2 minutes every half-hour (John) and one to lean on a shovel and very occasionally, when prompted by Gregor, push a loose clod of earth into the trench. God knows what it's going to cost me for the four of them!
They'd already completed one end and half a side, and I noted with dismay that the trench wasn't a metre, as I'd expected, but a good five feet deep. Gregor assured me that they'd had to go that deep to find a good hard footing. Quickly recalculated the anount of concrete I'm going to have to buy, adjusting the cost from £1500 to somewhere in the region of £3000 - 3500. Not a happy bunny.

Returned with the boys in the afternnon to find the job completed. Deep all the way around, and the pads for the support columns were a lot wider and a lot messier than I'd expected. Oh, and the 300mm-wide trench along the centre of the foundations is actually 450mm wide, requiring 50% more concrete than it should. Talk about throwing money into a hole!

Still, quite exciting to see the project finally started. No turning back now!

Thursday, 7 June 2007

June 7th - Digging

Things seem to be hotting up. I'm sitting waiting for a call from Gregor Walker to tell me he's on his way to the plot to start digging the foundations. Mal and I marked them out a few nights ago, and decided to make allowance for an additional post in the kitchen to hold up the big beam supporting the first-floor joists. This, of course, involves an extra concrete pad.
I've been frantically chasing quotes for the timber for the frame and the joists. After a long and detailed chat with Nick Grant from the AECB, I'm looking into the possibility of using I-joists in the ground floor to minimise thermal bridging and allow a lot of insulation.

Brian Carmichael at Doves is working on the design of this, and of the big upstairs beam. It's been specified by the engineer as a dirty great half-ton steel RSJ, but I'd much rather use timber. This will be a lot bigger (about 130 x 300mm in section, but at least it fits with the ethos of the build, and when varnished might even look quite groovy.

Building Control have said they're happy enough with the foundation design, but have just emailed to say that for prictical reasons, a wee bit of "scarecement" is recommended. What the dickens is that, then?!


Sound the trumpets and ring the bells. Work has finally started, a mere 10 months after tabling our offer for the plot! No word from Gregor by 3pm, so I jumped in the car and headed for the plot for a final measurement check. I had a funny feeling I'd find him there, and so it proved. He was busy marking the lines while his mate scraped away in a digger. I helped with the line-marking and took some photos. Tomorrow the digging begins in earnest.