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.

Monday, 31 December 2007

December 30th & 31st

Now then, two days to report. Sunday, had my gorgeous wife with me. She is such a fabulous helper, I got so much more than usual done. Oh, also had the two dogs and four children, who admittedly are not quite so helpful, but still, nice to have the company. Together we laid floors or rather vinyl, and Anna oiled the work surfaces for the umpteenth time. Then my superhuman but beautiful wife made a bonfire with the children and still managed to find time to brush and feed the horse and donkey.
Monday, alone today. Sat about with my two arms the one length. Then went home to get ready for a new year's eve party.
You may have guessed that my gorgeous and talented wife penned the entry above. She neglected to mention that I unpacked and assembled all the basins and WCs, and compiled a list of the missing bits, which have either been supplied wrongly (incompatible toilet and cistern), forgotten (toilet handle, sink waste) or not yet ordered (basin traps and one or two bits that a plumber would have known to order, but I did not). The two-week shutdown that is being enjoyed by the entire building industry (but not me) has made things a bit tricky, as materials are very hard to come by. I am three back-boxes short of finishing the electrical second-fix (about £1.20-worth, and 20 minutes or work), but can't cross it off the list until they arrive. Similarly, I could have toilets and basins working but for the want of a couple of quids' worth of plumbing fittings.
The vinyl-laying was a lot easier than I'd expected, even the accurate positioning of holes for pipes, measured upstairs, then laterally transposed (as I was marking on the back of the vinyl) and cut on the living-room floor. It's pretty thick and heavy stuff, and the larger cuts are a bit unwieldy, but with just the utility room to do, it's all gone down very satisfactorily.
No Melvin today, which was a bit of a disappointment. He's off snow-boarding in a couple of days, so I doubt I'll see him for a couple of weeks, by which time most of the oak flooring should be down.

Pictures below are the downstairs WC, which did itself this morning while I was checking the uniform length of my arms.

Saturday, 29 December 2007

December 29th - Plumbing

I'd arranged to meet farmer Neil on site at 8am to connect the house to the spring water supply. It felt awfully early, and very dark. The connection took only a few minutes, after which I had no excuse to delay any further the testing of the plumbing throughout the house - a task I've been avoiding for many weeks, simply because I didn't think I could take the heartache if it revealed a load of leaks, which would involve pulling floors up or the ceiling down. Of course, the proper time to test it all is BEFORE the ceiling and floors are down, but we didn't have a water supply back then.
It was with considerable trepidation that I hooked up a temporary supply to the first radiator circuit, and little short of outright terror that I turned the water on...
and it was with growing disbelief and relief that I watched for ten minutes, and waited for the tell-tale damp patches to appear on the ceiling. None came.
My test rig didn't include any kind of pressure-release mechanism, and the only way to let the pressure off so I could disconnect my temporary supply pipe was to drill a small hole in the bottom, with a bucket placed strategically underneath, then cut of the drilled section before the next test. I repeated the test for the three remaining circuits, with similarly splendid results. Infact the only slight mishap was when the shower-fitting that Melvin installed a couple of months ago shot a plume of water towards the ceiling and soaked the wall and bathroom floor. I suspect he warned me at the time that he'd only finger-tightened the fittings, with no PTFE tape, but if he did, I'd forgotten long ago. The spill was quickly mopped up and dried, and the leak repaired.
I also did a bit more floor-scraping upstairs and oiled the worktops (again!), before baling out at lunchtime to receive a visiting neice (Camilla).
A huge day. Now that the plumbing has the thumbs-up, I can crack on with the flooring. Bathrooms first - I'll get the vinyl down and have a bash at the installation of basins, dunnies, bath and shower this coming week, hopefully with Melvin's help, before the oak flooring for the rest of the house arrives sometime around the 5th of January.
Aussie Mal's 40th today. Happy birthday from the other side of the world, cocker. Your Scottish legacy is well on track!

Friday, 28 December 2007

December 28th - plumbing and tidying

No pictures for ages - sorry mum, and not much to photograph today. Anna's lost her car-keys, and needed my car, so I had her drop me at the plot for 10 hours. There was a power-cut, so I was working with the generator again. Funny how I've already got so accustomed to having unlimited power - it seemed a real drag to have to ration it.
I started with an unpleasant and long-avoided bit of plumbing under the floor, running the pipes in for the utility-room taps. Uncomfortable and fiddly, but it felt great to have it finished.
I'd nipped into Kelso in the morning for a stop-cock, which I installed with a temporary length of 15mm pipe on the down-stream side which I'll use to test all my plumbing before putting the oak flooring down.
The entire afternoon was spent tidying, sweeping and chipping plaster-spots from the downstairs floor to give us a smooth surface on which to lay the oak boards. The place was a real tip - evidence of Melvin's long absence. He's always the one to get hacked off with the mess and sort it all out.
Neil popped by in the evening and promised to be on site first thing tomorrow to hook me up to the spring supply temporarily. I have a feeling that he's done nothing about having the mains supply connected, and is a bit evasive whenever I mention it! Still, the spring will be fine for testing the plumbing.

Wednesday, 26 December 2007

Christmas Eve & Boxing Day

December 24th:
Installed the last smoke alarm, the kitchen downlighters (above the island and in the bulkhead) and the upstairs ring-main sockets, apart from in Hamish's room because I ran out of back-boxes. Somehow - and I need to check my invoices to see what's happened - I've ended up with 80 extra single-gang back-boxes and a shortfall of two-gang. As the job only used about a dozen single-gang, it's difficult to see how I managed to procure almost a hundred! Still, as they cost about 30p each, it's hardly worth agonising over.

December 26th:
Hadn't intended to work on the house today, but after lunch I decided to nip over to the plot, take the dog for a run up Hownam Law, feed the horse and donkey and do a little bit of work. The run was wonderful - very windy and invigorating, and a relief to see that despite the lack of training over the last six months, I can still make it to the top without walking or suffering a coronary.
With the couple of hours I had available to work, I cut and installed the spindles on the upper flight of stairs. Made a pretty smart job of it, if I do say so myself, and I think it'll look rather natty when it's all oiled up.
I also marked out the hob cut-out on the island worktop, but decided that cutting it would take too much strength out of it, and would be better left until we've stopped flipping it over for oiling and moving it around.

Sunday, 23 December 2007

December 23rd - Electrics

Made it over to the plot for about five hours today. Spent all of it working on the downstairs ring-main - which involved quite a bit of rolling around in the 15" space below the floor tracking down errant wires - and the upstairs lighting, which entailed an hour rummaging around in the loft tracking down a short-circuit that kept tripping the circuit-breaker. Turned out to be a cable damaged by the sharp edge of a truss bracket. I'd also managed to mis-label a wire, which led to some pretty confusing symptoms. Got it all sorted in the end, and now have just the upstairs ring-main to do, plus fripperies like aerial sockets and a couple of phone points.
Anna brought the boys over, and she painted fascias while they bickered inside for a couple of hours.
Our neighbour Andrew dropped by to cast his eye over the flooring I've asked him to help out with, and agreed to start on January 3rd. He reckoned that the three of us (including Melvin) ought to knock it off in around a week. Before then I have to satisfy myself that the plumbing is all sound (still not done that!) and chisel all the lumps of plaster off the floor to give us a smooth surface to lay the oak boards on. Sounds like a job for Connor (or Jack, if you're reading).
No pictures, but if you imagine shallow puddles and a muddy sludge where the ice was, you'll not be far wrong.

Friday, 21 December 2007

December 21st - Power!

The freeze shows no sign of abating, and this morning's -10 degrees in Kelso had both Fiat Multiplas out of action. I had the startled Aussie Connor on site again, marvelling that life in such a cold climate is sustainable.
The installation and connection of our electricity meter was scheduled for today, and all morning I worked in a state of impatient expectation, waiting for it to turn up. I finished the upstairs lighting circuit, including a wire to switch the lounge lights that somehow I'd neglected to run in while the walls were open. Managed to get it in with no disturbance to decor. Connor cut as much verandah flooring as he could, then oiled a couple of worktops and set to work painting the front of the house, once the frost had melted from the wall in the soft, bright sunshine.
Anna came with the twins for a brief visit, during which they made an improvised slide with a couple of sheets of frosted OSB, ending at the edge of an open trench, into which they'd plummet at the end of each ride.
The meter-man turned up just after lunch and was finished within half-an-hour. When he'd gone I hooked the supply up to the fusebox and, with a mixture of trepidation and excitement, switched on. It seemed like a big moment, and work will now be a lot easier with lighting throughout the house (still to test upstairs) and sockets in handy places.
Connor finished the front wall, which makes a heck of a difference to the first impression the house gives as you approach it. Feels like things are coming together. All I need now is to sort the plumbing...

Thursday, 20 December 2007

December 20th - nowt (again)

I rather think this house is going to have to build itself. Anna had to take Ellie to the airport, and I had two sick twins to look after at home. The permafrost shows no signs of thawing. I met Jim the plumber on site to try to talk him into taking on the boiler and tank installation. I wouldn't say he was particularly keen, but I think he's agreed to do it (although with Jim - a man of famously few words - it's hard to be sure).
In the absence of progress on the house, here are some pretty hoar-frost pictures taken on the way home.
frosty 201207

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

December 19th - Electrics

Another clear and penitentially cold day. At breakfast time the car thermometer read minus seven, and the gear-stick was frozen in position! I only managed a half-day, as the twins are off school with croop and Anna had Hamu's school play to get to. Spent the morning fitting pendants and light switches upstairs, and when I could stand the cold no longer, I went out into the sun (and ice) and fitted one of the lanterns in the porch, which involved a tricky bit of wire-pulling behind the cladding.
Collected the vinyl for the bathroom and utility room floors in the evening, so we can get cracking with the bathroom installation as soon as we've tested that section of the plumbing.

No pictures today.

Monday, 17 December 2007

December 17th - electrics and verandah floor

Back on site today for the first time since last Thursday. Melvin had warned me that he's pretty tied up for most of the week, so I got hold of young Connor the Aussie and had him working on the verandah floor for the day. His morning was spent fitting joist-hangers to all the floor-joists, which had to be done before the flooring could go down.
After several weeks of wondering vaguely what to floor it with, and wanting to avoid using ugly and pretty toxic decking, I bought a load of 150 x 32mm larch boards from Willie Dobie. They're planed with about 20 small longitudinal grooves across the 150mm width to provide grip when they're wet, and, being larch, should theoretically be OK to leave untreated. In the interests of keeping them clean I'm planning to oil them thoroughly so they can be washed down, and so water can be swept off them.
While Connor was busy with that, I was indoors cracking on with the second-fix electrics (fitting sockets and switches). I'm hoping to have it complete before the man comes to fit the meter on Friday, although the way the day-job has gone in the last couple of week, I'll be lucky to find the time.
We finished the day working together for the last hour, with Connor cutting boards to length and me fitting them with a 5mm gap between rows to aid water-shedding.

I bit the bullet this afternoon and phoned a couple of plumbers to take the heating system installation off my hands. Neither can fit it in this side of the new year, and I think it's going to be a bit of a panic getting the flooring done thoughout the house. Hopefully I'll be able to get the pipework in most of the house tested in the next week or two so I can make a start.


Thursday, 13 December 2007

December 13th - cladding and slating

One of the dangers of living in a modern well-insulated house is that you can easily misinterpret the conditions outside. It was for this reason that I managed to under-dress rather dramatically today, and spent a long and uncomfortable day on site fighting all the time against hypothermia. It didn't help that I was working on the north side of the building, while the front was bathed in lovely soft winter sunshine. I finished the cladding of the overhang, knocking off the last two ventilated boards by late morning, while Melvin worked on the gable-end above the verandah.
I was chuuffed that by the time we'd fitted the last profiled caldding board, we had just nine left, out of a total of 550. Pretty nifty quantity surveying by yours-truly!
After lunch I spent a couple of hours on finishing the porch slating, and Melvin started fitting battens on the verandah roof, to prepae it for slating. I joined him as dusk was falling and we worked together by site-light until almost 6. Frosty when we left, and I didn't thaw until I had a ot dinner in me.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

December 11th - Cladding

It was as chilly a start as I'd feared, exacerbated by the fact that I forgot my neoprene socks, and almost immediately lost feeling in several toes. Melvin and I worked together on the cladding the overhang at the back of the house. This is the north side, so we were in shade, but soon warmed up and had to shed layers and hats with the effort of fitting boards in awkward nooks and crannies. It was slow going - we'd thought that we'd romp through the straight unbroken run along the back roof, but the bottom course, which requires cutting to length, then ripping to width with a 35 degree angle, and then the awfully time-consuming task of measuring, marking, jigsawing and meshing the soffit vent slots seemed to take forever.
I had a call just as Anna was arriving with the boys at 3pm summoning me to a meeting at home (which I'd completely forgotten about), so I had to knock off early. Melvin carried on alone, but as dark was falling he belted a finger with his hammer and was unable to continue, even after aneasthetising it in the icy stream for five minutes!
No work tomorrow, as I'm off to Northumberland again to finish last week's big job. Spoke to Scottish Power Systems today to chase up the meter installation. Now scheduled for December 21st, which is a bit crap, as I'd been led to believe it would be early this week. Still - by then I should have finished the electrical second fix, and the house will be ready to go live.
Neil, bless him, volunteered to shift some of our piles of rubble and soil, and to dig a shallow trench to drain our perpetual puddle into the stream.

Monday, 10 December 2007

December 10th - Cladding and wiring

Had Melvin back on site today, but in a diminished form. He was snuffling and coughing all day, having given up smoking AGAIN. By the time he arrived the rain had cleared and the day gradually got brighter as it progressed. We spent it cladding the underside of the overhangs at the front and west of the house. I'm delighted with the end result. The forecast is fair for the rest of the week, so we should get the back and east knocked off tommorrow. meanwhile, Anna spent a good chunk of the day painting the cladding beneath us. It's really starting to look quite smart externally.
Melvin left as dark fell, and I moved indoors and spent an hour installing and wiring the fuse-box in the utility room. Thick ice on the puddles when I left at 6, so a chilly start tomorrow.

Saturday, 8 December 2007

December 8th - slating & electrics

Another short day - just about three hours on site, the second half of which featured howling winds and driving rain. I arrived to icy puddles and spent the first hour or so exchanging Ellie's window (it had finger-prints on the MIDDLE of the three pains in the triple-glazing sandwich), which was quite tricky single-handed with a slated roof beneath me. I should have done it before slating the porch, but there you go... With what remained of the only slightly nasty weather I knocked off another three rows of slating on the left-hand-side of the porch before retreating indoors when it was just too unpleasant to stay out. Before I had to leave for home I wired a smoke detector and four light-fittings upstairs.
We had a family jaunt to Galashiels, which included a trek around Carpet Right, choosing a floor-covering for the bathrooms. Below are the candidates. Votes if you will please by email. If I like your choice, I'll go with it. If not, I'll ignore it, like General Musharraf...
Vinyl - 081207

Friday, 7 December 2007

December 7th - Going live

I didn't make it to the plot today, and spent the day working in Northumberland again (and the job STILL aint finished!). Anna was there for a while and reports that a team from Scottish Power turned up and installed the transformer that will service the three / four plots, and that we now have power in the house. We can't use it yet, as the meter hasn't been fitted, but it really feels like progress - having energetic electrons waiting to gush forth. I think my ailing generator will be very relieved.
Conspicuous by his absence was Gregor Walker, who was supposed to come and backfill all the holes on the site in readiness for the start of landscaping on Monday. We've now had to put Roger the landscaper off till Tuesday.
Below are a couple of photos I took from the border-crossing at Carter Bar on the A68. It was very, very lovely driving over there this morning, and impossible to do it justice with a photo.
Carter Bar 071207

Thursday, 6 December 2007

December 6th - slating etc

Much to my surpprise, I found myself slating again today. Anna and I arrived together and she immediately set about painting the cladding and oiling worktops. I took a while to get up to speed, and pottered around fitting sockets into the douglas fir structural posts in the kitchen.
After a while she told me to stop pfaffing about and to slate the porch. This hadn't figured at all prominently on my list of priorities, but it did seem to make sense to do something outdoors on a dry and mild December day. Quite enjoyed being back on the slates, and as Anna was painting around the porch, we actually got to spend some time together, which doesn't seem to happen very often with me shuttling between plot and real work. Finished one side and fitted all the battens on the other side, and just managed to get a couple of rows of slates on the second side before dark forced me back indoors. Fixed the remaining cupboard handles in the kitchen then installed the back-boxes for all the ground-floor sockets, including one in the snug where there were no wires pulled through the plaster-board, but where I was convinced I'd made provision when I was wiring. After a couple of minutes racking my notoriously fallible memory, I bit the bullet and cut a fist-sized hole... and there they were, two fat wired just where I thought they'd be. Mal - you're a charlatan and a scoundrel!

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

December 4th - Electrics

A nasty cold, blustery damp day, so I retreated indoors and set about the electrical second fix. The first couple of hours saw all the back-boxes fitted for the ground-floor light-switches and above-counter sockets. The remainder of the day, until I had to leave on a school-run at 2:30 was spent installing and wiring the twelve downstairs light pendants. Just finished the last one in time, which was very satisfying.
Meanwhile, a couple of Scottish Power engineers arrived and joined our 25mm single-phase cable to the big 95mm three-phase cable serving the four plots. They also terminated the cable in the utility room, fitting a 100A fuse on the end of it, in readiness for the meter-installer to come soon. Apparently a couple of years ago all these tasks were carried out by one man, or at least one team in a single visit. Now, in the interests of efficiency, or health and safety, or political correctness, they divide the job into four distinct tasks, each carried out by a separate team, each travelling from Edinburgh in a van (or, today, two vans). It would seem that the soaring cost of domestic energy isn't all down to the price of oil!
Back home I ordered all the sockets, switches etc, which should be here in a couple of days. Quite looking forward to installing it all. It's the one part of the build of which I have any previous experience. Very glad to notice that the wall in Hamish's room, where water had leaked in around the velux unit, has dried out.
Back in Northumberland again tomorrow, working on the day-job.

Sunday, 2 December 2007

2nd December - painting & leak-plugging

A couple of hours on site with all the kids today. Started with some painting off the scaffold at the west end, helped briefly by Ellie, then noticed that water is still getting in somewhere around the velux in Hamu's room. Had a good look and discovered that I've made a bit of a boo-boo with the flashing, and left out a soaker, meaning that water flowing down the right-hand side of the window leaks into the cavity behind the plasterboard. Need a drawing iron to remove a slate to fix it. Don't have one, and to keep the water out until I borrow one from my pal Davy, I patched up with a load of silicon, which should do the job for a few days at least.
Back down to Northumberland again tomorrow to earn some cash, so no more work till Tuesday...

Saturday, 1 December 2007

1st December - External painting

Only managed three hours on site today, on my own. A bit blustery to work off a ladder on the overhangs, so I decided to do a bit of painting off the scaffold, which Anna wouldn't be happy doing. After a couple of hours I'd done all I could without reconfiguring the scaffold, so I cut a few boards to length and fitted them to the raked overhang above where I'd just been painting. Back still pretty stiff and vulnerable after my fall earlier in the week, which makes manoeuvering on the scaffold a bit of a pain.