Cropthorne Autonomous House Project Diary
May 2012 January 2013: Reaping the Rewards?
Our plans and ideas for this house, generated way back in 2006, are now a reality rather than just something we talked about. For the past 18 months we've actually been living in a house with no heating system, no boiler, no connection to mains drainage and, since connecting up the rainwater harvesting system in the summer, no connection to the public water supply. The sun (when it shines!) really does heat our hot water, warm the house and supply us with electricity during the day; and the rain (something we haven't been short of this year!) does provide us with water for bathing and washing clothes. Soon, we hope, the rain will also provide our drinking water. The slow sand filter takes a while to prime, so we have to be patient and wait. We've been sending water samples out for testing since it was set up and it's very close to being potable.
It's such a relief and a thrill to see our 'experimental' house working - and working very well. We had no idea, back in 2006, if it was possible. Although Robert and Brenda Vale's autonomous house was a sort of working prototype, we were going one step further and building to be truly zero-heat. Who knew if it would work? It wasn't easy, quick or inexpensive to build. It could easily have backfired on us. But it didn't. And now we're reaping the rewards: our bills have reduced dramatically; fuel-price rises hardly affect us. And, what's more, it's a pleasure to live here. No hair shirts are necessary - just a jumper or two for a few weeks in the winter months (summer clothes and summer-weight duvets were in use from March until October this year). Living in this house has put us back in touch with what's going on outside. We use every ray of sunshine and every drop of rain that falls here. Our waste composts down and is used in the garden, rather than becoming a toxic problem. Nothing is wasted and nothing is lost. Imagine if every house was built to do the same…!
In the immediate future, we've still got a few things to sort out, as you'll see in the photo diary. This will be the last full diary update, but we'll post any significant news if it happens. And it's our intention to keep the site 'live' with data from our temperature loggers and any other useful findings.
Added by: Lizzie on 03-01-2013
November 2011April 2012: The First Winter
We had no idea what to expect.
Disappointingly (for us) it was a milder winter than the previous two, but we still had a fair few frosty days and nights, with external temperatures as low as -10°C on one occasion. As the house is so well insulated, a drop in outside temperature doesn’t necessarily have much impact – unless it comes with a run of several dull, overcast days with no sunshine, and so no solar heat gain. The internal temperature remained at a comfortable 17-18°C for several weeks, then after a couple of dull and foggy days slowly dropped to 15/16°C. This was hardly surprising, as we still hadn’t insulated the ducting for the mechanical ventilation system, some of which runs along the basement ceiling and is effectively ‘outside’ the house. The incoming air should be warmed by the heat reclaimed from the outgoing air. But the uninsulated ducts were losing that reclaimed heat into the cold basement, and so feeding cold air into the house.
Despite that, it remained surprisingly comfortable most of the time. We were struck by what a difference it makes to be in a house with no draughts or cold spots. You really do feel comfortable at lower temperatures. We only had to resort to using a one-bar electric fire for about an hour on a few of the colder nights. Insulating the ducting made a noticeable difference, raising the internal temperature by a couple of degrees. In fact, we’ve had so much sun in recent weeks that we may have to put the ventilation system into ‘summer bypass mode’ (ie stop reclaiming heat) long before summer.
So, we’re pretty happy with the way the house has performed so far. The solar water panels have supplied almost all of our hot water over the winter – we’ve only used the immersion heater a few times and not at all since we insulated the tank. The photovoltaic array has generated a lot of electricity, and now that the 12-volt battery system is fully installed, is charging the batteries that power some of our lights, the broadband router and the smoke alarms.
The next big challenge is to get the rainwater harvesting system up and running. We deliberately left it till last, so that Mike could concentrate on finishing the electrics and getting signed off by building control. Happily, we’re now past those hurdles. We finally found someone who was able to sign off the electrical installation – Andy Martin, a local electrical inspector, who relished the challenge of getting to grips with our unconventional systems.
about the house at EcoBuild in March, was very well received. He spoke
to a packed room and kept them interested and amused throughout (not
bad for a first ever public presentation). The local Cotswold and
Vale Magazine also published an article about the house, after a visit
by one of their contributors. Click
this link to download it.
MayOctober 2011: Welcome to Cropthorne
Having worked flat out to get the house ready, we immediately threw ourselves into the task of moving. By the time we’d finished we were worn out and longing for a break, but there was no time to rest. We had to address issues such as the faulty MVHR system, the fact that we had no lights, and the thousand and one other jobs that moving house throws up. And once you move, the Building Regulations clock starts ticking, so we had to launch straight back into finishing the house for it to be signed off.
But, the main thing is, we’re here. And it’s a great house to live in. Designing a house with the living area upstairs makes so much sense. You spend more time in living areas than bedrooms and if you have a great view you can enjoy it for longer. The weather was unseasonably warm when we moved in and we had trouble keeping the house cool. However, the strategy of having bedrooms downstairs works very well, as they’ve never been too hot to sleep in. On cooler days it’s remained comfortably warm upstairs. Coming in from outside on a chilly evening feels as if you’re stepping into a house with the heating on, even though there isn't any. This graph gives an idea of how stable the indoor temperature is.
All of the hot water we’ve used since moving in has been heated by the sun and the temperature in the tank has averaged 50-60°C throughout. We had a run of two or three days without much sun when the tank temperature dropped to about 41°C, but the moment the sun came out again it was back up in the 50s. We’ve yet to insulate the tank fully, which should improve things. The photovoltaic panels were installed a few days ago, so we’re starting to generate our own electricity. The results look very promising already – more on that in future updates.
The MVHR system is impressive. It’s pretty much inaudible, except in boost mode, when you hear a gentle rushing sound. During the warm weather it brought cool fresh air into the bedrooms at night. Kitchen smells such as fish frying and burnt toast stay in the kitchen, even though it’s open to the main room, and are extracted quickly and efficiently.
We’re pleased with the composting toilets. We find them more pleasant to use than conventional toilets, the lack of smell is remarkable, and we've saved gallons of water because there's no flushing. The one problem we’ve had is with fruit flies. The larvae were probably in the initial layer of compost we lined the chamber with. After a few days we began to notice them and on checking the chamber Mike discovered it was full of them. Happily, regular use of fly spray in the chamber is keeping them under control.
And that’s the story so far. There’s still a lot to do before we can say the house is finished, including setting up the rainwater harvesting, but it’s easier now that we’re on site. And we’re already enjoying the benefits of living here. It’ll be fascinating to see how the house performs over the winter. We almost can’t wait for it to turn cold.
Added by: Lizzie on 30-10-2011
George Fegan: 1958 2011
Not long after posting the previous diary update, we received the shocking and sad news that my good friend of 33 years, George Fegan, had died tragically and unexpectedly. After meeting at the BBC Wood Norton training centre in 1978, we'd pursued separate careers in broadcasting. A few years ago George left CNN where he worked in engineering for many years, and re-trained as an electrician a new career which he seemed to be enjoying. This meant he was the obvious person to be 'chief electrician' on the build, and it was a pleasure to get together and work with him on the project.
His untimely death at just 53 years old was a major shock to everybody who knew him.
Added by:Mike on 30-10-2011
MarchMay 2011: Staining and Tiling, Ramming and Rolling.
This update is long overdue and, before
you ask, no we haven’t moved in yet. Actually reaching that point
seems to be the hardest part of self-building. Especially if you don’t
have unlimited funds and large teams of decorators to speed the process
on. We identified four rooms, plus the kitchen and bathroom, which
we want to finish before we move. The rest we’ll do in situ.
January February 2011: On the Right Path.
The weeks since
the last update have seemed incredibly busy, with many transformations
taking place inside and out. We’re closer than ever to our goal of
moving in (if not actually finishing), but it still feels like one
of those dreams where you’re running towards your destination, but
you never reach it. Maybe building a house is always like that? And
this is no ordinary ‘off-the-shelf’ house.
We now have banisters and railings on the stairs and mezzanine, which have added interesting shapes and shadows to the interior. The steelworkers have done a very good job of recreating the design brief we gave them. Work continues to finish the detailing on the conservatory. It’s fully glazed now and is often the warmest place in the house when the sun shines. After that, the only major job left is to finish installing the guttering.
most of January and early February forging on with the plumbing and
the tedious job of insulating the pipes, which culminated in the commissioning
of the solar-water system just in time to qualify for the grant. What
a relief! As an added bonus we can now wash our hands in warm water,
courtesy of the sun, which fills us with childish excitement. With
the plumbing complete (or almost) we’ve also been able to let the
kitchen company return to fit the base units. Once those are in, they
can measure up for the worktops, we can decorate the kitchen, order
the remaining appliances, and then, maybe, consider moving…?
December 2010 January 2011: Mud, Snow, Glass and Stone.
Mike, meanwhile, kept trying to get on with the plumbing, but with so few people on site, he often ended up labouring on other jobs instead. With the deadline for the solar-water grant looming, this was becoming a major worry, but he hoped that during the Christmas break, with the site closed, he’d be able to get a lot done… Unfortunately, one week before Christmas it snowed very heavily and the temperature dropped so low that it was nearly a fortnight before a proper thaw began. The roads were treacherous and our car was snowed in at Evesham for days. (The weather also delayed yet again the arrival of the longed-for conservatory glazing.) When we did finally get to Cropthorne, the house was very cold and we had to resort to using an electric heater to stop Mike freezing to the pipework. He made good progress after the enforced delay, and most of the plumbing is now in for the bathroom, shower room and upstairs toilet.
With the start of the new year, the site has sprung into life and the past two weeks have seen a lot of progress – and a lot of mud, as the warmer temperatures brought rain. The groundworks are continuing, with the creation of a wildlife pond, as well as the installation of wiring to a (low energy) Narnia lamp in the garden. The conservatory glazing is in at last, or most of it, so we can stop pumping out the basement! It makes the house feel bigger, even though the conservatory is really ‘outside’. The kitchen carcasses have been delivered and placed in position, so that Mike can work out where to run the plumbing. It’s strange seeing such homely things as these and the bath and sinks appearing. The internal doors have been hung too, which makes a huge difference to how the rooms feel. In a way, they also make the house feel bigger – especially downstairs. We’ve even heard that the front door is due shortly. Hope it’s the right way round this time…
Added by: Lizzie on 17-01-2011
October/November 2010: The Home Straight?
That’s certainly the case internally. As well as the tiling, almost all the plastering has been done. We even have sockets in the rooms now, as Mike has been working hard to get the electrical circuits wired up, ready for connection to the electricity supply. He’s also been getting to grips with the plumbing, which is quite a feat of mental and physical dexterity. The clock is ticking on the deadline for our solar-water grant, so the sooner it’s finished the better. There’s one large square hole in the south-east corner of each floor through which all the pipes (and much of the wiring) have to go. It’s mind-boggling trying to figure out how to fit it all through – especially as most of the pipes have yet to be insulated.
Talking of insulation, as the days have got colder, it’s been encouraging to discover how well the house retains heat, despite the fact that it’s not yet fully airtight. Even after a frosty night, the inside temperature is surprisingly comfortable – and that’s without a front door… Of course, we would have one by now if there hadn’t been a cock-up on the ordering front. The door arrived weeks ago, but with the hinges on the wrong side. Ordinarily, you could just swap them over, but not with a highly specified passivhaus door. A replacement is on order, but we now have one going spare. The arrival of the men from Dovetail Joinery with our porch door helped to lessen the feelings of frustration. At least we now have something at the front of the house that we can shut and lock.
It’s interesting to look back to this time last year, when the first floor had just been poured and the first floor walls were starting to go up. It definitely feels as if we’re on the home straight now. Especially with the return of LeBrun Construction to finish the drains and begin the levelling and landscaping of the site around the house. We’ve also settled on The Village Kitchen Company, a local firm, to construct our kitchen, which is already being designed and built. Once the conservatory is finished it’s mainly what builders call ‘snagging’ jobs left. The rest will be down to us….
Added by: Lizzie on 30-11-2010
July/August/September 2010: So Near Yet So Far
Inside, the floor tiling is nearing completion, which means the final plastering has begun. The scene has been set for the construction of the balcony and conservatory – the steel structure that supports it all has been craned in, and we're waiting for the oak timbers and recycled pvc decking material to arrive.
We’re very pleased with how the house is turning out – the tiled floors are looking good and we love the lime-plastered walls. With the internal scaffolding removed, the large upstairs living space looks amazing – more like a converted barn than a room in a house. We now have the recycled-bottle-glass panels that we commissioned from stained-glass artist Jackie Harris. She’s done a wonderful job and they should look beautiful when they’re installed in the curved wall at the top of the stairs.
The stairs themselves are due to be tiled soon, so we got out the encaustic tiles we bought over a year ago from Jackfield Tile Museum in Ironbridge, and spent an afternoon carefully laying them out and numbering them. We can’t wait to see them installed. We made a return visit to Jackfield recently to get some more tiles from the seconds sale for the window sills in the bathrooms, toilets and utility room (see the latest picture gallery).
It’s encouraging to see things becoming ‘finished’ and we can definitely ‘see the light at the end of the tunnel’ now, but that just highlights how much there is still to do. The point at which we can move in is a long way off and it’s unlikely to be this year. But, once we get the kitchen in, one bathroom and bedroom habitable, and the composting toilet system and MVHR up and running, it would make life easier to move in and work on the rest in situ. We’ll have to see….
Added by: Lizzie on 25-09-2010
June/July 2010: One Year On.....
Inside, work has continued on improving the airtightness and preparing the house for plastering, which has just started in earnest. Slowly, but surely, the concrete core of the house is disappearing. Once the plastering is finished, the floors can be tiled, which will alter the look of the interior significantly.
Meanwhile, down in the basement engine room, the composting toilet chamber is now in place and Mike and I have had 'fun' installing the ducting for the mechanical heat-recovery ventilation system. It’s a bit like playing with a giant Meccano set. Most of it’s in now, which is very pleasing. It’s a shame we can’t get it working, as the house has been quite stuffy in the summer heat. Plumbing is next on the agenda – another major installation job for Mike.
It’s an exciting time, but we’re suffering a little from the stress of working nearly every day without a break. There are still so many things to do, difficult decisions to make, and costs to keep an eye on. The projected final costs are higher than we’d like them to be, so we’ve been looking at ways to control them. One answer seems to be to take on more work ourselves, such as installing the bathrooms and kitchen, hanging the doors, as well as all the decorating – and, of course, setting up the rainwater-harvesting system and the composting toilets. It sometimes feels overwhelming.
We’re also faced with the dilemma of whether or not to go for Passivhaus Certification. The German Passivhaus system verifies the energy performance of buildings and is based on sound science. In fact this house was designed using the Passivhaus planning software (PHPP), so we know it'll perform properly in fact, the modelling shows it will need less than a third of the energy required to achieve the standard.
If we gained certification, we'd be one of the very first buildings in the UK to do so, which would be great. BUT, although many are hoping it will be adopted here, Passivhaus is not a recognised standard in the UK. So it certainly isn't a requirement, and at a cost of £2000, it seems an awful lot to pay to get a certificate telling us something we already know.
Added by: Lizzie on 26-07-2010
May 2010: Glazing Over
Lee, the cameraman from the BBC series ‘To Build or Not to Build’, was on hand to cover the arrival of the windows. Following the death of Kristian Digby, the production company decided to go ahead with the series, but our project was by then too far advanced to follow for a complete programme. Instead, we’ll be featured as a completed build in a slot within an episode.
The window installation process was incredibly quick and problem free, thanks in part to the trouble that Mike Neate and his team had taken to prepare the openings accurately. It was very exciting seeing them go in; it’s a major turning point in the build, as it changes it from a building site to something that feels more like a home. It also means that the internal walls and floors will now begin to warm up. With the windows installed, the team is now concentrating on finishing the airtightness detailing, so that we can do our first airtightness test. This will allow them to find any air leaks before the building work is complete – even the tiniest leak could affect the building’s performance.
Meanwhile, the project manager has been working hard on plans for the conservatory and balcony – the next, and final, major construction job. Mike has nearly finished the wiring and will soon turn his attention to the plumbing and installation of the heat-recovery ventilation system. And we may have solved our front door dilemma – we’ve found a third British company, called Greensteps, which can make a passivhaus-standard door, in the style that we want, for much less than £5000. We’ve also found a potter who is making straight-through pans for our composting toilet, based on the design of a rhubarb forcer. More on that in the next entry…..
Added by: Lizzie on 30-05-2010
April / Early May 2010: Highs and Lows
With the first-floor walls in place, we made another big last-minute decision: the space above the kitchen, office and toilet ceilings was to have been a closed in attic, housing the water header tank and maybe a few boxes of junk. Instead, we’ve decided to leave it open (with railings instead of walls, so it looks like a mezzanine). This way, the whole length of the glulam beam will be visible, instead of disappearing into the attic wall. It'll add enormously to the sense of space in the main room and make more of a feature of the beam.
Most of Mike’s time this month has been taken up with wiring (see picture gallery). We also had our first painting job: the garage windows. The colour we’ve chosen is an ‘Arts & Crafts’ style blue, which should look good next to the cream coloured exterior lime render. Finding a satisfactory front door is proving difficult. Two Austrian companies make passivhaus-certified doors, which cost an amazing £5000 each. Although you’d expect an airtight super-insulated door to cost more than your average model, that seems unreasonably expensive. Two British companies have doors of similar quality in the pipeline at more sensible prices, but they may not be ready in time for us….
April has been very busy socially. The local AECB group arranged a visit one evening. Mike, who’s become a practised tour guide, showed about 30 architects, builders, energy consultants, and other interested parties round the house, culminating with drinks and nibbles in what will be our main living area (our first party!) The event went well and we received some encouraging feedback. On the May Bank Holiday weekend, we took part in the Cropthorne Walkabout – an annual open-gardens event to raise money for local charities. We weren’t sure how much interest a half-built house would generate, but were overwhelmed by the number of visitors – between 400 and 500 people were shown round, with Mike and the project manager giving simultaneous non-stop tours. We were all exhausted by the end of it, but, once again, we had a lot of positive feedback, and hopefully it helped spread the word about sustainable building.
So, April had many highs, especially early on, when everything seemed to be progressing well. But, as May begins, things have taken a nosedive, with a series of frustrating delays. We were looking forward to the start of the lime rendering on the garage, followed by the main house, but the plasterer has broken his wrist and will be out of action for a while. And, the greatly anticipated arrival of the windows has been delayed by about three weeks(!) owing to problems with the glass specification. This is a huge disappointment, completely out of our control, which throws the schedule out of synch too.
Added by: Lizzie on 10-05-2010
March 2010: Sunshine and Showers
Work has also begun to attach the i-beams to the walls above the brick plinth hampered by the arrival of strong winds and heavy showers. The i-beams will form a structure that will be filled with insulation, boarded and then rendered using coloured lime render (another difficult colour decision to make).
Inside, some of the scaffolding on the first floor has been removed so that the bricklayers can return to build the first-floor walls. We can't wait to see these in place especially the curved wall of the kitchen, which will contain three decorative windows made from recycled wine bottle glass. Once the walls are in, Mike will be able to continue wiring the house. He's worked hard this month channelling out for the cable runs and installing cables where possible, but he really needs to be able to make a start upstairs. Working out how to run the cables for the many lighting circuits is proving to be a challenging puzzle. Some lights will be mains powered and others will be on a 12V battery supply, so we'll still have basic lighting if there's a power-cut.
One major decision we've made this month concerns the outside staircase, which we bought long before building began. Although we still think it's lovely, we came to the conclusion that it wasn't going to look right and would be difficult and expensive to integrate with the rest of the balcony/conservatory structure. So, after much deliberation, we decided to re-sell it and, instead, have a metal staircase and balcony railing constructed in the same style as the internal stair rail.
I don't think we'll regret this decision, as the result should be quite striking....
Added by: Lizzie on 29-03-2010
As we were preparing this diary update, we heard that TV presenter Kristian Digby had been found dead at his London home. Only two weeks previously he and his crew had visited our site, and interviewed us for the BBC 'To Build or Not To Build' programme, in which our project was to feature. After careful consideration, we decided there was no reason not to include an image of Kristian and his crew in our picture update as planned, as the day of the visit was a good one, and everyone involved seemed to enjoy it. At the time of writing, we don't know if the TV series will still go ahead with a different presenter, or if it will be shelved.
A terrible shame Kristian Digby was only 32, and we met him just the once, but he seemed to be a lovely man.
Added by:Mike on 02-03-2010
February 2010: A Flurry of Activity
Fortunately things were soon back on course as the roof insulation and boards began to go on. The bricklayers also returned to build up the gable ends and work on the porch wall and plinth stretchers. It was fascinating to watch the roof take shape as the glulam beam, which had seemed to tower over the house, slowly disappeared inside to become part of the ceiling in our open-plan living area. Finally, we could get an idea what the high-ceilinged room upstairs would look like and we weren't disappointed.
A week later, happily, weather conditions were much improved, and tiling began in earnest on the garage roof. This was another worrying moment, as you wonder whether you've made the right choice - should we have gone for the Country Brown or the Red, instead? The garage is like a mini version of the house, so it's a preview of how the finishes will look on the main building. Luckily, we're very pleased with the results. Meanwhile, the battening of the south roof slope was now complete, so the solar panels could be installed. This was carried out without a hitch by the skilled and flexible (see Gallery pics!) team from Llani Solar. They're the first visible sign of the eco credentials of this house and it was encouraging to see how large they are, and exciting to think that they'll one day be supplying us with our hot water.
For us, this month has been a busy mixture of administration, bill-paying, hard decision-making and some physical work on site. The Great Window Debate dominated much of the month and nearly drove us all crazy. Because of our complex, bespoke triple-glazing specifications, the business of refining the quotes became very confusing and protracted. The day we finally put in a firm order with Green Building Store for Optiwin windows felt quite momentous. There were also difficult decisions to make about the two-floor conservatory, as specialist glasshouse suppliers are proving very expensive. We might opt for timber construction instead of aluminium, but it could compromise the solar gain. More on this later.
Mike has at last been able to start channelling out the walls for the electrical cable runs which will carry power and lighting circuits in the ground floor rooms. I don't envy him this job as it's slow, noisy and dirty work, the only satisfaction being when he's able to fix the metal switch and socket boxes in place.
Added by: Lizzie on 01-03-2010
January 2010: Snowed Under
The snow slowed progress on the build for nearly a fortnight, but as the thaw began, the pace began to increase and by the 18th the site was alive with activity. Melting snow, coupled with heavy rain, meant we were pumping out the basement yet again; we also set to work cleaning up the old cellar bricks, ready for the bricklayers' return.
We also had a visit from the producer of a new BBC One TV series to be shown in Spring next year, called 'To Build or Not to Build', presented by Kristian Digby. The production company contacted our architect to ask if he had any self-build projects that might be suitable for the series and he suggested ours. So we're going to be included, and have been loaned a small video camera to make our own video diary with. It's fun, but quite time-consuming and Mike's already worrying about how he'll fit it all in with his plumbing and electrical wiring duties...
The past two weeks have been extremely busy, but the grey concrete box we've seen so far is being transformed into what promises to be a very attractive home. With the i-beams in place, you can now see the 'shape' of the house better - the next exciting stages will be when the roof tiles go on and the walls are rendered. But that's several weeks away yet, and with on-going confusion about the specification of our windows and the delays caused by the weather, it's difficult to see us making the scheduled July completion date.
Added by: Lizzie & Mike on 31-01-2010
December 2009: Reaching New Heights
Mike's been a bit frustrated as he hoped we'd be able to get down into the basement to clean it out and start installing cables and rainwater-harvesting pipework, but there was still too much water and filth finding its way in to make it worthwhile. So conditions on site haven't been right yet, but as well as this, Mike had a really silly little accident when he fell over on a piece of slippery pavement, landing heavily on his elbow and hip. The impressive display of bruising wouldn't have stopped him working, but a painful left arm and elbow have, although he's been sensible enough to hold back until he's had some time to recover.
Elsewhere on site, and with Christmas fast approaching, temperatures plummeted but the pace of work increased as Mike Neate was joined by his business partner Graham, Graham's son Simon who's a carpenter, and Keith Fishburn, a friend of Mike's from his schooldays, with whom he's collaborated on many previous projects.
Once the first-floor slab had hardened, the block-layers set to work building the walls - another exciting milestone as we were able to stand and look out of the large south-facing window for the first time. Meanwhile, Simon set about creating tall wooden posts to support the 12m Glulam beam which will run from east to west in the roof structure. The posts also provide temporary stability for the gable-end walls. This heightened activity culminated in one very big day when the pre-cast concrete staircase, the Glulam beam, and a large mobile crane arrived on site. The stairs were lowered into place first not quite plain sailing, as can be seen in the picture update and then the Glulam beam. It felt quite momentous.
Added by: Lizzie on 19-12-2009
November 2009: The Build-Up to the First Floor
The deteriorating conditions haven't slowed the pace of the work at all. The block-layers have completed the outer walls of the ground floor, including the reclaimed-brick plinth. We bought these bricks months ago, after a great deal of searching, and could only guess how they would look in situ. Fortunately they look great and we can really begin to get an idea of the exterior. The block-layers then moved on to the garage, built with some of the bricks we were digging out of the ground this time last year. Nice to know our efforts weren't wasted.
With the ground floor walls complete, the LeBruns were able to install the supports for the first-floor shuttering. Meanwhile the first phase of external scaffolding was put up so they could begin assembling the steel reinforcements. Incredibly this structure is more complex than for the ground floor, as this floor has a large hole in the middle, to accommodate the stairs. It also supports the staircase 3 tonnes of cast concrete expected on site in a couple of weeks. The scaffolding has, of course, afforded us our first taste of the wonderful views we'll have from our upstairs living area.
With pouring of the first floor slab imminent, we suddenly realised we needed to lay ducting in the concrete for some of the ground floor lighting cables. So along with the project manager, we marked out the internal walls for the ground floor rooms and decided on the positions of light switches and fittings. Not easy when you're in a cold, dusty, windowless breeze-block structure. But afterwards we could begin to imagine what it would feel like to be on the ground floor of the completed house.
To clear space for the scaffolding, the Rotoplas tanks were moved down to the basement, where Mike spent three or four days cleaning them out, with the aid of a pressure washer, our wet/dry vacuum cleaner and a pump. It was smelly, wet and unpleasant work, but very satisfying to have done it. We've already bought the pumps and fittings for the rainwater harvesting system, which we'll start work on once the roof is on, at which point the basement should remain dry.
Click on the thumbnail image (above right) to see the story in pictures.
Added by: Lizzie on 20-11-2009
October 2009: Moving On Up
Once poured, the ground-floor slab had to be left to harden for several days, so the LeBruns moved on to laying the clay drainage pipes around the house. They also installed the huge soakaway, designed to receive our grey water and any overflow from the rainwater-harvesting tanks.
The next task was to dismantle the scaffolding in the basement this will be reassembled to support the first-floor slab during construction, with acrow props temporarily supporting the ground floor. Now that work has finished below ground, Mike and I will be able to make a start on various jobs, including plumbing in the rainwater-harvesting tanks - which are now on site. Their arrival was an important event, as they constitute one of the more unusual systems in the house.
Another high point this month was the arrival of the block-layers to build the inner concrete-block walls on the ground floor. Having not seen anything like this before, we were surprised how quickly they progressed, and within a few hours the walls began to rise out of the ground. Click on the thumbnail above to see the whole process in pictures.
It's very strange - worrying and exciting in turns - to see the house becoming three-dimensional. There are so many details to get right and to keep an eye on, such as positioning of doors and windows, checking dimensions and ensuring that everything is airtight, so we're relieved to have Mike Neate on board to manage the project. Currently we're on target to complete the first floor slab by the middle of November, and have the walls up to roof height by Christmas....
Added by: Lizzie and Mike on 24-10-2009
August September 2009: A Basement is Born.....
It was then possible to backfill around the basement, so our huge mountain of subsoil has been slowly diminishing in size. We'd hoped to be able to lose it all on site, but there's so much of it, we've had to pay to have some taken away - otherwise, we'd have ended up with a garden several feet higher than the surrounding land.
Before the backfilling was completed though, it was time to install the Rehau ducting for the mechanical heat-recovery ventilation system. This 250mm ducting, which will bring outside air into our airtight house, is buried underground and extends from the basement to the inlet tube 24 metres down the garden. Click on the thumbnail above to see more.
The decision was finally made to cast the concrete ground floor slab in situ. This is a huge slab, which forms a crucial part of the heat-storing thermal mass of the building. It'll be 275mm thick and weigh around 40 tons, so a complex temporary structure is being built in the basement to support the shuttering into which the concrete will be poured. This will be cheaper than pre-cast concrete planks, and it's easier to achieve a more airtight result. The LeBrun team are hard at work on this at the moment, so expect more in the next update.
Added by: Lizzie on 01-10-2009
June July 2009: A Floor and Some Walls.....
July's weather has been extremely variable - hot and dry one minute, with torrential downpours the next - but, come rain or shine, the LeBruns worked on stoically throughout. Click on the thumbnail image (right) to see the full story in pictures.
It's a strange feeling to see the footprint of the house 'set in stone' after all this time - and worrying, too! Have we got the measurements right? It doesn't look big enough. How will all the rooms fit into that small space? We had to check the dimensions with a tape measure to put our minds at rest - and, of course, they were right. Apparently buildings always look small at this stage, and the perceived size keeps expanding and contracting throughout the build.
While the LeBruns have been building the basement, Mike Neate and Mike Coe have been forward planning, getting quotes on drainage materials, and trying to make a decision on whether the ground and first floor slabs should be built from pre-cast concrete planks or cast in situ. These floors form a critical part of the building's thermal mass, which will store heat in winter and help to keep us warm, so we have to get them right.
On the lighter side, our project has just been featured in an article in our local paper, The Evesham Journal.
Added by: Lizzie on 07-08-2009
15th 26th June 2009: Bring On The Diggers!
Monday 15 June, the peace and tranquillity of the site was shattered
- not by the diggers, but by Mike, as he set to work with the strimmer
to clear the building area ready for the groundworks to start. This
might seem a strange thing to do, but we needed to discourage any
slow worms or grass snakes from basking in the long grass. We want
to live in harmony with wildlife on our site, not massacre it.
April-June 2009: Farewell Poppies
We haven't been idle in the meantime though. In April, we spent several days clearing the huge pile of logs left over from the removal of the old laurel stumps. We also collected the encaustic tiles for our staircase from Jackfield Tile Museum, which look beautiful, and paid a visit to the company supplying our solar hot water system - Llani Solar in Llanidloes.
In May, we took a couple of days off to visit Southwell in Nottinghamshire, and the house that inspired this project. This was a return visit for Mike, but it was the first time I'd been there. The garden was quite overgrown, and we weren't able to see inside, so all we could do was catch frustrating glimpses of the house and conservatory over walls and through trees. It was good to see it, however, and to know that it's still functioning efficiently (Mike has confirmed this with the current owners), and it left us excited and positive about our own project.
Back in Worcestershire, we were given several large left-over bundles of beech hedging by some good friends. It was a race against time and increasing temperatures to get the plants in and watered, but we're hopeful that many of them have taken, and will fill in a lot of gaps in our enormous garden hedge. On the fun side, we visited Malvern stained-glass artist Jackie Harris, and commissioned three recycled-bottle-glass panels from her, which will be built into the curved wall at the top of the stairs. She's already come up with some great designs inspired by our ideas for the staircase.
Most importantly of all, in May, our project manager Mike Neate and his site manager companion, Max, moved here. This was quite a momentous event, as it signalled the real start of the building phase of this project, beginning with interviews with groundworks companies. We've just constructed a composting toilet for site workers to use - far more pleasant than the usual plastic cubicle stinking of chemicals. Pictures of our efforts can be seen by clicking on the thumbnail image above, including images of the gorgeous poppies that have sprung up everywhere and a last, nostalgic look at the empty site before it changes for ever....
Added by: Lizzie on 14-06-2009
2009: Moving Closer....
February 2009: : Waiting (im)Patiently
To be honest we'd hoped to start building by now. But our project manager and his team have been delayed on their previous job, and the weather hasn't been much help either to them or to us.
So, while we wait for that magical day when something actually happens on site that marks the beginning of real building work, we're busy behind the scenes trying to plan ahead. Things like kitchen design and materials, the water storage and pumping system, and some of the slightly indulgent details, like encaustic tiles to decorate the staircase risers, internal stained-glass windows made from recycled bottles, and a potentially beautiful internal balustrade made from welded-steel rods.
Click the thumbnails on the right to see some of the inspiration for these ideas.
Added by: Mike on 21-02-2009
January 2009: A Decision, Planning Conditions & More Digging
So now finally the huge task of reclaiming bricks from the old house is over follow the link on the right for the story in pictures and on the same day we completed that, we received a letter from the council which pretty well clears all of the conditions attached to our planning application.
Following all the preparation we've been doing, this now gives us the green light for building! Mike Neate's currently finishing a very interesting project in Hereford, upgrading an old Victorian house to modern energy efficiency standards. Neill, our architect, is finalising the constructional drawings, but it shouldn't be too long until some actual building work can finally begin on site.
Added by: Mike on 15-01-2009 (The day before my 52nd birthday!!)
Nov-Dec 2008: Decisions and Digging
I'm grappling with a very difficult decision. I'm hoping we'll be able to start building fairly early in the new year. Neill (our architect) has already issued a draft specification, and is well advanced with the constructional drawings. The site is almost ready (more below..), and we've had discussions with two contractors about taking on the building work.
And that's where my dilemma begins. For some time, as I began to learn about and understand the whole business of house building, I'd been planning to act pretty much as the main contractor on this project. So I'd plan everything, order materials, and employ the relevant trades people ('subbies') when I needed them. I was introduced to a very nice local builder / bricklayer, who has excellent credentials, and seems willing to work with me and help in my novice project manager capacity. I think between us we could build this house, and if it worked out well we could most likely do it to a very tight budget and at the end the feeling of satisfaction would be incredible.
But this is no ordinary house, and some of the techniques to be used in its construction are quite unusual. And although excited about managing the overall project, I'm also well aware that if I get something wrong it could lead to long delays and possibly cost a lot of money to put right. So I'm nervous about it as well.
But then along came a highly recommended specialist eco-builder, whose work fits perfectly with our project, who obviously cares about what he does, and already has his own small workforce, a lot of contacts, and crucially, experience in this still highly specialised form of building. So do I hand the project over to him? It's very tempting, and if I do, I've little doubt that the work would be done quicker, and to the high standards that we're aiming for. It would also be a great deal easier, and, almost certainly, a lot more expensive. But I could still be involved, perhaps being able to spend more time on the parts of the project that I'd enjoy, and we'd probably be able to move into the house earlier. But having spent more money. And I wouldn't have the potentially enormous satisfaction of having managed the entire project myself, and succeeded, despite my lack of experience. Would I regret that afterwards? I really don't know.
Having come through all the house moving, design, planning and a multitude of other obstacles, this is proving to be one of the most difficult decisions of the entire project - and just when I hoped it might all be getting a bit easier.......
Back down to earth with a thump, and in the calm of final design before the storm of building, we've been retrieving bricks from the cellar of the old house which used to be on our site. In the spirit of not wasting anything, we want to use as many as we can in the new house, and the rest for garden paths, rather than leaving them all buried in the ground. Click the thumbnail in the january entry for a page of pictures.
Added by: Mike on 26-12-2008
2008: Step by Step...
This month we made our first major purchase for the house: a Victorian cast-iron staircase, originally from a solicitors' office in Leamington Spa. We spotted it on a salvage yard visit last month, but dismissed it as being too big and unsuitable. Mike kept wondering about it afterwards, though, so we went back and measured it, then consulted with the architect, who said he thought it would work. So we bought it! We plan to use it as the outside staircase that leads down from the upper deck area and it should be a striking feature - follow the link to the pictures (right) to have a look.
We've finally chosen our bricks and roof tiles. We tried to get our hands on the bricks from a Victorian school that was being demolished in Evesham, but they'd already been sold. So we contacted the salvage agent, and they offered us some similar ones at about half the price of the mainstream salvage yards - how could we resist? Samples of these and the clay roof tiles we've chosen have been sent off to the planning office, along with a large package of plans and documents. Hopefully, the planners will be happy that all of the conditions have been satisfied and then we can concentrate on groundworks and building regulations.
architect has already started the detailed constructional drawings
and a specialist company is designing the ducting for the whole-house
ventilation system. We had a geotechnical survey done - this involved
digging five deep holes with a digger to take soil samples, and locate
the water table. The
structural engineer needs this information to calculate the dimensions
of the basement walls and footings. One of the holes uncovered part
of the former house's brick-built cellar, which is still largely intact.
We plan to use the bricks from it to construct our garden paths.
Aug-Sept 2008: The Tip of the Iceberg…
With the plans approved, it’s time to get down to the serious business of how we’re going to build this house. A 4-hour meeting with the energy consultant and the architect left us with no illusions as to how much there is to do before we can even start the groundworks.
Most of our time and attention has been taken up with fulfilling the planning conditions. The planners want to see samples of the reclaimed bricks we intend to use and the stone for the dry-stone walls. So we’ve been travelling around local salvage yards and quarries to source them. This was an interesting exercise, especially as the first bricks we took a fancy to we discovered had been imported from India. Rejecting these because, although reclaimed, their transport involves considerable CO2 emissions, we found two salvage yards with bricks from Birmingham – much closer to home. We're now surrounded by small piles of brick samples to choose from. It’s so hard to tell what they’ll look like when the job’s finished, but we’ll have to decide soon.
The dry-stone wall has been easier to sort out. Dave Poloni, a talented dry stone wall builder, has agreed to do the work for us and recommended a source of suitable stone. We've seen his work and we’re satisfied he’ll do a very nice job.
In amongst all this, Mike has been grappling with the subject of the internal systems, such as solar panels and photovoltaics, ventilation systems and whether or not to have a wood-burning stove for back-up heating. The energy consultant has strong views against burning wood, so maybe some sparks will fly. But we argue that it makes sense as there is so much wood available on site, which will have to be got rid of by some means. And we’d only be burning a little, occasionally (in the coldest parts of winter), in a very efficient wood stove. More on this later…..
Added by: Lizzie on 23-08-2008
July 2008: Plans Approved
Sorry there haven't been any updates for a while, but once the planning application was in we couldn't do much until we knew we were actually going to be allowed to build the house. Fortunately the plans passed first time and with no modifications. There are a few conditions, but not really anything unexpected, so this is the green light to move on to the next phase of the design process. In brief that means:
a) Structural Engineer's calculations
b) Consulting specialists on renewable energy and other systems
c) Preparing detailed construction plans with the architect
d) Consulting with building control and the planning officer at the local council
e) Looking ahead to hiring a ground works company
So a little way to go before we bring the diggers in....
Added by: Mike on 16-07-2008
Also this month, Mike passed his motorbike test and is now fully qualified to drive our Vectrix Electric Maxi Scooter (see picture). He's very pleased with himself, as the test is much more difficult than the car test he took many years ago... We bought the Vectrix as a less-polluting alternative to the car for local journeys of up to 30 miles. It's already proved very useful, is great fun and, with a top speed of 62mph, it's a proper motorbike - powered entirely by electricity. Once our house is built we'll be able to recharge it using power generated by our photovoltaic array - so zero carbon, zero cost transport.
Added by: Lizzie on 30-07-2008
April 2008: Plans Submitted
We've delivered our planning application to Wychavon District Council. Now we just have to wait patiently for their decision, and keep our fingers crossed.
2008: Defining Boundaries
and March have passed in a blur of planting. With the plot finally cleared
of brambles and other rubbish, it was time to begin defining the boundaries.
Having removed the broken down remains of the old fences, we needed
to replace them with something....
January 2008: The Clearing Begins
We've submitted some sketch plans to the local planning department - we're hoping to have an informal meeting with them some time this month to find out what they think.
we've just started work on clearing and tidying the plot in readiness
for hedge planting and landscaping. It's worth getting on with these
jobs before we start building so that the plants can begin to get
2007: Some Movement
It's December 2006 and we've just purchased the plot. It's exciting - and very worrying. But at least we can now proceed with our plans to build our autonomous house - but first, we have to sell our house in London, so that we can devote our time fully to the project...
Added by: Lizzie on 18-12-2006