Friday, December 28, 2007

Not quite wind and watertight after Christmas...!

On our return from Christmas with family down south it was clear that the house had taken some battering during the short festive break. The area and our exposed site had been hit by severe gales on Boxing Day, resulting in significant areas of roof and wall breather membrane being literally torn off.
This was probably no big surprise with regard to the wall, as the breather membrane is simply stapled to the Pavatherm boards which don't have much hold being a lightly compressed wood fibe board.
The roof membrane was a different matter however, this being fixed down temporarily with 3"x 2" battens nailed every couple of feet. Despite being mechanically trapped by the batten and spiked with nails, this was simply not enough to avoid being torn from beneath the battens to expose the sarking board again, by now drying out and shrinking to reveal the (intended) ventilation gaps between the butt joints. As a result, the inside of the house is soaked again!
I left a message with our joiner to let him know, who dutifully showed up a couple of hours later in the middle of his holidays to fix the damage in the dark just in time before the next downpour!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Wind and watertight for Christmas!

Yesterday we reached a major milestone with the delivery of the patio doors and main entrance door - the building was made wind and watertight and we now need a key to get in! This means that first-fixes and roughings can continue whatever the weather and the building is drying out nicely inside.

I've been working away from 'home' the last few days which has been frustrating, not least as there are many questions on detail items to deal with. I caught up after a half hour tour round this morning and it's clear that things are really moving on.

First fix electrics and plumbing are nearly all complete, with a few adjustments to make to the underfloor heating in the first floor bathroom and en-suite. Electrics are also nearly there with a few outstanding decisions to make on light switch locations and cooker load (ie. what cooker are we going to install!). The other first fixes remaining are the Heat Recovery Ventilation system ducting, TV/Satellite, phone, DAB (weak signal area for digital radio so need an aerial) and Cat 5 cabling.

Last but not least the slaters are making good progress and the stainless steel chimney for the wood stove looks superb, especially as the installation has been reinforced from the inside thus avoiding the need for external stays which might have spoilt the roofline.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Its Freezing

It is very cold indeed. Last night -5 and today it hasn't hit zero yet, presumably it won't now as the light starts to diminish. Sunset is 1545 today. Sleeping in the caravan was just fine but getting out of bed is much more tricky until the heating has kicked in. The children don't seem to notice but have resorted to putting their slippers on now. As caravans are generally very poorly insulated the temperature difference between inside and outside is very small - yesterday when we returned home it was +3 degrees inside when it was +1 deg outside. Thank goodness it's not our permanent home.

The slating has started and is looking good already. The slates are being double nailed as we're in a very exposed and windy spot. This will help the slates stay in place although does make replacement more tricky should that be necessary in the future. The first fit plumbing is in place and the first fit electrics are in progress. The underfloor heating to the bathrooms is in place but needs adjusting in the ensuite as the installation team haven't taken account of changes since the early plans. There's plenty of activity on site as the final load of pavatherm which arrived on Saturday is being fixed onto the north gable. There is also an artic full of insulation parked on the road incapable of turning...apparently waiting for a smaller lorry to take off the load and deliver onto site.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Saturday morning

Its just turned 9am on Saturday and we've taken a further delivery of Pavatherm Plus insulating board so the joiners can finish off the external insulation layer. There was relatively little activity on site yesterday as we were waiting for this delivery and the sliding door sets (3 off). The latter is now likely to be next week, but apparently has arrived from Penrith. I think these are around 6 weeks overdue and it's dissappointing that the windows from Norway arrived some four weeks ago and are now installed having been ordered at the same time as the patio doors! The main front door is also late and is sourced from Sweden.
The other happening this morning relates to the lame hen. Although it had a couple of better days in the past week it has now gone lame in both legs and is incapable of independent movement. So we had to wring its neck. I thought I could do this yesterday when it probably needed to be done but hen started clucking at me and I just couldn't so now that Steve has returned from working away he did the deed this morning. No, we're not eating it. There's no meat to speak of anyway but as we're not sure what's wrong with it it seems the best move....anyone with greater knowledge please advise!
We've got a fox prowling around. I need to repair/replace a bit of wire at the bottom of the gate to the hen pen before we go out this morning. There are fox prints on the top of the nesting box and on the roof of the hen house so we need to be sure to lock up quickly at dusk.I wonder if that explains the dead hares and rabbit the other week although I thought there would be more damage to the prey?
Rural living!......... we're off to Edinburgh today to see Santa, reindeer, lights, ice sculptures etc.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Lots of trades on site.

The underfloor heating folk have been here today. We are not having any heating upstairs except for underfloor heating in the 2 bathrooms. This will be served by the ground source heat pump as per the ground floor, albeit in trays rather than embedded in the concrete as they are on the ground floor. As the first floor is laid the guys have to work from the underside of that floor, I can't imagine that's easy but they seem to be managing just fine.
The 6 joiners who are here are covering various tasks - the exciting one for us is seeing the main first floor picture window being framed out. A number of adjustments have been made to this but it is now looking good. Inside the first stages of first floor interior walls are being established; the children have already decided which 'bedroom' is theirs by virtue of which windows they have adopted.
There are lots of issues we are trying to resolve - the wrong cladding being one. More on that later...
Weather report - its positively balmy here today. I think we are becoming so hardy and acclimitised that we don't realise its December.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Wall Insulation

Thankfully we have plenty of storage space as the two main forms of wall insulation were delivered last week. The Rockwool Flexi 140mm batts are fairly standard, bulky, widely available and commonly used. The pavatex 'Pavatherm Plus' woodfibre board in the right of the picture is the non-standard element of our wall insulation. The latter is an insulating wood fibre board which is effective in reducing the U-value ie improving the thermal efficiency, in improving acoustic protection (not that we have any external noise problems!) and providing summer heat protection. It is used as an overcladding system for the timber frame in this application and will effectively 'block' most thermal through the frame and aid airtightness thus giving the best chance of this and the Rockwool insulation working at its best.

Today in the glorious sunshine the joiners made a start on the south gable. Also the suppliers of the Pavatherm board visited to discuss the product and its installation with the guys on site as well as Steve and I. Last winter when we were looking at specification/design issues for the house (that seems such a long long time ago!!!!!!) we had concern about it being an appropriate material in the wet West of Scotland as the insulation should be fixed dry but we were reassured by architects who had used it on self-builds in Scotland. The AECB also provided contacts through their forum which was beneficial in this sort of decision. The joiner had not used the product before but by the end of a very productive day he rated it very highly and enjoyed working with it.

On other matters the larch cladding arrived this afternoon but the timber frame manufacturer has sent the wrong profile so that will need to be replaced. Hopefully they will do this quickly. Also or architect has sent through revised details for the porch so that can go ahead now.

Slates have also arrived. The electrician and the chimney man are due tomorrow. Bathrooms and the 3 really large fixed and sliding windows are due on Wednesday. Bathrooms should have arrived last week but didn't...more chasing!

One Week On

Can't believe we haven't posted anything since last Tuesday....however its because so much has been happening on site. Aside from that we're very busy at home and work.

Saturday late afternoon we had our first snow of the year and there was a fair blizzard that evening. As usual at this elevation it thawed rapidly on the ground but the hills look fabulous. We have beautiful pink skies this morning - ideal for the slating to start today. Since last Monday the whole roof has been sheeted with sarking board, most of the windows are in place, the site has been tidied up, some scaffolding taken away, decisions on finer design detail made.

We had very wild weather and the joiners were on the roof a lot - it was so windy, wet and cold last week which was not pleasant at all.

Here's a few photos.............more news later.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

1st Insulation arrives

Today we took delivery of the first batch of insulation - 140mm Rockwool Flexi for the walls. Tomorrow we expect the 60mm woodfibre board - 'Pavatherm Plus' - to be delivered, which will be used as an outer cladding to the timber frame walls. This is where we depart from conventional timber frame construction where the cladding adds additional insulation and reduces 'thermal bridging' through the timber studs in the frame.
The wall design is based on a detail developed for timber frame buildings by the AECB to meet their Silver standard for energy efficiency and we will add detail drawings alongside photos when the insulation is fitted.

Hens and Hedges

We've had company in the office today as one of the hens can't walk. At this stage we don't know if its a temporary state or permanent injury. Despite the impression created by this photo the hen's left leg has no power or weight bearing ability. So for today the hen has been in the warmth of the office in a box of hay with water and food; we're hoping the easy life will assist recovery but will see what tomorrow brings.
On other matters I spent some time last weekend drafting a brief for tree and hedge planting around the farm. I've had good chats with the National Park landscape officer and trees person and a local contractor so hope to get some prices back soon. The planting season for bare root stock lasts until March time. The other element of this is really to get some trees growing - as to quote the original farmer's son "he didn't like trees" so there aren't too many round here. I'm keen to get a small orchard planted to reap fruit in years to come.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Winter sun, first snow...

It was a chilly, raw weekend, and we certainly felt it in the caravan! I just couldn't get my feet warm the whole weekend, so on Sunday afternoon took a stroll around the fields to capture progress 'from a distance' on ECF2 after so much time focussing on the nitty gritty detail.

What I saw took me back to our architectural brief for a building which had a 'sense of place' in this special landscape, a home which looked as if it belongs to its surroundings. With that in mind and seeing the entire 'mass' of the building through the scaffolding, I felt we were well on our way to realising that brief.

When starting out on this project we were keen to build a contemporary house which was simple in form, yet followed the lines of a traditional highland 'long-house' design.

An architectural practice which has pioneered this design code is Dualchas based in Skye (, not least as a reaction to kit house designs that have been more 'urban-American' than 'traditional Scottish' which have popped up in the Scottish landscape in recent years. We were quite taken by Dualchas's work at the time, whilst at the same time needed a local practice we could 'get involved with' in our house design and which knew what worked for the National Park where we live.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Heat Pump: Part 2 - ground loop installed!

Amongst the generous mix of mud, scaffolding and construction materials we're relieved to have the 300m of 40mm diameter heat pump 'collector' pipe safely buried 1.4m underground. This photo from the upper scaffolding shows the end result in the middle distance which should re-vegitate over next spring.

We are very fortunate in having an ideal location for this collector system, being on gently sloping ground with a high water table. This will ensure that that low grade 'heat' taken out of the ground will be quickly replenished by this water movement under the ground at pipe level, with heat transfer aided by the sand used to protect the pipe aganst sharp rocks when backfilled.

Roof progress & problems

Since last week when I mentioned that it hadn't rained much it has of course chucked it down most days this week! Ironically we had no water for most of yesterday as there was a burst water main somewhere on the west side of Loch Lomond which is a good distance from here.
Even the joiners finished early yesterday as they were soaked to the skin but this was also around the time that Steve and I realised/believed that some of the roof windows were not in the positions we had expected/designed. We arranged for the architect to visit site this morning....

The main problem was with the vertical position of the two main bedroom windows and the ensuite window, in that when standing up and viewed out from the inside, they are below level of vision! This is made even worse by the fact that the soffits from the top of the window frame are set square to the window (as shown in the photo above), which appeared to be an error that had crept into the final tender drawings. We were keen to resolve this asap as the sarking board is to be fitted next week with slaters booked the week after, and thus the opportunity will soon be lost (forever) to make adjustments.

Discussion on site with joiner and architect largely sorted the problem with an agreed plan to set the three offending windows higher in the roof, and an amended detail on the upper soffits to bring them closer to the horizontal as intended. As an aside, our joiner rightly cautioned this latter detail to ensure that sufficient insulation space is allowed for between soffit and sarking to avoid cold bridging and even condensation.

The view right is from the top of the scaffolding looking back to our 'trailer park' and some of the farm buildings. The office roof is just visibile to the right of the caravans.

Rather wierdly in the last week we've found 2 dead hares and a dead rabbit in different places around the steading area but none of them appear to have any injuries.....

Monday, November 26, 2007

Up on the Roof

Since last week's blog progress has been slow but steady. The roof is quite involved and various references have been made back to the timber frame manufacturer and the strucural engineer during the course of the week. To an extent it appears to be over-engineered (but I'm only a surveyor!) We employed a structural engineer to undertake much of the design as this was meant to save time with the timber frame manufacturer; I'm not sure this has been achieved and certainly the cost seems to be a good chunk higher. If we did this again we would handle this aspect differently but 'it is what it is'. The gloom of some dreich November days don't help and I'm beginning to hate the small cold caravan bathroom!!

On the plus side - the house is looking fabulous, we love the creation of the structure and its a pleasure to show people around. Our ever professional builder has put 3 additional joiners on site today to help get the roof structure finished. The first delivery of windows arrived last Friday and we bought the majority of the contents of the 3 bathrooms last week. The pavatherm external insulation is late but hopefully on its way, we've been chasing that delivery today. There's always something to do, as well as the day job which pays the bills. Last week we received the first interim certificate and invoice.

The photos were taken on Friday 23rd, illustrating the late Autumn sunshine at 8.30am; good light levels falling on the east elevation of the house (top photo). It was still below freezing as we'd had -4degC that night; but the views are glorious. The piccie above right is of the dining area, with its 3.5m ceiling height and lovely big window and door openings. The photo below is the view from this room to the north/northwest.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Heat Pump: Part 1 - ground loop

As previously mentioned we have opted to use a ground source heat pump to provide both space and hot water heating. With no mains gas, an adjacent field and the opportunity to design a well insulated house from scratch with underfloor heating, the heat pump was the lowest carbon and lowest running cost option for East Cambusmoon.

For anyone considering a heat pump for their own house there aren't that many situations where it is the most cost effective and efficient choice, and certainly if you have the luxury of a mains gas supply a high efficiency gas boiler, coupled with say solar thermal panels will likely be a lower capital cost and running cost option than a heat pump doing both. If not on mains gas, then the costs need to be compared to LPG or oil and the decision will largely depend on the type of heating distribution system you already have, ie. radiators or underfloor heating. For the same heat input to a room, radiators need to be run at a higher temperature than underfloor heating simply because the heat emitter is concentrated into a relatively small wall hung panel, rather than the entire surface area of the floor. The problem with heat pumps is that their efficiency rapidly decreases in proportion to the heating medium temperature, such that running small radiaors from a heat pump is a bad idea. This can be alleviated to a certain extend by increasing the size of radiators so they can be run at a lower temperature.

Then there's the heat collection system, in our case this being a 300m length of 40mm diameter pipe buried 1.4m underground. This particular aspect of our build was a separate 'client item' from the main build contract so Debs, me, Stewart the digger driver and £60k's worth of band new JCB set to for four days of hard graft to get this pipe buried in the ground to in such a way as to absolutely maximise every joule of energy that could be sucked out of it .....which of course would be continuously be replenished by the sun. In effect, a huge solar panel!

In designing the collector system, we followed the heat pump manufacturer's ( advice on pipe depth, separaton and layout. Our supplier ( also offered advice on site and once certain of our plan, we got cracking! We ended up digging three 40m trenches, each 2m wide and 1.5m deep at 4m centres. We also imported 35 tonnes of sand to cover the pipe below and above to avoid the possiblity of damage from sharp rocks when backfilling and to ensure good contact with the ground. Bfore covering and backfilling, the pipe was pressure tsted and to finish off, fed into the house via the 'slow bend' duct pipes already built in to the floor slab.

Turning Chillier part two

A continuation of the previous blog - the technology sometimes prevents such things.
The step shown left was finished on Friday. The stone for the whole wall and the step has been recovered from the demolished farmhouse save for the coping stones which have been bought from a nearby farm where the wall had fallen down.
The weather forecast for later in the week is distinctly cooler with daytime temps nearer zero and we have had our first conversations around the subject of 'how long can we/will we stay in the caravan'. No decisions to move out yet as most of the time its really not difficult. Naturally we would prefer more space and a lovely big bathroom but that is, quite literally, a work in progress. The office is in an old toolhouse adjacent to the barn which adjoins the house and with its high level of insulation it is a very pleasant place. Steve has been insulating the water pipes within the caravan and we need to tackle the ones outside where they are not underground.

Turning Chillier

As Steve's previous blog mentions the first floor is in place and in response to Jane's query on keeping the water out you can see the blue sheeting which is keeping the worst of the rain out. Even so I don't think we're getting as much rain as usual for this time of year .....famous last words?!

The builder has lined up the slaters to do the roof in early December which is terrific news if all goes to plan. The 'hooded man' in the photo is Davie the joiner. Today he and his 2 lads attached all the rafter shoes to the ridge beam. I spent 15 mins at the top of the scaffolding before deciding it was too chilly and retired to the office which is lovely and toasty. It is terrific seeing the room formations and the height of the ground floor rooms.

Our friend Alan finished the wall late last week with the final stretch of coping stones and a rather fab step up to the chicken's enclosure. He found a curved piece of red sandstone from the demolished house and has utilised it in the step.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

By close of play last Friday - 2hrs after this photo was taken - the ridge beam and both gable walls were complete. During the couple of days prior to this, by quirk of structural engineering design the first floor boarding was glued and nailed in place, the idea being to provide a strong joint between the 1st floor I-beam joists and the binder plate (a deep beam which runs along the top of the ground floor wall panels against which the ends of the joists are butted).

In my (and our joiner's!) view this was quite an unusual detail, but a call to our stuctural engineer - "just to make sure..." - clarified the thinking behind it. The downside was that the T&G chipboard flooring had to be protected from the weather until the building is made watertight, as being merely 'moisture resistant' isn't exactly a qualification for survivablity for up to a month's battering by the west of Scotland's climate in November!
This coming week should see the completon of the 1st floor wall panels and start of work on the roof. On the 'goods inwards' front, the windows are due to be delivered this week and possibly the Pavatherm wood fibre insulating cladding board.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Ridge beams...

With the three portal frames now in place (which, by the way, fitted perfectly!) the end of last week saw the the central ridge beams lifted in place to tie the portals together at their apex and of course form the centreline of the roof against which will be fixed the rafters.

The ridge beams is made from mltiple bonded laminations of wood ('glu-lam') and is as strong as it looks! It's nice to see the height of the house now and easier to imagine how the 1st floor rooms will look.

This coming week work will start on installing the first floor joists, 1st floor walls and gables, so things should really start to take shape soon. Last but not least, a letter came though from the Enery Savings Trust at the weekend with the grant offer for the heat pump, which in Scotland is 30% of capaital cost up to a maximum of £4k; every little helps!

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Dry stone dyke

With work continuing on the house portal frame, the finishing touches to the dry stone retaining wall are well underway. With the wall having been substantially completed a couple of weeks or so ago using stone from the old (demolished) farmhouse, our friend and expert wall builder came across a source of coping stones from a derelict wall at a nearby farm. No sooner as a price was agreed these hand-cut half-round stones were picked out of the ground and brought the couple of miles to ECF to top off our new wall.

Complete with moss and lichen the 'copes' are well weathered and match perfectly with the old stone from the house. Behind the stone wall is a 150mm dense concrete block wall which will do most of the work, such that the coping stones are laid across the two on a bed of mortar to tie the whole lot together. At the back of this the soil will be cultivated to form a raised bed that will completely hide the concrete blocks as shown in the photo.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Portal frame arrives

Late afternoon yesterday saw the arrival of the prefabricated portal frames along with the brackets and bits to put them together. These are more than a week overdue and their late arrival has meant a temporary stop on site for a few days as nothing further could be done without them beyond the ground floor panels which are now in place .

However, things moved along again today as our main builder/project manager and two joiners started to the erect this steel framework into the gound floor panels. By the end of the day two of the three frames were in place and secured.

So why a portal frame? Well, this 1.5 storey house is very open plan internally with generous internal room heights (2.7m ground floor, 3.5m kitchen/diner, 2.9m first floor) such that the upper floor ceilings follow the roof line almost to the ridge, with a small loft space around 1.5m high. With this internal design it was tricky to use a (more conventional) truss system, so the portal frame is used to provide torsional stiffness to the building and carry a roof ridge beam, against which rafters will be supported for the roof. In effect, this is a contemporary take on a traditional method of roof construction.

In designing the roof we have also avoided the use of roof purlins (horizontal rafter supports) by using timber 'I-beams', each of which will span around 5m from eaves to ridge at a 45 deg. pitch and carry the weight of the slate roof supported only at either end. This not only keeps the internal structure clean and uncluttered, but their 352mm depth will be fully filled with insulation and their thin shear web minimises thermal bridging. The end result is a stiff, clean, super-insulated roof structure.

The down side to this constrcution has been additional labour/time and ultimately cost, but the end result should be worthwhile.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Daily Changes

The two joiners erected much of the ground floor on Monday and Tuesday which has been really exciting. Its terrific to see the rooms take shape and we are really pleased with the size of the window openings, particularly as we spent a long time last winter working through that element of the design. The joiners can't progress further until the steel arrives, this is delayed but due next Wednesday. In the meantime the scaffolders have been taking delivery of their kit and today have erected scaffolding on the west and south elevations. This photo is taken through the caravan window.

By and large we've had good weather since the start of the build, it is very mild at present which makes life comfortable for early mornings in the caravan.....however the past 2 days weather have included a large amount of rain and the area at the back of the house is somewhat muddy. Thankfully the caravans are on a concreted area.

Final photos today - 2 days collection of eggs and a piccie of Dora; generally the hens are laying 4 eggs per day which is quite good I think for ex battery hens and for the time of year. We've no idea if some hens are not laying at all but those that are have been using the nesting boxes. At this time of year with the daily reduction in light levels we can expect them to lay fewer eggs but at the moment our hens seem quite consistent.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Exciting Progress On Site

One of the landmark days on site - the joiners arrived at 7.50am, the first lorry and trailer load of timber frame a few minutes later. The first photo was taken around 9am as the timber was being moved to the house; the joiners spent much of the morning undertaking check measurements etc (apparently it was all within 5mm so that was good!) and moving the timber to the right place.

We had some wild Autumn weather at the weekend so it was a chilly post-frontal breeze as well as getting muddier around the site.

Around lunchtime the first wall was put in place on the wall plate - this being the northwest corner of the house where the guest bedroom is situated. As I was chatting on the phone the rest of that end of the house was put it in place - the wonder and speed of timber frame construction. This second photo was taken around 3.30pm and the house is really taking shape. This view is from the northeast looking at the kitchen on the left, the front door location in the centre of this elevation and then the ground floor bathroom at the right.

Final photo is the view from the window of the guest bedroom. You can see the rain coming over the hills!

Friday, October 26, 2007

True low carbon or eco-chic?

Probably since the oil crisis of the early 70's there has never been such a high level of public awareness and engagement in all things 'environmental', not least in greening up homes. In particular the UK Government has made a commitment for all new homes to be 'zero carbon' by 2016, an ambitous target which would make UK building regs on energy efficiency some of the toughest in the world, even exceeding the current high standards which exist in Canada, Scandinavia and Germany.

The problem is that new homes accont for just 1% of the housing stock annually at the current UK build rate, so what can the majority of the population do to reduce consumption and 'do their bit'? There is a huge amount of information out there and a good starting point is The Energy Savings Trust, but it can be a minefield as to what actions/technologies will truly bring genuine savings in energy, carbon and money. Here's a few ideas:

1. Insulation and draft-proofing/airtightness - do this before anything else, especially on the detailed design of a new build or extension. Usually, money spent on this has a much quicker payback than any of the technologies described below. For example, £2k spent on a mini wind turbine buys a huge amount of insulation and will payback much quicker.

2. Rainwater harvesting (for toilet flushing, laundry etc) - unless gravity fed or pump free, this probably isn't worth the cost or effort and will increase your energy consumption. Whilst saving mains supplied potable water which has used energy in its processing and delivery, it is unlikely that the energy used to do that by your water supplier will be less per cubic metre than by using a water harvesting system. Furthermore, if you are on a water meter the energy costs in operating such a system may not even be offset by the saving in water costs.

3. Mini wind turbines (fixed to house) - in most cases probably not worth the bother, but in some cases (rural, wind-swept property with no nearby obstructions) might produce useful power.

4. Mini wind turbines (standalone for farms etc) - worthwhile on windswept, unobstructed sites.

5. Solar panels (hot water) - useful and can provide up to 60% of annual hot water needs. Payback can be less than 10 years, but don't overpay for system (should be ca. £2,500).

6. Solar panels (PV, electricity generating) - expensive and long payback, but very reliable (we have them) and beautifully simple. Most cost effective on building integrated applications. A better choice than roof mounted wind turbines for electricity generation in most cases.

7. Heat pumps - good choice for well insulated rural new builds with underfloor heating not connected to mains gas. Be careful over promises of '75% savings' - they still need electricity to drive the pump!

8. Wood burning stoves - go for it! In the vast field of alternative energy, the joy of watching carbon-neutral fuel being consumed by fire within the highly efficient combustion chamber of a modern wood burner is rivaled only by the gentle rotation of 150ft wind turbine blades! If you use an open fire, three quarters of the energy in the fuel you feed it goes up the chimney; in a woodburner, three quarters stays in the room, not to mention considerably reduced emissions.

Future Plans

This week we've instructed the architect to commence work on plans for the former dairy. We're looking into the possibility of converting the building into holiday accommodation and prepared a brief to that end. We are very fortunate to live in a beautiful part of the world and the National Park designation has further enhanced this area's popularity for visitors. As you can see the slate roof is hanging together but there are some nice features to the building and we would like to bring it back into good use. The building is to the north of where our house will sit.
The brief still adheres to our low energy principles but with an exisiting shell the approach will be different. At this stage we are looking at what sort of space we can create within the structure as it stands and exploring the planning situation.

Timber Frame Disappointment

Today the forklift was dropped off in order to be ready for Monday when the timber frame is due for delivery. Three year old son just said 'wow' and is very excited that more machinery is on site. Unfortunately a couple of phone calls and a visit from the builder brings news that certain elements of the kit are not ready - namely the steel portal frame and the first floor TGI joists. This means that work can start on erecting the timber frame next week but the extent will be limited because the steel portal is to be integrated within some of the prefabricated wall panels on site. This is disappointing for us but is outwith our control or influence so not worth stewing about. For the builder it is perhaps more frustrating, particularly as there has already been a break of three weeks of fairly good weather since significant work on site and as he has lined up scaffolding and crew to go full steam ahead on the frame.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Wall plates installed

On Tuesday of this week the builders spent the morning fitting the wall plates (also called 'sole plates'). In timber frame construction these set out the plan of the ground floor layout and form the interface between the walls (both external and internal) and the ground floor slab/foundations.

The wall plates comprise timber of the same width dimension of the wall panels they support (ie. 140mm and 89mm), and are simply cut to length and laid on a bed of mortar (and damp proof course at the outside walls).

Whilst an apparently straightforward process, locating the wall plates in the correct positions is critical to the ultimate accuracy of the frame installation.

As an aside, this process also introduced a simple but effective airtightness detail to the building, in that the overhanging damp proof membrane (from under the slab) is folded back over the slab at the edges for later trimming and connection to the vapour membrane to be installed on the inside of the wall panels. Whilst not an essential detail (and usually omitted), this ensures an airtight and flexible linear floor/wall joint that should last through the first few years of the building 'settling' and drying out, a process often responsible for significant degradation of airtighness as cracks open between differing materials (eg wood/mortar) and thus worsening energy efficiency. Polythene membrane, being a flexible material, withstands this movement.

As an aside, airtightness is a key component to low energy building design alongside insulation, the minimisation of thermal bridges, orientation and glazing. Coupled with this it is essential to have an effective ventilation system to ensure good air quality inside - more on this and other airtighness details as the house takes shape.

Four Months of Caravan Living

We've been living in the caravan for just over 4 months now, its hard to believe and generally has worked a lot better and been much easier than we expected (all those years of camping provides good training!). Yesterday was a horribly cold damp foggy day though and I felt chilled to the bone. By the evening I just couldn't get warm and the prospect of a warm bathroom in a real house would have been lovely. Its a better morning outside today but the water heater won't work and after attempts to remedy the problem we've called the engineer who is coming out this afternoon thankfully. If it doesn't work I'll be 'phoning a friend'.

We have two caravans both of which are on a concrete area, formerly one of the farm middens (for the English readers that's the place where all the cow muck is piled up!) Our main van has two wee bedrooms, a dining kitchen and a sitting/lounge area as well as a shower room with a sit-up bath tub which is great for the children. The cooking and heating (one gas fire) are by bottled LPG.
The second van is a bit smaller but has been kitted for the washing maching, tumble dryer and lots of clothes rails, our 'walk-in wardrobe'. Initially this van was used as our office and for our nephew who stayed here in the summer. One of the main problems with caravan living is the lack of space but we're lucky enough to have the second van and lots of outbuildings to overspill into.

We don't have a completion date as such but we can easily assume another 4 months to go, it is a nice thought that we're at our halfway point of temporary accommodation but we are now heading towards winter....!!!!

Sunday, October 21, 2007

All quiet on site...

It's now two weeks since the floor slab was poured with most of the ground floor plumbing and underfloor heating pipes in-situ. The planning and preparation work appears to have paid off as overnight rain reveals little ponding of water indicating we have a flat and level slab within the specified tolerance. All services are also now in place within the slab, having been 'introduced' to the inside of the building via pipework and ducts, with just the soil pipes to be revealed by tapping away the few mm of concrete over their sealing caps.
Little has happened since on site with the exception of the delivery of the timber frame sole plate material to be fitted in readiness for the main house frame, this being schduled for delivery w/c 29th October, although there has been much 'to-ing' and 'fro-ing' between frame supplier, builder, architect and client (us!) over minor changes to dimensions of components and materials.
In the meantime, we've put some more effort into landscaping works and have started to plant up behind the drystone faced retaining wall, this being almost complete bar coping stones (proving quite hard to come by!).

Monday, October 8, 2007

Hen House Happenings

The hens have flourished in the past week. Their egglaying is quite haphazard, some are using the nesting boxes, others are more random. Some days we get several eggs, some days one or two. We've probably had around 25 eggs in the last week. In the past few days we've kept them in the henhouse for longer periods as, apparently, that is how they learn where to head for at dusk. Hens, especially battery ones, have to learn 'stranger danger' ie to keep out of the reach of foxes at night. This evening only 2 needed lifting into the house whereas last week we were chasing the little devils around their enclosure (immensely hilarious if anyone was watching!). Rather bizarrely they crowd into the 3 nesting boxes, this evening 8 of them were squashed into the 3 small boxes.

We've now named 3 of them - Amanda, Dora and Maisie. Amanda is the one with most attitude also the one which has 'oven ready' areas of no feathers; Dora and Maisie have the darkest feathers, with Maisie having crops of white to differentiate.

The photo is of Amanda.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

End of week 3

The lack of a posting for the last six days hasn't been because a lack of activity at ECF - far from it...! Building works on the house have continued on apace, whilst the hens and windfarm development have provided a welcome diversion from a busy site!

After the 200mm floor insulation was laid on Monday the damp proof membrane went down and the reinforcement mesh was cut and laid on top, supported on 40mm spacers to set them at the required depth within the slab. On Tuesday the heating contractors arrrived to tie the pipes to the mesh, but on investigating what seemed a minor query by the builder in respect of the structural drawings at the end of the day it was clear that we had a problem.

With about 70% of the heating pipes laid, it turned out that the reinforcement mesh to which they were tied had been laid incorrectly and needed to be rotated by 90 deg. in plan. The floor slab was designed to use a 'uni-directional' mesh which is stronger in tension in one direction than the other - and guess what....! To be fair to builder and architect, it simply wasn't obvious from the structural drawings and on Wednesday everyone simply got on with dealing with the problem and close of play saw the project at a similar stage as 24hrs earlier - albeit with the mesh now correctly orientated. It was a gloomy day however, as whilst there was little material wastage, all of the underfloorheating pipes had to be pulled off and re-tied along with all the mesh which had to be removed and re-cut.

By Friday everyone had moved on and at 0745 a large crew had gathered on site awaiting the first of three deliveries of concrete, which subsequelty arrived at 0800 - bang on schedule. With expansion strips fitted to the inside edge of the slab 'form' and a top layer of reinforcement placed over supporting wall points, the resident digger started to scoop the concrete onto the previous three weeks work. A 'bunyan striker' bar (a huge rotating roller) was used to level/vibrate/compact this sloppy mix into the mesh/pipes. By late morning th whole lot was poured and levelled and the crew got on with finishing off the rest of ground works. The afternoon was spent further levelling the concrete by hand and by 5pm the job was done.

In all 21 cu.m of concrete was used, 95% of which is supported on packing foam! This will add 'thermal mass' to the building and help to ensure a stable, comfortable internal temperature.

Monday, October 1, 2007


Our chickens have arrived! On Saturday we took ownership of 10 rescue hens from the Battery Hen Welfare Trust and they seem to be settling in well. The charity essentially comes to an arrangement with a battery egg producer to rehome hens which have reached the end of their maximum production cycle. They still have plenty of eggs to lay (the breed is Isa Brown which is a hybrid known for good egg production) and in our first 2 days we've had 10 eggs from them. Before too long we'll be selling them locally.

The hens have had 2 sunny days to get used to the big wide world, what a contrast to their previous living conditions. Some are distinctly more adventurous than others and are exploring their new environment, so far they have not ventured very far from one corner of the enclosed area. The children are throughly enjoying their new responsibilities and helping with looking after our new pets.
On the building site - the men have finished laying the surface and rainwater run-offs into the lower field and the main house related activity is placing the 200mm of Jablite 70 polystyrene insulation board which is one of the key elements in keeping the house warm from the ground up. The sun is bouncing off the brilliant white polystyrene, its quite dazzling. Hopefully tomorrow the underfloor heating team arrive to attach the pipe circuits to the grid.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Day 11...

Since Debs' post this morning, by the time the crew left at the end of the working day the hardcore and type 1 material was in with sand blinding on top ready for the insulation to be installed. This point marks the first departure from conventionality, as the next stage is to install 200mm of polystyrene insulation ready for the 20 tonnes of concrete slab to be poured on top of it.

Usual practice is to pour the slab at this stage, then insulate it and pour 50-70mm of screed on top within which the underfloor heating pipes are installed. We're cutting out the screed and going for a single pour of 150mm, which will will also contain the underfloor heating pipes within this massive slab.

The theory behind this is that we will be using a lightweight (timber frame) structure to build the house, this being common practice in Scotland and fairly standard in Scandinavian countries and North America. Whilst there are many advantages of timber frame construction over heavyweight masonry, well insulated timber buildings can be liable to overheating in summer and internal temperature/comfort levels can be difficult to stabilise. Introducing 'thermal mass' elements into the structure compensate for this...which is where the heavyweight floor slab comes in. In addition we have specified high density wood fibre and mineral wool insulation for the walls and roof which will also add to the thermal mass of the building as a whole.