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.