Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Proof of the pudding...

It's December, and time I blogged again. The last seven months of occupancy have been intense at ECF, not only with moving in but also just catching up with 'normal' family and work life. Despite the festive season being just round the corner, we at least feel we're getting there!

On the energy front, seven months of occupancy means we've got some data on energy consumption to compare with what we specified and predicted...and the results are quite a relief!

The bottom line is that we're using 25% less energy than we expected; and that's in a house already designed to use less than a quarter of the energy of the average new housing stock. In general hot water and space heating energy use are on target, although these account for less than half of our predicted energy use. The big savings have thus been made in other energy use, namely lighting and appliances. In particular the use of LED and CFL light fittings, coupled with A and A+ energy rated kitchen appliances has paid dividends.

Whilst in most houses heating and hot water use accounts for up 80% of domestic energy demand, our experience just shows that real savings can be made with little effort by replacing lighting and appliances (when worn out of course!) with more energy efficient equivalents.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Catching up with our crops

Its a funny thing - as with conversations with friends when you haven't written your blog for ages you just don't know where to start..."what have you been up to?"..."ooh not much really, y'know just the usual".

So despite it being December here's a harvesting the potatoes photo. We had great success with the red Desiree and will still be enjoying those 'til well into the New Year, they taste good, were quite prolific here and very few had any sort of damage or rot of any kind. The Kerrs Pink were tasty but much more prone to damage and much less hardy, as you might expect really. In late Spring I was given some diddy wee broccolli seedlings, planted them very late and just stuffed them between flowering plants as I hadn't prepared a proper bed, haven't a clue what type they were but they turned out just grand. The peas we planted just got lost or nibbled to the extent there was no crop to speak of this time.
The apple trees were fairly sparse in production but thats neither a surprise nor a worry. The Golden Spire which is an old Lancastrian cooker, also well suited to cider production, did quite well and produced large firm fruit which tasted delicious in crumbles etc. The Ribston Pippin and the Thorle Pippin both produced some small eaters but they were a bit on the sharp side, presumably because the sunshine wasn't abundant in the middle summer months. I've just been mugging up on pruning the trees which is a good winter task.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

We're back!!

Hello from us! The blog is being reborn....with this photo which was taken in July.
We're online in the house which has taken countless agonies with BT and we're looking forward to catching up with progress and news from our part of the world.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Food production underway

The fruit is forming on this Golden Spire apple. We could really do with some rain as we've had around 7 weeks of significantly dry weather which is mighty unusual. I'm not expecting too many apples this year as the stock is only a year old and I'll need to learn the best way of pruning apple trees to ensure good healthy growth. In the border between the hen enclosure and the stone wall we've planted peas and broccolli amongst the cottage garden flowers and greenery.

We've planted Desiree and Kerrs Pink potatoes this year, both good Scottish stock, the former producing firm red skinned tatties and the latter for salads. Although we thought we'd just plant the 3 bags this year I bought far too many seed potatoes and after giving away loads to friends we've planted the remainder in fairly rough soil behind the top of the long stone wall. Despite planting late they're coming through nicely. We aim to create our raised bed veggie garden this year with plans for it to mature into an attractive parterre style affair over time. We'll be using joists from the old house to create the structure and hope to get that underway in the school holidays which start here next week.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

One year since moving here

It was one year ago this week that we moved from our old house, a Victorian sandstone place, into the caravan here. As we turned the key in the lock it started raining but we laughed as we set out on this journey of housebuilding. I know there are a few people reading this who are just commencing on that journey so I just want to say its so worth it, although unquestionably hard work, and to keep plugging away as you will get there. One year on and we're unpacking our worldly goods which have mainly been stored in one of the outbuildings here. Thankfully no damage has come to them after 12months+ of storage.

The newell caps are one of the snagging items - the design is excellent being square with a shadow band but unfortunately someone at the manufacturer has used indelible pen to mark the house name/contract number on the top. No-one is actually looking to deal with this so we're going to see if a joiner friend has any ideas. I think sanding it off isn't going to work as the pen has absorbed into the wood. Our on-site joiner tried rubbing it down but I think its one of those small items that we will end up sorting out as no-one else is 'taking ownership'!

These pics are of various internal finishes. There are lots of reflective surfaces, black glass and oak on the hall wardrobe illustrating the light coming through the windows in the dining area. The 'flowers on the wind' stickers coming from the velux window are from Pedlars. Door handles from Carlisle Brass. We bought all our velux blinds online at Bumblebee Blinds who seemed competitive and were certainly efficient.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Building Control Certificate

Last Wednesday the joiner returned to fit this to the large upper floor window and on Thursday building control visited and all completion certificate and paperwork were handed over. Another key landmark in the creation of the house. The window illustrated is a fixed light 1.8m x 1.8m and affords a stunning view. We were so disappointed to be advised that this would need an internal barrier in place to comply with building regs. If we had known then perhaps a different design or different specification might have been created in the first place. Looks like a play pen.

BT have failed to meet four appointments to connect the phone. OK they pay compensation of £10 each time but we'd really rather have a phone line. So hopefully order number 5 will work...........

The wonders of nature never cease to soothe, we have an abundance of brown hares who are particularly visible in the early morning

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Fine days

Last week our good buddies from Norfolk came for a holiday. As always it was lovely to catch up with them and it was also fun to have the house busy with the noise, mess and activities of two families. This marks one of those transitions between this place being a home rather than a house. Other self-builders have commented on the time it takes to settle in after designing, planning and constructing a house. Tamzin and her family bought us a beautiful handcrafted box for collecting apples from the orchard in years to come and some herbs for the garden. The herbs are being planted in the beds we've created between the top of the stone wall and the hen enclosure until we have formed our raised beds. The trailer in the picture above is full of plants ready to be put into the bed.

We officially had one rainy day in May.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Simply stunning skies

May has been such a fabulous month weatherwise and in the past week we've had some gorgeous sunsets. Official sunset time is 10pm but the sky is light much beyond then. I love this time of year especially with this amount of sunshine. We haven't mounted the solar pv yet (time constraints) unfortunately.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

this was our first evening meal in the new house - late in the evening, salubrious dining
The pile of top soil which was created at the start of the contract has been levelled and will return to grass over time. We haven't delineated the garden/field boundary formally yet but will do so over the summer. We've asked Allan who built the long drystone wall on the east side to undertake various jobs over the next few months and the new garden wall will be part and parcel of that package of work. We've still got plenty of sandstone left from the old house to reuse. Since this picture was taken the hens have a had a field day (in the precise sense of the words) with the newly turned soil.
When the render was being cast one area fell off and was redone with the adjacent wall (on this picture to the left) within a couple of days but it is very clear where there is a variation in colour. The product is from K Rend and we've asked the architect to speak with their rep to see how this can be remedied. The wet dash finish is very typical of this area and much of Scotland. Variations between batches of the same colour can be a problem in a number of areas be they render, paint or other finishes but for us its very noticeable on this elevation.

On the snagging list for the window supplier - the paint on the aluminium cills is dropping away at a fair rate. Thankfully the maintenance man from the supplier came here last week, remedied a number of problems and are going to replace the damaged cills. The cause of the problem appears to be unknown so we hope the issue will not return with the new ones.

Sunday, May 25, 2008


Now we're in and the snag list getting shorter, it's nice to take stock and get back to 'normal' family and work life. The good weather of late is helping (why did we build a house in winter?!)

One of our outstanding issues is connection of phone and broadband to the house (ironically the caravan is still better connected than the house!) such that once this is done and we have more time, normal blog service should resume....

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

We are in!

No news is good news..and also reflects the lack of an internet connection.

We are in! Hurrah. The recent glorious weather has provided the best of starts with the sunshine emphasising how fabulously light this house is right through to late evening. Its not properly dark for many hours in this part of the world as we approach midsummer so the changing light outside is a constant delight.

Lots of building info to convey but the detail will have to wait a few more days, as will photos. Time and attention is devoted to our business and family needs at present. Unpacking is a slow process but we have everything we need. Having lived in a caravan for 9 months it is clear that our lives don't need most of the 'stuff' we have packed away in boxes so there's no urgency in that area. We've been concentrating on making sleeping and eating areas comfortable.

Quick info for today's blog;
1. We are SO pleased with our house. Satisfaction and feel good factor is high.
2. The quality of the architecture and the build is superb.
3. 3 points to resolve for building control i) one step on the patio is of a different height to others, ii) lashing eyes are to be provided for a window cleaner to clean the large first floor bedroom window and iii) on the same window there is ongoing discussion whether an internal barrier/rail needs to be put in front of the window - its a fixed light but the building control officer is considering this point, more later on that
4. Externally we live on a rather rough looking plot - plenty of work in the years ahead.
5. The apple trees are in blossom and look stunning.
6. The poorly hen has recovered completely and the hens are completely free range now that the chances of being run over have diminished. About 5 eggs per day are being produced.
7. The temperature in the house is pretty even despite it being hot outside and the MVHR is at its lowest setting.
8. The slate floor is particularly terrific in terms of appearance.
9. There is some snagging but not much except relating to the windows which have a good number of small issues to resolve. The supplier is currently proving slow to deal with them despite our first contact being around 2 months ago now.
10. Phone line being connected on Friday allegedly.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

News Update

Optimism over realism. We'll be in this caravan for a while longer!

The electrician has been here all day and has just about finished his remit which is terrific. Steve helped him fit the extractor hood this afternoon while I cleaned the childrens' rooms. A kind friend entertained the offspring for a couple of hours which was a great help indeed, thank you. This evening Steve is fitting the dishwasher while I tackle the last 100 pages of Hemingway's Farewell to Arms for book group tomorrow (well, I've had a lot of other things going on).

Yesterday the valuer from the Valuation Joint Board came to assess the house for Council Tax purposes. Although its not quite finished we'll find out which band we'll be placed in shortly. Last year I met the same guy as we had demolished the old house and were living in a caravan. Caravan living put us into band A which in this district amounts to around £850pa, the concept of which I really struggle with especially as our council has one of the worst Council Tax recovery rates in Scotland.

One of our hens has been fragile of late and we've thought it has a tumour but today it really seems more perky so hopefully it'll recover. Its difficult to say as hens tend to fade fast it they're not well. Bearing in mind these are ex battery hens we still have 8 out of the original 10 and have good egg production. Now that they are less likely to get run over by site traffic we let them roam free outside their pen so giving access to the field and, unfortunately an area where I have planted some bulbs which are now scrached to the surface.

Some of the apple trees are coming into leaf which is encouraging.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Time Out

We're on school holidays here so amongst other things we have had a few walks up our local hill, the Dumpling, and a bit of fun on the tree swing. In between times we have to persuade the children that another trip to B&Q/Ikea/Jewsons etc etc is a worthy activity. Who are we kidding?

Not quite there yet...

The sensibilities of moving in tomorrow aren't really there as progress has been quite slow since our builder went on holiday last week. He's a very good project manager so I think it would all look a little further advanced if he'd been around. We perhaps 'ought' to wait another week but....the jobs fill the time available and Steve and I need to move in. The kitchen is messy but there isn't much left to do there and we could reasonably use it at the weekend after a good clean. The childrens' bedrooms are being carpetted tomorrow so we'll get their furniture in and blinds fitted on Saturday if possible with a view to that being our first night.

The granite worktop was fitted last weekend, just 2 weeks after templating, and we're very pleased with the result. The team were a very pleasant trio from Estonia and Lithuania. The plastic protective wrap on the doors and drawers is coming away on this photo and together with the general high dust and grime levels doesn't inspire but we reckon on using this kitchen this weekend. The caravan hob is just about adequate and the oven ok only for warming stuff. Last summer it took nephew Tommy Boy nearly an hour to part bake/part burn a pizza. We have managed to cook a good selection of food over the past 9 months, we've even entertained a few times, but a real kitchen is now beckoning.

Here's the wood shed (the biomass store!) which has been constructed from salvage timber, notably the joists from the original house and an oversupply of sarking board.
The roof elevation will be approx 2/3 covered by the solar panels.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Yesterday it felt like so little had changed in the previous week which made the thoughts of moving in later this week less likely, however with a few people on site for much of the day today we have a reasonable chance of moving in to parts of the house at the end of this week.
Today the chimney problem was resolved without taking the whole lot apart which was good news and beneficial in terms of time and hassle. The wood burning stove was tested and added to the warmth of the house on a bright sunny day. We decided to have the visible flu painted black so there was the temporary smell of the paint warming up but we think it looks the part. The internal doors and stair timbers are being oiled, some have had two coats already. The gas hob is in place and we'll move the gas bottles to their place by the wood shed in the morning. The local gas supplier is dropping off the switch over valve tomorrow. The wood shed has moved from its makeshift workshop and looks well in its final place; it doesn't look nearly so large in situ as it did on plan but is large enough to hold the solar array and accommodate a huge amount of wood.
That's a bit of a list but essentially this stage of a project becomes a bunch of lists which can remove some of the excitement. To stand and admire the views, breathe the fresh air and absorb the tranquility of the house and its setting doesn't take long and makes it easy to remember how good this is. Nine months of temporary living soon over, caravans for sale anyone?

Monday, April 14, 2008

I've found the dinner plate.....!

Our aitightness test a week ago had me crawling around in the loft at the wekend with a big torch which revealed the achilles heel of our aitightness strategy - penetrations and unsupported joints!
For the most part the vapour/air membrane is continuous within the building with joints made with tape and silicone which were then mechanically trapped beneath battens or plasterboard.
The exception to this is the loft space where the membrane was simply stapled to the underside of the rafters, between which insulation was previously fitted. This clearly makes the membrane vulnerable to gravity (!) and any air pressure difference between outside and inside the house with the ultimate risk of the membrane pulling away from the rafters - which has started to happen in one place. I have also spotted two un-taped long joints with resulting gaping holes exposing the insulation, and an unsealed soil pipe penetration. These gaps must easily account for at least half of our dinner plate size hole given that the soil vent pipe ducts were open in the bathrooms during the airtightness testing.
The ultimate solution is probably to bring down the membrane from the rafters to the loft floor and place the insulation from between the rafters on top of it, thus creating a 'cold' loft. It goes wihout saying that the penetrations need sorting out also!

Friday, April 11, 2008

One week to go?

Just one person on site to day, Billy the tiler has given the slate floor its final coat of sealant (Lithofin) so its looking quite smart. He's also sealed the showers so we'll test those out this weekend, after some serious cleaning as its pretty thick with dust inside the house.
There has been no action on the replacement chimney which is a shame as it has a knock-on effect for reslating that part of the roof, finishing the joinery in terms of boxing out the area in the bedroom and painting thereafter. As the builder is away on holiday we'll need to do the chasing. We received an invoice from the architect yesterday which is quite amusing/bemusing as we haven't seen them for some time now.
We're at the stage where there are a lot of small things to finish off but its all going very slowly. We're still moving in to a couple of rooms next Friday come what may!!!!

The cleared area where the huge dairy shed used to stand was originally going to be gravelled for car parking but we have realised how large this area is and how ridiculously expensive it would be to gravel. We really don't need such a big area just for vehicles so this is where we intend to start creating the raised beds for our veggies. We're going to use the remainder of the reclaimed roof joists from the original house (the 5m x 2m woodshed is utilising a few) to lay out the area and start filling it with last year's matured horse muck. We have presumed linear beds to follow the line of the wall but after seeing this evening's Gardener's World I quite fancy a more interesting layout, be that triangles, diamonds or some other such whimisie.

The on site compost producers...... our friends' horses Danny and Lily.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Contura wood burning stove in place in the main sitting room. We sourced this through EcoLiving who also supplied the ground source heat pump. The photo below is of the less attractive connection through the main bedroom to the chimney but this will be boxed in when the fitting is complete. This will still be a few days as the lower section of the external chimney and roof flashing need to be replaced because they have been damaged on site and a good seal with the internal pipes can't be achieved.

The slate tiles in the hallway will receive another coat of seal this weekend.

Just a short while left in our temporary home - we moved in here in mid June 07 and we're moving out next week. Its been pretty hard work at times and I can still feel the cold of the week before Christmas but being on site while the house has been built has been fun and essential.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Passive house weekend...

After our airtightness test was done last Friday I switched off the heating, having 'cooked' the house for a couple of days to aid the thermal imaging tests. On Friday evening it was 20.5 deg. in the ground floor and 19 deg in our unheated 1st floor bedroom.
After a chilly and breezy Friday night, both these readings had dropped by just 1 deg overnight and still no heating. During the day the readings dropped a further 1 deg (tilers in - patio door fully open!) then raised a little towards the late aftenoon/evening as the sun peeped out.
Saturday night was again cold (as snow moved into northern Britain) but temperatures only dropped a couple of degrees in the house overnight, only to rise again during today to as much as 23 deg. in the ground floor and 20 deg. in our bedroom due to solar gain, despite the continuing biting cold wind outside (and leaky patio doors!).
In essence the house was behaving passively, with perhaps the circulation pump (set to continuous within the heat pump unit) helping to spread the heat from solar heated rooms to the rest of the house, an effect which will be helped further by the MVHR unit when switched on.

Airtightness testing - the man with the fan..!

Early last week we took up an offer to have the house tested for airtightness by the Leeds Met. Uni's Centre for the Built Environment. Unlike in England, such test are not (yet) a requirement of building reg's in Scotland, but given that we are aiming to achieve the AECB's Silver standard I was keen to ensure we were at the very least close to our design target!
So how do we measure airtightness? Until Friday, this was a mystery - then it all fell into place; method as follows:
1. Close all trickle vents, windows and doors, fill all drain/water traps.
2. Open main door of house and fit blower fan sealed within frame.
3. Switch on fan and measure air flow rate into house (in per hr) when air pressure in house is a steady 50 Pascals higher than outside.
4. Record this flow rate and divide by surface area of house. Hey presto, this give the air permeability figure in m3 per m2 per hr - or m/hr.
The results? Pretty good for a first test appeared to be the concensus. Under the current building reg's in England, the number has to be less than 10; ours was 4.8. Put another way, if we add up all the gaps in our building we have a hole the size of a dinner plate between us and fully airtight.
However, the AECB's Silver target level is 3.0 for a house using a Mechanical Extract Ventilation system, or 1.5 for MVHR (our option); in other words we need to try and reduce our dinner plate to a saucer!
So where do we look? Thermal imaging and smoke tests under pressure showed airflow through the service void, all of which are connected to the 1st floor joist void and loft space. This leads me to suspect we have some leakage at the soil vent pipe penetrations and possibly the airtightness membrane joints within the loft. Another significant 'problem' is clearly the seals around the large sliding patio doors, of which we have three sets, and which were actually letting water in last week during a driving rain storm. Our tester reckoned that sorting the doors alone could bring our figure down a futher 1 to 2 m/hr, getting us much closer to our target. Other issues included leaks between plasterboard and window frames.
As a postscript to this, today I noticed a 1.5 inch waste pipe in the kitchen open to the elements with a gale blowing out of it into the house which we had omitted to seal; so that's an egg cup off our dinner plate!

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Today the tilers are here enjoying the peace of the weekend to get on with their work without a dozen other folks hoofing their way over the floor. Its looking good. We can't quite work out when we'll be close but not certain. One of the most inspiring things is the view from the windows. We've had beautiful weather this morning and threatening clouds this afternoon; majestic skies all day.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Lots going on both inside and outside yesterday. The 24hour rainfall we've had is a reminder of the testing conditions for a house in an exposed location. There is a little water seepage under the doors on the SW corner so we've contacted the supplier to get a maintenance bod out. It is clearly a window issue rather than a building one but strong winds driving rain at that corner are as testing as you would expect in the UK.
Outside we've got a local contractor ripping up the concrete which formed the base of the old dairy shed, its an area of approx 28m x 8m and is being carted off to use as hardcore somewhere else. After its bashed down we'll be buying a lorryload of gravel to finish it.
The builder's groundworks crew have dug the trench which will carry the LPG pipe and the elec cable from the woodstore to the house. We are only using LPG for cooking but wanted the bottle away from the house (for visual reasons) and the cable is for the solar PV to connect into the house. The 1.08kw solar PV array will be mounted on the south facing roof of the woodstore and the roof is being constructed to a 36deg pitch to maximise production. The theory is to take your latitude (ours being 56degN) and subtract 20degrees. Work starts on the construction of the woodstore today and is being done by a local joiner using wood we have salvaged from the old house. They are setting up a workshop in one of the barns.

As you can see the staircase is in place and the slate flooring continues (picture of the dining area)

Monday, March 31, 2008


The patio area around the southwest corner of the house - sunspot for summer days and evenings. It will be topped with black limestone slabs which are due to arrive on Wednesday-ish.
After much delay the American blond oak staircase has arrived but is needing some adaptations by our onsite joiner. The timber is beautiful though and despite the general mess in the house is one of the final landmarks in the building of the house.
The above photo is of the porch area by the front door. We've continued the larch cladding in this area which looks good with the height created by the continuation of the roof line. Jim the electrician is fitting the lights we've bought in the next day or so and this includes one to uplight this area, low energy of course!
Herewith the slate flooring in the family room which attaches to the kitchen/dining. I felt most sorry for the tiler who is trying to lay 82sqm of slate tiles whilst all around are busy with their own trades, typically on Friday this numbered around 12-15 people. At one point he locked the front door so no-one else could come in. The above slating has not been sealed but the bathroom has and the finish looks super. The floor will need resealing every 3-5 years but as this can be done with a mop and bucket it doesn't seem too onerous.