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.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The ideal low energy house?

What we've set out to do at ECF is to build a house which will use 70% less energy than one built to current building regulations. Its timber frame construction detailing hasn't wavered too far from the 'norm' to present any major problems for a timber frame kit manufacturer, decent building contractor or building control, and the costs of going this 'extra mile' haven't been excessive to the extent that they will be paid back within a decade in terms of reduced energy costs.

In essence, we have built to a standard which is accessable now by most contractors and self builders which is around 5-6 yrs before its time if the UK Government is to fully implement its Code for Sustainable Homes (CSH) strategy, on which this building should come in at around 3-4 on a scale of 1-6. There is clearly some distance to go from this to 'zero carbon', so what represents the 'optimum' for 'Level 6 living', the magical zero carbon level required by 2016 for all new homes?

Well, the same principles apply, namely...

  • building orientation to maximise solar gain in winter, spring and autumn whilst avoiding overheating in summer

  • high levels of insulation around the entire building envelope

  • high levels of airtightness coupled with heat recovery ventilation

  • highly insulated and well sealed doors and windows

...but for CSH level 6 the wall insulation would need to be increased to >300mm (from our 200mm), roof insulation to >450mm (from our 350mm) and windows to be triple glazed krypton filled units with insulated frames and glazing spacers (vs. our argon filled double glazed units). This would result in a building which could feasibly rely on the heat given off by its occupants and collected though its windows to keep it at a comfortable temperature without having to introduce a heating system. Construction might rely on internal masonry/concrete walls to store heat and keep a steady internal temperature, with the insulation fixed to the outside of this.

On the face of it quite simple, but a seriously long way from what the UK housebuilding industry is used to. Roll on 2016.....there is a lot of catching up to do and mindsets to be re-programmed.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Earth Hour

I've spent part of this evening contributing to a National Park meeting on renewable energy and sustainable building design and feel quite fired up on the whole subject. I came home, had a great discussion with Steve (before he went to Ikea for late night house shopping), then watched Grand Designs revisited about an underground house which essentially didn't need heating even in winter.

The whole debate about 'eco' and 'sustainable' is massively involved. We have built a well insulated, airtight, timber frame house with a thermal mass of 40 tonnes of concrete in the foundation slab to keep the internal temperature stable - that's great from an energy efficiency perspective, but is that scale of concrete usage a good thing, not least as the production of cement is an energy intensive process? Someone somewhere could maybe establish the whole life cycle energy equation.

Energy efficiency is a very important part of sustainability but I'm not sure if I can get my head around all of the issues. We've got fantastic argon filled double glazed windows with 'u' values of 1.4 (standard windows being between 1.8 and 2.0) and they are from Norway 'cos the Scandinavians having been building sustainable houses for years but ideally we should be buying UK produced windows in order to minimise transportation and support home industries...but it couldn't be done remotely near the cost as they would be regarded as 'one-offs' and 'specials'.

Anyway that's nearly enough...I looked at another blog this eve which prompted me to tell you about Earth Hour whereby you switch off your electricity at 8pm this Saturday for one hour. Its one of those experiments in activism which last year saw the city of Sydney reduce its 'leckie load by 10% thus illustrating the impact of individual actions. See the vid at
The construction of the 'commute' between the office and the house is underway (above) and the patios are being formed around the south gable (below).
Internally the kitchen is on its way. The installers are great, very flexible in their approach which is good because there's a few bits and bobs of adjustment to sort out as well as an evening trip to Ikea tonight to change the handles! The measurements in the utility room don't stack up properly so there's amendments needed there too.

Paint colours - redcurrant glory and simply pearl in the sitting room.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The staircase is 'in production'......not sure what stage that means or when it'll arrive.

This lunchtime I've been buying 110sqm of external slabs to be here by the end of the week; large wardrobe for the hallway to be here tomorrow (Steve has a slot between 8.30 and 10pm this eve to collect that!?); securing the contractor and price for grubbing up and tamping down the massive concrete base of the old dairy shed opposite the front door; finalising the details for the grant contribution to the cost of the heat pump.
Now back to earned employment for the rest of the day.

Monday, March 24, 2008

We walked up our local hill the Dumpling this morning which is always a pleasure, the view of Loch Lomond is awe-inspiring every single time. We've had lovely weather this weekend with tiny specks of dry snow sneaking in from the east. Yesterday was tiring as it was spent in town at various furniture/plumbing/DIY places so everyone was grumpy and fed up. Today has been filled with fresh air and sunshine with walks and outdoor activities. This afternoon we used some spray paint to mark out the areas immediately outside the house which will be hard landscaped for footpaths and patios, it wasn't too difficult (away from the cold easterly) to imagine summer evening barbecues. We then salvaged trailer-loads of wood from the site which are surplus to the build but will provide fuel for the wood burning stove for many years to come.

This week is massively busy with the kitchen and utility room fit-outs starting tomorrow, the external hard landscaping including sorting out the levels around the house will be underway, lighting is being fitted and the tiler continues with the ground floor slates.

There's no staircase yet, the design was in theory signed off in December, delivery 5 weeks thereafter, some apparent communication issue between architect and timber frame manufacturer whereby one expected measurements from the other which didn't happen, builder expecting delivery, calls not being returned.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

local wildlife

Its noisy here tonight - half an hour ago there were 2? foxes shrieking outside, I haven't heard that noise before and thought someone was in trouble or an animal was being killed, it being such a piercing shriek. I managed to catch them in the beam of the big torch so they scamped off. An amazing and most unpleasant noise. Then a barn owl has been hunting and there's a whole lot more shrieking going on.
There is some woodland 100metres east of the farm which provides plenty of cover for foxes and deer. Two weeks ago a young deer was killed by a vehicle just past the farm entrance, 20 minutes later it had been reclaimed by a neighbour for lunch and dog food (sorry are you eating?).
The huge greylag geese population we have locally over winter has significantly moved on to pastures new, the curlews are here with their wonderful call and a 'swarm' of starlings were doing that fabulous sweeping dance through the sky.
A magical sight yesterday was watching two brown hares boxing in the field below the house and caravan. There is a big population of brown hare here, they are beautiful creatures. Springwatch here we come, I'll be Kate Humble rather than Bill Oddie though!

Hens eat fries!

The apple trees in position - if you look closely you can see 2 McDonalds fries on the cardboard, the scaffolders thought the hens might like a snack

The exterior revealed

The scaffolding is just about down after a day and a half of disassembly and the render is dazzingly white. The polythene over the ground floor windows will be removed after the renderers have finished covering the grey you can see at the bottom of the house, this may happen tomorrow depending on the extent of rain forecast. We haven't had rain for a week now I think.

Next week we'll work out the design on the ground for external hard landscaping close to the house. The architect drew a rectangular area of paving on a plan but the levels on the west side need a bit more thought so we're just going to work to our own design in conjunction with the groundworks crew. Some number of tonnes of hardcore are arriving tomorrow afternoon to start that process. There's always something arriving on site, today's delivery were the 122 boxes of kitchen which the fitters will commence construction and installation on Tuesday. The appliances arrived yesterday, the kitchen sink last Friday but we still need to buy taps...a job for the weekend.
Two days ago the vinyl flooring went down in the 2 upstairs bathrooms so Willie the plumber has now fixed the sanitary ware in both those rooms. The gorgeous bath tub is in the ensuite.
In the ground floor bathroom Billy the tiler has started fixing the slate tiles, setting up the lines took a while as this slate will run through the majority of the ground floor.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Feel Good Day

We're back in the caravan now and love being at the heart of it again. Glorious weather here at present so I spent the early morning putting cardboard 'mulch' circles around the newly planted apple trees to keep the weeds at bay. There was no wind so it was really beautiful being out in the Spring sunshine and I was thinking of putting a bench seat in the new orchard. It's a bit rich calling it an orchard yet but Steve and friend Allan planted 12 apple trees yesterday. I chose mainly Scottish heritage varieties from Butterworths organic nursery who are renowned for the quality of their stock and for the range of species they grow. Very kindly the nursery added an extra tree to the bundle but I haven't worked out where that should go - should I just pop it in with the others and ignore the separation distance they're meant to be or put it in the ground elsewhere and hope it pollinates, ether way its temporarily heeled in nearby.
Here's my list of species:- Dessert Apples are White Joaneting which dates from before 1600 and produces early fruit from August, Thorle Pippin (2 of) a Scottish apple first described in 1831, Charles Ross which fruits from Sept to Dec and is a cross of Peasgood Nonsuch and Cox's Orange Pippin, Golden Pippin (2 of) which was described in Scotland's first gardening book in 1683 as the 'best variety for Scotland', Wheeler's Russet which is originally English but was grown in the big Clydesdale orchards in the late 1700s and is a late cropper from Jan to March, Maggie Sinclair is also probably from Clydesdale and finally for the dessert apples is the Ribston Pippin which I chose as it heralded in 1707 from Knaresborough which is the nearest apple connection to my place of birth. Culinary apple choices are Stobo Castle which is an early cooker from Stobo, Golden Spire which originally hails from Lancashire (as does Steve) and is a good cider variety so we can dust off our apple press in seasons to come, Scotch Dumpling which has particularly attractive blossom apparently and is another Clydesdale species, Scotch Bridget which dates from the 1850s and crops from Oct to Dec.
I've spent quite a few hours reading up on the subject and working out the best species for our site (wet and windy west), its conditions (fairly shallow soil with rocky strata), the pollination days of each species to ensure they remain fertile and cropping times so we that we don't end up with too many apples at the same time. Obviously we'll have far too many apples but it'll be fun to see it all grow over years to come.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Ventilation strategies

As for living comfort at the levels of airtightness we are building to, it becomes necessary to use a whole house ventilation system. For this there are two main options; Mechanical Extract Ventilation (MEV) and Mechanical Ventilation with Heat Recovery (MVHR).

MEV uses a constantly operating fan which extracts warm moist air from the warm moist rooms (ie. bathrooms, kitchen etc) via ductwork, with fresh air effectively being sucked in via trickle vents and gaps in the structure. MEV is fairly economic to install, especially as it eliminates the need for dedicated extractors in the bathrooms. However, for very airtight buildings additional openings in the structure need to be introduced and warm stale air is replaced with fresh but cold air, thus driving heat out of the building and reducing its efficiency. As an aside to this, an MEV option is available for our heat pump which actually uses the heat from the outgoing stale warm air to pre-heat the ‘brine’ before it goes into the heat pump, thus recovering some of that energy. This is a great idea and an option well worth considering for self builders opting for a heat pump, but we eliminated it on the basis that that our first floor is largely unheated and such a system might lead to the cooling of that area via the trickle vents in the Velux windows which would need to be open for this system to work properly.

MVHR combines MEV with an intake system which supplies the ‘dry’ rooms with fresh air, preheated via a heat exchanger which takes heat from the extracted air. This is the system we have chosen, a (claimed) 95% efficient unit made by Dutch company Renovent and supplied by Ubbink in the UK. The unit has three settings and is virtually silent in operation. At the lowest setting (normal operation) it uses just half the power of a 60W light bulb and should be adequate to ‘heat’ the three first floor bedrooms alongside the heat convected from the ground floor. Other advantages are good air quality by using fresh, filtered air from outside, and the ability to use the unit to provide cooling in summer by bringing in cool air at night into a solar heated building.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Airtightness details

Having specified and designed a house to meet the AECB’s Silver Standard, airtightness plays a key role alongside high levels of insulation to achieve a low energy house. In our case we have followed the AECB’s Silver Standard construction details for timber frame buildings which advises the use of a continuous air/vapour control layer inside the building with all joints lapped, sealed and mechanically trapped.

This has probably been one of the most difficult aspects to achieve on site for our construction team which, in common with most UK builders, is simply not used to working to such a tight specification. With this in mind we opted for a solution which has largely avoided the need for specialist tapes and sealants, and in the main relies on the mechanical trapping of taped and lapped joints to provide a positive seal along with silicone sealant. We won’t really know how well this has worked until we do an airtightness test on the building, but on the basis that opening the front door feels somewhat akin to opening the door of a luxury car (ie. that air suction noise!) gives me some confidence. Also when it’s blowing a gale outside, there are no obvious draughts entering the building apart from the open trickle vents (shutters not yet fitted) and the yet to be connected stove flue.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Brickbats and Bouquets

Life is immensely busy so when we get great service from someone it is terrific and of course when we have to spend lots of time chasing people or doing someone else's job its a real pain. One of our future projects is the development of two holiday lets (more another time on those) so we're building up bank of people and places we'd like to use again. This list isn't exclusive, maybe at the end of the project we'll compose a list of the best products, people and places.

On my list for bouquets are the builder and every tradesman who has worked on our site (no kidding, I know its unusual); Sainsbury's online for kitchen appliances (subject to delivery of course); Ecoliving for the ground source heat pump which is working tremendously well.

Currently on the blacklist are B&Q's delivery service; the products are good and well priced they just don't do delivery within or close to their estimates and are a nightmare to chase.

Not for blacklisting but 'could do better' - the timber frame manufacturer is not high on the favourites list but the builder has had the burden of chasing them and the joiners have had the problem of insufficient supplies. The Architect has been on site only three times since Christmas so there's a bit of a gap on the project management which we and the builder have filled. That's fine 'cos we have filled the gap but isn't the service signed up for.

And the weather has been pants since Christmas too!

Internal and External Finishes

We have had snow in the early part of this week but this isn't it! Here we're got the roughcasters flinging the wet dash render onto the east elevation. You can see where they completed one area at the end of last week as the mix dries whiter than when it is applied (thankfully otherwise we'd have a magnolia house!). Its a very messy task.

The larch cladding on the SW corner - this is really looking fabulous and we're very pleased with the choice of timber, its profile and the joiner's work. The timber frame company haven't been doing such a good job on the timely supply of the correct quantities of materials but this appears to being resolved after many calls from our builder. The timber itself has come from Russwood who are based in North Perthshire.

Not a great photo because of the light bounce but this is the toile negro tile which we choose for the ground floor bathroom. It looks terrific in place, especially in the shower with a single spot shining down.

one ensuite shower area

paint colour Winter Teal 5 for Finlay's room.......Dulux have done a fine job with that colour matching and shading/colour depth system as its a terrific marketing tool in providing the customer with thousands of all our paint colours are coming from them and the marketing tool has worked!