Demolition Diary
Build Diary
Lessons Learned
The Team

6th April 2004

This week has been pretty productive clearing and excavating the route for the new driveway. Apart from providing productive use for a large amount of the building rubble as hardcore the clearance of this area has thrown up a couple of other benefits. The felling of an unlisted, dead silver birch revealed that the root ball and some of the lower trunk was rotting and there was a good chance that it could have come down in a high wind and bring the electricity supply lines to next door with it. Also we have finally revealed the location of our water main stopcock – right in the middle of this piece of land. I did not know it was there and neither did the water board. They thought the valve was outside our gates and had marked it as such. Testing that one today had no effect on our water supply so heaven knows whose water we turned off. The water board will have to come back and do a proper survey. This is the second lot of water pipes we have found crossing the land, neither seem to be marked on anyone’s map which is a bit of a worry. 

For the rest of this week and over Easter we will be completing the new drive hard core and levelling the site with a vibrating roller. Well point installation starts after Easter.

18th April 2004

The weather has been pretty good until today. I have just got back to the rented house after struggling to do anything in the pouring rain. Progress has been pretty good over the last couple of weeks, and we are on time and slightly below budget which is great. I just hope this rain stops soon and gives the site a few hours to dry out.

Most of the effort of the last two weeks has been put into clearing the triangle of land on the right hand side as you come down the drive. We are building a new route for the driveway that loops through this piece of land allowing us to landscape a screen between the house and the road where exiting driveway goes; this will add to privacy and make for a more interesting approach to the house. The other huge benefit is that in building this drive and increasing the level of the land around it we will be able to utilize much of the hardcore from the demolition and most of the subsoil that will come from excavating the basement hole. In the order of 800 cubic metres of subsoil will come out of the hole so we are saving a lot of money in not having to dispose of this or the demolition rubble offsite. One of the tricky aspects of this bit of work was avoiding the power line that feeds next door’s electricity. This runs straight across the land. Mick and Paul will excavate a trench next week to allow us to bury a new cable ready for commissioning at a later date by Southern Electric.

Talking of utilities, we got into an amusing “Jobsworth” with our water company. As I mention above, an inspector came to site a couple of weeks ago to identify our main stopcock for the installation of a water meter. He duly found a stopcock outside our gates and sprayed the access plate blue and announced that this was our main valve. He didn’t bother to test it. Last week a team arrived from the water company to install the meter on the main valve outside the gate. Mick and Paul told them that this was not our valve, that ours was in the front garden, but they went on and installed the meter anyway saying that this is what they were told to do and they were going to get on with it. It is great to see that the initiative of the Great British Jobsworth is alive and well.

Clearing this piece of land has been quite a task; it was derelict and very overgrown. We have taken out all the scrub and holly bushes and following the removal of the dead birch last Easter, cut down three large fir trees (not listed), one which was dead, another with a diseased trunk and the other that was listing quite alarmingly. Peter did the business with his chain saw and they all came down safely. As I write this there is a little more scrub to be removed tomorrow and then we will be ready for the subsoil and hardcore.

Our basement goes into production at Thermonex tomorrow and onsite the de-watering system will be delivered by SLD pumps. It will take three days to install and commission and then will run continuously until the basement and sump is fully installed. If all goes well and the weather is kind to us, sufficient dewatering will have taken place by Monday week to start excavating giving us two weeks for the excavation and setting of the base slab before the basement arrives ready for installation, which by the way, will only take a week!

24th April 2004

The appalling weather over last weekend and during the first part of the week took its toll on our site. There were masses of standing water and no doubt it upped the water table a few centimetres too. Tuesday saw the arrival of the wellpoint system and installation began. A trench is dug around the area to be drained - in this case the footprint of the basement, with room for the diagonal “battering” effect that happens when sand is excavated which meant that an area 18mx18m is being drained. A wellpoint is basically a 100mm diameter black plastic tube about 5m long that looks suspiciously like electrical conduit. A special filter is fitted at one end and the other to a water pump. Water is pumped through the pipe at high pressure and is “jetted” into the ground i.e. as it is pushed into the ground the water creates a hole around it. The wellpoint is pushed to a depth of about 4.5m. 64 of these are set in equal intervals in the trench and they are then connected up by flexible tubes to a big manifold. That is in turn connected up to a large pump which sucks - this draws water from the ground, up the wellpoint, into the manifold and ultimately into the brook on the boundary of our land. It’s remarkable how much water is pumped out and how clean it is, that is a testimony to how good the filters are on the end of the wellpoints.

The guy from SLD Pumps was very confident that the kind of soil we have (i.e. sand) would drain quickly and stabilize well for excavation.  The soil engineer had already commented that once drained of water, sand was extremely good to work with because you don’t get the shrinkage and movement you do with clay.  Certainly the area is drying out quickly and should be ready for Monday’s excavation.

Talking of water, Ian told me today that once the basement is installed it will be flooded to a depth on 1m with water. This is basically to stop the basement lifting (i.e. floating) once the wellpoints are decommissioned and water ingresses back around the basement. Once the other footings are set and we start building, the weight will keep everything stable and in position, it’s a strange thought to see the basement float up out of the ground like some sort of barge!

The weather today was fantastic and has dried a lot of the site out. Woodsie and I spent the morning pegging out the main datum points and the excavation area of the basement. After this I was on tidying up duties. It’s amazing that all of the demolition rubble from the old house has gone onto the area of the new driveway. This has saved a small fortune in disposal, but also indicates how boggy the land was to need so much hard-core.

Talking of small fortunes, I am astonished to see a quotation from Scottish and Southern Electricity for £4,900 plus VAT. For that they will remove one wooden pole, install another, lay cable into conduit (that we have to supply and dig the trench for!) and connect the system up. I think this is a complete rip-off for a morning’s work for a pole erection team and maybe a day’s work for a cabling team. Scottish and Southern are a monopoly in our area and probably can charge what they like, Nonetheless we are asking for a detailed breakdown of the quotation and we are also finding out if there are “approved installers” who can do the work at a more competitive price. I will let you know how we get on.

So by the next update there should be a rather large hole on the ground and maybe a base slab – at last we are getting close to building something.

28th April 2004 (update)

I went to the site on the way home from work last night to look at the test hole that Paul had dug. It’s amazing; the hole is 4m below the slab level and is bone dry. The wellpoint system has been running since last Friday and has taken away all the water, even in the middle of the the excavation. This bodes well for the dig which starts in earnest tomorrow; let’s hope that the threatened rain stays away.

29th April 2004 

I visited the site this morning and was amazed that after 2 days of near torrential rain the hole dug for the basement is pretty much bone dry. I was honestly expecting a muddy “swimming pool from hell”, but with the exception of a soggy patch in the middle (where it is hardest for the well points to reach) it is firm and dry.  I have tried to convey this in the photographs below. There is also a shot of Mick and Big Mick in the hole to provide a sense of scale.

Pretty much all of the subsoil has been spread on the area by the drive to create a semi-landscaped effect, when this is settled and hardened we will put 10cm of topsoil on and design a planting scheme.

The plan allows for the hire of the big digger and two large dumpers for 2 weeks for excavation of the hole and distribution of the subsoil. The team have pretty much completed the job in 2 days! This is a great testimony to how hard they have worked and how suitable the wellpoint system is for this kind of application and soil.

While the wellpoint system is coping with this weather, we would obviously like it to dry out. Next week the formwork carpentry for the base slab will be installed, and if it is dry by the latter end of the week, the slab will be poured and set. Thermonex have confirmed that installation of the basement starts on 11th May.

6th May 2004

This week has been very frustrating. The weather has been stormy and changeable for 7 days now. Michael Fish said on the TV on Tuesday that the current weather we are suffering is more common in late October rather than early May. Every day we have seen torrential downpours that have stretched the dewatering system and our patience. I spent a dull and wet Saturday cleaning out the bottom of the hole and stacking the last of the subsoil that needed to be removed. I cleaned and squared up all the edges and knocked off all the overhangs. It was backbreaking work but I was proud of a very neat and tidy hole!

I spent Sunday (the only dry day around here) making shuttering panels for the formwork carpenter to install. These panels create the shape for the concrete base slab to flow under to form the right profile for connecting the prefabricated basement walls. It again was hard work man-handling 8 foot by 4 foot sheets of shiplap on my own, but I was pleased to have saved a day’s worth of carpentry time by doing it myself. On Bank Holiday Monday I met Woodsie on-site to do some “pegging-out” – no not dying, that’s is Woodsie-speak for measuring and marking out the areas to be dug and excavated. We also were planning to install a matrix of stakes in the hole to determine the right level for the concrete blinding.

It rained and rained until about 2pm on Monday – all we could do is try and stay dry while watching the water erode the nice cleans walls of the hole. The base of the hole remained as dry as ever thanks to the wellpoints but water draining into it was eroding the walls. In the end Woodsie dug a diversion channel that stopped the worst of the water draining into the hole. Finally it stopped raining and we had a chance to do the measuring and pegging-out. I finished the last of the shuttering panels and left happy that despite the weather we had achieved everything we set out to do over the weekend.

Our problems really started on Wednesday. Mick turned up about 7.30 am to find the hole a little soggy, but the pump was still running. He initially assumed it was because of the persistent heavy downpours we were suffering. On closer inspection it turned out that while the diesel engine in the pump was still running, a pulley that carries the belt between the engine and pump had failed and we were not pumping. Woodsie got onto the wellpoint people and they mobilised an engineer. All the time the rain kept coming and hole got soggier and without the wellpoints the walls began to collapse.

The engineer took about 2 hours longer to get there than he said he would and then had to go back for more parts. He finally got the pump running again late in the afternoon. This morning (Thursday), Mick arrived to find the hole flooded knee deep with water and the walls collapsing. While the engineer had fixed the pump, he hadn’t primed the wellpoint system so it wasn’t working. Woodsie again had to chase the wellpoint people who sent out and engineer to prime the system and it was back in operation by lunchtime. A pump we had on-site was used to drain the hole and the wellpoint system is now back on line and keeping the hole dry once again. All the collapsed sub-soil has had to be removed and hole is about 1 metre bigger all round now.

A heroic effort by Paul the digger driver specialist, Mick and Big Mick got most of the work to recover the hole done by this afternoon. The hole is not as pretty as it was, but at least we are back in business now.

The episode has lost us a couple of days, and cost in rehiring a long-reach 12 tonne digger and extra labour. To regain the schedule we have to get the carpenter to work on Sunday to install the shuttering ready for the base to be poured next week. The lesson I have learned from this, is that while wellpoint dewatering is a tremendous system the weak link in the chain is the pump. There must be adequate contingency in case of a failure of the pump. If we had suffered this problem while pouring the base slab or while it was curing the consequences would have been very serious indeed. SLD Pumps are delivering and emergency spare pump tomorrow. This is something we should really have done from the start.

11th May 2004

For those of you following this diary, I said on 29th April that Thermonex would start installing the basement today. By the state of things onsite today, I would say we are about a week to 10 days behind that schedule now.

After the drama of the weather and wellpoint pumps last week, Woodsie and I worked over the weekend to install the staves that will support the wooden shuttering that forms the edges and “step” on the concrete base slab. All the shuttering woodwork must be suspended from these staves. The plan this week was to complete all the carpentry, install the membrane blinding replacement and steel reinforcement with a view to pouring the base slab late this week for Thermonex to start the middle of next. Yesterday morning Thermonex came back to Woodsie with a revised specification of the steel reinforcement for the base slab. The concern is for such a large expanse of slab that upward pressure of water may cause it to “break its back” unless it is substantially reinforced, hence the revised specification of steel reinforcement. This weight of steel is impossible to manoeuvre by hand and will need a crane to lift into place, and until the steel is fitted and tied in, the top wooden shuttering cannot be installed. All this is going to be a real challenge to get done in the next couple of days in order to pour the slab on Friday. If we slip to Monday, the two days of the weekend that the slab could have been curing are lost, putting back Thermonex further. 

This is a frustrating delay, and one of the things I am going to have to get used to throughout this project.

Here are some pictures of the formwork carpentry. Mick is installing a waterproof layer that will stop water seeping out (or in!) the gap where the horizontal meets the vertical formwork.

Ironically, a couple of days of warm dry weather has dried out some parts of the hole walls to the point that they have slumped. After last week’s rivers of sand we have the opposite effect. All the greater incentive to get this part of the build done, get out of the ground and start building upwards.

13th May 2003

I am doing an update today because we have hit a significant milestone. After months we have finally stopped knocking down, clearing and removing and we are installing stuff that is actually part of the new house. On looking back it seems like ages since we started this project, certainly compared to other self-build blogs that I follow. But usually the build starts with a plot, or adjacent to an exiting property that is demolished after the build. In this case we had to remove and dispose of a complete large house create hard standing, access, dewater and do a deep excavation. Sure we have faced problems with the weather and equipment, but by me reckoning we are about 9 days behind plan, and Woodsie is confident we can get that back.

Today all the steel fixing is being done. As I mentioned earlier this week, the steel reinforcement is quite complex because of the soil conditions and size of the slab. We have saved a little time by using a special plastic membrane instead of concrete blinding. Tomorrow will be used to finish installing the wooden formwork shuttering ready for the slab to be poured on Monday.

27th May 2003

Sorry for the time it has taken since the last update. Things have been very busy at work and I have been travelling quite a bit. This is frustrating because some pretty major activities have been taking place on site.

Last Tuesday (finally) the concrete slab for the basement was poured. If you recall, it was a very warm and pleasant day, ideal for this kind of work. The concrete pump arrived on time with the first of 12 lorry loads of concrete due from 9am at 30 minute intervals. 9am came and went with no concrete, after an hour and frantic phone calls from Woodsie it transpired that the concrete company’s manufacturing plant in Eversley (5 minutes from us) had broken down and that they were delivering from Guildford (45 minutes from us on a good day). With a 5 minute journey, 2 lorries can shuttle on a 30 minute schedule but to and from Guildford, the gaps between loads were taking forever. This turned out to be a very tough day for the team as with such warm weather they had to keep the poured concrete from curing until the whole lot was finally delivered – this didn’t happen until 6.15 in the evening! On stripping the wooden shuttering we discovered that because of the delay, a small area on the edge of the slab still had some steel reinforcement showing. Fortunately it was not in the area where the basement walls are fixed and can be repaired easily.

However, this was a frustrating situation that wasted time and cost money. Our approach to this project is to do everything at the highest quality without compromise. We are talking to the concrete supplier and expect them to respond constructively. The slab is over ½ metre thick with more that 3 tonnes of steel reinforcement so there is no doubt as to its structural integrity and waterproof capability.

The next few days were spent stripping shuttering and preparing the hole and slab for Thermonex to start installation of the basement. Thermonex were originally due on Monday 24th but due to another job that overran, they arrived on Wednesday. They plan to finish next Tuesday (after Bank Holiday) which is incredible considering the size of the basement structure.

This is where the real benefit of a pre-fabricated basement is seen. Traditional approaches using block work and tanking are very time consuming because of the extra care that is needed in the build to ensure the waterproof integrity. With prefabrication the ready-made walls are lifted in and the structure is complete in a couple of days with sealing and finishing done in another. I suspect that the overall cost is pretty similar between the two construction methods but the less time on-site achieved using prefabrication is certainly a bonus as it is not as sensitive to the weather.

 Also this week we are digging out and setting the foundations for the garage block. The great thing is that at the depth we are going to we are not seeing water seepage, this will allow us to get the footings poured tomorrow ready for the block work foundations to be started next week.

3rd June 2004

Despite the nice weather, the mood on the site this week is a little sombre. As I have mentioned on other pages, quite by accident, most of the team seem to be West Ham supporters, and the Hammers dismal performance against Crystal Palace which sent them into the Premiership and us to another year in Division 1 is very depressing. Mind you, there is never a dull moment with West Ham, they have never been consistent - for as long as I have supported them always lurching on the brink of greatness to mediocrity almost every season. Until I was about 10 I thought their full name was “West Ham United Nil”.

The brickies and lots of materials have turned up on site this week. The concrete footings for the garage were poured last Friday and since Tuesday the team have been raising the block work to the slab level. We are using a “suspended” slab technique for the garage where the block work supports the steel with sand (in this case the sub soil sand we have in abundance on site from the basement hole) used inside the block frame to achieve the required level. The steel is supported by the block work and the edges of the slab formed with wooden shuttering. There was some concern about the height of the garage slab relative to the surrounding ground. The aim is to have the garage at the drive level and the house 2 steps up from it. Because of the fall of the land around the garage area, it seems like the garage is too high. But we will be bringing up the level of the drive with crushed concrete so it will all look fine when finished.

Themonex have almost finished the basement. An external plastic sheet is applied to the basement structure which creates a small gap for water to flow down from the walls, and there is a couple more sheets of those to apply. The brickies are also constructing brick piers on the base slab a few inches away from the basement walls to support the steel foundation beams. When this is done we can backfill with aggregate and get out of the hole. It will be such a relief (and save money) to finally turn off the well point system. The basement structure is looking alarmingly like a hardened nuclear bunker at the moment so the sooner we get out of the ground and cover it up, the better.

10th June 2004

The basement is finally finished. Thermonex were back at the beginning of the week to hang the final couple of sheets of membrane on the outside of the walls and to do some final grouting.

Because of the problems we had when the slab was poured for the basement a couple of weeks ago another layer of concrete has been applied to the floor formed by the basement walls. This has been reinforced with steel and has a “brushed” finish which is very smooth.

We also now have the specification and depth for the manhole and drain that sits along side the basement where a submerged pump regulates the water table around the basement. Now that the floor is complete and the manhole specification known, we can finally back fill the hole around the basement.

We have to use a special washed aggregate to Thermonex’s specifications. This is not cheap, and the hole will swallow about 5 lorry loads of it.  We plan to get this compete by tomorrow (Friday) so that we can turn off the dewatering system. This will benefit our neighbour who has had to listen to the pumps low murmuring over the past 6 weeks and my budget!

The garage is progressing well. Using 5 block courses and some bricks we are up to the damp proof course level. Steel reinforcement is placed over the packed sand fill and the concrete slab (according to Woodsie) will be poured tomorrow. The area around the garage has been levelled with tamped scalpings ready for the scaffolding the brickies will need to start work next week. 

While the brickies are working on the garage, Mick and the team will excavate the foundations on the Eastern side of the house, so that the brickies can move to that area as soon as the garage walls are up. Woodsie’s mantra with trades is to always line up jobs in front of them onsite, because if you let them go, you are never sure if and when they will come back.

19th June 2004

Last week was very hectic for me with work commitments, so I am sorry that this update is a little late.

True to form, the brickies did not turn up on Monday last week as arranged. Apparently another job ran over. This has allowed the team to do the final preparation for the garage walls. We had a load of fair face concrete blocks for the inner skin of the garage walls delivered, and Mick spent a day cutting bricks in half and two-thirds for the “Flemish Bond” style of brick pattern that we are using. This is more labour intensive and somewhat more costly in materials, but I think it looks really good, and is different than most houses built today.

The lack of brickies did not hold back Mick, Paul, Jeff and Daz who cracked on with the footings. As I mentioned in my last update, we were going to do the eastern end of the house first so that the brickies could get on with the supporting blocks while the garage scaffolding gets lifted. Instead last week they got all the eastern footings poured and complete, and all but one on the western side dug and set. We plan to pour the western footings on Tuesday. As you can see from the pictures, the footings are quite complex as we have to run steel beams between the basement and undisturbed subsoil. These have to be set precisely in the right place to provide the strength needed.

The effect of decommissioning the dewatering system is becoming obvious now it is switched off. The footing trenches on the west end of the house have some water in them. This should not present a problem though as we will drain them with a pump just prior to pouring the concrete.

We plan to use a suspended slab system for the main house in the same way as the garage. Block work and then brickwork above ground level will provide the containing frame for the concrete, sand will then be added and tamped down within the frame. Steel reinforcement will be laid and the concrete poured in. Woodise thinks this will be complete in 2 weeks time – that will be great progress!

1st July 2004

Well, it doesn’t look like we will pour the slab in 2 weeks as originally planned, we will miss by a couple or three days. This has been caused by a few small hiccups, the brickies not yet on site at full strength every day and the weather. Despite this, things are looking good. The brickies are on a fixed-price, so I have no doubt we will catch up.

The eastern side of the house foundation is now complete and ready for the steel reinforcement to be set for the base slab. 6 courses of brickwork have been laid to form the outer retaining wall for the slab. Like the garage we are using a suspended slab method and should be ready for that next Wednesday. On the western side we still have a little more blockwork to do and the outer brick course. With Mick back from holiday, some good weather and brickies we may even have the western side ready for the slab on Wednesday too. This will save us bringing the concrete pump in twice.

It is good to see a few courses of the brickwork complete. It provides a sense of how the walls will ultimately look. The Flemish Bond looks great and really suits the style of brick. We have gone for machine manufactured brick that are made to look like hand made through the manufacturing process and are then aged. This provides a substantial saving on bricks but still looks very good. For the roof and upper elevations though we are using hand made clay tiles, which while they look great are “a pig” to hang. More about that when we get too the roof!

It is such a relief for me to see the eastern side of the house finally out of the ground. All the soil up to the house has been levelled and tamped, we will lay granite scalpings on this to provide a firm base for the scaffolding.

9th July 2004

The weather has given us lots of problems this week. The very unseasonable stormy and wet weather on Wednesday and Thursday put a stop to pouring the slab on the eastern side of the house. We also lost a couple of days of brick laying through the weather and absent brickies. However we are now pretty much ready to pour both the east and west sides now, which weather permitting will happen next Tuesday.

The brickies have been making good progess on the garage, most of the external bricks are laid up to first lift scaffolding height, and they should have the internal fair-faced blocks up to the same level by next Tuesday.

I have always been interested in building, but I never realised what goes into brick laying. The style of laying (or bond) we are using is Flemish Bond. This is where each alternate brick is set end on (in fact it is a half brick) Stretcher Bond is the most common (and quickest) style of laying conventional bricks where thye are simply laid end on end. Flemish Bond looks great but needs some thinking about when calculating corners, openings for windows and doors and other features. It would not be acceptable to use any less that half a brick to fill in the gap around an opening so the run of the bricks, size and position of the opening or feature needs to be calculated in advance.  The “perps” (perpendiculars) need to be calculated also, this is the line that the mortar takes around the bricks up the wall, it needs to be even all the way up, “if you get out of sequence between courses the perp will go to pot and it will stick out like a sore thumb” – I quote one of the brickies. I think I know what he means.

Flemish Bond takes a little longer and is a little more wasteful but I think the style looks good and will suit the building’s style. It is pretty hard to see this from the wide angle pictures so I have a close up of part of the garage, this illustrates the Flemish Bond style, the bricks we are using and the detail.

I am going away on business to North America tomorrow and will be back at the end of next week. I hope by then that I will be able to officially say we are out of the ground.

21st July 2004

Its official, we are finally out of the ground and building upwards.  I can’t tell you what a relief this is. It seems like we have been staring at a muddy hole in the ground for years. With the exception of drainage, rainwater recovery and the heat-pump piping we hopefully will not be in need of a digger any more.

The brickies have started work on the eastern side of the house and are focussing on the corners and window openings to start with. We are still short of one gang of brickies but hopefully they will be on site next week when another job they are on finishes. The garage block is ready for the first lift of scaffolding, but ironically there is a shortage of scaffolding in this part of the world this week because most of it are in the temporary grandstands and the SBAC Air Show at Farnborough. We have our fingers crossed though that some will become available either tomorrow or Thursday so that we can get the brickies back on the garage block. We are keen to get this complete as soon as possible as it will provide a useful dry store. Equally though, we will be able to get a sense of the roof design and the tiles. As tiles feature so prominently on the main house it will be good to validate our choice of tiles on the garage first.

About 30 temporary window and door frames arrived on site today. These will be used for construction as the permanent oak frames will only be delivered at the last moment to reduce the risk of damage. 

With the headache of groundwork behind us, there are a number of other pressing problems to start thinking about. We are using underfloor heating over concrete and beam and block floors on the ground and first and given this is quite a large house the number of loops and therefore the size of manifolds we need is important given the space the manifolds take up and where the pipes come up through the beam and block first floor. Our current thinking is perhaps 4 manifolds, two on each floor.  We will instruct the supplier to do the design next week. We also have to think about the first floor design to allow access for the heat-recovery ventilation and central vacuum system. We have a riser designed in with access from the basement, bootroom on the ground floor and laundry cupboard on the first, but I worry that it will not be big enough to accommodate all the services. I will leave that headache to Ian on his return from holiday next week.

29th July 2004

We are well out of the ground now and are about three quarters of the way around the house with the outer brickwork up to the scaffolding first-lift level. We have had variable attendance of the brickies, some days there are 2 other days 3 and on one heady day this week there apparently were five. We do have 3 regular blokes (pictures to come) but we could sorely do with another gang of three and a labourer for them. That said the quality of work is unquestionable and the care that attention these guys apply is excellent.

Ian reckons they will be finished all the way around by tomorrow and will then concentrate on the internal block work next week. The scaffolding is ready on the garage now so a couple of the brickies are likely to spend Monday completing the soldier course above the garage doors and a couple more courses all round to get the garage to roof height. The attic truss system for the garage roof is being manufactured at the moment and should be here in a couple of week’s time. The scaffolding for the main house is booked for Monday week.

Mick, Geoff and Daz have been hard at work on the drainage both for sewerage and the rainwater harvesting system. We have gone for a very simple drainage system which does not have any diagonals or strange junctions and is proving straightforward to install. The only challenge is the deepest trenches flooding a bit because of the relatively high water table, this will easily be sucked out by a submersible pump, but is a reminder that we will have to dewater the holes we excavate for the bio-digester and the rainwater storage tank.


The biggest frustration this week is the intransigence of our Electricity Supplier, Scottish and Southern. We want to bury the unsightly electricity supply that runs from a pole in our land to next door. Basically we want to loose the 2 poles that are on our land completely. Ian explained to Scottish and Southern what we want and their solution is to install a new pole 8 ft from the existing one in my other neighbour’s boundary and from this new pole, go underground across our land and then up another pole, across a 7ft wide brook to the pole on my neighbour’s land where it goes underground anyway. And for the privilege of this idiotic solution they expect us to pay £5000, and that does not include ground works or the conduit, we have to pay for that as an extra. And of course, they are exercising their muscle as a monopoly by saying it is all “uncontested works” and therefore has to be done by them. So rather that loosing the poles on the land we will gain 2 more a few feet away from exiting ones! Ian is going back to their sales rep to offer him a chance of re-quoting for a more sensible solution that entails taking the cable underground from the pole in my neighbour’s land (with their consent of course) running it through my land and across the brook at a culvert (where all the other services cross – gas, water etc.) and underground to my neighbours pole. This approach eliminates all poles on my land and one from my neighbours. We will see if the rep is willing to play ball with this.

5th August 2004

We had a couple of guys from Southern Electric onsite today to discuss what we want to do in burying the supply. They were very helpful and constructive and I think we now have a solution that will now be more practical and a lot cheaper than the last proposal we had. The heat-pump we are using requires three phase electricity and fortunately our neighbour on the south west boundary happens to be a saw mill operated by Travis Perkins, so three phase is only 12 meters from our boundary. The plan now is to run a cable from three 3 phase transformer in Travis Perkins to a pole that is just inside my boundary that carries the existing single phase supply. We will then dig a trench that runs from the bottom of that pole to a point adjacent to the house – there we will spur off to my neighbours (eliminating the need for 2 poles in their garden as it currently is) a 3 phase link into my house and then off across the front part of our land towards the other neighbours. The original SEB proposal was to go up a pole at that point to bridge a 6ft wide culvert. They have now suggested that we build a small brick plinth each side and then run the cable through a steel or concrete pipe. This is a great solution as we loose all the poles from all three gardens. This area is heavily wooded and we have had lots of problems over the years from power outages caused by tree damage. I expect it will be considerably cheaper than the other quote as well as Woodies team will do all the trenching and supply the conduit – SEB provide the cable and a team to lay it and terminate it.

Progress has been slower that I would like again this week, mainly because of a shortage of brickies. This is the holiday season, so I know I should expect a few problems like this, but we do need to get the structure watertight before the wet of winter sets in, and time is running out.

The scaffolding for the house arrives on Monday and will mask the work for the next couple of months. Wayne and Bob, our regular brickies should have the garage brick and block work finished by tomorrow so while the scaffolding goes up, they will join Ritchie, the brickies' boss doing the internal blockwork. 

Now that the drainage and rainwater harvesting pipe work are pretty much complete, Mick, Jeff and Daz will likely make a start on laying the kilometre(!) of geo-thermal heat pump pipe around the site. 

These are the plans for the coming week; I hope I can report that we have successfully completed them in the next bulletin.

13th August

With a sense of resigned inevitability, I have to report that my optimistic expectations for progress this week were not met. The weather in the early part of the week was pretty awful; it washed out one complete day for us. The showers on other days this week have meant very stop/start progress from the brickies and with Mick, Geoff and Daz on another job, things have been frustratingly slow.

The scaffolding arrived on Monday but installation is only just completing today. We have had 5 brickies and 2 labourers on site since Wednesday and we are seeing some progress now. All the flank walls are now complete up to first lift in both brick and block, and today they have started on the first lift level. As I mentioned before, the design calls for vertically hung clay tiles from the first floor up, so theoretically it should be quite quick to get the first floor outer skin up because blocks are nowhere near as fiddly to lay as bricks in Flemish Bond.

The plan is to get all the flank walls up to first floor height and the concrete beam floor installed before we do the internal walls. This will allow us to get rid of all the internal scaffold platforms and have a clear space. Pretty much all of the setting out has been done and mesh ties have been set into the flank walls to bind them to the internal walls so we hope it should be a straight forward job.

The heavy rain has certainly indicated the lowest points on the route of the new driveway, much of it resembles a river. The drive does go through the lowest point on the land and all the rainwater collecting on the subsoil we have spread each side of the drive is just draining onto it. So the plan next week is to cut a channel for the electricity supply, and a land drain to take the water off to the stream. We will then build the drive up with crushed concrete. This will stop the flooding and make the drive useful for parking and secondary access.

I do not have a good track record in predicting weekly progress on this web site, but I am going to stick my neck out and say that we should be up to second lift height on the flank wall block work and nearly there on the brick outer skin. I also hope that we will have the flooded driveway done and trenching started for the heat pump pipe. We will see.

18th August 2004

Its half way through this week and we are making some progress despite the abysmal weather. Much of the flank walls block work is up to second lift height as are the two major internal load bearing walls. All of the ground floor internal walls are up to first lift height on the eastern side with about a third complete on the west side. There are a few tricky bits to do such as setting the lintels above windows and doors, assembling the chimney flues which come in a big kit and setting the half-hexagonal wall where the staircase runs. So weather permitting, we should be pretty much up to second lift height on internal and external walls by the end of this week.

The timing for the delivery of the concrete floor beams is critical so that they arrive just as the brickies finish the outer brick skin. According to Woodsie the first floor can be installed in a couple of days, so the brickies can crack on with the second floor. Mick and the team will be installing the beams themselves, it is essential to drop the beams exactly into position and not drag them across the block work. The aim, as ever is to keep a constant flow of work for the brickies so they don’t drift off to another job. 

The weather this week has precluded us from doing much ground work, as has the non-arrival of the “rigiduct” that will protect the electrical supply as it goes across our land. Woodsie has found an alternative stock holder for it and we will collect it ourselves tomorrow. Geoff, Daz, Mick and Paul are onsite again tomorrow so hopefully, if the rain allows we can get some of the ground works done.

25th August 2004

Apart from a bit of a respite at the weekend, the weather continues to be very mixed. We have had some amazing downpours which have converted parts of the site to a virtual quagmire.

Between the showers the brickies have been making progress. All of the internal walls are up to height and they are bringing up the internal and external skins of the outer walls at the same time. We have fireplaces in the lounge and dining room, and I am amazed how solidly these are constructed with the moulded concrete flue kit surrounded by special blocks. If a hurricane hit Arborfield I suspect at least the chimneys would remain standing. There are a number of steel beams to be installed to support the gallery landing and the wide opening into the sun room. These should be ready by next week. The bad news is that the first floor concrete beams are now 3 weeks away from delivery. I think that even with the rest of the face brickwork, corbelling, fixing the roof plate on the garage and rectifying snags, we may not have enough work to keep the brickies busy for 3 weeks. I worry that if they go off site we will struggle to get them back again. All this increases my anxiety about being watertight before the onset of winter. It will be very difficult to make headway on major work like construction of the roof on short, cold wet days. I just hope Woodsie can shorten some of the lead times for materials and get us back nearer our schedule.

The weather hasn’t helped the installation of our services despite the arrival of the rigi-duct. It has been a wet and difficult job. We now have all of the various conduits installed with pull-wires ready to pull through the various cables and pipes. It takes a long time for the land around the house to dry out, and with more unsettled weather to come, I expect the team will just have to get muddy and get on with it.

Brick Finishing showing the Corbelling.

8th September 2004

I have been a bit longer providing an update for this site as usual, for which I apologise. I have had (and am continuing to have) problems with the website editing tool that I use to maintain this site. This is provided online by my ISP and as the site has grown, it has become more and more flaky. I will get around to putting it into FrontPage and maintaining it myself – I know it is getting a little unwieldy now with such large pages and lots of pictures. I am very busy at the moment both at work and on the house so free time is a precious commodity mainly dedicated to spending time with my children.

The other reason for a lack of an update is frankly, a lack of action. Not much has changed for a couple of weeks. The brickies have finished all the brickwork and block work up to first floor level and they can do nothing until the concrete beams are laid to form the first floor. As I mentioned in my last update, they are coming about three weeks later than planned, so will arrive next week now, although there is no firm date next week – if its Monday, great if its Friday, well there is another week wasted. Apparently we are lucky to be getting them at all – many suppliers have been quoting delivery of up to 6 months. A pal of Woodies’ has had to close down a commercial job because of delays in the supply of concrete beams – so I suppose I should be grateful.

I had one of my “what if” discussions with Woodsie this morning to try and get a sense of when we will be ready to roof. His current thinking is that if we get the steel beams and steel frames for the window bays installed this week and the concrete floor delivered and installed next week, it will be 3 weeks of block work to get up to roof height. Two weeks to get the trusses in, boarded and felted should see us tiling by late October. I do hope that we do not slip much further than this – we are enjoying an Indian summer at the moment but I don’t expect that will last much longer, and the damp and miserable autumn/winter days are not too far away. I am keeping my fingers crossed that we don’t fall at the first hurdle with this plan. The steel beams arrived onsite today but not the steelwork for the bay window frames. According to the steel company the stock for this is arriving today – that only leaves tomorrow and Friday for fabrication, painting and installing if we are to be done this week. I am afraid that I am not particularly confident about that timetable, but it would be great to be proved wrong.

Geoff, Daz and Mick are making progress on the various ground works we have remaining. I had forgotten just how much there is to lay in the ground, here off the top of my head is a non-exhaustive list. Three phase electric to the house, single phase spurs to both neighbours, sewage to septic tank, gutter drainage to rainwater tank, mains top up to rainwater tank, feed from rain water tank, power to rainwater tank submersible pump, BT to house, water main, gas main, telephone to garage, water to garage, gas to garage, electric to garage, network to garage, sewage from garage, power and control to front gate/intercom, driveway lighting, stable power, stable water. I am sure there are others I forgotten. All this spells lots of holes, trenches and mud – let’s hope the weather is kind to us while that lot is happening.

I have had loads of people ask me to set up a webcam on the site and I have been experimenting. I have a broadband connection and a static IP address and I have been playing with a camera. I have had loads of problems with the bandwidth and reliability of the camera so will look to source something more basic, reliable and weatherproof. If anyone has suggested models or one they want to loan or donate I would be grateful.

15th September 2004

I am having a very frustrating few days. We still do not have a firm delivery date for the concrete floor beams. The supplier is saying it is “days rather than weeks” but it doesn’t take too many days to go by before the weeks start racking up. As the beams are coming from Ireland, they probably allowed 2 days for delivery, and for them to be here this week, they would need to be leaving the factory tomorrow morning, so in my view this is another week written off waiting for these beams.

The steel beams were delivered and installed last Friday and all of the steelwork that forms the internal structure of the bay windows is on-site. Apparently the brickies are coming to site tomorrow and will “block in” the steel beams while Geoff, Daz and Mick erect and fix the bay window frames. I will be surprised and delighted if this is completed this week. Right now I am somewhat cynical about the dates I am hearing for things to happen

While we wait for the concrete beams the team has been getting on with some of the ground work. We are running 4 land drains across the lowest points of the driveway prior to building up the level with crushed concrete. Right now, even with a small amount of rain, parts of the drive resemble a pond - the drains will remove water away from the drive and into the brook. We have also started work on the trench for the 3 phase electric cable; this goes through a narrow rooty area of the woods and is quite a fiddly job for Mick involving a lot of spadework.

Sean and Shamus the joiners who are supplying the windows and staircase came over from Ireland today to have a look at the site and talk about the detailing of joinery. I think we have a good design for the windows which make the window frames nice and chunky but not so big that the look like Lego windows, which I think some uPVC windows can do. Like all these things, a lay-person just won’t see just how much care and attention goes into the detailing of the design which has to allow for building regulations, security, weather proofing as well as aesthetics.

We spent a lot of time deliberating about the staircase. As you will see from the plans (if your eyes are that good!) the stairs follow the wall which is shaped like half a hexagon. The original plan was to have two straight sections of stairs with a landing in the middle. However, given that the house is very symmetrical and straight edged, I think that a curved staircase would soften the lines and provide a real focal point. Once again, I did not know what was involved. Because of building regulations, the size of the tread, riser and how many stairs you can have without a break are all subject to rules, and given the width of the area the stairs go into, it does not seem possible to create an uninterrupted curved staircase. Sean remarked that usually he is trying to fit an overambitious staircase design into a too small space – in this case it is the opposite. Sean, Shamus, Woodsy and I have all gone away to think about how we can get around this issue. I think I am pretty sold on the concept of a curved staircase – it’s just how we fit it in

25th September 2004

It is with enormous relief that I can finally tell you that the first floor beams have been delivered and installed. There was drama all the way with this, they were originally due to be installed by yesterday (Friday) lunchtime, but a couple of the lorries that were delivering them went astray, one finally turning up today. This caused a lot of indignation and some extra money because we had to have the crane and the specialist installers back today. I certainly won’t be paying for the overrun; this will have to be sorted out between the manufacturers and haulage company.  Geoff, Woodsy, Daz,  Mick and I got very wet sealing the gaps between the beams with lean mix this afternoon, but at last we have the first floor complete and ready to go up. Richard and his gang of brickies will be back on site from Monday to carry on laying blocks. Everyone is confident that we should get this part of the build done relatively quickly because there is only blockwork rather than brickwork to lay because the external elevations of the house are tiled from the first floor up.

While waiting for the beams, the team has made good progress on the new driveway. We elected to use graded hardcore rather than crushed concrete for the ballast to bring the drive up to the required level. It is easier to handle and considerably cheaper than crushed concrete. We have used 5 lorry loads so far and will probably need a further 5 to get to the required level. We will finish the surface off with granite scalping for now and will pave it when all the building work is finished. Mick is a real wizard with a digger and a rake, he has done a terrific job of landscaping the land on the road side of the driveway. When we have finished the drive and buried the electric cable, he will do the other side.

Talking of electric cable, we have finally had a quote back from SEB. Their charge for laying the 3 phase cable in our trench and doing the various tie-ins to the 3 phase and our 2 neighbour’s houses is £4500. This still seems extortionate to me, but given that the “3 extra posts” solution that they originally came up with was over £8000 when you include the 3 phase, it probably is not too bad. I still think that utilities are abusing their monopoly position by charging extortionate prices for this kind of work. It’s about time the regulators looked into it.

I am not back on site until next Friday because of work commitments, but I am hopeful that weather permitting we will make quick progress on the first floor block work. The delivery dates we have for the roof truss system is 2 weeks for the garage and 3 for the house. It would be great to be in a position to lift the trusses straight from the lorry into position. Maybe I am tempting fate, but we shall see.

10th October 2004

Today is my birthday and I am writing this while suffering with a bit of a fuzzy head after yesterday evening’s celebrations. I know there has been a bit of a gap since the last update, but I have been travelling a lot recently, and have to go to Seattle on another trip tomorrow.

Work has been on-going on the upper story block work, the inner skin of the flank walls are up to height and with the third lift of scaffolding tomorrow we should get the outer skin done by the end of the week. The inner load baring walls are almost up to height as are some of the other internal walls. I think there are probably 2 more weeks of brickie work left, weather permitting. Once challenge for them has been the chimney stacks which are time-consuming because of the mass and the internal flue kit.

The roof trusses for the main house are due this week, and with any luck the chippies will get the structure of the roof of the garage complete this week and will be able to start work on the eastern side of the house the following week. I have not met the chippies yet but Woodsy tells me the head man’s name is Thierry Henry, I will know next week if this is either a) a wind-up b) a horrible coincidence or c) that the French football genius has a side line as a carpenter.

The new driveway is now finished and looks great, it took about 9 lorry loads of hardcore and 3 of granite scalpings to get it up to the right level. It will probably take a similar amount to get the area in front of the house level when the building has finished. Bizarrely, last week the letter box was stolen! It was an unassuming black box on the gate post at the top of the drive, and was prised off the wall. I can only assume some skally was after the post inside it as the back of the box was left on the wall. It does make me a little nervous about security at the site though so I will be reviewing this with Woodsy.

24th October 2004

Apologies for the gap between this update and the last. I have been in the US on business for one of the last two weeks and working hard to catch up at work since. 

It feels like it has been raining since August. October has lived up to its reputation of being hurricane season too. It has rained pretty much continuously for the last couple of weeks with lots of high winds, and it’s been remarkable that any work on the house has got done at all.

On the 10th October I estimated that we had about 2 more weeks of brick laying. Well, I wasn’t far off. Woodsie reckons they will be finished by Wednesday this week and looking around today I think that is about right. All the inner flank walls are complete with the wooden wall plate installed. There are 6 more courses of block work to lay on the outer flank walls all round, and all of the interior walls are complete with the exception of the landing, main bathroom and airing cupboard. If the weather is kind and enough brickies turn up I suspect we will have the fourth and final lift of scaffolding on Thursday

There has been a bit of backward and forward with the truss company finalizing the design for the main roof trusses. Because the design is for attic trusses rather that the standard ones, the loadings and shape are more complex, this is compounded by the joints between what is essentially three roofs and there is a mixture of gables and hips. Woodsie now tells me that the trusses will be here next week, and Thierry (whose surname is not Henri so the answer was - “A wind-up”) the chippie estimates 6 weeks (!) to install the trusses. This sounds like a long time, but there are over 50 truss frames and numerous detail pieces. With any luck though we will be able to follow on with felt and batten on the parts Thierry finishes. The prospect of not being watertight before December is pretty daunting.

Four out of the five 200m heat pump ground loops are now installed, and it is a tribute to Geoff’s digger driving prowess that the trenches are perfectly uniform in depth and width and has avoided the root systems of the numerous trees that he has had to navigate between. However, all this groundwork in the current weather has turned the land around the house into something that must be reminiscent of the Somme. Every trench is flooded to some degree, those that have been open longest (such as the one that we dug weeks ago for Southern Electricity to lay their cable in) look more like canals. On top of that we have masses of standing water around the house – I assume this is because we have no topsoil at the moment and the exposed compacted sand subsoil is not doing a good job and soaking the water away. When the heat pump coils are all installed and the service trenches filled-in we will get Paul back for a couple of days with his big digger to level and grade all the land around the house ready for turfing and seeding

We finally have a water tight garage roof. Daz finished the felt and batten on Friday, and the floor and walls are drying out. We did have a bit of a problem last week when I painted 18 x 2m soffit boards with black stain rather than clear. But now that they are up I think black looks better – it’s a good job, because it would be an expensive and time-consuming job to paint or replace them.

I hope that we will finally finish the brickwork next week (with the exception of the chimney stacks), as this will be a key milestone. I have to say I am worried about the 6 week estimate to install the roof trusses, let’s hope that this is generous. The tiling work is now looming and the sheer scale of the job is beginning to become apparent. The house will consume about 50,000 tiles plus all the edges etc. Looking at the garage roof, I shudder to think how many kilometres of batten and counter batten will be needed. At least we have a couple of nail guns which certainly speeded up the garage battening. I plan to take a couple of weeks off to help with this and the tiling itself, by the time we get to this bit I expect winter woollies will be required.

31st October 2004

The clocks went back today, and although it was nice to have another hour in bed, these shorter days will put further pressure on our time-table. The weather last week was nothing short of abysmal. The whole site is water logged and with the colder days, is taking far longer to evaporate or drain away. I am surprised that as much work got done last week as it did. In the summer, if there was a sniff of rain, the brickies would run for cover or go home. But to their credit, despite the weather, the block work is now finished with the exception of the chimneys. It is always useful to sub-contract your trades on a fixed price, I think this is what encouraged our bickies to keep going despite the weather last week.

Well, the roof trusses did not turn up on Friday as arranged. Given Woodsy only approved the final design last Tuesday it is not surprising. I assume we had an over-enthusiastic salesman from the company. Anyway, they are now arriving Monday and Tuesday, and Thierry gets stuck in from Wednesday. I have talked through Thierry’s quote of 6 weeks to get the roof done with Woodsy, and like me he thinks this is generous, and hopefully with 4 chippies and 2 labourers we will get done in 4 weeks. On my journey between site and the rented accommodation, I drive pass a few building sites, one in particular started work in late July and are already installing the roof trusses. I appreciate that mass produced housing is rarely built to the same quality and tolerances but it does show our progress as somewhat pedestrian.

Geoff and Daz have been fighting with rain and muck in the back garden to get the last of the heat-pump collector pipe in the ground. We now have 5 loops totalling a kilometre snaking around the plot. The pipe itself is quite big and hard to handle, and it needs to be under pressure when installed. Compounded by the weather, this has been a pretty horrible job, but at least it is done now. The only thing left is to sink the big rectangular manhole that the collector manifold sits in and wait for Eco-Heatpumps to come and commission it in a few months time. Apart from the everlasting saga of the electrical cable, the only other ground works left is sinking the bio-digester tank and rainwater recovery system. Hopefully these will be onsite next week and we can get the in the ground and covered up as soon as possible.

6th November 2004

 Miracles do happen. SEB finally turned up and laid the cable into the trenches. It was not the most technically demanding job, but it’s done now. A different team will have to do the under ground jointing, another for the single phase tie-in, another for 3 phase and another team for the pole work, and of course I am paying an arm and leg for the privilege. Monopoly utilities are amazing institutions, they don’t seem to have to do anything efficiently, medieval working practices that were stamped out decades ago in business are still alive and well in this cosy corner of the economy. We don’t have any idea when the next team will turn up to do the next job, and apparently they will have to give our neighbours 2 weeks notice of a power shutdown, so I don’t expect it to be anytime soon. The main thing though is that all the trenches can now be back-filled. Mick built a couple of neat little plinths to support the ducting across the culvert and this will now allow us to tidy up part of the site and leave it be.

Geoff and Daz have finished the manhole for the collector manifold and back-filled all the trenches. We will let things settle down now before getting Paul back with a big digger to grade it in a few weeks time

All the trusses and other timber have now been delivered. There are 103 truss frames and numerous other bits of timber and framework. Thierry has been on site this week but starts in earnest on Monday with his team of 4 chippies and 2 labourers. He is still estimating 6 weeks to complete, but we hope that will shorten. Daz and Geoff will follow Thierry with felt and batten as he finishes sections of the trusses.

I am off to the US again tomorrow for a week. Hopefully a good bit of roof truss will be up by the time I get back.

14th November 2004

I got back from the US yesterday and went straight over to the site. I was very impressed to see the amount of progress that has been made last week, The roof is like a big “H” shape and already one leg of the H is finished and the middle bit about 50% done. When I mean by finished, is that all the truss frames are in place, the tops installed and noggins inserted between the joists. The extensions that form the sprocketed eaves are still being fabricated and will be installed later. This is all the more remarkable because only 2 of the 4 chippies who were promised actually turned up. Thierry the boss estimated 6 weeks with 4 chippies and two labourers, and by my reckoning they have got about 25% of the work done in 1 week and 2 tradesmen short. If we can win some time back on the roof that would be fantastic for the schedule, but also having the building watertight will finally allow it to start drying out. Many of the tricky bits have still to be done like forming the joints between the different sections of roof, forming a hip plus 3 dormers, but either way, for once we have got much further forward than we expected to in a week – a very rare experience on this project.

The wonderful SEB graced us with their presence last week too. This time is took 2 Land Rovers and a Van full of people to pull the cable through ducting into the house. Naturally it will require another team to do the next step and another after that, but at least we are able to fill in trenches that have lain open for months.

I haven’t spoken to Woodsie since getting back, so am not sure what’s in the plan for next week, I assume most of the focus will be on the roof, and if we can get the right number of chippies on site we may be able to claw back some of the slippage on this project.

20th November 2004

I haven’t been able to get to site all week because of work commitments, my first day was today in the freezing rain and sleet. Apparently the weather has been very good during this week on site until today. I rejected the builders’ intimation that my arrival and the weather are in some way linked.

The roof continues to progress well. One site of the “H” is now complete with sprockets, soffits and facia boards and is ready for felt and batten. I have been agonising over whether to use one of these multilayer insulating quilts over the rafters as opposed to the more traditional insulation sarking boards. I asked for the opinion of the experts on the Yahoo self-build forum and got pretty short shrift. Apparently, the claims made by these materials are over-egged and it is likely that using them would mean the roof is unlikely to achieve the thermal performance requirements of Part L of Building Regulations. So it looks like it’s the fuss and dust of traditional insulation. As my dad says, “If something sounds too good to be true it probably is”

I have got a week off work next week to help with the felt and battening. It was always my intention to help with the tiling, this was originally planned for August/September, but that is a distant memory and I have a lot of holiday to use up before the end of the year. I have got a feeling its going to be a damp and soggy experience but I am looking forward to getting stuck in.

30th November 2004

 I worked on site all last week and will do the same next week. It was interesting to spend an extended time like this on the project as you can really get a sense of progress and what the challenges are.

Most of the work at the moment is on the roof structure. The plan is to be watertight before Christmas and barring any unforeseen problems I think we will get there. One side of the “H” shape of the roof structure is complete now including noggins and the mounting plates for the internal ceilings. Daz, Geoff and I did the felt (Tyvex actually) and battening of the northern flank of this part of the roof. With a ridge height of 12m and a 62 degree pitch on the roof, it took some time for me to get used to scaling it. Daz and Geoff just walked up and down on the battens with ease; I got named “Spiderman” for holding on with at least one hand most of the time. As the week progressed, I became more confident and on Saturday walked 1000 tiles into position on the garage roof. I am beginning to realize that simply getting the tiles into place on the main roof is going to be as big a job as laying them, and potentially more strenuous. I can see me having the opportunity to become very familiar with the hips, gables and valleys of this roof over the coming weeks.

One of the junctions of the centre section of the roof is complete now, but as of lunchtime today we were waiting for the scaffolders to come and remove the scaffolding around the chimney stack on the western side of the house. Once that is out the way, the trusses can be moved into place. The gable and hip that forms each end of this part of the roof are complete, so I expect that the trusses will be in place within a day or two of the scaffolding being taken down. Thierry and Nick, our chippies have been doing a great job with the help of Daz, Mick and Geoff, and seem to be enjoying the challenge. The roof is not a standard design and much if it has to be formed on site such as the hips.The most interesting bits are the dormer style roof elements that form the top of the three full height bay windows. One of these at the real joins the main roof on its pitch, another in a hip structure and another at a gable end. They have been quite tricky to form, but the result looks great, particularly now one has been covered with felt and batten. Our chippies reckon there is another couple of weeks work on the roof to get it completely finished, and with Daz and Geoff following up with the felt and batten, watertight before Christmas does seem feasible. Famous last words …

20th December 2004

 The last couple of weeks have been spent on the roof pretty much exclusively. The main truss frames take a relatively short time to position, but it is the bracing and detailing that then take up all the time. Each frame needs to be braced laterally with its neighbours and diagonally, Jiffy hangers and brackets need to be set at the wall plate level and noggins to keep the joists properly spaced. Between each joist on the roof plate I have put in pieces of 4 x 1 which will keep the ceiling plasterboard nice and level (although that kind of interior finishing is a distant dream right now). What does add time to the roof carcass is fitting all the timber beams that form the sproketed eves. These are lengths of wood of the same bulk as the trusses which are attached to the rafters at an angle of 32° and protrude out from the level of the walls by 40cm. This provides the distinct form of the roof reminiscent of the Lutyens style. This is quite labour intensive as every piece has to be cut, formed and attached by hand, but Thierry and Nick have zipped through them. The last job on the roof carcass has been attaching the soffet and facia boards, this has proved a little tricky in places because of the overhang getting in the way of the scaffolding, so we have had to reset that a number of times.

Now that roof carcass is finished and that the felting and battening will be complete by today, I have to say I am delighted with the result. Some of the carpentry is a real work of art, particularly all the hand-formed stuff that went into the dormer roofs on the bays. The roof space inside is terrific, I would recommend that anyone doing a self-build use and attic truss system rather than conventional trusses even if you don’t know what to use the extra space for (like me). The incremental cost and effort is small but the space gain in my case is about 70% of the volume of the first floor again.

Other activity recently has been on the second chimney stack. Wayne and Bob have been in doing a couple of lifts, the scaffolders are in today to do what we hope will be the final lift. We will have reached another major milestone in that all the brickwork is complete (apart from the sunroom that can’t be done before the scaffolding comes down). 

Daz made a start on tiling the garage roof last week, and it looks great. I think the plan is for Geoff and Daz to crack on with that this week and between Christmas and New Year. The upstairs window frames are due in the second week of January and we will arrange for the bulk of the roof times to come the week after. I am hoping that we can get the majority of the tiling done by end of February so that we can strike the scaffolding. 

8th January 2005

Things have been very slow over the Christmas and New Year Period, not only are lots of people off on holiday, but many business (including builders merchants) shut down for 2 complete weeks.

With the roof watertight much of the focus of work has moved inside. As of today we have finished all the chasing of the electrical socked boxes and switches. I brought a Ferm Chasing tool and an Armeg electrical box cutter for this task, and while dusty and noisy, everyone agreed that is was about 3 times as quick using these tools than the usual drill, hammer and chisel method. 

Next week, Geoff will start mounting the back boxes in preparation for the electrical fist-fit. We are using Clipsal C-Bus for lighting control which required each group of lights that are to be switched or dimmed to be wired back to a system in the basement. This may seem onerous, but with a maximum of 3 zones per room (and most with 1) it should be relatively straight forward. The switches and other input modules with C-Bus are simply daisy-chained together with Cat5e cable. Dean Barret from Rolec is doing the C-Bus design for us which should be ready this week.

One headache that we are still thinking through is control for the under floor heating system. I had a quote from one company for the control equipment which came in at almost two and a half times the cost of all the under floor heating pipe, manifolds and sundries. This is outrageous and a non-starter as far as my budget is concerned. There seems to be various schools of thought on UFH control. One UFH supplier suggested that we rely on the weather compensating system on the heat-pump to raise and lower the temperature of the overall system and then regulating each zone by hand cranking the manifold zone valves. There are others that swear by room thermostats, and there is the sensor and central control supporters.

I am not in favour of hand tuning the system, I could imagine it would take ages to get balanced and then would need changing again when the weather gets colder or warmer. I am not particularly keen on lots of room thermostats, and given the relatively slow response of UFH a centrally controlled system linked to sensors seems like the best option. Apart from the super expensive system I mention above I am still trying to find other options, any suggestions gratefully received. (Stop press! - I think I have found a solution - more soon)

Now that the holidays are over, we are going to have a bit of a push to get the area around the house sorted out. Paul will be returning with his trusty digger and we will bring in lots of hardcore to level the hard landscaping in front of the house.  Peter the Tree Surgeon will also be making an appearance to prune back some of the perimeter trees and to give the large oak in the back garden a much needed tidy up.

Daz has been in hospital this week for an operation and will be recuperating next week at home. Tiling of the garage and then the main roof will start in earnest on his return to fitness.

22nd January 2005

We have made some reasonable progress this past week, both inside and outside the house. As I mentioned in an earlier update I have been struggling with Under Floor Heating (UFH) control. As I said am not in favour of the “balanced” approach – reliant on the weather compensating system on the heat-pump and hand controls. I can imagine if only one person occupied the house, this would work. In reality, different people like different temperatures, and the thought of continually adjusting zone valves makes little sense to me.

I have therefore decided to go the room thermostat route and will be buying it from a company called Heatmiser. Among their range is a slim digital roomstat with an attractive light blue backlit display. These are connected by Cat5 to a zone controller and manifold actuators. The controllers are networked together again by Cat5 and can be managed by a master panel or, in the near future a PC. I really like the system and Heatmiser are great to deal with and the complete system is one tenth of the price of the other system I looked at. We have cut boxes and channels for 16 thermostats. We are just waiting for confirmation of the manifold make and sizes so that we can order the appropriate valves and actuators from Heatmiser.

Geoff has been cracking on with the catenary cable grid. This is a steel wire system that sits a few centemeters off the concrete first floor beams and is used to attach the mains and data cables to stopping them resting on the downstairs ceiling. Geoff is a perfectionist so we have beautifully spaced inner (data) and outer (mains) grids in every downstairs room, it’s a shame that it will all be covered in by the ceiling and never see the light of day.

Daz is fit again and has got stuck into the garage roof with the help or Peter. The tiles look fantastic, and empasise the sproketed eaves. They really look good with the bricks and instantly age the building. The Tudor handmade tiles we are using are not cheap but being handmade, every one is subtly different (and some not to subtle) they are bowed very slightly and sit really well on top of each other. Daz really pays attention to detail on the roof as can be seen on the “mucking in the bonnets” – that’s locking the tiles on the corners with mortar to you and me. Between them Daz and Peter have done one hip and one long side plus 2 corners in 4 days, so I expect they will have the garage roof finished by next Friday. Woodsy will order the tiles for the main roof on Monday which will give us 2 weeks to make enough space for the 60 odd pallets of tile that will be needed for the main roof.

Mick and Paul have been working on the area in front of the house in preparation for levelling. We are running a soil pipe from the garage to the septic tank and the route is against the natural slope of the land, so in order to achieve the right “fall” they have sunk a deep concrete ring manhole by the septic tank location and excavated a slowly rising trench the shortest distance to the garage. This goes across the new driveway so to conform to building regulations will have to be set in concrete in that area. Digging deep holes this time of year is no fun as they get full of water very quickly, and freezing water down your wellies first thing in the morning does tend to ruin your day.

The windows arrive from Ireland tomorrow afternoon and are due onsite on Monday. I am really looking forward to seeing the. Thierry and Nick are back from Tuesday to fit them.

 Last weekend I drew up a spreadsheet for all the electrical stuff we have to make decisions and purchase. This includes 200 50watt ELV downlighters, Cat5, speaker and mains cable, the CBus equipment, an integrated gate entry system etc. I location the various makes and models and a few suppliers for each item and Woodsy called them all for trade prices. So far we have saved over £2,000 on the retail prices, so it is a very worthwhile exercise.

We have also had a kitchen designer onsite and we are waiting with anticipation to see the proposed design. The kitchen has been the subject of lots of heated discussion – while the space is quite large, the position of the Aga must be on the outside wall, which is proving to be tricky when trying to balance the layout. The kitchen is the heart of the house these days, and I think it is essential to get it right. I will update you on the results from the designer next week.

29th January 2005

A bit of a milestone today, the scaffolding has come down from the garage. I think that the roof looks fantastic. Daz and Peter have done a superb job, particularly the bonnets and ridge. The roof looks like it’s been standing for 100 years, which is just the look we wanted.

The main reason to take the scaffolding down today way to make a clear space for the aco-drain that runs along the front of the garage. There will be a very slight fall across the hard standing in front of the house towards this drain that will in turn drain into the brook. Mick and Paul are now pretty much ready for the hardcore that will be delivered on Monday. With any luck by the end if the week we will have the area in front of the house up to the right level and properly drained, this will be a good job as we expect the main roof tiles next Friday.There are 50 pallets of plain tiles and probably another 15 of bonnets, valleys, ridges and specials. The tiles are not supposed to be stacked so they are likely to take up an awful lot of space until we get them up onto the roof.

The windows turned up last Monday and Thierry and Nick are back on site fitting them. I am absolutely delighted with the windows, the wood looks terrific and the quality of joinery is first class. The esplanades and internals are all fitted and ready for handles after they are installed. The addition of windows really begins to make the place look like less of a building site and more of a house. The bay widows are due in a couple of weeks, and I think they will transform the look of the place. All the window boards are onsite, and a new member of the team, “H” (picture to follow) has been treating them.

We are well into the electrical first-fix now, most of the mains cable is in place and we will put the data and coax next week. There are 20 data wall plates each with 3 lines of shielded CAT5e cable and one line Abitana Omnicable. This is a hybrid cable with 3 pairs for normal shielded Cat5e with another pair of Cat7 behind an inner shield. This will allow us to run coax speed down this pair if needs be, eliminating the need for stuffing a dedicated coax cable to each wall plate. 

Geoff is not a happy bunny with the cables. Of all the colours it could be, we have 4km of grey cat5 and the Omnicable is white. The 2 amp cable we are running for lighting is white and the mains flex grey! The CBus control cable is a Cat5e with mains rated insulation, and it’s pink to distinguish it from other cable, which is a good idea. The only problem is that the Cinemax speaker cable that arrived yesterday is pink too! At least the coax from the satellite dish and aerial is black!  We are terminating all the cables in a room in the basement (Node Zero as such places are often called), and I was expecting it to be a colourful affair, but with the exception of the pink, everything will be a bit monochromatic.

DSC Alarms are in on Tuesday to do the first fix of their system. Being a bit of a home automation freak, I originally envisaged using a Comfort Home Comtrols system to do the alarm and other tasks, but in order to get NACOSS approval, which is a stipulation of my insurance policy, the system must be installed and maintained by a specialist and I can’t start meddling with it. The DSC system is pretty sophisticated, but I will use some of the Comfort features to provide further security such as gate and CCTV control.

As I mention in the page about Smart Homes, I plan to have whole house audio and video distribution. I have done loads of research and think I have come up with a neat solution using basic PCs rack mounted in Node Zero feeding screens across the Cat5e cabling, The PCs will run Microsoft Windows Media Center Edition 2005, which I have just started playing with and looks very promising. I will provide an update on this as I get it all finalized.

I am using Kef Soundlight ceiling mounted speakers, I like these because they are the same size as minispot down lighters, and there is a subwoofer to provide a good range. The purists will say that ceiling speakers are never as good as conventional ones, and I expect that is true, but I want to get the clutter out of rooms, and eliminate wires trailing around. The ceiling speakers are there for background music and TV, if somebody wants to go and listen properly to something, I will have my conventional hi-fi system in the cinema room.

6th February 2005

A steady week this past week, we have been making good progress with the data cables, although I underestimated on the Abitana Omnicable and the Clipsal control cable too, hopefully some more will turn up tomorrow to allow Geoff to crack on.

The plasterers start tomorrow with their “tacking”, this is the art of fixing plasterboard ceilings. It is an amazing skill to be able to heft an 8 x 4 sheet of plasterboard above your head and positioning the “dead man” (a kind of prop) to support it while tacking it to the ceiling joists. As everyone who has ever experienced it knows, plastering is a dusty, dirty, wet, smelly and messy job, and the plan is to get them in and out as quickly as possible. We are ready for the upstairs walls and ceilings now, and are about a week away from the downstairs walls. The ceiling is a little trickier downstairs as it has to be suspended from the concrete first floor beams. All the electrical work in the downstairs ceiling void has to be right as the ceilings are installed because unlike the upstairs, there is no access from above.

Thierry and Nick have pretty much all the windows and window boards installed now and they look very good. We will be encasing the window boards in hardboard and bubble rap to protect them from tools, coffee cups and other assorted detritus that will inevitably be dropped or spilt on them by the succession of trades that will now pass through the house.

Yesterday we took advantage of the lack of floorboards in the attic to lift the 180 sheets of plasterboard that will go on the inside of the roof carcass up into the attic. It was much easier to pass them through the gaps in the joists than walk each one up the stairs. Having said that, it was awkward, back breaking work and everyone was happy to get it finished.

The Comfort and Clipsal CBus equipment arrived last week, and I have taken it offsite for safe keeping. I have set up a test jig for the CBus system and have been playing with it. I would recommend to anyone building a place to consider a system like CBus for lighting control. It is infinitely easier to wire than conventional lighting switching, it keeps mains electricity away from switch plates and the like, and is adaptable and flexible. There area number of these systems on the market, some are distributed, others like Clipsal CBus are centralized, and have all the outputs (i.e. lighting circuits) running to a din-rail panel. The inputs (i.e. switches and sensors) are daisy-chained together using Cat5. Obviously things like the switch plates are considerably more expensive than conventional ones, but the flexibility is fantastic. Consider the hallway/landing – in this house there are 8 switches in various places. If you wanted to be able to switch all the hall/landing lights on and off at any of those switches, it would be a nightmare of linking straps using conventional wiring and switching. Equally, if after a few months in a house, you found yourself forgetting to switch all the downstairs lights off after coming to bed (and setting the night alarm), and wanted to do it from the switch by your bed – how would achieve that? Pretty much impossible using a conventional system, but a breeze with CBus. And changing it again a week later is as simple again. I chose Clipsal Cbus for its centralized architecture but there are other systems just as capable from Polaron, Lutron and others. This is the future for domestic lighting control and should be considered in any new build.

I have also been playing about with the Comfort Home Control system that will control the gate opening. This is a little less easy to get to grips with as it primarily and intruder alarm system, but it has many other features such as door entry, CCTV control and telephone management that I will be using. One downside though is that because of the distance between the gate and where the comfort controller will be (over 150m) I have to use special coax and control cable which is not cheap.

Mick and Paul have finished levelling a large part of the hard standing in front of the house in readiness for the arrival of the roof tiles. These will now be definitely here on Tuesday; I have realized however that the word “definitely” has no meaning in the building trade other than to placate anxious clients. So I will wait and see what actually does arrive on Tuesday. Woodsy had had the temerity to take himself off skiing this past week, so I expect his “to-do” list is going to be pretty long tomorrow morning.

Peter has been back with his chainsaws and given the oak in the back garden a haircut in readiness for the spring. He hasn’t finished yet but already the tree looks taller, more demure and a lot less scruffy.

12th February 2005

The plasterers were here for 3 days this week fixing the plasterboard ceilings on the first floor. All the guff I said above about one plasterer and a “dead man” hefting 8x4 boards into place turned out to be nonsense. 4  blokes turned up and used platforms, ladders and brute force. It was quite amusing to watch them crowded under a single sheet wielding nail guns and hammers. They cracked it in three days and have done a great job. I was warned it was messy, but didn’t expect quite the chaos plaster boarding creates with dust off cuts and noise (Virgin Radio at full blast). Still they are a nice bunch of guys and take pride in their work. They are back on Wednesday next week to start plastering the walls upstairs. I am told that if I think plaster board is messy, wait until they turn up with wet plaster – I can’t wait!

The first of three lorry-loads of roof tiles turned up on Thursday, 16,000 tiles and 4 palettes of assorted extras. The other 2 loads are due on Monday or Tuesday this coming week. Peter has been preparing the ground on the flanks of the building for fork lift access. It will be a big push next week to get all the tiles up onto the roof and safety. We are using Tudor hand made clay tiles and they are pretty fragile, so stacked on the roof is probably the safest place for them. Once up there, Daz and Peter will start laying them. This is going to take several weeks to complete, given the sheer size of the roof area and the number of ridges corners and valleys to do. When the roof is tiled, we then move onto hanging the same tiles vertically on the first floor outer walls. We need to have the roof complete before starting this as the scaffolding will be in the way. 

One job that I am not relishing nest week is fitting the aerial mast to the main chimney stack. In order to “future proof” (ie avoid having to get up there again, I am fitting an 80cm satellite dish with a 4 way LMB, a DAB antenna, an FM radio antennae and a TV aerial capable of receiving analogue and digital terrestrial transmissions. Even though the Freeview website says it can’t be picked up in this area, I assume it will happen before 2012 when apparently analogue TV broadcasting will stop. 

I am already known as “Spiderman” for my strange method of climbing and holding on the roof, so wielding a 12ft antenna mast and big dishes and aerials is not exactly the thing I am looking forward to most. I am hopeful that when he stops laughing Daz (Gravity Boy) Collier will help out.

One of the last ground works jobs has now been started and that is excavating the holes for the rain water recovery system storage tank and the septic tank (or bio-digester as it is ominously called).  Mick and Peter have been hard at this all last week with digger and dumper, and have got very muddy in the process. I am not sure exactly when the tanks will be turning up, but I expect they can’t come too soon for both of them.

20th February 2005

Another week of steady progress last week. The plasterers have been hard at work all week and now have all of the upstairs ceilings complete. The effect is pretty interesting; I expected that plastering would have made the rooms look smaller, but in fact it is the opposite. I think that having a view that is uninterrupted by joists or plasterboard joints provides the feeling of size.

We are not ready for the plasterers downstairs yet so we they will start the walls in the upstairs from tomorrow. It is impressive watching them work; they are very quick but still achieve a perfectly smooth and even finish.

Thierry and Nick have finished the last of the door linings and have been working in the loft. We are using a heat recovery ventilation system throughout the house and are locating the two (huge) heat exchanger pumps in the loft. Given the truss system we used in the loft and the need for structural integrity in such a large and loaded (with tiles) roof, we do not plan to cut multiple large slots in the joists to allow the ventilation ducting to travel through them. Instead Thierry and Nick are installing 6x2 “counter joists” across the whole loft that will contain the ventilation ducting below a false floor and avoid having to cut into the main joists. We have a lot of headroom in the loft so this won’t make any material difference to it as a usable space. Given the size of the system in the house, the heat recovery ventilation is remarkably economic in both its capital costs and running. It also removes the need for trickle-vents in windows and (according to the blurb) eliminates condensation, smells and reduces pollen circulation. With the counter-joists, installation should not prove too taxing either. We brought this, along with a central vacuum system from Villavent, who have been friendly and responsive throughout the design process. The only issue we have at the moment is the large and ugly vents that have to go into the roof. They are a strange burnt orange colour which will look awful with our tiles, so I expect they will get spray painted black before being installed.

Talking about the roof, we now have two out of the three lorry loads of tiles on site. The whole team have been mucking in to get then stacked-out of the roof and have got it just about half done. It will probably take another week of graft to get all that is needed up there ready for Daz and Peter to start laying. 

We have finally agreed on guttering – we are using a Swedish product from a company called Lindab. It is manufactured from powder coated galvanised steel and we have gone for black. I quite liked the idea of cast iron for guttering, but it is extraordinarily expensive for the amount we need and has to be cared-for. Plastic on the other hand looks like, … well plastic! The Lindab product is guaranteed maintenance free for 15 years and I think will look fantastic. More on this when it arrives on site.

Daz. Geoff and I spent all day yesterday getting the aerials mounted and commissioned.  We had a number of problems to overcome. First the “u” bolts that were supplied to fit the pole to the mounting brackets were too small – this was rectified by Woodsy purchasing some correct size ones. Then of course the new U bolts wouldn’t fit in the holes in the brackets so new holes had to be re-drilled. The wire that was provided in the chimney kit was about 2 ft too short to go around our stack. This was infuriating as a few more feet of wire on the length supplied would have been a few pence, and while our chimney is big, it certainly is not out of the ordinary. Fortunately we had a lot of the stainless steel caternary wire left from the electrical first fix which proved a suitable substitute. The next challenge was that the arm on the chimney mounting kits did not project the pole far enough away from the chimney to stop it chafing on the decorative step-out at the top of the stack, so we utilized plastic packing strips to push the brackets out about 10mm.

We finally overcame these various challenges and got the 12 ft mast up complete with Analogue FM, DAB and digital TV antennae. Once fixed into place we added the satellite dish. With some help from the UKHA list on Yahoo! I found a web site that provided the bearing of my nearest terrestrial TV transmitter and pointed the aerials at that and with the help of a nifty little “satellite finder” I brought on eBay I found and tuned into the Sky satellite broadcast. To my amazement, the picture on both the terrestrial and satellite is spot on. The only problem was that the CD of “useful” utilities that came with the satellite finder box also had a virus on board which I spent an hour this morning eradicating it from my PC.

One other headache we have at the moment is with the basement. I have not commented about this here yet as we are in discussions with the basement manufacturer. This is beginning to hold up progress on the project, particularly on the m&e side. I am hopeful of some constructive proposals from the basement manufacturer during this coming week and will report progress on my next update.

27th February 2005

During the last week, most of the glazing has been installed for the upstairs windows, and I am very pleased with the outcome. We have used real leading on the windows but in a larger grid than is usually seen, There we some who expressed a concern that it wouldn’t look right, but now installed, everyone agrees that the effect is just right, making the windows look traditional and contemporary at the same time. One effect that I am particularly pleased with is using black rather than the usual silver for the spacer around the edge of the air gap between the two panes of glass. This ties in nicely with the leading and also makes the windows look less “brand new”.

The plasterers have been making good progress again last week. They have now done most of the upstairs rooms on the northern flank of the house and will be moving to the southern side next week. The rooms all look great, they look more spacious and proportional and all the various wiring channels for switching, thermostats, mains and the like have disappeared into the walls.

All of the roof tiles have now arrived on site. The team spent 3 very hard days in the bitter cold last week loading them out onto the roof. They are all ready to go now and Daz and Peter will get cracking from tomorrow (weather permitting). The plan is to complete one flank at a time and lower the scaffolding down a lift as soon as it’s ready so that we can get on with final painting of soffits and fascias, installing of the rain water goods and sundries like lighting plus getting the vertical tiling underway. We still have 16 pallets of tiles sitting on the ground, and the sooner they are safely on the walls the better.

With the weather being so bad this last week much of the work has moved indoors. Geoff has been getting on with installing the heat recovery ventilation system. This has turned out to be pretty challenging because of the sheer size of the ducting and its insulation. There are numerous straights, bends, junctions and brackets to go in, and it’s a like trying to assemble an Airfix kit but on a full size scale and in cramped and precarious conditions. The trick is not to put your foot through the plasterboard (and skimmed) ceiling below. Something that Woodsy failed to do yesterday (see picture). We have decided that he is not allowed onsite unless accompanied by a responsible adult (in short supply on this project!)

The design for the under floor heating finally arrived this week. It is a pretty massive system given the size of the house but also the need to space the UFH coils 100mm apart rather than the usual 200. This is because the ground source heat pump we are using for heating and hot water operates at a lower temperature than a normal boiler so we need more pipe to radiate the right amount of heat.  Looking at the drawings it struck me just how much weight of water will be in the system and how that would affect floor loadings. Fortunately we are using concrete beams for the first floor and the loading calculations for them included and adjustment for the heating system.

Given the complexity and scale of the system, we have contracted the supplier to do the installation and commissioning of the UFH system. I expect that to create considerable saving in time compared to us doing the install and a lower likelihood of damage or leakage. We now have the specifications of the loops (all 52 of them) and manifolds so will be ordering the appropriate control equipment from Heatmiser.

There are a number of decisions that have to be finalized over the next week or so, things like choices for skirting, architrave and coving, what floor covering to use in the hall, kitchen and bathrooms. What sanitary ware to using in the bathrooms we will finish before moving back, final design for the staircase, internal and external doors, and the list goes on. We are now only a few months from being able to move back in and its this detailing decisions that are going to be needing attention. Good job that I am off to the US on business next week then!

I mentioned last week that I would provide an update on the basement issues. I am going to hold off on this for now as discussions with the manufacturer are at a sensitive stage. I will update when I can.

5th March 2005

I only got back from the US yesterday afternoon so I have not had too much time to get up to date on the build. We are making steady progress, if not spectacular, the weather has not helped and there are one or two absentees from the usual team.

The plasterers have made good progress and are pretty much finished upstairs. There are still one or two areas to go such as the stairs leading to the loft and the family bathroom. In all the bathrooms we are just finishing with the bonding coat of plaster because they are likely to be tiled later on. Having the plasterers in is a messy and disruptive job, but it is well worth getting it over in one hit. I was thinking about leaving some rooms unplastered until a later date, but glad I was persuaded not to do that as the dust and mess has to be seen to be believed. Having said all that, I am very impressed with the workmanship, every wall is flat and smooth.

The bay windows arrived from Ireland during the week ad Thierry and Nick have done about half of the first bay. There is a steel frame which the windows sit into and when they are all in place a wooden capping piece is fixed over the steel. The flush fitting of the capping makes the frames look like solid timber, however this way is stronger, less prone to movement and an awful lot cheaper that having all wooden frames. The frame for the side door has also been installed – it has two panels each side for glass. This will help light the corridor that this door leads into.

Daz has made a start on the roof, he has completed the hip on the front eastern side of the roof and it looks great. Daz is about to become a Dad for the first time any day now, so we don’t expect to see him for at least a week or two though.

Meanwhile Geoff has been finishing the last of the chasing and wiring downstairs in readiness for plastering. When you tot it up, there is an astonishing amount of cable what with Cat5, mains, lighting, CBus signal, alarm, aerial, CCTV and audio – all of it is terminated in the basement and where appropriate chased into conduit in the walls. This has been a huge task, but Geoff has fastidiously marked every cable in the basement so wiring up should be labour intensive, but not too complex.

We are beginning to look more at finishing options now, particularly flooring and bathroom fittings. Our move-in plan is to have the kitchen, breakfast room, sun room, master bedroom, family bathroom and the girls’ bedrooms ready for moving in. The rest we will do over a period of time. We have the kitchen units and appliances sorted, and flooring for the hall and kitchen. So this week we will be off to the Ideal Home exhibition to try and bag some bargain flooring. With the under floor heating you have to make sure that the floor covering does not insulate the heat too much, so carpets must have a TOG value of less that 1.5 (including underlay). Stone is expensive to buy and lay, and although we will use stone in the hall, kitchen and bathrooms, we are looking at wood for most of the other floors. Again with under floor heating, solid wood must be carefully selected as it is prone to movement with heat. Laminate is the most stable option although a good compromise is engineered wood which is effectively chipboard (or another solid wood composite) with a 4-7mm real wood veneer glued to it. This provides the look and feel of solid wood without the under floor heating issues.

21st March 2005

Sorry for the delay since my last update, I have been back to the US again since 5th March and only got back last Friday.

Work has been steady for the last couple of weeks – there hasn’t been spectacular moves forward, just ploughing through loads of jobs such as roofing and plastering.

Nick, one of our chippies turned out to be a secret roofer on the side and finished the front hip bonnets in Daz’s absence – this allowed Peter and Paul to crack on with the tiling on the long northern flank. This is now complete and with Daz back on the job the rear gable is now complete too. Daz is focussing on doing all the valleys, hips and fiddly bits of the tiling to allow the others to get the long runs in. There is still a few weeks to go on the roof and then there is the vertical tiling on the upper walls too. While there are less fussy bits on the vertical tiles, everyone has to be nailed, and that is a delicate job with these fragile clay tiles.

The plasterers have completed the upper floor now including the coving in the upstairs bedrooms. They are back after Easter to start the ground floor so there is a bit of a scramble to get everything complete for them. The living room has a flush fireplace and we are going to build a false chimney breast with an inset to accommodate a flat Plasma or LCD screen (when I can afford one). But in order to get the size and proportions right we need to have the mantel and fire-surround we ordered on-site, After chasing we have a delivery for this Wednesday so we hopefully can get it designed and built before the plasterers need access.

Geoff has completed the central vacuum piping upstairs and has got all the floor insulation installed ready for the under floor heating installers who start next Tuesday. As I mentioned earlier in this journal, because we are using a heat-pump as the heating source we have to use a smaller distance between the heating pipes (100mm instead of the usual 200mm). There are over 50 loops, 6km of pipe and 8 manifolds. Because of the size of the system we have decided to leave it to the experts to do the installation. Geoff and the guys have plenty more to get on with inside on wiring and the installation of the heat recovery ventilation system.

Thierry and Nick have got the other rear bay window almost installed, and it looks great. I am really pleased with all the windows on the house the design and quality is really good and they are very well installed. 

Mick is back on site now and getting on with some of the outstanding groundwork. He has been grading the land that was disturbed by the heat pump coil installation, and it is looking almost as good as it originally was. 

During the last couple of weeks we went to visit the Ideal Home Show in London. Jo got to choose her dream bathroom suite, and I have to say it is very nice and will blend in with the modern/contempary look we want for the interior. We also got a couple of vanity units for the downstairs loos and a great deal on laminate floors for some of the bedrooms, the study, lounge and dining room. Doing stuff like choosing bathroom suites really begins to make this whole thing begin to feel real at last, a home rather than a building project. Lots of people are telling me how much decorating there is to do – that is true, but I would rather be decorating than digging foundations or laying the floor slab – it says that we are far nearer the end than the beginning.

3rd April 2005

I have left a bit of a gap since the last update because at the moment there is little new going on. We will hopefully be back up to strength after the Easter break tomorrow and should get the plastering completed this coming week. All the rooms are now done with the exception of the kitchen, breakfast room, dining room and hall, plus the larder and boot room.

The plaster (and architrave) really make the rooms look bright (the grey concrete blocks seemed to just suck the light away). We are having suspended plasterboard ceilings downstairs, and with no access from above have to make sure that all the wiring is in place. It’s not just for the lighting – data, sensors, alarm, speaker and the Clipsal control cable all have to be in place. We have the various loudspeakers that will be mounted in the ceilings ready to go and will place an order for the LV halogen and mini fluorescent down lighters we are using this week. A requirement of the Building Regulations (Part L1) is to have a proportion of lighting in a house that uses low-energy lamps. This usually means fluorescent, and compared to the various halogens fittings, the majority of the fluorescent fittings I can find are rather dated. I have though located a supplier of miniature fluorescent lamps and fittings that are the same style and dimensions as a halogen low-voltage mini spot – hopefully with these we can keep a consistent look to the lighting I the house (where we want to!).

Good progress is being made on the roof by Daz, Nick, Peter and Paul. We are about two-thrids of the way around with a lot of the tricky bits done. I am delighted with the look of the roof, the style is very “arts and crafts” with a 52 degree pitch and the sproketed eaves, and the swoop down to first floor level on the front elevation is (at least according to this month’s “Home Building & Renovating” magazine article) a trade mark of properties built I this style. The Tudor tiles make the roof look old and slightly rustic and helps the house blend better into its surroundings. The whole roof project has been lengthy and expensive but as it takes shape it is obvious that it will be the outstanding feature of the house.

One part of the project that has been neglected so far is the sun-room on the southern flank of the house. There is a gaping hole in the breakfast room that currently leads nowhere. The steel frame for the sunroom is being fabricated at the moment and should be on site later this week.  It is a relatively simple structure and hopefully will not take long to erect, roof and clad.

Also arriving this week is the Lindab guttering system. This is made from galvanised pressed steel that has a black powder coat. It has a 15 year maintenance free guarantee, and certainly looks good in the brochure. I am looking forward to seeing it on the house. The plan is to give the soffit and facia one more coat of paint and fix the guttering before dropping the scaffolding down one lift. We can’t completely remove the scaffolding until all the vertical tiles are hung.

Eco-Hometec are due onsite on Tuesday to start installing the under floor heating on the first floor. All the insulation is in place and fixed and the plasterers will apply screed once the UFH is in and pressure tested. It would be great to get the system up and running to help dry out the house, but we have been unable to install the heat pump so far because of the basement not being ready. A contractor is working down there at the moment and I have my fingers crossed that it will be ready for work to start in the basement next week.

Woodsy showed me the first engineering drawings of the staircase yesterday and it looks very impressive. We are going for a very curvy, organic design of stairs to counteract the quite geometric and square shape of the interior of the house. I am not one for fussy newels, spindles and balustrades on staircases, so we are going for chunky and simple style in oak and using wrought iron frame inserts in lieu of lots of spindles. I hope that the staircase is the main feature of the interior of the house.

16th April 2005

We have had a pretty good two weeks, partly by good planning, partly luck. Eco-Hometec turned up last Tuesday and sped through the installation of the Under Floor Heating upstairs. It was installed, linked up and pressure tested in about 2 and a half days. This is good going considering there were only two guys who installed 2 pallets of red plastic (egg box) sheets and about 3km of pipe work, and four manifolds. Eco Hometec are based in Northern England so their fitters were staying in digs, I expect they work extra hard to keep nights away from home to a minimum.

What was a real stroke of luck though was that Chris The Plasterers’ floor screeder, Paul was available to work over last weekend. The under floor heating is buried under a thick layer of concrete screed that is mixed with fibres. This creates a solid, perfectly flat surface with little cracking (thanks to the fibre). Screed is the most effective covering for under floor heating as it conducts heat efficiently and evenly.

It was very impressive to watch Paul and Ashley at work on the screed. Ashley mixes sand, cement and fibre on a special mixing crucible connected to a diesel compressor pump. When it is mixed the screed gets pumped along a 6” diameter flexible tube into the room to and out of the end on a kind of metal stand with a spout in the middle. When it’s pumping, this thing jumps around like a bucking bronco, and spews great gouts of screed out. With the aid of a good eye, a plum line on the walls and years of experience, Paul spreads and flattens the screed out.

I haven’t seen two guys work quite so hard as these screeders, especially Ashley who doesn’t look a day over sixteen but mixed and pumped 40 tonnes of sand and numerous bags of screeding cement.

The net result is that the upstairs is pretty much ready for flooring now although it’s prudent to leave the screed for about 4-5 weeks to dry out completely. It is fine to walk (and work on) after 2 days though, and a cover of plastic sheeting help it sweat out the moisture.

This week most of the attention has been on the roof and some electrical and plumbing first fix. Daz and co have finished the large southern flank of the roof and all the detailing on the gable end and bay dormer roof at the front of the house. All that is left now is the long “cat-slide” roof from the ridge down to the front door porch. There are 2 roof lights and another dormer to tile in on this roof though, plus the tricky joints where the sproketed angles come together in the valleys. Everyone is confident that the roof will be finished by next weekend. This is a milestone we will certainly celebrate.

The Lindab guttering did not turn up last week as arranged; the new date we have is this Tuesday. Thierry and Nick will get stuck in to that as soon as it arrives as there is a need to come down one lift on the scaffolding to access the upper walls for vertical tiling.

We are being joined by Geoff’s brother and his team next week. They will be focussing on the block work in the basement (finally watertight and rendered thank goodness), the chimney breast in the lounge and the island in the kitchen (bock-work ends with steel box section frame on the top). We are also having a “roman bath” in the family bathroom – essentially this is a bath that is formed out of blocks and tanked, a little like a very small swimming pool. It is a specialist job to tank it, but the block work is pretty standard stuff. It’s a great opportunity to add some “Wow factor” while solving a problem with the awkward shape of one end of the bathroom.  Geoff’s brother’s team will do the block work and a specialist contractor will tank and install (they will also be doing the shower bases as well).

The steel frame for the sunroom has arrived and Thierry and Nick will probably erect that after the guttering. It is important to get the roof enclosed for that as soon as possible as the ground floor underfloor heating and screeding is due to go down in three weeks time. 

I went to the Home Building and Renovating Show at the NEC this week and was pretty impressed. The other ones that I had been to in the past were small and rather amateurish, but this year’s was very impressive with lots of stands and a more effective seminar theatre. I didn’t make it into any of the seminars but did manage to catch up with a few of the suppliers to this project. Annexed to the show was the Smart Homes Exhibition. This was pretty small and not wildly impressive. The seminar area was open at the back and from the snippets I heard I was not too impressed. The “experts” I heard were rather opinionated and some of the comments would have been thought of as slanderous in different circumstances. The problem with home automation at the moment is that it is heavily polarised between high-end suppliers who are happy to sell extortionate, proprietary systems to rich people who don’t care and a lot of tekkies and beard-tuggers who prefer the home-brew solutions created with soldering irons and resistors. The former want to keep the mystique around home-automation to protect the obscene margins they make on installations while the latter seem to thrive on religious crusades about protocols, software and formats.

Until home automation makes it into mainstream house building I fear that it will remain this way, and I think that is a shame. Not only does it simplify the way you live in your house, home automation will make it more secure and energy efficient. Neither, I suspect at the top of the list of priorities of your average mass builder. Anyway, I am going to climb off of my soapbox now :-)

30th April 2005

You may have noticed that these updates have stretched out to two weekly now. It’s not that I have become lazy or disinterested in keeping this journal, it’s just at the moment, there aren’t necessarily lots of new things happening every week, and it would probably be boring just to say we have done a bit more plastering or more tiling. 

Having said that, we do seem to have come on quite well in the last two weeks. The Lindab guttering did turn up (in the right colour this time) and Nick and Thierry set about fitting it. It was a remarkably quick job – Nick did about 2/3rds of the house over the weekend and between them they had the whole thing up by last Monday lunchtime. 

The tiling on the pitched roof is finished apart from a very small area at the front. Daz has been stymied by the erratic wet weather we were suffering last week, but I suspect once he gets up there, it’s a day, maybe two’s work.

Geoff’s brother and his team have been onsite for two weeks now and we have motored through lots of outstanding jobs. All the plumbing is now in place, including the gas supply to the hob and the hot water flow and return to the Aga. All the soil pipes are also in place now, which has been a more tricky job than first envisaged. We have tried to hide most of the pipes rather than running them down the outside walls, and we want to avoid any diagonal pipes on the outside at all.  With a few holes cut and some judicious boxing-in, all the pipes are safely in place. 

Pretty much all the outstanding block work has also been done now. The wall in the main bathroom that forms the “roman bath” is built and reinforced with steel bar. The block work for the sunroom is up and in the basement. We now have a neat plant room for the heat pump and associated plumbing equipment and also a “Node Zero” room for electrics.  In the kitchen there is a large island that is formed at each end with block work, a steel bar “tray” is installed on the top which will form the support for the granite work surface. Between the block work ends 2 x 1m and 1 x 60cm kitchen will be installed back to back. The hob will be at one end and a prep sink at the other.

The steel frame for the sun room is now in place and Thierry and Nick have almost finished the roof. We are going for a vaulted roof and it looks terrific so far. I have been painting the soffit and facia boards for the sun room roof today, and I expect the carcass will be ready for felt and batten by Thursday.

What has really galvanised the team this week is news that Eco Hometec had a cancellation and the under floor heating installers will be back this Tuesday coming.  Obviously everything that needed to be in the floor (pipe work, central vacuum etc.) had to be in place with the insulation on top. Geoff, Daz, Peter and any other spare bodies have been at this all week and all but the kitchen is ready (and that will be done by the time Eco need it). The screeders are back on Friday and we expect the ground floor to be completely finished by next Sunday.

Obviously, not much else will go on inside the house next week so the team will be concentrating on vertical tile hanging. The scaffolding has been dropped down a lift on 2/3rds of the perimeter in readiness. Finally it is possible to see the edge of the roof, the soffit and guttering. I have to say I am delighted with the effect. The guttering is wide rather than deep and has brackets every 800mm, this gives it perfect proportions for the deep soffit and wide facia. It is really possible to see the echo of Lutyens’ house at Deanery Gardens which provided the inspiration for Longmoor Lodge in this detailing.

I seem to spend all my spare time on this house project. In the evenings I have been working on perfecting the AV system. I now have 3 PCs configured to run Microsoft’s Windows Media Centre Edition. They share media files stored on a NAS box. A Networked Attached Storage device is a special computer whose main purpose is to provide storage for other computers attached to the network. The NAS can cope with lots of computers asking for data such as video or audio files at the same time. This approach keeps all your valuable pictures, mp3 files and video in one place (so easier to back up) but makes it available to every computer. In my case I am using a Buffalo Terastation which provides 1 Terabyte (1,000 megabytes) of storage. More than enough for the average CD collection and DVD’s if you are inclined to. What I am pleased about is that I have got this whole system working without resorting to the extortionate proprietary home AV systems. For a little over £300 each I have built PCs that are totally capable of streaming TV, DVD or audio content to any room in the house with a screen and speakers. What’s more if you want to surf the web or read email, this can also be done on these PCs. The more I gain knowledge about this home AV industry, the more I get concerned about the high prices and proprietary equipment that people are buying. If anyone is interested in my cheap-skate but totally functional and reliable approach, please email me and I will send you details.

8th May 2005

I have been in India for the first three working days of this week and it all has been a little hectic. Flying to Mumbai on Tuesday morning, and back by 7.30am Friday is tough but in between I also flew internally to Bangalore and back. It was a very gruelling trip, India is a fascinating county, and the sheer scale of humanity there is almost overwhelming. I am certainly planning to go back towards the end of the year to spend a little more time getting to see the place.

Back on the project, our minds have been focussed somewhat. As I have mentioned, we are renting a house a couple of miles away while the build happens. Our lease was originally to expire in March but the landlord very kindly agreed to monthly extensions. They have now found a new tenant and have given us notice to vacate on July 5th. In reality, the plan has been for a while that I would move back in during the 2nd week of June anyway. About this time we will start installing more of the valuable items such as kitchen units and appliances, and for securities sake, it would be better that the site is occupied around the clock.

This is causing quite a squeeze with the team because in all honesty, there is still a large amount of work to do. As mentioned last time, during the week Eco-Hometec came back and installed the under floor heating on the ground floor, and Friday, yesterday and today, Paul and Ashley have been screeding – which they literally have just finished. Of course, before the screeding goes down, all the plumbing needed to be in place and pressure tested, this was done at the same time as the under floor heating installation so was a bit of a challenge. However, everything checked out fine, so we now have beautifully screeded floors on the ground floor and first floor.

However, we still have all the second fix carpentry, electrics and plumbing to do, quite a bit of glazing and the sunroom has a roof but no walls. The kitchen will not arrive until the last week of June, and I am not sure whether any of the wood or stone flooring will be in place by in time either. Still we are determined to be back home by the 5th (even if we did have a choice!)

The roofing moves forward steadily, this once again this week has been hampered by showery weather. There is a lot of “mucking in” to be done on the front dormer, which in layman’s terms means finishing the corners and ridges with a concrete mortar, which obviously needs dry weather. The bonnets are now in place and one of the two tricky roof light windows are tiled in. Weather permitting, the rest should be complete this week. From a tiling perspective, the sunroom and rear porch needs doing and then just the vertical tiles. As the concrete screed is down and the floor is vulnerable for a few days, I expect that most work will concentrate on the exterior. The large Klargester sewage treatment plant is onsite, and the rainwater storage in transit. These need to be set in, as does the drain from the basement manhole to the brook and all the down pipes and soil pipes. The weather forecast looks quite promising for the coming week so hopefully we will make good progress there.

We have finally placed the order for the staircase, which is on about 6 week’s delivery so will be pretty tight on whether it arrives before the family does.  The delay has primarily been around cost. I have some pretty specific ideas around the staircase. As most of the house is quite geometrical and square edged inside, I want a curved, almost organic staircase that looks like is has “flowed” from the walls. I also want it in solid oak, and of course for not too much money.  This has been a pretty tough design brief, but a local specialist design and joinery company, Big Cheese Designs have come up trumps and we have ordered it from them. I definitely think that the staircase will be the centrepiece of the house, and even though it is working out about 150% of our original budget for the stairs, I know if we compromise on it now, I will regret it for a long time.

22nd May 2005

Another of what I can only describe as steady progress over the last couple of weeks. All of the main roof tiling was completed by the middle of last week and I am delighted with the result. The tiles give the house an instant aged effect, and given it is such a dominant feature of the exterior had to be right, and it is. The team have moved on to the vertical tile handing and have completed the front right end of the house and about half of the northern flank wall. I and a few of the team had some misgivings about this much tiling being “too much” for the house, but now it is up, it looks fantastic.

Geoff’s brother and his gang have been putting in the hours on site and it has made a big difference. Instead of spending three days loading out all the vertical tiles on the scaffolding, with the help of a Bumpa lift the whole lot was up in a morning (with the help of the sparkys and plumbers). About half upper story is battened ready to receive the vertical tiles and I reckon it will be completed in a couple of weeks.

We are hoping for good weather next week because of the deep holes that we have to dig for the sewage treatment and rainwater recovery tanks.   These are remarkably large, the sewage treatment will have to be set quite deep, and after the basement experience, this is going to be a pretty wet excavation. The rainwater tank is submarine shaped, and while it is not as deep as the sewage treatment, it needs to be set in reinforced concrete and covered with special backfill to make sure it doesn’t pop out of the ground when empty! This is likely to be the last labour (and machine) intensive job on this project and weather permitting should be finished by next weekend.

The basement floor will be screeded with “granolithic” screed tomorrow. This is a special kind of concrete screed which is very flat and hard. We intend to leave this as the final floor covering in the basement. The two plant rooms will be painted this week as well in readiness for the mechanical and electrical tie in. We already have the three-phase electricity board and meter in and working, but over the next couple of weeks will install gas, water and telephone. We are also finally ready for the geo-thermal heat pump to be installed. The system we are using is made by a Swedish company called Thermia and is supplied by Eco Heatpumps. Because we are using zone-controlled under floor heating Eco are supplying an integrated heat store that will provide sufficient heated water to balance the varying demands for heat across zones. The pump is also supplying all the hot water needs of the house, however so as not to waste too much money using an Aga (I know I know, they are not green and not energy efficient, but Jo loves to cook on an Aga) we are also using that to heat up the towel rails and in an emergency can be switched in to provide hot water to the baths and sinks.

All the windows for the sun room turned up last week and I expect that Thierry and Nick will have them installed within a few days. That pretty much completes the first fix carpentry, apart from the external doors, which according to Woodsy will be here the week after next. This would be useful as I plan to move back in the following weekend.

The sparkies have been busy last week cutting holes in the upstairs ceilings for the down lighters, pendants and loud speakers. In order to fire protect the down lighters (and sound insulate the loud speakers) we are using clay flowerpots that are sealed over the lights, the transformer and JB sit outside the flowerpot with the heatproof cable going through a nick cut from the lip of the flowerpot with a grinder. This may seem a little Heath Robinson but each pot is costing 80p (brought in bulk) versus the £8 odd best price we can get for intumecent hoods or fire covers.  The clay pots are just as fireproof as the manufactured hoods and perfectly acceptable to building regulations if properly sealed. Each down light (of which there are hundreds) has its own transformer, which are notoriously prone to failing, the sealed flowerpot (or purpose built cover) prevents you from pulling the transformer down the down lighter hole for maintenance, so in the case of the upstairs in the house maintenance will have to be done from above by lifting the chipboard floor. This is pain, but fortunately the loft is only storage space so less hassle than if it were bedrooms. We don’t have the problem downstairs because the down lighters are in a false ceiling below concrete beams so the fire risk is not the same and fire protection not needed.

I am off on holiday for couple of weeks and have friends coming to spend time on-site after hours with Scud. I am hoping for lots of progress while I am away and the big push to get the place habitable for when we get back. We are taking the girls to Disney World in Florida so it won’t be too relaxing, but we do have a few days in Clearwater to chill out and hopefully a swim with dolphins which is a life’s ambition of mine.

11th June 2005

This is my first update for almost three weeks and I write it with mixed emotions. I returned from vacation in the middle of the week to find the scaffolding down from the entire outside of the house except the sun room. Having looked at this building shrouded in galvanised steel tube for almost a year it was a breathtaking moment for me. The house looks magnificent. The proportions of it in relation to the grounds really work well, as does the effect of the vertical tiles. It is a tribute not only to Alan the architect but also to Woodsy, Geoff, Daz, Mick and the other craftsman who have created this house.

We are very much on the final push to get the house habitable. Most of the effort is on the mechanical and electrical installation. Nearly all the down lighters are in place upstairs as are the ceiling speakers. About half of the Clipsal CBus Neo switches are also installed. On the plumbing side, most of the first fix is done in the bathrooms (we are not aiming to complete all the en-suites at this time). We have much of the sanitary ware but are still waiting for one bath, one basin and 2 vanity units. There have been numerous niggling problems to address with the bathrooms, particularly on positioning of sanitary ware and running the soil pipes. We have managed to avoid all but one soil stack showing on the outside of the house which is not bad going considering that there re 7 WCs, but is does mean that we have to box in quite a few internally which is a bit of a headache.

Another challenge has been how to mask the first floor line through the gallery windows. To echo the style of Lutyen’s country houses we have incorporated 3 full height gallery bay windows. However in each case the room inside is not full height so there is a transition between the downstairs ceiling and the upstairs floor. In the case of this house, that transition is not trivial because we have a steel frame, concrete floor beam, insulation, under floor heating and then screed above, This makes the “thickness” of the floor about 500mm, and would look odd both outside looking in and the same looking out. I was keen not to block in the window pane in front of the floor as it would defeat the object of the full height bays but needed to make it look right and confirm to fire regulations and insulate from sound leakage.  The solution has been to blank the edge with a wooden panel and to use mouldings at floor and ceiling level so that from the inside it looks like a rectangular casement window at ceiling level downstairs and just above the skirting upstairs. A final layer of black fire retardant sound insulating material is applied to the outside of the wooden cap and a reflective film to the pane of glass so that from the outside in daylight it is opaque and lit at night will look like discrete casements, Thierry and Nick have fitted out one of the bays and I think it looks fine, next job is to apply the opaque film and check the effect of that although I have my fingers crossed it will look good as there is little alternative.

I mentioned that I have mixed feelings about the situation right now and it’s for a couple of reasons. Firstly we have suffered a setback on the underground tanks.  When we started excavating we have the same problems as digging the basement with battering on the walls of the hole and water ingress. It is slightly worse where we are digging these holes too as the ground is not as well drained as around the basement. We have no option when it comes to these tanks (i.e. no mains drainage) so will have to de-water in the same way as for the basement. This means getting SLD Pumps back and the whole rigmarole. This will cost time and money but there is no alternative. Hopefully we can get SLD mobilized next week. What makes things even more complex is that both tanks are different shape and have different requirements. The rainwater tank for instance needs to be set on a concrete slab so this is not a one day job. This will put a lot of pressure on the team especially as our moving back date is looming.

The other big issue is the overall budget. As we near the end of the build, obviously the budget is getting smaller and we do not have much left in the kitty for setbacks like the one above. I am really lucky to have such a good team as Woodsy and the gang doing this project as they have kept going throughout the various crises we have faced. But I do need to ensure we have sufficient funds to get the project completed and that is what is taxing me most at the present time.

25th June 2005

We are in a period of the project where there is little visual progress although much effort is going in. The house is pretty much complete on the exterior; we are waiting for one more pack of roof tiles from Tudor to complete the sun room roof and that will allow the last bit of scaffolding to come down. When it does we will be able to do the stone work under the bays and sun room and at the same time put the stone sills under the windows. The completion of the exterior really shows up how disrupted the land around it really is, the house also sits quite high on the land so we are going to build a perimeter pathway all the way around that opens into a patio at the rear and a porch at the front of the house. This will be raised a couple of brick courses above ground level using the same bricks but end on. We hope that Richie and his gang can do all of this in one hit.

Baz the plumber has been making good progress. We are focussing on finishing the master bedroom en-suite, guest bedroom en-suite, family bathroom, guest cloakroom and boot room WC. We have pretty much all the sanitary ware (except the bath for the master en-suite), and have gone for wall mounted WCs for hygiene (and lower cost of floor tile installation) but it does mean some boxing in for most bathrooms. This is all pretty much complete now and ready for tiling.

We are using water heated towel rails in each bathroom and are installing a boiler in the loft to warm these rather than the heat-pump. The boiler will also be a useful backup if for any reason the heat pump fails.

The sparkies have now finished all the upstairs electrics and audio. Downstairs we need to get the ceiling installation going before we can get lights in, hopefully this will begin next week. They have been concentrating in the basement commissioning the main switch panel and routing cable. We have a small setback in that the cabinets we had sourced to house the Clipsal lighting control system are not mains rated so will have to be replaced. Finding the right solution to this is likely to set us back a few days which is frustrating. 

The house has very deep soffits so we have been able to mount soffit lights, security lights, sensors and security cameras without looking too cluttered. I have come to realize that lighting design is not a trivial task. Task, Ambient and Accent lighting must be used to complement each other and create an overall effect. This is true for the inside and outside of a house. We have porch lights as well as ones on the driveway as well as the soffit lights. If they are not set up properly the house could turn into something more at home at Disneyworld. I hate having 1000watt halogen security lights glaring in my face when walking up to a house. I know that they are a necessary evil, but have taken advantage of the fact that these can be controlled by the Clipsal system and not come on unless the alarm is armed.

We have now had the survey from SLD Pumps for de-watering while we excavate the holes for the tanks. This is an expensive pain but unavoidable. Given the depth and nature of the holes we have to dig, we are bringing in a specialized long-reach digger and driver. Geoff thinks that the whole process of getting these tanks in the ground is only likely to take about a week if we get everything organised. I hope this is the case as our moving in date is looming.

17th July 2005

There has been a bit of a gap since the last update, because there has not been too much to report. Lots of our various contractors have been away on holiday and there has been delays in the supply of some material.

The manifold for the heat pump has been installed, and the heat pump itself has been delivered. There are three white boxes about the size of fridge-freezers, I am not sure what they are all for, I know that one is a thermal store but how the whole thing links together is not obvious. All I do know is that they are all very heavy and will require some serious muscle to get them into the basement. I think the installers are coming next week to commission it, although I may be a week or two out.

The towel rails are heated by a boiler which is in the roof space; this leaves the heat-pump to take care of the hot water and under floor heating. This is useful for 2 reasons firstly, it means that we don’t have to move up to the next size of heat pump, which is an industrial system that takes up too much space and costs a bomb.  Secondly the boiler does have the capacity to take over from the heat pump in the unlikely event it fails. We also have another thermal store in the roof space as part of the mega-flow hot water system. The biggest challenge we have on the water front though is mains pressure. Our water supply comes from the same main as Reading FC’s training ground down the road and when they run the sprinkler system our pressure drops below 1 bar. This causes all kinds of problems with showers and taps etc. so we are having to install a diaphragm pressuriser which takes in mains water and pressurises it to about 3 bar which is more than enough.

The de-watering system still has not been installed although I think that is happening next week, Certainly the ground has never been dryer, and the water table lower. Geoff and the team have completed all the remaining groundwork including the various supplies to the garage. It will be good to finally get the tanks in the ground.

Gez has been cracking on with the Clipsal lighting control system. It turns out that the cabinets we had for the dimmer and relay packs could be upgraded for mains use with a kit so we have been able to move on. We have about 90 different lighting circuits, some dimmed and others on relays. Most of the Clipsal dimmer packs are capable of controlling 8 discrete circuits; each pack has a circuit breaker in the input plus one for each output. This is a huge amount of wiring in the cabinets, but Gez has one complete and working with another one almost complete. 

Over the weekend I have tied in the BT line and got ADSL working. I also have also wired up a couple of the data sockets. In each wall plate there re three conventional RJ45 sockets and one Abitana media socket. I made the decision to use Cat5e STP (Shielded twisted pair) cable for the data network because I was worried about mains interference over long runs. This is fine but makes wiring up the STP RJ45 sockets much more fiddly as you have to connect the foil shroud in the cable to the connector as well. Abitana uses a hybrid Cat5e STP cable where one pair of the conductors are thicker, more twisted and separately insulated within the cable.   This provides Cat7 data rates down that pair which is able to run wideband signals that would usually require coax. With special adaptors at each end, we will be able to plug in televisions and the like. Needless to say, the Abitana RJ45 sockets are even more fiddly to wire up.

We have a final move in date towards the end of next month. The house will be by no means finished but enough of it will be liveable to allow us to move in. This is focussing everyone’s mind and we are prioritising in a sensible way. There are however three or four major items that have to be in place for moving in, and these are causing a few sleepless nights.

8th August 2005

Apologies again for the gap between updates, this is mainly due to the repetitive nature of the work going on at the house over the last three weeks. Coupled with this is my embarrassment for saying that the “well-point system is going in next week” on at least 2 previous updates and it not happening. Well I am delighted to say that the well-point system was installed and commissioned last Friday and is busy sucking the water table dry where the tanks will go and venting into the brook. I marvel at how effective the well-point system is – within 10 hours of it starting the land drain around the basement was dry – and the nearest point of that is at least 10 meters from the well-point site. It has been running for the whole weekend, and with any luck will be ready to start excavation today. The area for the tanks is about 10 x 3 meters so hopefully will be complete by the end of this week.

We are making steady but not remarkable progress elsewhere in the house. Nearly all the downstairs ceilings are now in place and skimmed. The sunroom interior is plastered – Paul the plasterer and his team has made a superb job of curving the corners of the vaulted ceiling in the sun room. The ceiling fitters are back this week to complete the study, guest cloaks and downstairs corridors. We will leave the lounge and cinema ceilings to a later date as they have complex bulkhead features that need to be fabricated. 

I have been right in my comfort zone the last couple of weekends programming the Clipsal CBus lighting system. The more I play with it the more impressed I am. For those that are unfamiliar, CBus separated the mains side of lighting from the control side. Each lighting circuit is connected to a dimmer or relay “channel” on a CBus DIN rail package (“output units”) in a central location (in our case, the basement). All switches, sensors and other “input units” are daisy-chained together on Cat5 cable – only about 30 volts travels around this cable so there is no mains power behind any switches. Each switch has a unique ID and each button on the switch can be programmed to respond to different actions (i.e. short press, long press, dimmer up, dimmer down etc.)  - all of these units are programmed on a PC and the programming downloaded to the CBus network which is then independent of the PC. The CBus system is industrial strength and has lots of features such as recovery after power failure and logic commands. I would highly recommend this system to anyone contemplating a new build, and there is a wireless version for renovators.

We now have the boiler installed in the loft plus a mega-flow hot water system. This is primarily for heating the towel rails but is also a backup for the heat pump. This will prove to be very useful as the heat pump still has not been installed due to problems with the basement – more about that soon. 

Three of the bathrooms are now ready for tiling, the family, master ensuite and main guest ensuite. Core and Ore start tiling next Monday – I expect we will only have one ready for when we move back the following weekend though.

On that subject – our moving in date it the 27th and 28th August. It is pretty obvious that the house will be far from complete, but we are now somewhere over 7 months later than the original plan, and burning budget on the rented house is a waste. I expect we will be living in a building site for the next few months, but as everyone keeps telling me, it will be worth it in the end.

29th August 2005

Apologies again for the lateness in this update. This has been mainly due to the fact that I have been moving in! This implies that the work is finished, which alas is a long way from the truth. I have moved back in to ensure that the house is always occupied now given the amount of stuff that us already installed and that most of our furniture and belongings are now stored there. Wednesday (31st) is the day when we have to hand back they keys of our rented house, and last weekend I hired a tail-lift van and with the help of a couple of friends emptied the contents of the Sureguard store and rented house back to Longmoor Lodge. Today we move the final bits from the house and while I will continue to stay at the house, Jo and the children will stay at friends this week.

Things have moved on agonisingly slowly over the past two weeks, this is partly due to lack of contractors because of holidays but also hampered by abysmal weather last week which slowed down work in the ground and on the roof. As at today, the sewage bio-digester is up and running and the rainwater tank is in the ground and hooked up waiting to be coupled in the house. While the hole where they are is not yet back-filled, at least we do not have to do any more ground work. This work took almost a month to complete – twice the amount of estimated time, and sewage treatment you will agree is fundamental to making the place habitable.

We had a few mishaps last week too – the basin for the principle guest bedroom got broken, a water supply was ruptured during the installation of the tanks, and somebody stepped through a ceiling. All this has added time and cost. Also we are still without numerous items that we have been promised delivery of for weeks such as external doors, glass installation, stonework for under the window bays and a kitchen sink! 

The hot water system is now up and running from the immersion heater, with any luck we will switch to the boiler when the flue and gas is run in which will hopefully be today. We are hopeful that the problem we have suffered in the basement will be resolved today that will allow us to push forward with the installation of the heat pump and get the heating sorted. This will be a big step forward and resolve a saga that has been going on for months.

Living in a house with no permanent external doors, 10% of window glass missing, no floor coverings, a working sink in one room, a loo in another (neither with lights) and a shower in a third has been a dispiriting experience, and having taken the last week off work, I have witnessed the frustratingly slow pace things are moving forward. It is hard to see any end to this in sight and I am tired beyond belief. As I am back at work from tomorrow, I have to rely on the team onsite to drive towards getting the place some way inhabitable for the return of my family.

20th September 2005

Three weeks have elapsed since my last update, and I have been accused of loosing interest in updating this website. It is true that the cable I have to link my digital camera to the PC has got lost in a box somewhere and that has slowed down the picture taking, but basically I do not have too much progress to report from the beginning of the month.

We are now fully moved in, with Jo and the children living in one room and me in another (in the doghouse is more appropriate most of the time). Work continues to proceed and a slow pace – we are still short handed on some of the trades due to holidays and still doing remedial work.

Richard the tiler has been busy and we now have travertine laid in the kitchen, breakfast room, sunroom, boot room and downstairs loos. The kitchen is being fitted this week, and when complete we will move some furniture into the sun room and live between there and the kitchen.

Richard has done most of the tiling in 2 of the ensuite bathrooms and will crack on with the family bathroom when we have the right tiles and mosaic. We have chosen radically different styles for each bathroom; the master ensuite has a nickel slate floor, large format white tiles on the wall with a glass tile waist line in various shades of coral. The bathroom suite for this room is very modern with an up to date interpretation of a pedestal bath that would look at home in the Space Shuttle. The front guest ensuite has pink travertine mosaic on the walls and a plumb coloured slate tile on the floor, and the family bathroom will have a mix of green and blue mosaic and larger format glass tiles.

We had the rainwater system up and running for a few days – we initially filled the tank up from the water main to give it a head start, and all was well until it needed topping up (when it gets to one quarter full it adds more water from the mains if there is no rain). The first time it did this, the controller box stopped working and hasn’t since. We finally received a replacement this week so hopefully will have the system back online again by the weekend.

As the nights are getting cooler, our thoughts are turning to central heating. Regular readers of this will know we are using a geo-thermal heat pump, and it is ready to be installed. However this has been delayed by a couple of months now because of a suspected water leak in the basement. This seems to have been addressed now by the basement supplier and I hope to push forward with the heat pump installation over the next couple of weeks. On the advice of the wooden flooring company, we need to leave the wood in the rooms it is to be installed for a few days with the heating on so that it can acclimatise, but this cannot happen until we actually have some heat!

Mick has been working on the landscaping and some other outside details. We will have the guttering stand pipes all installed by this weekend and we now have a properly drained hard standing in front of the house and a perimeter path. Mick has also landscaped the area where the tanks were installed and it looks very neat. There still is an awful lot to do in the garden with many pools of standing water where the topsoil has been disturbed, but these things will have to wait until next spring.

We are in the final stages of the build and work will ramp down over the next 2 weeks, with few if any of the team working full-time after the end of the month. The house needs some 2nd fix carpentry and decorating, there is also the small matter of a staircase (we have a temporary one installed for the present) but these things will happen over time. I do think we have a chance of having a warm, secure place to live with a working kitchen and a couple of bedrooms very soon, and that is what we need for now.

18th October 2005

I am stretching out these updates to monthly now as frankly activity has significantly ramped down on the project, and there is little to report on a more frequent basis.

We are now living in two upstairs bedrooms and the kitchen and sunroom area will be ready to occupy in the next couple of weeks. The kitchen units are installed as is the travertine floor tiles; we are now awaiting the arrival of the granite surfaces.

The rainwater recovery system is now working properly after the replacement of a faulty controller and all ground works are now complete. Mick has done a great job of landscaping the immediate area around the house and it all looks quite tidy, however this contrasts with the rest of the immediate grounds that need an awful lot of tidying (and top soil) to get it back to the condition it was before the build. The only exterior items left that we will be tackling this year are the garage doors (supposed to be installed tomorrow) and one pane of glass for the front door.

Inside Baz  the plumber has taken charge of the heat-pump installation. The team that were supposed to be doing it from the supplier let us down. Working from a diagram Baz has made a very neat job of installation and the unit should be ready for commissioning by the end of the week. With a chill in the air now, we are ready for some central heating.

We have had some dramas though over the last few weeks. One evening a poly pipe fitting separated on the hot water circuit in the loft – within minutes the complete pressurised contents of the hot water tank had emptied itself into the loft flooding parts of the upstairs ceiling and running down the internal chimney breast and into the kitchen and breakfast room. It was a living nightmare, water gushing through light and speaker fittings onto the stone floor in the breakfast room sounded like a tropical storm – only inside the house!! Within an hour Ian and the team turned up, fixed the leak and helped to clear up. The only good thing was that the ceilings did not cave in because of the number of drainage points through lights and speaker holes. Miraculously all of the lights still worked and with some judicious repairs and redecorating we are back to normal. This was a wakeup call however and all the plumbing in the house has been pressure tested for a second time.

There is still a long list of jobs to be done inside the house, more doors to hang, floors to lay and rooms to be decorated. However, the place is beginning to feel like a home rather than a building site – everything is not covered with dust and you can see out of the windows at last. The staircase is some way off however I suspect – and I think that when it is installed that will be the end of this adventure and I will be back to good old DIY projects.

Following lots of complaints I promise I will find my camera lead and put lots of pictures up at the next update.

12th January 2006

The gaps are getting larger between updates as there is very little activity on the site now. I think things will be very low key over the next couple of months – we will get around to getting some of the external work done – budget allowing. So I think this will be my last update for a good while.

So where are we today? My daughter’s rooms are 99% complete (just some architrave missing) but otherwise painted, floored and they have moved in. We have 3 other bedrooms in various stages of completion – the main, principle guest and the other front one. 2 are painted and have ensuites complete, the other one is just clean – all have carpet tiles down as an interim solution until I get around to laying the floors.

We are putting wooden floors throughout the house with the exception of the kitchen, breakfast room, sun room boot room and hall where we are using stone. Given I am using solid wood rather than laminate or engineered planks and have under floor heating we are taking the precaution of seasoning the wood for an extended period (4 months now) and actually gluing the wood to the floor using a new adhesive technique from the US. This just requires a clean dry base and you slap it on like tile cement. It is designed specifically for this application and if the results in the children’s rooms are anything to go buy works very well. It is quite laborious spreading the adhesive and some of the wood is not perfectly square but the finished effect is very pleasing. I have cut my teeth on the children’s bedrooms and the next room I will tackle is the study. I am working up in size and hope to be an expert by the time I get around to the lounge and master bedroom.

All the doors are hung and the skirting and architrave installed in all rooms where the floor is complete. We went to the extra expense of oak skirting and architrave and I am delighted we did – it looks very classy with the doors.

Of course we still are facing regular problems – the heat pump seems to have a fault either in the internal wiring or externally which prevents the secondary heater running – usually this is not a problem but when the outside temperature gets very cold, the heat pump struggles to cope with the demand for heat. I am hopeful that Eco Heatpumps will be able to solve this problem quickly.

The biggest headache is the travertine floor tiles in the kitchen and breakfast room. It is starting to break up in some places. Our supplier is being very responsive though and I am hopeful that we will have a solution identified by the end of January.

Otherwise we have the usual snagging and teething problems that any complex build of this nature will suffer – these will naturally take time.

So as I am somewhere close to the end of the project, I will answer the most often asked question “Would you do it again?” – The answer is a resounding “No” – at least not if it was our only place to live and we had to rent. It has been to stressful on me and the family emotionally, physically and financially. I will certainly be interested in advising others who are thinking about embarking on a similar journey as a consultant – I have to find some way of paying off some of this mortgage I now have.

I would like to thank all the followers of this web site and my journey. I hope you have found it interesting and will be of use if you ever decide to build your own house. If you do, please read my “Lessons Learned” section on this web site – some of the lessons are trivial, some fundamental. Hopefully this will help you avoid some of the problems that we walked into. 

So Long … Mark