Strawbale House

This blog is intended to chart our progress through the self-build process, from half-hearted plot-hunting through to completion of the build. The twist is that we're building the house from timber and straw (hence the blog title).

Click on the image at the end of each post to see that day's photos.

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

October 30th - battens, windows and sheeting

A productive day, with Crispin and Melvin on site again. Melvin resumed where he left off yesterday with the sheeting around the waterfall window and Crispin cracked on with the external battens. I nicked into Kelso and collected the replacement glazing for the two front bedroom windows. We fitted these after lunch and Melvin, having finally finished the sheeting and in no mood to start anything else, called it a day and went home.
I took some slates onto the roof to replace a broken one, and ended up breaking four in a diagonal line up the roof before eventually getting it all patched up! The final task of the day, which Crispin and I did together, was to fit the lock and handle to the front door. A small change, but a symbolic one, as now that we have all the windows in and the door furnished, we can lock the place up at night. Probably just as well, as soon the high-value bits and bobs for the kitchen and bathrooms will start arriving.

Monday, 29 October 2007

October 29th - Ridge flashing and cladding battens

After a weekend away from the site I was joined today by Melvin and my brother Crispin, visiting for a few days as a second-best because the rivers are too low to fish.
Yet another pristine Autumn day, chilly with a lovely soft sun. Melvin carried on where he left off last week with the framing and sheeting around the waterfall window, and I set Crispin to work nailing battens to the outside walls, on which the cladding will be mounted. Good worker, requiring virtually no direction. He had his newest toy - a broadcast-quality video camera with him, and shot some video that may someday make it onto the blog.
I was very pleasantly surprised how much work he got through, fitting battens to the east end to verandah-roof level, all of the front wall and part of the west end. I worked with him for a while, then headed up to the roof, where I undercoated the finials and fitted the zinc ridge-flashing. It looks very nifty, although the first rain-shower will dull it down a lot.

Friday, 26 October 2007

October 26th - Summit!

Finally, after 342 years of non-stop slating, today I finally finished. Well - almost finished - I completed the top row on the south side of the roof and now have only the missing slates to insert where the roof brackets have been. After an interruption for an afternoon school run, I returned at the end of the day and fitted the ridge-pole I'd bought first-thing from Border Slate Supplies in St. Boswells. Also bought the zinc flashing, but just as I was finishing the ridge-pole it started to rain and the slates very quickly turned treacherously slippery. That, combined with the failing light and the fact that I'd left my mobile at home and wouldn't be able to summon help if I got into diffs persuaded me to call it a day. More sporadic rain forecast over the next few days, so I'll need to squeeze the flashing installation in between showers, and knock off some inside jobs when it rains.
Anna carried on with some pretty precarious painting perched on the scaffold in a chilly wind. She's well into the window frames, but is a bit concerned about the variety of finishes on seemingly identical pieces of timber.
Chris Weir from Building Control dropped by to remind us that we don't yet have a warrant, and told me that the pragmatic Dougie Crew has been transferred to Hawick, and replaced by someone rather more bullish. Suspect there may be a bit of a battle looming, but with the roof not quite finished and the cladding ready to go, I'm certainly in no mood to down-tools. Need to get the place properly weather-tight with winter coming. The fact that three blokes have built a 5-bedroom house from scratch in the time it's taken them to do precisely nothing with the drawings ought to fill them with shame. But it won't, of course.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

October 25th - Slating

A short day on site with Anna. She treated some windows and I worked yet again on the roof. Reached the ridge, and now have just to fit a row of half-length slates to provide cover at the top, and finally the ridge flashing.
Ordered the hot water tank and solar water heater from Navitron and paid a £795 deposit, about half the total bill.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

October 24th - Slating

Another day of flawless weather. A hard frost first thing, but once the mist had lifted it soon thawed in warm sunshine, allowing me to spend the better part of the day slating in a T-shirt - pretty remarkable for late October! Anna was on site again, treating the window frames with Osmo One-coat, an eco-friendly external timber treatment. Goes on a treat and looks great. She was a happy bunny. Having spend several days priming one fascia, and still facing the prospect of three coats of undercoat and gloss, she was delighted with the idea of a single application for the windows and door-frames. We'll use the same stuff for the cladding.
I climbed ever-closer to the ridge, and finally ran out of slates at round 5p.m. with around a hundred left to do. Assuming the last box arrives good and early tomorrow, I should finish by mid-afternoon, in time to drive to St. Boswells to choose the ridge-capping, or flashing, or whatever it's called. Suppose I ought to find out...

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

October 23rd - Slating

A slow day slating the right-hand side of the waterfall window. There was quite a bit of calculation do sort out to make sure that I tied in correctly with the existing slating further up the roof. Very happy and relieved that it all worked out perfectly.
Anna was on site for a few hours, and completed the priming (i.e. the first of four coats) of the rear fascia while her mum tidied up around the place and burned a load of scraps of treated timber and OSB.

Monday, 22 October 2007

October 21st & 22nd - Slating

A productive couple of days on the roof. Yesterday I reached to within 6 or seven rows of the ridge, and today I reached it. I now have about two days' work remaining to finish the slating completely, and the forecast is set fair for at least three days.
Melvin joined me today and started framing up around the waterfall window in preparation for sheeting. After an hour or two he damaged a finger on the chop-saw. Tried to carry on, but the throbbing from the hand and an understandable nervousness around the machines made him call it a day and drive home to count his blessings and his fingers.
Dad is very much on the mend and might even be discharged at the end of the week, only ten days after being on life-support. What a trooper!

Pictures below taken on October 21st:

Saturday, 20 October 2007

October 20th - Slating again

Just a couple of hours on site before lunch today. Slating up the left-hand-side of the waterfall window, I was delighted to discover that I could insert the soakers without taking the flashing assembly apart. I reached the top of the windows, then called it a day.
At last, I felt almost at full strength, after some weeks of dragging myself around, and look forward to making the most of a great weather forecast over the next few days.
Dad, too, is making strides in his recovery, and has been transferred from Intensive Care to a cardiac ward. He's breathing unaided, eating, sitting up reading and talking and looking a completely different man to the one who very nearly died a couple of days ago. Bit of concern over damage to his heart.

Friday, 19 October 2007

October 19th - hiatus

No activity and no blogs for a few days. My chest continues to be completely crap, but the main reason is that my dad, who came to visit a few days ago very suddenly developed life-threatening pneumonia on Tuesday night. We had to meet an ambulance on the road, as he couldn't breathe. He's spent the last few days on life-support under heavy sedation, and looked at one point like he might not survive. Happily, the ventilator has now been withdrawn, he's conscious (though still very confused) and breathing unsupported.
The family has descended on us, which is lovely. Shame I can't issue them all with paint-brushes and overalls!


Managed a little work today on the build. Coralie (sister) came with me and varnished front and back doors, which look absolutely gorgeous. I started on the stair components. Mal had cut some of the spindles to length, so I did the calculations for the spacers, cut a load of them and set about assembling it all. Got about half the lower flight done before suddenly realising that painting the wall behind would be a lot easier without the banisters in the way.
Uber-sister Tamzin, who's been cooking like a dervish for the assembled family, rocked up with a super-tasty pot of soup for lunch, which helped my flagging energy levels for an hour or two. Anna carried on with the varnishing and I cut and the intricate barge-boards at the sides of the waterfall window. Now at the stage where I can crack on with the slating, and hopefully get it done before this wonderful weather cracks.


Monday, 15 October 2007

October 15th - non-starter

Bit of a shocker today. I trundled over to the plot with my clogged and painful lungs to start slating, but felt so weak and wrecked when I got there that I couldn't face the exertion of hauling the slates up to the roof and battling against the wind to stay up there. Instead I started to sheet around the waterfall window, but discovered that the necessary framing was going to be very tricky without a nail-gun. Managed a little bit but when a couple of orders came in by phone I found it extremely easy to justify packing it in and heading home to tackle the day-job instead.
I'd had a bit of a run-in with a perenially grumpy and misanthropic sales assistant in Travis Perkins in the morning, and had shed and destroyed a roofrack-load of plasterboard on the way home when I was driving too fast in a rage, so all in all it was a pretty crap day!
Need to get Melvin back with his nail-gun for a day to finish the sheeting.

Sunday, 14 October 2007

October 13th - Waterfall window

Mal's last day on site, and a very significant one. He rang and woke me at 7:30, from outside the kitchen door. A quick cuppa and a hot bacon roll he'd picked up on the way, and we were off. The task for the day was to fit the waterfall window, the parts for which finally arrived yesterday.
Within minutes the instructions had been discarded, as they had been written for installation where the vertical elements of the assembly would be set back in the wall with an external reveal. As we're using timber cladding, the windows will sit proud, with the cladding running into the side of the frames. For the first hour or so I was little more than a willing but clueless assistant, trying to keep up as Mal worked out the necessary steps in his head as he went along. After a while I could see how it was all going together, and was able to anticipate the next step. I was extremely grateful that Mal was there, as I would have been in a bit of a hole without him.
The big articulated timbers that support the middle of the assembly have a lovely solid look and feel about them, and as it all took shape it grew into a fabulous feature in an already gorgeous room.
We'd set the aperture up assuming the window would be set back in the wall a bit, so once it had all been fitted we had to frame up a section above the pitched elements and sark it before we could start on the flashing.
Around lunchtime, Jack, a faithful friend of and participant in the project turned up from Liverpool with my parents in tow. It was good to have him back on site, and great for my folks to see in the flesh an endeavour they'd only been able to follow each evening on this blog.
The afternoon was well advanced by the time we started on the flashing. Here I had the advantage of familiarity, having fitted all the previous rooflights single-handed. With frequent recourse to the instructions, it all went together very smoothly, and by about 5pm we had it all ship-shape and weather-tight.
With the exception of the heating system, this was the last big phase of the build that I was unsure about tackling myself, and having knocked it off so satisfactorily with Mal on his last available day put a very happy seal on his enormous contribution. Without his knowledge, drive and enthusiasm the build quite simply wouldn't have got out of the ground.

Friday, 12 October 2007

A full complement on site again today, along with an assortment of kids of varying shapes, sizes and degrees of naughtiness.
By the time I arrived after a trip to Kelso to draw cash for the workers and pick up one or two things from the builders' merchants, Mal had knocked off half of the sarking of the porch, which is what I had decided was my job for the day. The tapers had sanded the stairwell and Mal had started on the stair components. We've splashed out on oak newels, spindles and hand-rails, and without all his nice sharp tools, which are already on their way back to Oz, he was struggling a bit with my blunt tools and very hard wood. I did, however, fit a new balde to the mitre-saw. The original blade has cut practically every stick of timber in the house, and the new one glides through oak like a cheese-wire through lard.
Melvin had been digging and backfilling the stormwater trenches, and happily moved to fitting the mortice lock in the oak front door when I took over from him. He was similarly hampered by a lack of sharp chisels, and the operation took him the rest of the day. I finished the day by building a scaffold under the waterfall window. The support timbers arrived mid-afternoon, after a cock-up in the ordering delayed them by over a month. Somehow it seems fitting that Mal's last day will be spent installing possibly the main feature on the front of the house - admittedly a task he's been gleefully avoiding for months!


Thursday, 11 October 2007

October 11th - porch etc

Yesterday was a down-day on the plot, apart from the tapers who put in a full day (I hope!). I did pay a brief visit just as they were packing up, to deliver the remaining structural timbers for the porch and verandah, which I'd hauled from Abbey St. Bathans on the roof of my poor old wheezing car.
Today we were back in strength. Mal and Melvin worked together for the morning on the porch, while I finally polished off the kitchen bulkhead and the boxing-in of the stack in the pantry. Melvin then fitted a load of joist-hangers and the rest of the rafters on the verandah. At 3pm I had to leave on a school-run, and asked Melvin to take over from where I had been extending the storm-water drainage trenches to accommodate downpipes from the porch. The porch structure completed, Mal moved inside and started marking and cutting the timbers for the installation of the stair components tomorrow.
I made a late run to the site with the hand-rails and base-rails, and also a load of untreated spruce boards for the porch ceiling.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

October 8th & 9th - Taping, verandah & porch

The one aspect of the build for which none of the team has any appetite has always been the taping or plastering. I've therefore brought in a couple of proper tradesmen, Stevie and Rab from Edinburgh. They rocked up yesterday morning, took a leisurely breakfast then got stuck in. They work a short day with generous breaks, but my goodness they rattle through the work when they're actually on the job!
I was feeling absolutely horrendous yesterday, with a racking cough, no strength and a bit of a fever. A fair bit better today. I've spent the two days plodding through the plumbing in the kitchen bulkhead. Melvin carried on with the final bits and pieces of sheeting, trying to keep ahead of the tapers.
Mal beavered away outside on the verandah, installing the remaining floor joists, then starting on the roof. I had him reduce the pitch from the 30 degrees he initially set it at to about 20 degrees, which I though looked a bit better. Today he switched his attention to the porch, which he's been wanting to do for weeks and weeks. It seems to be his pet project, and I must admit it's something I've given almost no thought to, other than ordering up posts and sockets for it. He worked with a will all day in the rain, and by day's end had the posts and ring beam in place and the first couple of rafters nailed, so you can see the outline below.
The tapers will be by themselves tomorrow, as I have a pub to alarm in Jedburgh, Mal is packing for Australia (gulp!) and Melvin is away gallivanting.


Saturday, 6 October 2007

October 6th - verandah

With the sheeting almost finished - probably about a day's work left on it - I asked Mal to get cracking on the verandah. I'd planned to finish the plumbing in the kitchen, but it was such a gorgeous warm sunny day that I decided that the verandah was the place to be. GZood decision, as we worked as a team throughout the day. I drilled and bolted down the post sockets onto their concrete pads while Mal prepared the posts for standing. Once all the posts were in place we started on the ring-beam. Mal cut the timbers and while he was working on the next, I was bolting the previous one to the uprights. I cut and fitted seven of the 14 floor-joists, before running out of timber. Somehow the 16 joists I ordered, and for which I have been invoiced, have turned into just seven on site. I suspect the remainder are still at Willie Dobie's sawmill.

Friday, 5 October 2007

October 5th - sheeting, doors & plumbing

Another big day with very visible changes. Mal, Melvin and Phil all joined me again, and Anna fitted in a few hours between school runs. I was working at about a quarter strength and felt pretty miserable with some kind of chest bug, but the lads forged ahead with the remaining sheeting and knocked off most of the reveals. A huge bonus was when a delivery of gyproc arrived from Doves just as we were running out of sock. The funny thing was, I hadn't even ordered it - it was sent by mistake!
Mal hung both front and back doors and framed up the bulkhead in the kitchen. I pottered around with bits and bobs, including removing the glazing from the two front bedroom windows - both have to be replaced with something more suitable - and dismantling the access equipment from the back roof and inserting the omitted slates where the roof brackets had been.
Finally after weeks of procrastination, I bit the bullet and got stuck into the plumbing inside the bulkhead, running all the soil pipes from the bathrooms into a manifold and stack assembly inside the pantry. This will be boxed in and hidden when it's complete. I've been putting it off for ages, and hoping one of the others would do it, but in the event it went pretty smoothly, although the big soil pipes are a bit of a struggle to fit together.
The place is looking excitingly like a house, and will look even better tomorrow when the new patio doors are fitted.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

October 4th - sheeting & stairs

A big day on site, with Melvin reunited with the team. Mal spent the day installing the stairs, while Melvin and Phil sheeted reveals, having separately finished the shower-room and bathroom (Melvin) and the beam (Phil). I drifted around doing odds and sods, including running wiring for the smoke detectors and a light in the new cupboard under the stairs. I also had to drive to Kelso for ten sheets of gyproc and a box of collated screws to keep the lads going. The remaining windows and patio doors arrived from Rembrand, and will hopefully be in place by the end of tomorrow.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

October 3rd - sheeting

Had a full complement today - minus Melvin. I had a few errands to run, so Mal collected Phil, our new volunteer and set him to work immediately fitting bits and pieces of plasterboard upstairs. Mal was sheeting downstairs when I arrived with a frame for the front door. He installed this and tidied up the reveals while I sheeted the stairwell. Anna was on site again with her demon brushes, priming the fascia at the back of the house until she tired of the wobbly scaffold and turned her attention instead to the window frames.
I had to nick off to a meeting at lunch, after which I collected the stairs from Galashiels. They look grand. Very pleased with them, assuming they fit!

October 2nd - Slating & sheeting

Another glorious day. I'd set myself the easy target of finishing the slating at the back of the house, but spent the first few hours inside doing a bit of plasterboard work incase the taper turned up, and because I was scared of Mal's reaction when he returns tomorrow and finds that I've been frittering away my time sunning myself on the roof.
Anna arrived around lunchtime and dispatched me with a stern look to the slating, to which I dedicated myself for the remainder of the day. Made it to the ridge-line, which was very satisfying. Looking at the roof from the top of the banking it's very easy to see the gradual improvement in workmanship as I learned what I was doing.
Anna finished painting the post sockets. Mal back tomorrow - hurrah.
Collected volunteer Phil from the bus in the evening.

Monday, 1 October 2007


Difficult to express what an amazingly beautiful day it was. Warm and sunny, with the moon being the only spec of non-blue in the sky all day. Spent the whole day on the roof, and almost reached the top. Felt pretty sun-frazzled by knock-off, which is pretty good for October! Started cold and misty (see photos), and London and Gloucester had rain, which merely enhanced the pleasure!
Anna was on site for a few hours, painting the steel post sockets with sticky bitumous goo. She also did a sterling job sweeping upstairs in readiness for the taper, whenever he shows up. Seems to be call-screening...