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.

Monday, 11 February 2008

February 11th - Living in the dream

We’re in! After a few last very long days, which went unblogged due to time-pressures, we flitted (to use the borders vernacular) on Saturday 9th. We’d booked a Luton van, and the wonderful Jack turned up by bus the previous evening, hot-foot – or probably cold-foot – from a skiing jaunt in the highlands. Helped by him, the children (hmm!), Melvin, who rolled up in trendy clothes, freshly scrubbed and bowed down by the weight of a huge bouquet of flowers in a blatant and alarming pitch for Anna’s affection and Rachel we made the move in two van-loads. Yet again we were blessed with gorgeous warm sunny weather, which always seems to happen, even though our last four moves have all been between October and February.
We’re now settling in very nicely, and are finding the house incredibly easy to live in. It’s everything I wanted, and so much more. The big open-plan living / cooking / dining area is wonderful, and with the furniture in is very, very easy on the eye. The bedrooms are a little smaller than we’re used to, and one or two bits of furniture will have to be sacrificed. These rooms were deliberately kept to a modest size, as one of the core-principles I had in my head when drawing up the floor-plans was to try to keep some kind of relationship between the proportions of a room and the amount of waking time spent there. For that reason, a large upstairs living space, away from the hubbub of downstairs, was always on the wish-list. This lounge is currently full of boxes, which will be unpacked gradually over the next couple of weeks as bookshelves are made, clothes-storage solutions are worked out and wardrobe-rails hung. The snug is also out of action at the moment, littered as it is with tools and materials from the build that haven’t yet found a home out in the shed. One of Jack’s main achievements this weekend was to reorganize the shed, restacking the stockpile of firewood and sorting out the rest of the junk in there. This has already enabled me to store the solar-panel equipment out there, and today it should be joined by the bulk of the gubbins from the snug and my two big saws, which are for now doing battle with the elements on the verandah.
Yesterday Anna and Ellie were in Edinburgh, and Jack, Rachel and I took the boys up the hills. The little ones were very excited to walk through the cloud and emerge in the warm sunshine above. Hamish made it all the way to the top of Hownam Law with J&R, and the boys made it about half-way. The pictures below were mostly taken on the walk. Pictures of the house will follow once the remaining boxes downstairs are unpacked.
I phoned Mal yesterday morning and thanked him for making it all happen. I feel incredibly fortunate that all the necessary pieces fell into place at just the right time. We had the funds through the sale of our house in the village; the perfect plot fell in our laps (albeit at a cost of £125,000!) and – most importantly – we had Mal’s renowned expertise, Aussie can-do attitude, dynamism and disregard for bureaucracy on hand for a year. Without all that it would never have got out of the ground. I’d blithely assumed that I’d be able to carry it off mainly solo, with a little advice along the way. In the event, Mal’s experience and know-how was absolutely indispensable, and on this occasion rescued me from my own arrogance. He’ll probably never realize how much the whole project has meant to me. It’s something I conceived during a ten-day walk through Tasmania (funnily enough) in 1994. It has turned out even better that my paltry imagine could allow, and I’ll be eternally grateful. Cheers, mate!
And Melvin too, who started the job as clueless as I was back I June and learned the ropes as we went along, just as I did. It’s a journey that I’ve found almost wholly enjoyable and immensely fulfilling (with one or two notable exceptions), and I hope that Melvin has been similarly enriched. He’s certainly picked up some very useful new skills, and absorbs information and concepts amazing quickly. He looks a lot fitter and trimmer around the middle, and under Mal's careful guidance learned how to get out of bed in the morning and tackle a day's honest toil. His physical strength, his engineer’s analytical brain and his irrepressible good humour have been enormous assets.
Several other pals have involved themselves: Dave, who was here laying blocks in soupy mud and pouring rain for the first two days; Jack who hammered heroically for a summer fortnight despite being left-handed, my band of straw-baling volunteers who worked like Trojans through a hot September weekend; Lucky Phil who helped with the sheeting for a few days in the Autumn and my running buddy JD, who was the only volunteer to serve a second stint, right at the death when I was fitting out the utility room. Most of those involved in the build were fed and watered at some point by Anna's mum, who turned up from time-to-time laden with splendid picnics, and who did a huge amount of sweeping, wiping and general clearing behind the scenes.
Deliberately, and not solely for financial reasons, I have employed the bare minimum of tradesmen. Rob beautified it all with paint, Stevie and Rab the tapers smoothed out the wrinkles (well – most of them) and Jim installed and commissioned the boiler, and didn’t laugh openly at my plumbing. Big thanks to them, too.
And, of course, Anna, who has looked after the kids and coped with my daily absence with scarcely a murmur of complaint, and who had the recklessness and courage to plough our life-savings into my harebrained scheme. Ta, chuck!
We're not quite finished, of course, and I doubt whether we ever will be. The project took on a momentum all of its own, and looking back through the photos and the blog, it's remarkable to see how much work was packed into seven months. We've taken up residence a year ahead of schedule and more-or-less within budget. The first of these is largely down to Mal. The second is a complete mystery, as each stage seemed to devour at least twice the materials originally allowed for. Perhaps when I sit down and do the figures in a few weeks I'll discover a black hole somewhere. For the moment I'm content to sit and radiate in the glow of satisfaction, watching the slopes of Hownam Law turn red and gold in the evening sun, and to wait for the days to warm with the Spring, when I shall put down my saw, pick up a tinnie and sit on the verandah, listening to the gurgle of the stream, the mastication of the horse and the happy sound of the boys playing with the owls and the mice in the pile of surplus strawbales...
Hownam Law 100208

Thursday, 7 February 2008

February 6th - phone and oiling

My email to Scotland's top BT-man has borne fruit spectacularly. Completely unofficially, and without any order numbers, delays, connection fees or any of the usual nonsense I now have phone and broadband in the new house - and they've even transferred the existing number over. I'm a happy chappy!
I had Toby and Hamish with me all day, and Oscar as well for the last couple of hours. Pottered around oiling doors and securing the kitchen and utility-room sinks in place and sealing around them with silicon.
After putting the kids to bed I headed back and spent the night until 1:45am sanding and treating the stairs with Osmo PolyX oil. They've spent the last few months protected by heavy-duty polythene held in place by duct tape, and removing the tape was a real pig of a job. Took ages (hence the late finish), but the stairs look great with their satin finish.
More timber coming in the morning,which should enable me to complete the architraves and skirtings upstairs, and possibly get some shelves up in the pantry and bedrooms.
Ordered epoxy wood-filler and brass powder, which I plan to combine into a metallic paste to fill the joint between the worktops, and fill the craks that are appearing as the spport pillars dry out. Anna was in Edinburgh conducting a funeral, and came back laden with a dining table, a bench and a load of rugs and light-shades from Ikea.
It really feels like the end is in sight, although of course, the project probably won't be finished for years, if ever.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

February 5th - Jack of all trades

Another short day curtailed by a school run, but in the six-or-so hours we had, Anna and her mum oiled doors and had a BIG clear-up, shifting everything off the kitchen island and lifting the protective cardboard and excavating the floor from beneath piles of sawdust, card and sundry gubbins. Hamish (off school again) played with various beeping things and I had a bit of a tinkering sort of a day. Started with some architraves, then moved on to door-locks. After lunch I fitted another double socket to the right of the kitchen sink and with my final ten minutes I connected the water supply to the bathroom WC.
A brace of BT bods turned up to tell me that a temporary cable had been hooked up, and that they should be back to connect me tomorrow.

Monday, 4 February 2008

February 4th - Architraves and oiling

A very short day on site for me, as I had a dozen parcels to ship in the morning and a school-run in the afternoon. Anne came over to lend a hand and she, Hamish (bunking off school) and Anna oiled internal doors with Danish oil. MUCH nicer finish than the varnish we've been using for the upstairs doors, and I've half a mind to strip them and oil them instead. I finished the architraves around the loft-hatch and used the remaining timber to finish the architraves around some of the upstairs doors.
Anna re-varnished the back door, which was already looking a bit sad and weathered, having had just a single coat in the Autumn.
I spent a completely fruitless and infuriating 40 minutes being shunted from one BT department to another, with lengthy periods on hold between each, trying to sort out the phone connection. Eventually hung up in an incandescant rage and fired off an email to Ian Shanks, the Scottish Head of Operations. By early afternoon he'd phoned back and was on the case. Even he is being fobbed off by the supervising engineer, who told him that the cable-laying is complete. I told him that, quite to the contrary, I could see from the end of the road the two coils of cable - one at each end of the bridge - which have yet to be taken overhead and connected. He said he'd look into it further. I wait with baited breath... (must stop eating lug-worms!)
Hamish also did a quick tour of the house with a little socket tester I bought for a quid, and almost immediately found a fault in a socket in the living room, where it reckons I've reversed live and neutral. He was very pleased with himself. Will fix it tomorrow.
I've had a comment from someone called Janet asking why we didn't install under-floor heating. A good question. At one point I seriously considered it, and I suspect it's on the drawings (along with several dozen other abberations which aren't reflected in the house). Eventually it was discounted for a few reasons:
Initial cost - would have been probably a grand or two more than the radiators.
Efficacy - not sure how effective it would have been with a suspended timber floor. It really comes into its own in a concrete floor, where the thermal mass of the concrete stores the heat and acts like a giant storage heater. The much less massive suspended floor would have heated up and cooled down much faster, and the heat given off would have probably been a lot less uniform, being concentrated around the pipes rather than diffused through the floor.
Effect on flooring - Several of the suppliers of hardwood flooring stipulated that their product wasn't suitable for underfloor heating, presumably because of excessive drying and warping.
Inertia - I just didn't get around to learning enough to make an informed decision before it was time to lay the pipes, and the radiators were and easy cop-out.

February 3rd - Plumbing on the night-shift

Fitted a new thermostatic shower, plumbed in the utility-room sink and installed the dish-washer after putting the weans to bed. Good productive three hours.

Saturday, 2 February 2008

February 2nd - Loft hatch and varnishing

Had a lovely run over Wideopen Hill and Hownam Law in the snow with John in the morning, then headed for the plot in the afternoon. Anna joined me with the boys, and while she continued varnishing doors, I made and installed a loft hatch. A bit labour-intensive, but I'm very happy with it. Cut a piece of OSB to fit the hole, then clad it with offcuts from the architraves. Looks grand. No pictures from the build, but photos of the run below:
Hownam Law_020208

Friday, 1 February 2008

February 1st - Tropical - innit?

Today we mostly drank tea. And in between the blizzards JD plumbed in the central heating system, hung a few doors, cut and fitted the sink in the utility room and generally showed off his amazing DIY skills. I mostly danced all day to the groovy sounds of the Dixie Chicks, Michael McGoldrick and Show of Hands. Jim the plumber stopped the CO2 from poisoning us all and the neighbours rode in through the saloon doors on their Clydesdale horses to borrow a bag of sugar. Anna painted a few muriels (I think he means murals - ed) of flying ducks on the wall and then dashed off to save the twins from the mighty blizzard that was sweeping through the metropolis of Morebattle. JD bravely tested out the WCs in every room and judged them nae bad. Fuelled by peanut butter and cheese pieces at lunch we then ran 26 miles home over the Cheviots in time for a BBQ and some midnight trampolining. JD is back off to the smoke tomorrow and I don't know how I'll cope.

As you may have guessed, JD wrote that lot! Big, big day, when the disaster of yesterday was dispelled. My fix for the central heating worked an absolute treat, and by mid-morning I had all the radiators connected, with just a couple of very slow drips for which I needed a roll of PTFE tape. Jim had filched it all, so they had to wait until he rocked up at 4pm. In the meantime JD and Anna varnished a load of the internal doors (and pretty nifty they look, too) and JD and I cut the utility-room worktop and assembled it all.
Jim commissioned the boiler and did the CO2 test, and by the time we all left a little after 5pm, the place was almost approaching warm. What a difference - it's really starting to feel like a home!
The floor is continuing to dry slowly, and I think, but can't be sure, that the bumpy floor is starting to flatten a little as the swollen joints shrink back.