' the Woodlouse: July 2012


Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Bale building is: go!

Wowsers!  Volunteer week began yesterday and already more has happened than I could do in a week by myself.  The power of fifteen motivated people to plough through a variety of tasks at speed is awesome.  I have been joining in and doing my best to assist Kuba with supervising and keeping check on everything, but a fair amount of time has been spent being overwhelmed by it all.  It's brilliant but really quite shocking to see so much happening.

I go to the gable-end of the bungalow to unravel a measurements mystery (the bungalow is clearly not the size the surveyor said it is, this has happened in a number of places and I'm not impressed), return to the extension-end a short while later to find another task that had been preying on my mind has been completed with ease.  It's lovely being suddenly surrounded by a variety of lovely people, especially as they are helping build Anna's and my home.

We've been feeding the volunteers well, or more accurately: we've all been extremely well fed by a friend who has been doing the catering.  I've always been extremely well fed on strawbale courses/volunteer weeks on other people's builds so it's nice to maintain the standard.

In two days we've filled the extension and wrap plinth with the insulating, draining and damp-proof foamed glass gravel; fitted Darren's awesome timber baseplate (including amending it to fit the actual door location - Darren built it exactly as instructed, but I built the door slightly in the wrong place... Kuba says it's better there but he may be humouring me); filled the base plate with LECA (lightweight expanded clay aggregate); fitted the uprights around window and door openings; clay-plastered the bungalow where the wrap bales will meet the existing walls; and finally put the first bales in.  Anna and me have been waiting for this moment for well over a year now, and it feels great.  There is, of course, still a huge amount of work to do but the bale building has begun.  Knowing that soon we'll have complete walls - on which a roof can be built which will create a new indoors - is brilliant.

Technopor foamed glass gravel, compacted as ever in layers

Clay plaster (a simple 2 sand : 1 clay mix) on the existing bungalow, ensures a level(ish) surface for the bales to meet, and helps prevent condensation at the join

Team Plaster

Kuba mixes some plaster

Extra thick straw/clay plaster and timber ensure a secure join where the loadbearing strawbale walls meet the bungalow.  The bales will be notched to fit snuggly around the timber

Chips, drizzle and seaside: Kuba and Anna enjoy the authentic English seaside experience

The baseplate is levelled with wooden shims and mortared in place

I want a giant wooden toy train to play with on this

Mike, Kuba and Jo examing a lump of Technopor, fresh out of a bucket of water to confirm that it is indeed impervious to water

Sharpening stakes to go in the base plate to secure the first layer of bales

Aksel and Civita fitting eye-screws, used to tie the wrap bales against the wall

Permanent window/door posts and temporary corner guides

Kuba making a long bale.  This window is designed same size as existing bungalow front windows to match visually and keep planners happy.  It means it doesn't fit bale size so well, so we'll need to make some bigger and some smaller.

LECA very effectively fills and insulates the voids in the baseplate

Kuba and Marcin notching a bale with an alligator saw

Anna and me lifting the first bale into place, assisted by Julia checking we put it in the right place

Pushing it firmly into place

Sam proudly fitting bale number 2.

A corner!

Kuba and Chocolate at peace after a good days work

Sunday, 29 July 2012

It's nearly straw time

Volunteer bale builders arrive tomorrow.  We've ended up with slightly more than planned, plus a reserve list.  Yaay!  At some point I didn't think the site would be even remotely ready for them but I got all the plinth walls finished at the end of the week, adding the reclaimed-slate damp-proof course yesterday.  Darren Crane (brother-in-law and excellent carpenter, www.dcwoodwork.co.uk) has constructed the timber base-plate in his workshop, ready for us to fit with the volunteers tomorrow afternoon.  This will spread the load of the bales across the foundations and hold the hazel stubs that the first row of bales will be pushed onto, preventing the walls form sliding off the base-plate.  I got my first glimpse of the baseplate sections this evening during a workshop meeting with Darren and Kuba (www.jakubwihan.com, architect of the project).  They're an impressive bit of carpentry - it seems a shame to be burying them under the bales!

Kuba arrived today after a long coach journey from Prague, arriving in London 3 hours before the tubes started running.  He's now catching up on sleep, ready to run the site and supervise the building for the next week or so.  The volunteers are coming from all over: some local, some significantly less so.

Anna's been buying on-offer biscuits on sight for the last few weeks, ensuring we have ample supplies to refuel the workers at tea breaks.  She's also somehow managed to drag home on her mobility scooter a good stock of  second-hand plates and mugs, so everyone has something to have tea in and eat off.

Brick laying in the unexpectedly intense sunshine that came in the wake of the floods has left me roasted, with a deep tan between the bottom of my T-shirt sleeves and the top of my work-gloves, back-achey, stiff-fingered but deeply satisfied.  Finishing all the brick work mostly on my own was something I'd always wanted to do, but thought would be impossible given the need to claw back the schedule.  I would have liked to have got more done by now, but I'm happy that by Tuesday at the latest we should be ready to lay the first bales.

I accidentally bought myself some more time by leaving it a bit late to try and book the cavity insulation installation.  It turns out they're very busy and unable to install before we wrap the bungalow, so suddenly I didn't need to get the new doorway openings finished immediately.  They'll install later, and from the inside of the bungalow where necessary.

Article in the Bridport News, designed to drum up some local volunteers.  Seems to have worked.

Inner-wall of foundation plinth taking shape around the doorway from bedroom to outside covered area by conservatory

Walls growing.  The insulating, recycled foamed-glass black blocks are lovely to work with.  Very light, cut like butter when needed, and huge so large area of wall built very quickly.

Eric, my retired-builder neighbour lent me a pair of these wonderful gadgets.  They slot over the brickwork at each corner, held in place by the tension in the line that runs between them.  Build the brickwork following the line and you know it's straight and level (provided you've built the corners well and set up the line correctly).  So much faster after I started using this.

Gloves and bailer twine - we're ready!

The bales for the wrap only need to be half-width.  This is a test to see if a sawmill bandsaw can cut them for us.  Worked beautifully and swiftly.  This is good, because plan B was sketchy.

Slimline bales
Reclaimed slates cut up ready for the sustainably-sourced damp course.  It felt a bit sacrilegious hacking into quality Welsh-slate with a diamond-disc angle-grinder, but it got the job done.  Cheapest source of slate was a crate of random sized reclaims.

Assorted hazel, ready for stubs, pins, staples and various other bale-containment measures.

Finished extension plinth.

It inserts into the wall to prevent the bungalow gable wall drawing heat to the outside.

Finished wrap plinth.

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Foamglas and brick walls tied together with stainless steel ties.

A test clay-plaster mix to find out how well our clay broke down in the cement mixer.  It mixed up well very quickly, another great relief.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Walls, decisions, volunteers

The last 24 hours have been a bit of a whirlwind of discussion, decision making, and activity.  I'm very fuzzy headed.  The thing I keep coming back to as being one of the hardest bits of juggling with this self-build project is the disjointedness of trying to project-manage (make/receive phonecalls, reply to emails, place and chase orders or contractors, make decisions about everything, keep the whole thing vaguely on track - basically general admin) at the same time as trying to actually build the thing.  I do as much as possible in the evenings (like writing this) but a lot has to be done on-site during the day, as that's when people are in their offices and suppliers are open.  Then trying to actually spend time with Anna (she goes to bed early as she gets so tired with the fibromylagia and everything else), keep us both fed and stop the house descending into filth.  The lawns are developing ever stronger meadow-like tendencies.  Anna broke a toe last week.

In short: strewth, I'm knackered!  I don't pretend to be more knackered than anyone else, I'm just expressing my own personal world of tiredness.

It's important to add here that I am still enjoying it too.  Not all of it, not all the time (there's a constant undercurrent of anxiety, and I would love some decent time off) but enough of it to keep going and feel like it is worthwhile, even in the short term.  I'm learning lots of new skills (most recent: bricklaying - the first plinth foundation walls show record my progress from barely-competent at the bottom, to pretty-good at the top), I'm doing lots of practical stuff which is usually when I'm happiest, and I can see the project taking shape bit by bit.  Especially when it's by my own hands, this last point is extremely satisfying.

So, back to the last 24 hours.  Course bookings have not been quite as high as we'd hoped, to use PR speak.  More bluntly: despite lots of enquiries, so far only one person had booked and they hadn't paid yet.  We think the weather has - not surprisingly - put people off.  Participants would have to pay for the course and their accommodation which usually is camping.  I've camped in the frost (on the inside of my tent) a number of times, but somehow that's better than camping in constant rain.  Everything gets wet and can become quite grim.  We're now just asking for volunteers to come and help with the build - they'll be given basic training and we'll feed them good lunches.  If not local they'll still need to camp or stay in B&Bs but maybe that'll be more tempting when not paying a course fee as well.  More information about volunteering here and here.

The main difference to us is that we'll have to pay ourselves for Kuba (designer) to be onsite (this is what the course fees are designed to pay for).  It is our home we're building, so this is fair enough!  A very positive side-effect of the change to volunteers is that now - we hope - more of our friends and family will be able to help with the straw part of the build.  I've been a bit sad that this wouldn't have been so possible with the courses, so in some ways I'm really pleased we've decided now to go with volunteers.

If you'd like to join us, please do!  There are rumours that the jet-stream (weather phenomenon that's apparently responsible for the constant rain that's bugged us throughout this build) is maybe beginning to head north: we may yet get to strawbuild in proper summery weather.

A typical weather forecast accompanies another muddy week

Mud, beginning to dry out beneath the gazebo

Gazebo and a series of small walls - as my sister Caroline pointed out, it's like an archaeological dig.

First nice bricks going on, above the engineering bricks.  My technique much better by the top too...

Wrap plinth next to front door, almost complete.  Just needs damp course and timber  baseplate.

I really like the warm colour variation in the LBC Heathers (the nearest brick-match to the existing walls)

The most blue sky I've seen since April.  Lovely!