' the Woodlouse: 2014


Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Ramble Away

Just a brief post today, primarily to share the link to a podcast I was interviewed for recently. The House Planning Help podcast series covers a huge and very interesting range of topics related to sustainable building, energy efficiency, selfbuild, water use, community involvement, and more. The most recent one features me talking about the good and bad bits of externally insulating and extending our bungalow with strawbales.

I found it surprisingly nervous-making being recorded, although I'm normally happy to extol the virtues of strawbale building at great length. I still did talk at length, waved my arms around a lot and pointed at things (always useful for an audio recording), but Ben Adam-Smith - the podcast's creator - did an excellent job of getting me back on topic and editing it down to a coherent whole.

So here's the link to the House Planning Help Website, with my podcast and many more:


Wednesday, 1 October 2014

The Interconnectedness of All Things

A couple of weeks ago I started the new MSc Sustainability and Adaptation in the Built Environment course at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) in Wales. I was unfeasibly nervous before heading up there for the first week. I don't remember being anything like as anxious when last going to University 16 years ago to start a ceramics degree, but this time I was imagining anything and everything that could go wrong, from randomly not being registered on the course when I arrived, to public humiliation and being exposed as the only ignorant one, surrounded by highly knowledgeable and intelligent people. As the journey progressed and time drew on all these worries were eclipsed by the all encompassing horror that I might miss dinner!

Thankfully I made it in time to enrol, meet my room mate for the week, and eat. As it turned out, all the other new students were equally ignorant or knowledgeable, coming from a diverse range of backgrounds and bringing different experiences. I won't talk at length about the course because fellow new student Helen Kennedy has already written a brilliant account of the week and the issues it introduced us to here: http://blog.cat.org.uk/2014/09/30/transition-people-transformation-people/ and I highly recommend reading it.

It was amazing and intense. A huge amount of information was thrown at us, all really interesting or fascinating, all really important. In some ways it was quite a doom-laden week. A lot of the lectures summarised the effects, dangers and extent of human-made climate change and just how much a challenge it is to adapt society to it, and to avoid potential catastrophe. It was also (thankfully) optimistic, as the beginnings of solutions were suggested (these will be expanded upon throughout the course) and the general drive was to motivate us to action. There was also a lot of talk of the interconnectedness of the different subject areas and approaches. This is very important, but also made me smile everytime the phrase was mentioned as I couldn't help thinking of Douglas Adams and Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, in which the detective seeks to solve the cases he is given through investigating "the interconnectedness of all things".

I came away from the week exhausted but buzzing. The people were lovely to be around, both students and staff, and it felt like a wrench to leave them all behind. We'll all be back there is less than a fortnight though, and I can't wait.

And as seems to be the habit of this blog, after that blurb - here's some pretty pictures.

The view from my bedroom at CAT

'Where it all began' - clay plaster samples on the wall of the outside area where I first learned to strawbale build, on a course taught by the wonderful Bee Rowan of http://www.strawbuild.org/

Inside one of the reed-bed poly-tunnels at CAT, where plants and useful bacteria treat the sewage run-off from the site

A creation by previous architecture students at CAT, known as The Bird Hide, although it isn't one.

Another ex-students beautiful creation

The WISE building (Wales Institute for Sustainable Education), home of the Graduate School of the Environment at CAT

The site is an old slate quarry, so there's a lot of this.

Part of an old water-turbine exhibit (I think)

The rammed earth wall of the main lecture theatre in the WISE building.

I think this is an old water-wheel housing, now ingeniously re-used as part of the rainwater management for the WISE building.

Roof light in an upstairs study/meeting room

A small sample of drawings from the Professional Diploma Architecture students (ProfDips) who are at CAT at the same time as the MSc students and share some of the same lectures.

Another view of the terrace, just outside my bedroom window.

Working on the group practical. I think this was the "have we lost the whole presentation" moment (we hadn't, phew!).

Picnic table

The biscuit Union Flag, offered around by the Scottish contingent in the wake of the referendum with the words "help me break up the UK".

We celebrated/commiserated the referendum result with a Ceilidh, brilliantly organised by Kirsty Cassels

The outside of the lecture theatre by night

The view from the upstairs study/seminar room

Presentations on the last day, showing and discussing the results of our group practicals

An unexpected side-effect of the first week is that I've learned to really appreciate clear presentation of data. I even enjoyed creating graphs in Excel. Strictly speaking, I didn't particularly enjoy the process of creating them, but I was really pleased with them when we had (no photos of my groups' presentation exist)

Squeezed between the incredibly full lecture/seminar schedule was a goodly amount of drinking tea, chatting, debating and gesticulating.

On the way home I visited a friend - these are some lovely bricks in his house

Giants Chair in the Forest of Dean

Tree Cubed in the Forest of Dean

More sculpture in the Forest

Inside the writing at the Wales Millennium Centre, with Mum, also on the way home.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Living in the baley bungalow

As anybody reading this who knows us or follows me on twitter will probably already know: we're in! We moved in at the beginning of June after an epic push to get the place ready.

It's not finished, but it mostly looks it if you don't look too closely. Architraves and skirting need filling, sanding and painting, the bath needs a bath panel, various cupboards and shelves need to be fitted (or created, then fitted), the garden needs emptying of extraneous building materials, the pile of clay needs levelling, the shed needs painting, a gate needs fitting; the sunroom needs plastering, painting and flooring; and paintwork everywhere needs touching up. But I think that might be kind of 'it'. Things have slowly been getting more finished since move-in, but everything takes longer when there's the apparatus of daily life to work around, and be kept clean, and be distracted by. Also when, frankly, we're both knackered! We started work on site roughly two years and two months before we moved in.

It was - of course - never meant to take so long. To blame for that is a mixture of wildly optimistic scheduling, appallingly bad weather (the wettest year in England on record), several major life events, flare-ups of chronic ill-health, total lack of experience, and various other things within and without our control. But whatever, we're living in our own strawbaley bungalow, and both refurb and extension are lovely to live in.

The day before move-in, Darren (wonderful brother-in-law and carpenter), Mike (lovely builder, window-fitter, solar-thermal installer and incredibly helpful person) and me were still hanging doors and frantically fitting skirtings and architraves well into the evening. Darren and Mike helped with clearing the larger debris from a week of last-minute works, then left me alone to clear everything else from the bungalow (mostly by cramming into the sunroom), try to remove all traces of sawdust and rubbish, and generally make the place presentable and ready to move in. It was a long evening, but actually really good for me and the bungalow to have some quiet time together while after the build stuff was removed and before everything we own arrived. Sort of time for me to go "so, then: we've done all-right together haven't we baley bungalow?". That probably sounds odd. Oh well.

Seeing the "finishing" touches come together in that last week, with the architraves and skirtings suddenly crisping up the look of place, was amazing and overwhelming.

On move in day itself I stayed at the mouldy bungalow to pack the inevitable "last few things" (about a big van's worth...) while Anna came ahead to the bungalow to be here when the removal men brought the first load (we used movers and I'm so glad we did. I was exhausted by the last push and would have collapsed completely if faced with moving everything too). A little while after Anna left to come up here, she called in tears and I had the usual worries about what could have happened, but then she said "it's beautiful" and I realised she was happy, not upset. Until that point Anna had naturally only ever seen the bungalow while I was working on it, so it was almost always a mess, and an unfinished mess at that. She didn't get to see it emerging from the mess in the same way I did. Turns out the place scrubbed up pretty well.

At some point soon I'll write about how the building is performing (mostly very well - a comfortable, low-energy living environment). For now I'll just say a massive heartfelt thankyou to everybody who has helped us get here. There are many of you and it wouldn't have happened without you. Really wouldn't. To all of you who built walls, brought cake, tied bales, shovelled gravel in the rain, chopped straw with a lawnmower, cleared rubble; nailed, tied, glued, wedged, screwed or otherwise fixed things together; hefted things about, scrabbled in the ground, scaled scaffolds and walls; mixed various types of mud, and plastered walls; fed us, brought us drinks; advised us, taught us, steered us away from some huge mistakes and towards solutions to others; put up with me talking about little else, were patient with my incessant posting of pictures online of walls, or holes in the ground, and even encouraged me by liking some of them; friends and family who encouraged us, and let us complain about things even though we chose this and are so very lucky to be able to do it; helped and entertained Anna when I was too busy, or tired, or both; really everybody who has helped in anyway at all; THANKYOU! You're all amazing.

And here's some more photos (in more or less chronological order).

The sedum-roofed extensions, sitting nonchalantly between the bungalows

Rainwater system sorted (more on this in a future blog - rainwater harvesting is more complicated than I'd thought, especially environmental credentials or otherwise, but if done correctly can be great)

Late night working the brother-in-law, two days before move-in. This is the main bedroom. Darren selected the pink as his preferred colour for the evening.

Bathroom (shower is out-of-shot)

External lighting on lime/glass render

7:30pm, day before move-in, the living room.

Later that night... (sawbench in previous photo was on far side of that counter)

Kitchen, night before move-in.

Our lovely neighbours gave us flowers when we moved in. I felt like we should have given them flowers for putting up with us!

The dog enjoying his new garden, despite the debris.

Solar thermal working well: 85 degrees C at the top of the hotwater tank

Excess skirting and architrave re-purposed as wardrobe shelving, allowing us to unpack some more boxes

Anna enjoying her maiden voyage down the newly sorted side-access (recycled-plastic paving grid filled with gravel - firm surface for scooter but well-draining)

Sedum roof starting to flower.

View from the back with some of the building debris cleared.

The roof in flower.

I hauled Anna up onto the roof so she could see it too.

Rainbows of light from a solatube

More solatube rainbows, over glass light-fitting (I have a lot of photos of these rainbows. I love them)

Finally persuaded the heat-recover ventilation controller to speak English. I was surprised to find it could control time.

Excess UK larch decking turned into shoe, coat, hat, scarf and bag racking in porchy bit.

Clay, wonderful clay, oh how I love you (clay plaster - quite a lot of photos of this too)

Two months after we moved in, we finally got the house number up (made by a friend).

Another 'finally done' - finally glazed the truth window, to display the straw (the shelving next to it is temporary)

Finally replaced the horrible plastic window sill end-caps with the metal ones we've had in a box for months, then completed the render by plastering up to end-cap - to make sure no water can find its way into the bales. Also fixed some cracks in the render.

Rear deck and access ramp. UK Larch

From the front, with pile of play.

Front access.

I love this bit. Lime/glass plaster sparkliness, clay plaster natural clayey loveliness, oak floor, nice doors, and a bit of stainless steel for good measure.


Kitchen shelves up, with cup hooks. Pots made my me and a variety of other potters.

And to prove we're still capable of smiling after it all, even with a camera pointing at us