Monthly Archives: July 2015

Our House Reborn

We have lived in our present house for seventeen years, and wanted to continue living in it, but there is no denying it is a bit of a money pit! In those seventeen years we have spent countless weekends and evenings mending water pipes, mopping up leaks, just firefighting problems with acid spring water in standard copper pipes and copper hot water cylinders. We have spent a lot of money replacing our hot water cylinder at regular intervals because of the acid water, decorating rooms only to see the damp seep through the walls and ruin the paintwork, employing useless builders to try to rectify problems with damp only to find the situation is worse after they have finished. The draughts whipping through the house on windy days (that is most days up here on our hill) made the place cold and uninviting. On top of all that are the day to day bills for running a house with no mains sewerage and no mains gas; in a word, astronomical.

When the window frames rotted I researched replacements. I didn’t like Upvc,  nor the standard metal units generally available, I wanted something made from a sustainable material that would do the job properly. That is when I found The Green Building Store. They are local, they manufactured Eco-plus triple glazed windows and doors, and they were committed to low-energy, eco-friendly building, especially Passivhaus. We had most of our windows replaced by them and immediately noticed how much warmer the house was. They also put right some of the problems caused by previous builders, and there is no doubt that they made a huge difference, but the house still ate money. Time for something radical.

We drew up a plan for what we wanted: use our acre of boggy land and our rooftop to provide us with warmth and energy, replacing the expensive LPGas; insulate the house and stop up the draughts; replace our cesspit, which has to be emptied every two months (at great and increasing expense) with a package sewage plant; in a word, make the house live-in-able in a sustainable way. Since insulating would require the removal of all the internal plaster, we decided to have some of the rooms remodelled to make them more useful for us. The project had taken on a life of its own!

The Builders
Although Green Building Company are primarily Passivhaus builders, they saw our house as an opportunity to demonstrate that a typical stone-built house in an extreme environment could be retrofitted to provide low-energy comfort. The fact that we have both solid wall and cavity wall construction in one property made it ideal for demonstrating the differing techniques required to make this possible. After all, most of the 24million houses in this country were built using one or other of these methods, and although the remodelling meant that our retrofit has been radical, the basic principles apply; with properly trained and motivated builders and owners prepared to put up with a bit of mess for a week or two, it is possible to bring the UK housing stock into the twenty-first century and reduce energy consumption in heating our homes.

The old beams

One of the old wooden beams

Ours is a house of two halves: the old barn with thick walls of solid construction, no damp proof course, and roof trusses that impinged on the top floor design, making some of the rooms awkward; and a modern construction extension with dpc and cavity walls, housing one room on each floor.
One of the bedrooms in the barn, a narrow room which we used as an office, had to be accessed through a narrow door and up a separate set of stairs. Off this room was a small attic room, accessible only by crawling on hands and knees through a low doorway. On the ground floor was an annexe, also accessible up a separate flight of stairs. The annexe consisted of two narrow bedrooms, a tiny shower room, half of which was located within the adjoining garage, and a corridor. This annexe was our guest room, but neither of the rooms was really large enough to accommodate a double bed. The annexe always felt very claustrophobic to me.

Trusses in the 1990s extension roof

Trusses and rafters in the 1990s extension roof

We drew up plans, with Green Building Company, to restructure the roof, using steel beams instead of the massive wooden ones. These i-beams would be hidden under the floor, and the weight of the roof taken by upright struts and plywood. The structural engineers assured us that this would work!

The annexe would go, and a new guest suite would take its place, accessed from a door opposite the kitchen. The archway through the original wall taking the shower room through into the garage would be blocked up as the wall formed the edge of the thermal envelope. The internal walls would be demolished and what had been the stairs up to the annexe and the corridor within it would become the en-suite shower room for a large guest bedroom.

New steel beams in place

New steel beams in place

On the middle floor,  there was also some remodelling to be done. With the removal of the LPGas boiler, the cupboard under the stairs (leading to the office) that had housed the boiler would be redundant, and the removal of the stairs to the office meant that the space could be incorporated into a room (next to the boiler cupboard). This room had originally been a dining room, when the kitchen had been on the middle floor. Later, I had annexed it as my sewing room, although it had largely been used as a dumping ground. The old kitchen on the middle floor was to be ripped out and turned into a bathroom, but with all the kitchen cupboards removed it was shown to be a spacious room, rather large for a bathroom. We decided to take some of that space, equivalent to the width of the gas boiler cupboard, and add it onto the sewing room enlarging that room by about a quarter. In effect, we are turning a five bedroom house, where three of the bedrooms were too small to be practical, into a four bedroom house where the rooms provide flexibility of use and better overall accommodation.

Building Works Begin
In September  2014, we moved into rented accommodation. We both felt a wrench at leaving our home, but kept telling ourselves it would be lovely when it was finished! We had debated whether to store everything and have a caravan on site, but eventually decided that we didn’t fancy spending a Yorkshire winter in a caravan so we would rent. We found a very nice cottage a mere five minutes drive from home, and managed to squeeze most of our stuff into it, although we do have to edge around the furniture it is so crowded!

Closeup of a block of Foamglas

Closeup of a block of Foamglas

The builders moved in with a couple of cabins, one for them and one for us, and work commenced. A daily skip delivery removed masses of material. We were pleased to hear that the skip company sorted the waste and recycled as much as possible, as we hated to think so much material was going into landfill. Some things we saved for reuse – the bathroom suite would be reinstated, for instance – other things, like the nearly new stainless steel hot water cylinder, would go on Ebay. The house started to change before our eyes, with walls disappearing daily, the roof tiles being removed and the plaster ceilings coming down and revealing the different roof structure between the old barn and the 1990s extension.

Foamglas in position

Foamglas in position

Because we have used steel beams in the barn to support the roof, there is a danger of thermal bridging. This we have overcome by using FOAMGLAS® Insulation, manufactured from specially graded recycled glass (≥ 60%) and readily available natural raw materials such as sand, dolomite and lime. The insulation is totally inorganic, contains no ozone depleting propellants, flame resistant additives or binders, nor does it contain VOC or other volatile substances. It is very light but very strong. The ends of each beam set into the walls were surrounded by Foamglas bricks to stop the bridging. We have also used Foamglas as a tanking material on the ground floor (more about that later).

To be continued . . .



Filed under Our House

An Ordinary Man

Today would have been my Dad’s ninetieth birthday. He was eighty-six when he died, a good age as they say, and at least a decade older than either his father or his grandfather.

Nan and Grandad with Socca the golden retriever sometime in the late 1940s

Nan and Granddad with Socca the golden retriever sometime in the late 1940s

He was born in 1925 to William (always called Bill) and Lucy Ellen (always know as Mum, or Nan, or Nell – in fact I did not learn her full name until after she had died). For the first couple of year’s of his life, Dad lived in a small cottage on Crimp Hill Road, but by dint of saving and scrimping granddad acquired the wherewithal to buy a brand new semi-detached house on Straight Road, named Rosebank. This house had a long narrow garden, where granddad grew vegetables, three bedrooms, a parlour and a Sunday best sitting room that no-one ever went into! The house cost £370 in 1928.

Aged 3 years

Aged 3 years

Granddad worked for the Post Office erecting telegraph poles, Nan preserved the fruit and vegetables from the garden, made jam, chutneys, and the most delicious cakes, all in a tiny galley kitchen that would fit into my own kitchen five times over! I especially remember her lardy cake, spicy bread pudding, and my favourite Victoria sponge.

Mum and Dad on their wedding day

Dad was not academic, but he was technically minded, and in his teens he studied to become a draughtsman for small instrument manufacture. He was taken on as an apprentice by Hawker Aviation, and since he was in a reserved occupation did not serve during the Second World War, instead he worked on the Hurricane plane. In 1945, he was called up to National Service and, like his father before him, served in the Royal Signals in the immediate aftermath of the war. After demob in 1947 he went to work at the tank factory on Chobham Common, where he met my Mum.

I never asked him why he switched careers from designing instruments for military machines to watchmaking, but around the time of his marriage in 1951 he went back to college to learn watchmaking and was afterwards taken on by Dysons of Windsor, a well respected local jewellers, as their in-house watch repairer. He worked for them until 1968 when they finally closed their workshops and helped him set up as self-employed in the garden shed. He became well known in the village, and beyond, and there was a steady stream of work in the years that followed. Dysons continued to supply him with their repair intake, but his reputation was such that he had plenty of other work. He told me that Michael Caine’s chauffeur had brought watches to be repaired on a couple of occasions! And that the odd royal watch had passed through his hands. He treated them all the same.

In the army, 1946

In the army, 1946

By this time, we had moved back to live in my grandparents house, they having found it too much to look after and having moved into a ground floor flat in the village near to my Aunt. Dad remodelled the garden, removed the lovely Victoria Plum tree that had been damaged by lightning, and turned much of granddad’s vegetable garden to lawn. Weekends were spent digging a pond, mowing the lawn, walking the dog, tending tomatoes in the greenhouse, much like millions of other people. As well as dogs, Dad liked keeping fish – the pond in the garden was for goldfish – and the birds my Mum loved, such as canaries and zebra finches. He was good with wild creatures, befriending an injured jackdaw, and adopting other birds that no one else wanted, such as the Silkie cockerel Chicko and his sister’s budgie Freddie.

Just as he was about to retire and enjoy a well-earned rest, he instead spent a year caring for my Mum during her last illness, so he never got to experience the sightseeing, the country walks, the quiet companionship, all the things that they had promised themselves they would do once he retired.

He lived a further seventeen years in the house granddad had bought for £370 until age and ill health forced him to move to a bungalow. The day he left the old house where he had lived for almost his entire life, I remember he turned the key in the lock and walked down the path without a last glance back.

So, today would have been his ninetieth birthday. His was a quiet life, no great deeds, nothing really to be remembered. Eighty-six years as a son, husband, father, draughtsman, watchmaker. An ordinary man living an ordinary life. Happy birthday, Dad.


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The Year of Knitting Lacily: July Update

Welcome to month 4 of my personal challenge, The Year of Knitting Lacily. June’s challenge was to knit one of Verybusymonkey’s Scientist shawls, Tesla. This pattern is less lacy than the previous 3 shawls, but I think it goes well with the variegated yarn – pale blue thickly scattered with pink, from pale rose to rich cranberry.wpid-20150601_141158.jpg


By the middle of the month, I had finished the body, a simple stocking stitch area that displays the variegation of the yarn to advantage, and by the 27th June I had finished the shawl and it looked nice even unblocked. However, there was a problem during the border section. Just before the fourth and last repeat of chart C I counted the stitches remaining and realised that I would have 6 body stitches left at the end of the chart instead of 3. I had counted the stitches at the end of the body and the number was correct. I counted all of the sssk stitches I had done, and it tallied with the number required for the border as charted. I double checked all of the ssk stitches – they were correct. So how did I end up with too many body stitches at the end? I have no idea, but it was too late to do anything about it, so I added two additional sssk stitches into the last repeat of chart C and and that left 4 body stitches which I incorporated into the garter stitch border at the end. I don’t think anyone will notice!wpid-20150706_103006.jpg


I enjoyed knitting this shawl. The variegated yarn provides the interest in the stocking stitch body of the shawl, and does indeed look like a petal storm! The border looks intricate but is in fact very easy, and the yarn colouring enhances that too. I especially like the edging three stitches; instead of a garter stitch edge to the border to get it to lie flat, the designer has used 1/1 RC narrow cable with a purl next to it. This forms a very attractive edge, and I am wondering if this would also look good on the top edge of a shawl. I must experiment.

Technical notes
Yarn:   Wharfedale Woolworks Yorkshire Rose BFL colourway Petal Storm
Pattern:  verybusymonkey Tesla Shawl from the Scientists 2 Collection
Needles: Addi 4mm circular needle
Yarn remaining out of 385m: approximately 38m or 11g

July’s Challenge Shawl
For July, I shall be knitting Whirlwind Romance by Nim Teasdale. This is another designer new to me, and the pattern is part of the collection Love is Friendship Caught on Fire. The shawls are lovely, lacy and romantic, and I could have chosen any of them happily but the idea of a Whirlwind Romance means the colour red to me, warm and sensual. In my stash, I have Shinto Gate from Wharfedale Woolworks, a stunning strawberry semi-solid BFL yarn from the Colour Therapy Sock Yarn Club 2015, and it just oozes romance! I think the lovely laciness of this shawl will look good in red. I can’t wait to cast on!



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