Monthly Archives: September 2015

An Ordinary Woman

Today would have been my Mum’s eighty-seventh birthday. Thelma was born in Islington Workhouse Hospital, on 15 September 1928. The workhouse had long been closed as a repository for the destitute of London, but the hospital still provided facilities for the local area.

At Mrs South's, 1929

At Mrs South’s, 1929

Victoria and burgeoning family outside their home in Vegal Crescent Englefield Green

Victoria and burgeoning family outside their home in Vegal Crescent Englefield Green

She and her mum, Victoria, moved around a bit in her first year or so, eventually fetching up near Guildford at the house of Mrs South. Thelma always referred to the lady as Auntie South, but I don’t believe there was any relationship other than friendship between Victoria and Mrs South. When Thelma was about eighteen months old, Victoria met a widower, Henry, a gardener and groundskeeper at Wentworth Golf Club, and they married in 1930. Henry already had four children, two the result of his first marriage, and two his first wife’s children. Thelma was suddenly part of a large family!

The family expanded, with four more daughters added in the next few years, Thelma grew up, went to school, and wanted to become a hairdresser. Unfortunately, Henry saw no future (or useful income) in her training as a hairdresser, and so she shelved her dreams and trained as a secretary instead.

While working at the tank factory at Chobham Common in 1948, she met a handsome young man, recently demobbed and trained in draughtsmanship. She always said that she thought Bill looked like the actor Danny Kaye, with his wavy fair hair and twinkly blue eyes! They married in 1951, and had one daughter.

Thelma in 1948, aged 20

Thelma in 1948, aged 20

Over the years, Thelma worked as a cleaner of other people’s houses, a secretary to the hospital pharmacist, a homemaker and a supporter of Bill’s self-employment. They took holidays – two weeks in Mrs Fudge’s bed and breakfast in Poole Dorset, or touring around Cornwall, or renting a cottage on Exmoor. They never went abroad, never even had a passport. Thelma’s life may have seemed dull by today’s standards, but she was content. She baked delicious cakes, cooked simple meals, knitted, sewed her own clothes, visited friends in the village, and occasionally, when Bill fancied a day away from work, she would pack a picnic and load the dog and the food into the car and off they would go for a ramble.

Bill and Thelma on their wedding day

Bill and Thelma on their wedding day

She had always had a love of birds, and had been a member of the RSPB for many years. She started keeping birds in a small way, with a couple of canaries; Bill built her a large aviary, half under cover and half outside, and she filled it with zebra and other decorative finches, lovebirds, and more canaries. The zebra finches bred like rabbits, although the canaries only ever managed to have one baby. She loved watching the birds flitting around the in the aviary from the comfort of the living room, as well as enjoying the sight of the wild birds at the strategically placed bird table.

When she was in her late fifties, she was diagnosed with cancer. The operation and subsequent radiotherapy was deemed successful and eventually she was told she was in remission. Bill and Thelma celebrated their Ruby Wedding Anniversary in 1991, a fun evening party for which she made all of the food – none of your M & S party packs for Thelma!

Sadly, the remission was short lived, and by the time the cancer was diagnosed again, it was too late for treatment. She died quietly in Windsor hospice in January 1993, aged just sixty-four.

I suppose most people would deem such a quiet life rather boring. Thelma had no career to involve her, she did not have a lot of money to indulge extravagant tastes. She didn’t drive a car, or go out partying, or travel widely. She made a home for her family, cooked and cleaned for them, looked after the pets, worked in fairly menial jobs, and took up and enjoyed a few harmless hobbies. Like, in fact, millions of other ordinary women.

Happy birthday, Mum.

Thelma in 1991

Thelma in 1991


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Airtightness and Ventilation

Before I met Bill Butcher of The Green Building Company I had never heard of Air Changes per Hour (ach), the accepted measurement of how draughty a house is. Government regulations for new buildings say that new houses have to have 10ach or less (actually expressed as 10 m-3.h-1.m-2@50Pa (metres cubed, per hour, per metre squared of external building envelope area); Passivhaus standard is less than 1ach; to qualify for EnerPhit a house has to have 1.5ach or better. Before work began, but after our furniture had been moved out, Bill had a local company test our house, using a Blower Door Test; the result was 16.9ach. This despite having well-fitting triple glazed windows and doors. I hate to think what the result would have been if we had had it tested when we moved in 17 years ago, probably equal to living outdoors! Although we cannot hope to achieve Passivhaus standard, and will struggle to meet EnerPhit, there is a lot that can be done to improve on 16.9ach. We have our fingers crossed for 3ach, but we shall have to wait and see.


Taping around the roof trusses

Firstly the roof needed to be removed, and the felting replaced with Solitex, the standard under-slate covering. That made it weatherproof, but not windtight. Under the Solitex came three thicknesses of Earthwool mineral wool laid in a vertical-horizontal-vertical sandwich. The wool was held in place by sheets of Intello, a vapour open plastic membrane taped around all trusses and joists with Proclima tape; and on top of the Intello, a 100mm block of Xtratherm, similar to Kingspan. The new triple-glazed Velux windows were installed and packed around with extra mineral wool, and plasterboard and plaster skim covered the Xtratherm. All of this material replaced a layer of rotting 1990s felting, a single layer of mineral wool and a layer of plasterboard. The Proclima tape and the Intello are standard products used in building Passivhaus buildings, and it was impressive to see the attention to detail used in applying the tape; absolutely every nook and cranny was taped up, every joist, every window reveal, everywhere that any air could have got in.

Taping around the windows

Taping around the windows

The edging floorboards were also taken up allowing the insulation that would eventually be applied to the walls to be carried the full height of the house, with no gaps between floors. All floor joists were also taped.

Before insulation could be installed, the external walls had to be parged to ensure wind tightness. This was done with a mixture of sand and cement, and covered the internal walls and around the window reveals.

Bill has already discussed the decisions surrounding the internal wall insulation (IWI) materials in his blog. I will cover it in a later episode; suffice it to say that we are enthusiastic about the conclusions reached!



Taping around the floor joists

All the wind tightness measures ensure that as little air as possible blows in, so how do we breathe once the windows and doors are closed? The answer is Mechanical Ventilation and Heat Recovery (MVHR). This is standard kit in Passivhaus construction, and designed into the fabric from day one, so that the effect is seamless. In a retrofit such as ours, careful consideration had to be given to placing the pipes so that every room had the appropriate outlet – extraction from bathrooms and kitchen, but blowing into every other room. The ceilings were only just deep enough in some places to fit the 150mm diameter pipes, and bends in the pipes have had to be accommodated in boxing. Moreover, the pipes running down from the top floor (where the MVHR unit is housed) to the ground floor are contained in a vertical box, reducing the sizes of both the top floor shower room and the middle floor bathroom. We have lost the vaulted ceilings on the top floor as the apex was needed for the MVHR pipes to take them across to the top floor bedroom, but this means that we can have inset ceiling lights, which helps enormously with the head height in the top floor rooms. You win some, you lose some. On the whole  though, we are very pleased with the way everything has been laid out.


The Paul Novus 300 MVHR unit and pipework

The MVHR unit draws fresh air into the house and passes it through a heat exchanger, which extracts the heat from the outgoing stale air and uses it to heat the incoming air. The unit we have installed, Paul Novus 300, has an efficiency rating of 93%, meaning that 93% of the heat from the outgoing air is recovered when operating at 200 cubic metres per hour. This is a similar unit to the one installed in the Denby Dale Passivhaus (certified at 0.4ach) and at the Golcar Passivhaus (0.26ach).


MVHR pipes in the Plant Room

The Plant Room
The Plant Room is a narrow windowless room running the width of the house. It used to be our attic room, housing hot water cylinder, cold water tanks, and as much junk as we could squeeze into it. Now it is high-tech heaven. It has the MVHR unit in one corner with the inlet/outlet pipes through the eastern wall, the pumps and inverters for the solar thermal panels and the photovoltaic panels (more about renewables in a later post), and an enormous highly insulated 300 litre heatstore/hot water cylinder. There will be very little room for our junk storage!
The hot water cylinder is heated by the solar thermal panels and the ground source heat pump, with an electric immersion heater as belt-and-braces backup. The solar thermal pumps and the MVHR unit also require electricity (as does the ground source heat pump on the ground floor), so we have 12 BenQ 330watt photovoltaic panels mounted six on the eastern side of the roof and six on the western. We shall be monitoring the performance of these,  since this is not the usual placement for solar PV, preference being given to south facing roofs.

See also:
Our House Reborn


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Eight Years and Counting

On 2nd September 2007, our lives changed radically when we adopted three hens. They were Black Rock hybrids, named Betty, Hetty and Letty. Since then we have cared for, loved, and mourned more than forty hens and cockerels. I have written about them extensively in the past, and I don’t want to bore you by repeating myself. I just want to record the fact that today is the eighth anniversary of our keeping hens. Here’s to the next eight!


Betty’s Eighth Birthday celebrations, April 2015

HettyBettyLetty on wall

Hetty Betty and Letty investigating our neighbours’ garden

Betty in October 2008

Betty in October 2008

Betty in August 2015

Betty in August 2015


Our Life with Chickens: part 1

Betty’s Big Day & Birthday Breakfast


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The Year of Knitting Lacily: September Update

We have reached the halfway point in my challenge, and I now have six lovely sock yarn shawls waiting for autumn to arrive so that I can wear them. August’s challenge shawl was Heartsick by Remily Knits (Rachel Henry), and it was challenging because the construction was markedly different from all the other shawls I have knitted recently. For Heartsick, we knit the lovely lace motif edging first, all 21 repeats of the heart shape, then pick up along the straight edge and knit short rows to create a slight curve. I admit that I found it difficult to keep track of counting the short rows and placing the wraps correctly. Actually, I used the knit double stitch / purl double stitch method of wrap and turn described in the Fish Lips Kiss Heel sock pattern, and it is so effective at hiding the wrap that I couldn’t see where the previous wrap had occurred! Nevertheless, I was able to fudge adapt the pattern to suit my erratic counting; if I had been conscientious and had had all the time in the world, I would have ripped it back and knitted the body again!


I am very pleased with the result. The yarn is a lovely variegation – called Winter Sunset – hand dyed by Kirsty at Wharfedale Woolworks in her Yorkshire Rose BFL sock yarn (one day I may actually knit a pair of socks in this lovely yarn!) and it looks good both on the edge of the shawl and on the body. I imagine that it would be simple to extend the size of the shawl by knitting more edge pattern repeats and recalculating the short rows. It would also look good with a plain yarn for the border and a variegated one for the body, or vice versa. I nice adaptable pattern!

imageTechnical notes
Pattern: Heartsick, part of the Lovelorn Collection by Rachel Henry (Remily Knits)
Yarn: Wharfedale Woolworks Yorkshire Rose BFL sock yarn, colour Winter Sunset (issued as part of the 2014 Flora Sock Yarn Club) 110g, 385m
Needles: Milward bamboo circular needle, 4.5mm
Yarn remaining: 19g, approximately 66m
Finished dimensions: 135cm at the neck edge by 31cm at its widest point.

September’s Challenge
Wharfedale Woolworks Sock Yarn Club for this year is called Colour Therapy, and the semi-solid colours have been absolutely fabulous; a rich strawberry red, a glistening pale grey, a yellow the colour of ripe corn, a grassy green aptly named Gaia, a stunning blue, and a slatey blue-grey named Panacea. I have already used Zen Garden (March’s challenge) and Shinto Gate (July’s challenge) and this month I am going to knit with Cinteotl. The named of this yarn refers to the Mayan god of maize, and it is well named; think of acres of ripe corn gleaming in the sunshine. It is a colour to lift the spirits on a dull winter’s day.

The pattern I am working is Mrs Tumnus by Mimi Codd (Eskimimi on Ravelry), another unusual construction, and a very unusual shape. This shawl is another that is worked edge-first, but instead of being a very shallow crescent, Mrs Tumnus is horseshoe shaped. The pattern was inspired by the character of Mr Tumnus, the faun in The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe, and should really be red in colour, but I think it will look stunning in the glowing yellow semi-solid Cinteotl.


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