Existential Angst

Just recently I’ve noticed a little bit of existential angst creeping up on me.  I usually don’t have much time for existential angst. Literally I don’t. Every second is filled with things to do and, if it isn’t, then I jolly-well find something to do. 

It’s either that I don’t have many inner demons, or, by the time they have elbowed their way to the front of the queue of ideas jostling for attention, all brainpower is called away to solve a serious problem (like how to collect Child A from Scouts and Child B from circus skills, while simultaneously being at a meeting in Edinburgh, and with husband away on fieldwork.) I really am awfully effective at displacing worry and angst with Things to Do, People to See, Places to Go.

 

And I really haven’t time for existential angst figuratively, too.  Well, what’s the point of existential angst anyway? Does it get things done? Yes OK, it might have been somewhat important to poets and philosophers and artists and the like for millennia, but I’m not sure it’s really my thing.

   

I don’t suppose Archimedes would have got very far with my attitude.  

 He’d have got right out of that bath in disgust at time ticking by while he soaked, and gone out and got someone to build him a shower, rather than uncovering mathematical truths of the universe. 

I have a good friend from University who is the embodiment of existential crisis. Where, for most people, a quick ‘How are you?’ is simply part of the opening pleasantries before you get down to the serious business of chat, to him it is the whole objective of the conversation.

“How are you?” he would say

“Fine, How are you?”

“No I mean how are you Kat. How are you Really?”

“Erm OK? … Everything’s good.” I reply, not having really stopped for 10 seconds to interrogate whether my assumptions that I am a happy, well balanced person living the absolute only life that I could ever want to lead, are correct.

 

“But are you really happy Kat.” He would continue. “Kids? Do kids make you happy?”

“Erm. Yes?” I reply again. Well, what is certain is that they make me too busy to ever doubt that I am happy, and if they are not keeping me busy, they are making me laugh like a drain.

   

My, usually unsolicited, advice would be along the lines of: Look, XX, pull yourself together, make the decision: get married/have kids/ keep the job/do the thing, and for goodness sake stop fretting about whether there’s some other utopia that would exist if only one could stay in a perpetual state of indecision and non-commitment.

 

 

However, despite the busyness and the displacement activities, recently the questions of when, and if, I was going to move to the house, have been increasingly unavoidable.  Over the period of building the house I have had many moments of self doubt and a fair bit of introspection ‘Why oh WHY am I doing this??!!’ I would wail at times of stress ‘Why did I start on this project of monumental hubris??!’

 

To survive these moments of doubt and stress I kept telling myself that I’d soon be living there. Yes I would. Of course I would. Why on earth would someone put themselves through all the pain and discomfort of building a house if they didn’t intend to actually live there right away? It just doesn’t make sense.

   

But the children had indicated their distinct attachment to Glasgow and the conveniences of a train into town for a visit to Claire’s Accessories or Forever 21 or whatever, (and football club, skiing club, ruby/swimming/ squash for the other one). Not to mention husband’s job.  It would evidently be a while before we could move.

 

I looked back at my first blog to revisit why I started building the house in the first place.  It wasn’t actually that informative as to my motives, but it did indicate that, even when Sula was just a twinkle in my eye, I knew I couldn’t really live there in the short term.  So the question became, how am I going to spend as much time at Sula as I can, even if I can’t be there all the time just yet?

 

Around the time these thoughts were surfacing, I started working on something new: a huge project to conserve the western Atlantic woodlands, a unique and rare habitat that remains in pockets along the western seaboard of Scotland, Wales and England, our Celtic Rainforest.  I was called in to sort out the people aspects of the project and ended up taking quite a bit of responsibility for the project as a whole. After a while of working on it, I sat down and looked at the project area on a map. The core areas in Scotland were a large chuck of woodland all up the West side of Loch Lomond, all of the Morven peninsular, and a site at Ballachulish, just down the road. It all came into sharp focus for me that Cuil Bay was at the epicenter of the Scottish part of the project. 

  

I volunteered to do a secondment to develop the project, not particularly because of the geography of the project areas, but because I was inspired by the habitat, and what the project had become since I had been working on it – the potential and the possibilities for restoring some fabulous, magical woodlands across some of the most beautiful places in Scotland and Wales.  The plan was that, were we to get the first stage of the grant, I would fulfill the development manager role, taking the project to the next level.  I started thinking about spending a couple of nights a week up at Sula and renting it for holiday lets the rest of the time.  Surely a good compromise until the family could be persuaded to move.  It was also a very good solution to the problem of having built myself a monument to my own audacity and feeling rather guilty about it.

  

 This takes us up to the far more serious crisis of angst which surfaced a few weeks ago, just before the referendum on membership of the EU. The polls had turned towards Brexit for the first time and I moped about, worried and wan, shouting at the long-suffering husband for not filling in his citizenship application years ago (he’s one of those pesky immigrants, taking our jobs and our women…).

 

As well as trying to hold things together in the face of a potential Brexit Armageddon, and the imagined imminent deportation of the Swiss husband, I was also trying to get the ruddy shed finished. The builder had vanished in the manner of the Cheshire cat; leaving behind nothing but an annoying grin to remind me that I will never ever be free of him, because this shed will never, ever be finished.

 

Eventually, after many messages and calls, he called me back, as usual at the very moment I am least able to communicate the vast to-do-list off the top of my head; in this case at the nadir of my Brexit crisis. He proclaimed that Europe was lost forever and we might as well wave goodbye to prosperity, justice, human rights and all that. Surprisingly it didn’t make me feel any better.

  

 Since then we have had the referendum result. A resounding ‘Stay’ in Scotland but overall a ‘Leave’ for the UK as a whole.  I usually try and keep this blog a politics-free zone, but this is something that has been deeply affecting.  To my surprise, I found myself weeping in the street the day after the referendum when two Germans I had just been giving directions to asked what I thought of the result. I ended up hurrying off, my 13 year-old daughter in tow shouting “MUM! Pull yourself together mum!”

It was only when I reached for my wallet in a nearby coffee shop where we went for a restorative flat white, that I realised I was still carrying their map and guidebook.

 

“MUM!” said the daughter “Honestly! those poor Germans arrive in Scotland and instantly have their guidebook and map nicked, its not a good impression to give them of Glasgow”

 

I may not be everyone’s archetype of a Glasgow criminal, but there I was, holding a defenceless tourist’s precious German language guidebook. They’d arrived the morning after the Brexit vote, to a country of people waking up, as if from an epic binge, with a shocked realization of the irreversible damage that had been wreaked during the night. And then they were mugged by a woman for their guidebook.

 

But the certainty of knowing, after the initial disbelief, denial and grief, turned out to be marginally less painful than the dreadful waiting. In typical character I started doing things. Husband was harassed further about citizenship, a visit to an immigration lawyer was booked, and the process of filling out an 85 page form followed by a 42 page form, and amassing piles of associated paperwork, was started.

 

Along with the referendum came the knowledge that the grant to save and restore those beautiful western Atlantic woodlands, ridding them from that immigrant invader, the rhododendron, was never going to happen. There was no need to wait to finish the application process, nor to spend 8 months developing the project. It would go the way of the millions of pounds of EU funding that Scotland receives every year.

  
This was heartbreaking too, but it also gave me the impetus to get the house sorted out for renting. I put it on AirBnB and instantly got bookings. Loads of them. In fact so many I had to stop as I didn’t have a cleaner sorted out, (or that [expletive deleted] shed finished.)

 

The first guests arrived on Monday, only 30 minutes after the joiner had left the building, and an hour after I’d concluded discussions with one of Jamie the farmer’s daughters to do the changeovers for the house. The garden looked like a horde of ill-informed pirates had been digging for treasure, and the guests arrived an hour early, just as I was frantically and ineffectively ironing a pillowcase (the first ironing I’d done since ironing my graduation gown while I was still an undergraduate).

 

After these first visitors leave, we’ve some Americans coming, then the architects on a team building trip to see the house. Then, after that, Australians, and then more Americans. Oh and a family from Walsall.  There won’t be that much time for me to mope about Brexit, or having built a beautiful house that I can’t live in, and that’s the way I like it.  If there is a miniscule, vanishingly small and very selfish upside to the turmoil and pain of recent weeks, it would be that, since the pound fell so sharply against the dollar, the cost of a UK trip for Americans has come right down. So I’m just awaiting the influx of Americans to book Sula for a last minute break to Scotland.

 

 

 

And the Germans?  Well don’t worry about them. I had been advising them on the best restaurants in Glasgow to take their son for his birthday and insisted that they couldn’t leave Glasgow without a visit to the Ubiquitous Chip, a Glasgow foodie institution. Assuming they had followed my advice, which I’d given so emphatically, I popped along to The Chip that afternoon with the guidebook and map and asked whether they had received a booking. It turned out that they had been there only an hour before to book themselves a table, I left their guide and map with an apologetic note.

 

Later that week I received an email from a Dr. Prof. Jur. Harry Mueller (these Germans like their titles) thanking me for the advice on the excellent restaurants and offering to advise me on the best restaurants, museums and galleries of Hamburg if I ever wanted to visit.

 

I suppose I’d better get over there before they close the borders.
 

 Look were actually finished!

            
 

What I’d do differently

You know how I said I’d never ever do something like this ever again?   And that building a house isn’t something that I’d wish on my worst enemy?

Well, I don’t feel like that any more, or at least not all the time.

I suppose the bad experiences fade and you just have the good stuff left. It’s like forgetting the hard slog, exhaustion, frozen extremities, fear and exposure, and the long slog down in the dark of a day winter mountaineering in Scotland.  Somehow, the next week when someone asks you if you want to go out to the hills, you only remember that moment when the sun burst through the mist of fog crystals on the summit, so that the air sparkled with delight, and not the hellish rest of it.

That’s not to say I’m about to build another house. No no. That is absolutely not going to happen, I’m just saying I don’t wake up in the night any more wondering why I started this thing. It’s probably a good moment to share some of the things that I would change if I were building the house again (gosh, imagine what a nightmare that would be? Being made to start all over again on a massive task that you’d only just survived the first time round…aaargghh)

So here we go, I don’t think this can be a definitive list, but here’s a selection.

Cladding

Over the winter I went through a phase of cringing when I saw the huge white gable of the house shining like a beacon across the bay.

I’d really wanted that whole main section of the house and gable to be clad in larch, which would fade to silver grey and blend with the hillside but the planners wanted the main part of the house to be harled in white. Going back further our plan was to have the whole house clad in larch, but it was clear from planning that a combination of wood and harling would be more acceptable. We ended up switching the harled and clad sections over, reducing the area of wood cladding to about a third of the area of the house.

Half way through building, when I was having that terrible nightmare finding a company to do the cladding and I found out that the harled cladding system was going to cost around twice the price of the wood cladding, I wished we had pressed the case for wood cladding harder. When the house was complete and the scaffolding came off, I wished it even more, especially with seeing how the wood section is starting to blend so beautifully with the surroundings.

Waiting months and months for the curtains for the huge windows downstairs and up didn’t help (and not having a ladder long enough to actually put them up). In the absence of other things to fret about, I worried about how my house shone like a beacon across the bay for hundreds of miles to the south.

However, now it’s summer and the trees are in full leaf, the house stands is screened from the bay and I’m starting to get used to the harling.

 

Being the proud owner of a stairwell atrium 

All the other things that annoyed me at various points in the build are getting less annoying. Even that enormous high 7.5 m stairwell which was such a pain to make airtight, plasterboard, decorate, and which I will never be able to clean the windows of, is actually quite picturesque and uplifting to live with. The omission of a light on the stairs (it really is crying out for one of those huge dangling spiral chandeliers to match the space) doesn’t bother me anymore either.

I actually noticed the lack of light early on, while we were plaster-boarding, but I was so caught in the nightmare of Phil (Builder#4) and contemplating how to sack him, that I couldn’t face the strain of liaising between him and the electrician to get it fixed.

Anyway, it’s all settling in. Though next time, in the interests of economy, I’d leave the atrium out of the house and use the space for something useful.

But don’t fear – I have a plan for that atrium. When the dust has settled and I feel I can countenance working with a builder again, I’ll build a giant shelf in the stairwell as a little tree-house/den for me. It will have a book-shelf and two bean bags, a ladder I can hoist up in case of emergency, and an amazing view through the massive window (which I would now actually be able to clean) up to the Ballachulish Horseshoe.

 

Technical blah blah: Heating system and Biodisk. 

There’s other annoying stuff like finding the heating system had two cylinders instead of one, thus taking up the space in the drying room allocated for boot racks and such.   And the biodisk septic tank having a white protuberance that sits in the middle of my garden and whirrs. Both of these irritations are down to me not asking enough questions at the start of the build and just letting things happen – the architects specified the type of biodisk, and Stuart, builder 1, recommended a local company for the heating system. I

 

I’m getting used to the low buzz of the heat pump but I still can’t work the really complicated user interface. I’m convinced someone should a have been able to invent something a bit easier to work.

Of course Stephen the builder had lots of say about how much better the heating system is in his house, as he does about almost everything else too. (For those who don’t know the whole story, Stephen came on the scene late on in the build and saved the whole caboodle from disaster – twice – however the payment from my side appears to be to have the piss taken for various bad decisions I made, and to hear how much better the house he built himself is. It’s really a small price to pay to be honest.)

I feel I was more involved in the whole MVHR and wood burning stove planning and installation and I’m much happier with how they work (despite the little hole-drilling mishap).

We moved the MVHR exit and intake from the roof to out the back and that works really well. It means you can’t see it and It’s also on the north side of the house so when it’s warm in the house, it provides quite an effective method of cooling (not as effective as opening the doors and windows of course….).

Shape and Space. 

It only occurred to me once the house was built that having a 1m x 2m sticky-out bit at the back of the house, that allows for the turn of the staircase, was a rather inefficient use of space. Given the extra difficulties of making the house the shape it is at the back, with a complex roof arrangement, it’s likely that it would actually have been cheaper to make the house an extra metre bigger all across the back, which would also mean I’d have a bigger hall to throw my muddy wellies around in.

And, if I’m feeling extra picky. I’d have left an extra 50cm at the front of the house. So I could walk all round the dining table without having to squeeeeze past the chairs. (but that’s being unreasonably picky, to be honest).

 

Paying attention

Another thing that happened because I wasn’t quite ‘on it’ at the start of the build was cold bridging under the doors. If I was building a house again I’d be far more with it from the very beginning. I seem to have two modes of operation: lassez faire, delegating and trusting people to do their job, and control freakery. To be honest, I think I’d have put in a bit more control freakery at the start of the build to make sure everything was going to plan. I would obsessively check things; I would print out the plans hundreds of time and distribute them to absolutely everyone, irritating them by pointing out things that were obvious to them already.

If I’d have done this then I wouldn’t have a 200mm section of breeze blocks right under the wood floor on the thresholds into the house. The architects had a plan that had the breeze block foundation dropping down where the patio doors were to allow for some insulation to prevent cold bridging. It wasn’t immediately clear to me from the diagrams and it was actually only when I felt the cold coming up from the floor by the patio doors, once the whole house was finished that I placed the cross sections side by side and worked out what was supposed to have happened.

 

It is a little frustrating that I did actually pay for one site visit for the architects after I took over project management and it was at the point the timber kit had gone up. There had been a hiatus in the work while I scrabbled about for a builder to do the cladding, having been let down by the framing company. Stephen had just taken on the job and had pointed out that the windows were in the wrong positions and would need taking out and refitting. He was on site that day to meet the architect, and I’d asked Matt whether there was anything else wrong that we should sort out. He was standing right by the patio doors when he’d said, the rest looked ok.

For the patio doors in the siting room, which I found I wasn’t using at all, Stephen and I decided to just put in some kingspan and an extra windowsill on the threshold and convert it from doors to a window. The other one, I’ll live with.

 

The Final Item in this list, decision making, is a biggie and I think I will leave it til the next blog.

“This should have been the easiest house in the world to build”

So you’ve heard my opinion on building a house ad infinitum over the past few years and now, it’s probably the turn of the builder to have a say. Months of pestering Stephen to write a blog hasn’t had any effect and so it’s going to be an interview format instead. I’ll try not to colour it too much with my own thoughts, but given that, when I listened back to the recording, it was largely me talking, that could be hard. I’m no Graham Norton by any means.   

I’d lined up the kind of questions I thought would get me some interesting answers, and illuminate something of the process of the build from the point of view of the builder. 

  

I get started: “Why did you take on a half built house when lots of other builders had turned me down?”

 

“I thought, ‘that looks easy, I’ll do that'” said Stephen. 

 

I tried again, “What were the low points or problems with the build” I asked. 

  

“None really, it was pretty straightforward. Your house should have been the easiest house in the world to build”

   

Oh…. This was shaping up to be a rather tedious blog where I come out looking like a total numptie. I tried another tack. 

   

We spoke about the best builds he’d done and he reeled off a list: “That one on the island in Oban Bay for sale, a big house in Easdale, the one in Benderloch, (that’s for sale too at the moment for 1.3 million I’ll send you the particulars…) my own, twice”. 

 

I’d already used the joke that the new house in Oban Bay is for sale because they got his final bill so I leave it and press him on the question, “But which one is the best thing you’ve built? Is it your own house?”

  

“No way, of course not. You know yourself, building your own house is really awful” 

  

“Really?”, I ask, amazed, “even for a builder?”

  

Stephen built his own house between dealing with all the other projects he was working on “I’d try and be done by two and then come and work on the house until eleven, and sometimes four in the morning towards the end”

 

But did he never get to see his family? “The kids would be in bed by seven and I’d go back out again to the build”

  

 

Stephen has been building for 25 years, starting when he was 16. I do a quick calculation on my fingers “Forty one! same as me!” I say triumphantly and ask why he decided to go into building.

  

 

“I didn’t have any qualifications, my dad and uncle were joiners, it was the thing to do, it was in the blood” 

 

  

I think back to my early career. I didn’t have my first proper job until I was 27 after a year out either side of university and a PhD. But why did I become a biologist? Because, well, my parents were biologists, I even went to the same university as my parents. My sister took the same route too. I certainly didn’t have a better reason for choosing my own career. 

  

We move onto the subject of working with people. He has certainly had worse clients than me. Much worse as it turns out. 

 

 

“Sometimes I can’t actually speak to them,” he said “and then I just send the boys in and stay away. Once when someone was really bad I had a Polish guy working for me and I just sent him in and told him to pretend he didn’t speak English”.

   

Now I can tell you, that I have certainly put the hours in to try and be good to work with. I was pretty desperate at the time Stephen appeared on the scene, I’d just called every builder in the phone book from Fort William to Oban, even the one who friends suggested I didn’t touch with a barge-pole. In fact the whole past year can he summarized as a major Stephen charm offensive: getting stuff to site on time, attempting (and failing) not to be too in-your-face, paying bills really quickly, being generally charming. Why do you think I wrote so many nice blogs about Stephen? In fact I don’t recall a charm offensive as prolonged as this since I met the long-suffering husband.  

  

I ask something about what I’m like to work with, hoping to elicit a positive comment. Nothing. 

  

So how does he decide whether to take on a job or not? “I make up my mind about whether I can work with someone within the first few seconds. And if I don’t think I can work with them I don’t take on the job”

 

 

It’s a bit awkward asking about yourself so I leave the obvious question hanging and ask “What’s the first thing you remember about my build?” 

 

“It was the panicked answerphone message I got on the Friday. You just sounded really desperate” he chuckles. 

 

He brightens further with chat about the highlights of the build which all revolve around the incompetencies of Builder#4 who I will name Phil for the purposes of this blog. 

   

“The highlight? – It’s got to be Phil’s caravan and tent and saw” he said in answer to the question and collapsed in laughter. “And then there’s the fridge full of beer. You know a builder’s good when he gets his priorities right, and the fridge of beer was the first thing to appear on site”

    

He went on “Then there was the business card – ‘landscape, Joinery, Deliveries'” I start to feel uncomfortable remembering all the horrors of my poor decision making. 

  

“But the best has got to be the day the boy burnt the sausages for breakfast and they all packed up and went home.” He said. I wilt. 

 

 

Stephen described, with glee, the time sheets his team put in when they started on the interior work after Phil had left.  

sorting Phil’s Shambles —– 8 hours. 

 

“He really looked like he was doing it for the first time” said Stephen. “And when someone is that bad, it makes everyone else look really really good” 

  

“It was funny when they didn’t arrive until 1130am one day when the rugby was on, saying they were on a landscaping job til late the night before, and went straight for a snooze in the caravan. They were still in there when the boys left that night.” 

  

Stephen pauses for a moment to chuckle, “the next morning when they emerged they went straight to the Holly Tree to watch the rugby and, when they got back, they said there wasn’t much point getting started so headed straight back to the central belt”

  

At this point I had been transported back to the full horror of the Phil episode. Aren’t we done yet? I wonder. 

 

“Seeing you hit rock bottom”  

Eh what? That doesn’t seem like a highlight. 

  

 But appeared that it was. 

   

“Phil really broke you, you were totally defeated” said Stephen: twice, just in case I didn’t hear the first time. 

  

“Actually,” I say, feeling the need to defend myself, and point out my resilience and stoicism, “the worst bit was having to talk to you about it to sort everything out”. 

(And that’s a fact. That bit was truly and utterly awful)

 

When things were bad, I didn’t even talk to the long-suffering husband about it. I didn’t want to. It was all too dreadful. I’d get home, after the two-hour drive back to Glasgow with the 90s club classics turned right up in an attempt to drive out the house-build ‘drag-me-down’ vibes with the ecstatic feel of a rave in a field, and Husband would pass me the wine and put on the iplayer. Everything would suddenly be right with the world. 

  

 “You can’t build a house without wine” said Stephen, evidently from plenty of bitter personal experience “Can you imagine what it would be like without the wine? You need wine. God, we’d all be dead without the wine.”

 

I told him the story of the sacking of Phil, done, as I do many things, to minimize conflict and just get it done as painlessly as possible. I spent some considerable time that day getting Phil to accept that he couldn’t finish the job and to take all his equipment and caravan off site. (Throughout this awkward conversation the, already rather physically imposing man, towered above me. “Shall we sit down” I said, Phil sat on a step ladder on top of a pile of boards “are you going to sit down?” He’d asked “no I think I’ll stand” I said). Once everything was offsite except the ruddy saw and the ruddy fridge (minus the beer unfortunately) I followed up with a phone call to finish the job. 

 

Yes I suppose it did rather break me, I admit. 

 

“It’s hard sacking someone” says Stephen pensively. 

“Yup. I’m finding it a bit difficult to think about it even now” I say. 

  
The interview had become a house-building therapy session. “It must have been hard,” said Stephen, “There’s probably some wall gone up there”.

  

“Why did I make such a useless decision to go with Phil instead of you for the interior work?” I wail. 

   

“You just need to go with your gut instinct but you probably didn’t do that” said Stephen sympathetically. 

 

I wander off into thinking about a management training I was at a few years ago. We were discussing personality and how people make decisions. According to the psychologists, people like me usually take decisions intuitively and instinctively (tell me something I don’t know…), but when they are under heavy stress they can start to take decisions in a different way, trying to use more rational approaches, which usually means they make bad decisions. I pull myself away from the looming cliff of introspection and back to the task in hand. 

  

 

“Hold on Stephen. Who is the interviewer here?”  

  

It seems that I’m not the only person Stephen has seen in a defeated slump. “People are usually like that when they come to me. The whole process of planning and building control does people in, it takes years and they just want the house built.” 

  

And it’s not just the clients who can have a hard time. Later in our discussions Stephen tells me that even he can have a bad time at it. “Sometimes you get a job that really breaks you, you just have to tell yourself that it will be over soon and get on with it, but if it’s a house build, it can last a very long time.”

   

I ask if he liked reading the blogs I’d written about him. He brightened considerably, “I love it” he said. “People keep asking whether I’m builder #1 #2 #3or #4.”

  

According to Stephen, Lots of people around Oban read the blog, “the partner of your planning officer, he reads it.” He said (Oh….. I thought about the blog I wrote about our trip up to fort william to charm the planners and my toes curled gently under the table.)

“Everyone does.”

 

 I do know that my building control officer reads it – he emailed me to say so after I’d written a blog about him (eliciting another slight curling of the toes) 

 

 The joy of writing about the build has been that Stephen has always been very blasé about what I write about him. I always sent the blogs to him to make sure he was happy. “I really don’t care what you write” he would say repeatedly “Say whatever you like.”

 

 Once I mused, on Twitter, about the writers block I was suffering as a convenience of worrying about the builders reading it. 

“Fire on, I’ve got my own blog ready for when the cheque clears” came back the response from Stephen.    

 And that was when the idea of a guest blog from the builder, and the architect, and anyone else who fancies sticking an oar in, came about. 

  

And, of course, that is how I come to be interviewing Stephen. 

 

 

Conscious that the product of the interview thus far hasn’t made me look particularly competent, I go fishing for something that could save my reputation. Was there anything I did right?

 

“When you filmed the cow in the next door neighbour’s garden, that was funny”. Stephen was referring to the morning when Jamie the farmer came over while we were talking about what to do about the porch. 

 

“You’ve caused me a load of @&$@ing grief Kat” said Jamie. Oh dear, I thought, what could it be; the articulated lorries coming down the ridiculously small road and trying to turn in his drive? The piles of detritus all over the landscape related to my house build? The gaping potholes that seem to get bigger every time another truck, transit or lorry zooms down the track? Apparently not, it was the time lapse video I’d made of me and a few friends trying to build a shed and which gave a view of the neighbour’s garden. “The neighbours saw it and there was one of my @&$@ing cows in there eating their hedging plants. They were straight on the phone to me last night” he said. We all fell about laughing. 

 

Funny, Stephen, yes. But IT DOESN’T ANSWER THE QUESTION. was there anything I did right during the build?

  

“Well you’d actually make a very good project manager” he said eventually, when pressed. 

 

Really? In what way?

“In the way of being really good at organising people, finding someone who knows how to do the job and getting them to do it”. 

  

Well, knock me over with a feather. I didn’t expect that to come out of the interview. My job here was done. 

 There was one last question I really had to ask. One that had been bothering me since the start of the interview. 

  

“Seeing as my house should have been the easiest house in the world to build, and nothing in it was a problem for you, did my epic charm offensive have any effect or was it just totally wasted effort?”

 

Hummmmm. As I suspected, it seemed that all my efforts to be charming and good to work with were rather unnecessary, and probably went unnoticed. I looked rather downcast. 

 

“It didn’t go unnoticed.” said Stephen “The boys appreciated the chocolates, well, the ones that didn’t fall in the mud.”

 

At Christmas I’d made special whisky chocolates for all the people on site – the filling was melted white chocolate mixed with Glenmorangie. There was an awful lot of whisky in each of those chocolates and everyone got four in a home-made box. (Well not everyone, two boxes fell in a huge puddle when I got out of the car so Eddie the tiler and I scoffed all of those after we’d rinsed them under the tap). You don’t get much more charming than that, but no-one ever mentioned it
 

But whether or not the charm offensive was necessary, effective, or even noticed, It probably was essential for my own entertainment and well-being during the build. When you’re building a house, you think about it every single day. Every day. And that means you need to think about the builder every day. This can become somewhat debilitating if you are having difficulties with your builder. Thinking about Phil always made me irritable, downcast and miserable to be around.  

 

Very early on I accepted that I was just going to have to think about Stephen quite a lot, so I might as well see it as one of the good things about building my house. Especially when the good things are rather few and far between, consisting of writing the blog and inventing new ways of making splashbacks and shower screens, and nothing much else.  

  

Stephen is very aware of the huge importance that he and his team have in the lives of people building a house. 

“We become a major part of people’s lives, we recognise that” he says “and working with interesting people is always part of the attractions of a job”. 

 

 

There were just so many absolutely hateful, tedious or just downright soul-sapping tasks that I had to find a way to make myself want to do. Who wants to spend a sunny Saturday choosing bathroom stuff? Or having to give list after list of things to do to the builder. It’s just not fun. There are about a million things I could think of that I’d rather be doing than building this house. For some reason, actually finishing the house was never much of a motivating factor in itself, I had come to terms that I would be building the house well into the distant future and was simply looking for ways of making the process more bearable. 

 

I have found, over the past few years, ways of persuading myself to do tasks I don’t want to. I’ve actually got quite good at it now, I can even fill in a reporting spreadsheet, if my life depends on it.  

 

I’ve found that it’s people that motivate me, not tasks. So I always need to have a person that I’m doing the task for. If the task isn’t for a specific person then I need to imagine one. For example, when I write some interpretation, a leaflet or a press release at work I need to have my audience clearly in mind in the shape of a real person. And I can only tidy and clean the house if there’s someone coming for dinner (I sometimes plan a dinner party simply because the house needs a tidy). A deadline, real or invented, always helps too. 

 

 

When it came to the house, the charm offensive has certainly kept me occupied and entertained, and it has given me another reason for writing the blog, providing me with a muse from time to time (who evidently liked reading blogs about himself). But importantly it provided the motivation for doing all those painfully annoying things you need to get done to build a house. Like getting some essential component of the house to site by a certain date, or hassling Scotframe yet again to do what they said they would.

 

 

In fact, the whole fun of building the house, pretty much the only good bits, have all been the bits where I’ve worked with brilliant and effective people. Not just Stephen, but also Stephen the stonemason, Jamie who installed the MVHR, and Stephen’s team, especially Eddie who was the only person who didn’t seem to object to having his photo taken; Stuart the builder who did the foundations, and numerous others, including the architects and Tom (kitchen) and Jake (wood) who I’ve known since University. On the other side, the worst bits are when I’ve worked with difficult people: Phil being the only one that springs to mind. 
 

It’s only because of those people that, despite the problems and difficulties, building Sula has actually turned out to be a hugely enriching experience. 
   
 

Where on earth did that poetry spring from?

This is the end of a second day of walking the mountains of Glen Affric, and my mind has, at last, stopped racing and has started to slow down. Two days of pacing the hills steadily: mountain tops the goals but also the means to an end, working out the thoughts constantly running through my mind and freeing up a little space. The constant plod of foot after foot on the uphill imposing rhythm on thought and time to think each one away.  

John Muir wrote beautifully about the human need to connect with nature in the mountains.

 “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity”

Our National Parks, (1901), chapter 1, page 1. 

“Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”

Muir quoted by Samuel Hall Young in Alaska Days with John Muir (1915) chapter 7 

It’s been a long time since I’ve had a long stretch of time in the mountains. A few years ago I was fortunate enough to work only two days a week for a whole year. The children were young and in nursery three days a week (so we could keep the space open for when I went back to my ‘proper’ job again). Once a fortnight I would take myself off to the hills to walk. 

 
It’s now down to one visit a year to a real wilderness space, a few nights bivvying alone in the hills and evening or day hill walks when I can fit them in. But this is a rare and special time in a place far from road, house and phone signal. 

 
It’s taken a long time to get to a state of not thinking of anything in particular; not my to-do-lists; not conversations to have and projects to begin; not worries about this and that, and to start to notice the world around me. It’s taken two days on the hill 9 hours a day with Jo, my long-suffering mountain companion. 

 

On these very rare occasions that my mind is actually clear, sometimes I just think about nothing at all, and sometimes I have ideas, make decisions or set out on flights of fancy, but this time, for the first time, some poetry has come out. 

 
I’ve no idea if it’s any good, I’ve never written poetry before. I don’t even read poetry. But here it is. Each with a photo of the place that inspired it.  

  

  

  

  

The boring bit …

I’m due a proper contemplative look back at the past few years. A thoughtful assessment of the whole process of building a house. But given the speed life is moving at the moment, I’m finding it hard to sort the velux blinds (that I ordered the wrong size) let alone sit down in a quiet place for a few hours of contemplation. 
   

So in lieu of that, I’ve been doing some meter readings and calculating things. It’s been a trying time for Adrian the heating engineer as I have been trying to get my head around the system, and calling him with puzzled questions, but I think I’ve now worked out which of the four metres is which and the various false alarms about energy use have been put to bed. 

 

It’s worth noting that these figures are perhaps not that indicative of the house in normal use because 

1. It covers just the winter months Oct-end April

2. Much of the measurements have been during the build when the heating was on quite warm to dry the house out but not much hot water was being used. 

 

    

The space heating and hot water is delivered by a heat pump (and solar gain is providing a really good level of heating when the sun is out). In this allegedly temperate coastal climate (though you wouldn’t know it judging by the outside temperatures today, the first day of May, and the snow on the hills) an air source heat pump is supposed to be quite effective as the air temperature doesn’t drop too low very often. 

    

We also have solar panels on the SW and SE facing roofs and large Southwest facing windows for solar gain.    

 So here’s all the boring ol’ figures….

 
Since October, when the heat pump went on, we have used 

3406 units of electricity (EM1) to run the heat pump (it has its own electricity meter). Which cost us 14p a unit, making a total cost £476.84 for the electricity to power the heat pump 

  
  

With this energy we generated 8870KWh of heat (HM1).

  
 

The equation used to calculate how much we should be paid for the Renewable Heat Incentive is, for some reason,

 

 HM1*0.97 -EM1 

  
which means, with a RHI of 7.51p/KWh this gives us a payment of £369 for the total period. 

 
Our solar electricity meter tells me we have produced 817.6KWh since it was commissioned in November. 

Which at 12.8p/KWh (which I think is our payment rate but I’d have to wait for the payment to come through to double check) I think will have brought in £104.65
The electricity company also assume that I export half of what I use and pay a fee of 4.88p/KWh for that. 
This means I should receive £124.60 payment for the electricity I have produced over the winter since November.  

  

So the total calculation is 

476.84-369-124.60 = negative 16.76 (i.e. A profit of £16.76)

 

So, if I’m not counting other use of electrical energy in the house, I’m managing to get my heating for free/make a small profit. 

 
However, to complicate matters, some of the electricity made by the solar panels will have been used to power my heat pump (or other electrical appliances in the house like MVHR that are on when the sun is shining), as electricity generated while electricity is in use in the house is used rather than exported, but still receives the payments. 

  

It’s hard to know how much of the energy I produced has been used but I can calculate a maximum and minimum. As a minimum this is zero and the maximum is that all of the energy I produced was used which means I would have saved buying in 817.6 KWh of electricity saving another £114.5 (at a cost of 14p per unit). 

This means that the cost balance was between £16.76 and £131.26 in my favour. Which strikes me as good, given that it was taken over the winter when heat demand will be at its highest and solar energy will be at its lowest. 

 

I’m looking forward to looking again at my meters after the summer to see how things stack up then. 

 

However, the point of building this house was to be all green and smug and eco and, although compromises needed to be made over the process, it’s really the carbon emissions from space and water heating I think I ought to be minimizing. So how do we do in this regard? 

 

The total electricity use minus that generated by solar is 2588 KWh. The estimate of carbon emissions from electricity is 0.496kg CO2/KWh *

 
Therefore my space and water heating between start October and end April (seven months) has produced 1.3 tonnes of CO2. I’ve been trying to find the datasets to compare this against and I ought to have access to them from all my previous carbon counting efforts. It won’t come as a surprise to you but it seems all my posts but one on travel have been lost, which isn’t very helpful. However from recollection the average house emits 6 tonnes CO2 per year so this seems ok. I’ll update the calculations after the summer. 

 

Apologies if that was stupendously boring, but my guess is that if you have actually made it to the end of this post, you have an unnatural interest in things related to energy and carbon emissions, so I am hoping you enjoyed it. 

 

You may also want to point out schoolboy errors I have made in my calculations. Please feel free to use the comments box!

 

 
* ref: Energy Saving Trust http://www.energysavingtrust.org.uk/corporate/our-calculations

   
   

The last days. 

The end is nigh. 

It really is. We are in the last days of the build and I’m feeling antsy, annoyed, impatient, and uncharacteristically pedantic. It’s like being two weeks past your due-date and no sign of baby. Except this baby is at least four months overdue. 

My day-job’s been frustratingly busy, the builder has been even harder to get hold of than normal and every time I go up to the house the progress seems infinitesimal. 

Last weekend up at the house, hoping to see it all done and ready for the very last little bits of taping and painting, I found plenty to add to my annoyance. Which wasn’t helped by anxieties over the return journey to Glasgow into the teeth of Storm Henry and its forecast 80mph winds. 

 

Over the long process of building this house there have been plenty of serious and challenging issues: a missing piece of structural metalwork, big holes drilled through a main supporting beam, windows in the wrong places and badly installed. All, I am pleased to report, I navigated with measure and calm.  But finding that the hole in the ceiling where the electrician had moved the dining area light hadn’t been filled with plasterboard and then spotting, a while later,  that the hole awaiting a light in the utility room had been filled in instead sent me into a tiny boiling rage. 

  

 It was made infinitely worse when I discovered that the work done to ameliorate a weird bit between the bottom of doors and where the screed started had breached the airtight envelope and now the force of storm Henry gathering his fury for the afternoon climax was blowing into my living room from under the wooden flooring. My tiny rage intensified and I shouted at an imaginary Stephen as I stomped about the empty house. 

 “The whole sodding point of building this house* was for it to be airtight” I wailed.  

“I want an energy efficient house. And I want an airtight house. And I want one now” 

 * update here:

The trials and tortures of planning and building this house that I had endured over the past three years all was wasted on the second-last day of works in the house. I was miserable. 

 
One eggy-bread-fried-cheese sandwich later I felt I had things slightly more in proportion and I sent the photo and airtightness woes to Stephen. The next day the Oban road was closed due to a fire at the Appin garage and the A82 over Rannoch moor was closed to high sided vehicles. I left into the wild gale, passing two articulated lorries and a van on their sides in the bog on Rannoch Moor and wondering whether the end really was nigh. 

 

The next day I managed to speak to Stephen on the phone about the various crisies. He laid my mind at rest; the membrane was in the incorrect position and it was now right. They’d do what needed to be done to make it better. It hadn’t crossed my mind before, but I think it must be the builder equivalent of bedside manner. Whenever I speak to Stephen about some earth-shatteringly horrific house-related disaster or worrying niggle, I come away feeling far better about it. It’s hard to pin down how he does it, but I suspect it’s a combination of agreeing with me, and suggesting a solution to the problem, or suggesting he has a look at it, but I think it is something that all builders should be able to do. 

 

I was chatting with a GP friend  later that evening.  She had spent the day being the examiner for a cohort of new doctors wanting to become GPs. They were being tested in role play situations with actors to see whether they would make the cut as GPs. Essentially it was a test of bedside manner, and many failed it. I wondered whether there was the equivalent for builders…

 

But bedside manner or no, I need this house airtight and airtight it shall be. (And the air is still leaking in on the latest update). I may be the last person you would associate with pedantry, but pedantic is what I plan to be on this one. Scott the architect would be proud of me.  
 

    

   
  
   
  

The Twelve Months of Building

A wee Christmassy take on the past 12 months on the building site now the agony is (mainly) over, the waiting is nearly finished and the joy is starting to seep in.

In the first month of building, my project gave to me:

A form with a building warrant fee

20141006-151830-55110223.jpg

In the second month of building, my project gave to me:

Two long delays ….IMG_9296

In the third month of building, my project gave to me:

Three feet of water ….IMG_9020

 

In the fourth month of building, my project gave to me:

Four walls of silver ….IMG_9370

In the fifth month of building, my project gave to me:

Five weeks of gales …IMG_9210-0.PNG

In the sixth month of building, my project gave to me:

Men to move the windows …IMG_0191

 

In the seventh month of building, my project gave to me:

Holes through the beam … (it’s not supposed to look like that) IMG_0173

 

 

In the eighth month of building, my project gave to me:

JOY! The cladding’s finished

IMG_1031

In the ninth month of building, my project gave to me:

NO SODDING PROGRESS ….IMG_1369

 

In the tenth month of building, my project gave to me: Time to sack a builder ….

(not them, they’re just building a shed)IMG_1230

 

 

In the eleven (and twelfth) months of building, my project gave to me:

Two plumbers plumbing

Three electricians wiring

One taper taping

Ronnie’s digger digging

Three floorers flooring

One tiler tiling

Loads of joiners joining

DRIVE UP THE ROAD!

Four weeks til Christmas,

Got an EPC,

What’s a schedule one?

 

pause for effect ….

 

And a kitchen and a loo to do a wee!

 

 

Torrential rain and gales: it must be time to start building the house…

Another from the archive waiting to be posted:

13 February 2015

 

 Yes it’s a great week to start building a house. Here is the image from the traffic camera at the head of Glencoe the morning after I arrived up at Cuil Bay on Sunday night. And all day Monday there was lashing rain, sleet, hail and winds at gale force.

IMG_9006

Yesterday, the day that the worst weather hit, was the day scheduled for the arrival of the frame so I had rented a cottage in the area, gathered a few friends and relatives together and we planned to watch the frame going up. But it didn’t happen.

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At the very last minute the frame company said they couldn’t deliver to the schedule we’ve been working to since October. I called on the Wednesday to check all was OK for delivery Monday and it wasn’t. It was delayed. I couldn’t get a sensible schedule out of anyone and all seemed utter chaos in the office.


‘I can’t give you a date until I have the drawings on my desk’
‘When will you have the drawings on your desk?’ said I.
‘No idea- ask technical’
‘Can you walk down the corridor to ask technical?’
‘No’

.
I called technical
‘They have the drawings’, they said. 
‘They don’t think they have the drawings’
‘They do’
‘Can you walk down the corridor and tell them they have the drawings?’
‘No’

.
In the end I needed to write to the Managing Director to sort it out (he was adept at avoiding my calls) And got a revised date a week delayed.

 
Here is my letter. 

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I might have been raging last week, while sorting out the mess, but now it seems like a relief. At least I had a few days to rearrange the contractors, scaffolding, and crane. Not a simple process but I am now getting used to it….

.

But I still had a wee cottage in beautiful Duror booked, which I couldn’t cancell, and the time off work. This would be my chance to escape the chaos of home and work and spend a bit of time by myself organising house stuff without the thousands of distractions. A house-organising retreat. Me, my laptop and a cup of coffee.

.

The cottage was a converted barn on a farm with three immense shire horses who spent the time I was there sheltering from the horrific conditions in the barn opposite. I looked out of the window at the horses but I didn’t go out. Not for the entire day.

.

I’d packed very simple food, my laptop and piles of house paperwork. I spent the day arranging and organising things related to the house – bills, plans, quotes. When I called home from the stillness of the cottage the chaos of home was a bit of a shock. Perhaps I should do this more often.

.

I met with Stuart the local Appin builder who had so efficiently and competently delivered the foundations and ground works to the stage of being ready for the frame. Nothing is a crisis to Stuart. Practically everything is a crisis to me. He arrived at the cottage in the torrential downpour from working on a site just down the road in Duror which was an epic mud bath- it looks like the builders will need sub-Aqua kit to lay the strip foundations.

.

We chatted over an earl grey (‘no biscuit thanks’) as I tried to pursued him (again) to take on the next bit of work. We talked over the various bits of the work (me not knowing anything and fearing seeming even more ignorant than I actually am) with me saying all sorts of embarrassingly naive things and him nodding and saying ‘yes ahuh’. 

But he was, as ever, unmovable on the issue of building my house.
.

Over that three day period of thrashing rain and gales I ventured out only to visit the electrician and the renewables compan, oh and I did visit the plot and saw the concrete slab and finished buried pipe work. But mainly I spent the two days retreating in my little cottage. It’s something I really think I should do more of.

   
   

  

A bad break-up

I think we could classify it as a ‘bad breakup’.

Not that I’ve had the experience of one before.  Unless you count an incident at University when I watched through the window of a late-night chippy as a fellow student*,  jumped all over my defenceless but, unfortunately for it, highly recognisable, bike.  The previous day I’d confirmed that “no, we definitely aren’t meant to be together”, after a long-petitioned-for trial week of dating.

I’d been dreading the phone call but, in the end it had to happen. Best to do it by phone I thought. After the conversation we’d had before Builder #4 went on holiday where he indicated that he would have difficulty finishing the internal works, I had eventually got confirmation that Builder#3 could complete the work and turn it round quickly. 

.

So made the call. It took a few deep breaths beforehand and an extremely brisk walk in the park afterwards.
 

The call got a little messy but I suppose at least there was no cat to fight over.  Although I am publishing this many weeks on, with the house nearly complete, his large circular saw is still clogging up the place. And his caravan-related rubbish is still strewn over the site.

 

Anyway, a messy break up, you could say. But one moves on.

 

And now I’m back where I would have been many months ago if I hadn’t so foolishly dumped Builder#3 for Builder#4, but probably poorer, and definitely more stressed.

*incidentally we remain good friends to this day, despite the damage my bike sustained that evening.  


   

   

Builder saga again

I wrote this a few weeks ago but now the build has progressed far enough along the way for me to start looking up and posting a few blogs I wrote before.
 .
Oct 2015
For the past three weeks the house has been forlonly sitting in its half plasterboarded state. Builder#4 went on holiday, (see blog) already 3 weeks over with the plaster boarding with no prospect of being able to complete even on his return. I postponed floor, kitchen, building control visit. There’s a possibility that Builder#3 will be able to pick up the pieces (again), but he’s on holiday too. And for three weeks.   It’s been total torture sitting about waiting to find out what is going to happen with everything on hold.
 .
Well sort of.
 .
Having to finish off this house and all the challenges that it has thrown up has coincided with some of the busiest times at work and in the rest of life. So the house anxieties rumble along in the subconscious, giving me a general feeling of disquiet, and rising to the surface from time to time, usually at 5am when I awake in panic and make a list of things to do before dropping back to sleep. But the rest of life crowds in to distract me, in some measure, from the irritations of waiting.
 .
As if to create a looking-glass world where everything is sunshine, joy and beautiful vistas, in contrast to the humdrum toil, interspersed with panic, of house building, this has been a magical autumn of work visits to some of the most beautiful places in Scotland. It’s been a welcome contrast and a distraction to trials at the build with Builder#4 and the plasterboard.
 .
My role in RSPB Scotland is more often than not about emails, slaving at a computer and meetings in airless rooms, but it’s not all like that and I’ve spent more than my fair share of time over the past couple of months at such uplifting places as Loch Lomond, Islay, Perthshire, Dumfries and Galloway, the Isle of Cumbrae and Loch Lomond again. It’s been amazing, uplifting, productive but, because the job doesn’t go on hold when you’re away from the office to run a workshop at Loch Lomond, or a site visit in D&G, getting all the other stuff done has been a little bit stressful.
 .
But to top it all, This week has been the week of doom. This week I have to pull things together and sort out what’s happening with the house. I’ve sent a holding email to Builder#4 while I’ve been waiting until Builder #3 to gets back from holiday so I could decide what to do. However while they have been away the electrician pointed out that I need a completion certificate for the feed-in tariff claim and the FITs are decreasing 87% in January so I had to get a move on.  The renewables incentives come to an end in January, so if I don’t have my building warrant completion certificate by then It will be a bit of a financial disaster (it later transpired that the EPC is needed for the completion certificate – see blog).  However  it did work to put a rocket up the proverbial back-side to try and get things done.
 .
It was clear in that pre-holiday debrief  with builder #4 that he would struggle to finish, so it all rests now on whether builder#3 can achieve it.
 .
So, like freshly interviewed candidate waiting on the offer of that dream job, or starry-eyed teenager waiting on a phone call from the crush, I wait for the builder to respond to the  unseemly number of texts I’ve sent him. Up until the past few weeks I have managed to keep work stress and build stress entirely separate and compartmentalized. However with the time urgency added this week, it has started to get rather distracting.
 .
However, in the spirit of nothing being lost to potential usefulness, even the bad stuff, it acted as a rather timely illustration in a training course I was delivering to colleagues that day, by coincidence, on stress and resilience.
 .
In the end I resort to emojis – desperate measures-  one might say.
 .
And in the end he calls. During the aforementioned training course.
 .
Only half an hour after discussing the impact of external stressors on our resilience to workplace stress, mentioning, by way of an example,  how waiting for a builder to call could add to the already slightly stressful activity of leading a training course,  I excuse myself, leaving my co-trainer ably in charge for a few moments.
 .
In probably the most anticipated and eagerly awaited phone call in the history of telephony (well perhaps not including that very first “Mr. Watson–come here–I want to see you.” phone call from 1876)   I discover that Builder#3 can indeed  come to the rescue. I’ll find out more when he goes up to the house on Monday.

A tale of four Builders. 

And now – a few blogs that have been sitting in my drafts for a while.  To begin, here’s one from August…

A quick guide to my builders ….

.
Builder #1 did the groundworks: foundations, drainage septic tank and is coming to do the landscaping and final stuff from drive etc. he also arranged the slater plumber electrician and underfloor heating and screed for me.

.
Builder #2 is Scotframe’s contractor for putting up the timber kits

.
Builder #3 has done the cladding and porches, firebox and a few other things

.
Builder #4 was doing plasterboarding and stairs…. (postscript: and now Builder3 is doing plaster boarding and stairs and everything else…)

.
‘It really isn’t how I would recommend building a house’ I said to the other customer in the builder’s office, ‘ in fact I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy’.

.
The other customer had come in to ask Builder 3 for a quote for building a whole house, but his wife was just looking for the kitchen. Builder 3 had looked round at me and asked whether I’d recommend piecing together lots of different builders and trades to build a house. Ho Ho, how we all laughed …. (in that way that you’d better laugh or you just might cry)

.
I was there in Builder 3’s office to discuss a few things. His company is doing the cladding of the house, the only person who could actually do the work in the timescale needed after Builder 2 let me down. And he’s also building the porches. So we had a bit of planning to do for that, but I also needed to discuss the fire boarding around the wood burning stove – which is inset into the wall. His company isn’t doing that piece of work. For reasons I am puzzling over, I gave that job, and the internal plaster boarding stairs etc, to another builder.

.
Builder 3 had already demonstrated a great interest in the stove type and set-up and had put a similar one into his own house, Builder 3 had done a great job of moving all the windows into the place they should have been in the frames (after a mess up by builder 2 – which Builder3 had noticed when he came to visit), Builder 3 had demonstrated his attention to detail in spades, And had gone beyond the call of duty in helping get the electricity supply in – although, come to think of it, that would have been a total disaster had Builder 1 not stepped in (but that’s another story related to me not double checking there was going to be someone site that day and then being in meetings all day unable to take calls…). So why would I switch to yet another builder?

.
Well, as I have mentioned before, builders seem quite busy around the area at the moment. There is so much building going on, it has been hard, in the rather ad hoc and ill-advised way I am building the house, to get people when I need them. And when someone is the only person quoting for a job, they know they are the only person quoting for a job, and you know as little about building as a house as I do, there is always the niggling worry that l would end up spending extra money (and I’m already haemorrhaging money like a bankrobber’s escape vehicle with the doors left open). So I had an idea. A friend’s partner is a builder, he lives in East Scotland, but perhaps he will look at the quote and tell me if it is roughly right.

.

So Builder 4 looked at the quote. He asked me a few questions, visited the house and said he’d do it and gave me a better quote. He would be living on site with the team, working long days, he said, and would get it done quicker. I was almost swayed. I didn’t ask if he knew what to do about the stove (despite the vast numbers of hours I had spent reading and researching about the right kind of stove and the stupendous complexities there appear to be). But the final thought was that I’d been finding it rather hard to pursued Builder 3 to make the hearth in the way I wanted it.

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As previously reported, the ‘hearth-ache’  of trying to calculate where the hearth needs to go to satisfy building standards, limits over coridor widths, and to make an insulating constructional hearth, has been quite trying. On the day the stove was arriving I didn’t quite trust that the slab for the stove, which would mean we would have 125mm concrete under the stove, would be there and so I stopped into B&Q at 7am to buy an emergency back-up concrete paving slab and a few backup backup concrete paving slabs. While I was sitting by the sea (it being the only place with mobile phone coverage) and waiting for the lost stove guys to call (“I’m up a track at a locked gate and I can see some sheep and a mountain, do you know where I am?”), Builder 3 turned up in his van with the concrete slab I had asked for. It fitted perfectly. I decided not to mention all the emergency slabs in the back of my car.

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So without properly thinking about it, and throwing intuition to the winds, I went with Builder 4, and ditched Builder 3. Although we’d all have to play happy families as Builder 3 would be working on the outside cladding and porches and Builder 4 on the inside. Fortunately that seemed to work OK, except Builder 4 would go home every time he perceived there would be some clash – e.g. moving the scaffolding – or if he was waiting on some work done by someone else (but omit to tell me or them what was needed). And even when there were no mitigating circumstances he would only be up on site for three days in a week (sometimes four).

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It also became clear that there was a big question mark over how to sort out the stove. He wanted me to tell him how to do it and given my brain had already practically exploded trying to work out the constructional hearth stuff I wasn’t really in a fit state to work out the firebox stuff. When I said that Builder 4 had explained to me how to do it but I couldn’t quite gather the stoic determination to recall what he had said. He said, why don’t you get Builder 3 to do the work then?

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Fortunately Builder 3, despite having being dumped for the new builder, was generously willing to help advise on various things, including the stove, which is why I happened to be in his office that morning lamenting my hopelessly naive way to build a house, and getting his advice on how to build the ruddy thing.

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With the clarity of hindsight, see  blog, it is very apparent that taking up with Builder4 was the worst decision I made during the build. Probably even worse than  the decision to build the house in the first place.

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Eventually I decide to bite the bullet and do something about it. I call builder3. ‘Look this is awkward’ I say, ‘but you know I dumped you for another builder? And it’s not quite working out with him, and I was wondering how you’d feel if I asked you to do some more work.’

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Fortunately builder3 has a sense of humour.

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So that’s Builders#3 and #4 covered. So what happened to Builders#1 and #2 then?

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Well I would have loved for Builder#1 to do the whole build. Nothing is a problem for Builder#1. Need foundations finished by a certain date in the most torrential rain and horrific conditions? Don’t worry it will be done on time. Need someone on site to meet the man from building control at short notice? No problem, even though he’s not really involved with the build any more. Need someone to bring a telehandler to site to unload the plasterboard delivery? He’s there. Electricity company turn up on site to install a cable (next available date in 6 weeks) and no-one’s on site? Don’t worry, he’ll magically show up and get it sorted.

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Until recently, ‘Ah, yes’ and ‘that will be fine’ were pretty much the only things that Builder 1 said to me. Occasionally, he would make suggestions on changing some part of the architects spec. But largely it was left up to me to warble away naively about stuff I know nothing about (namely building a house) in the silences. He’d agreed to doing the foundations, as he was working on the neighbouring plot at the time, but they had too many jobs on to take the build any further. From time to time I’d plead with him to come back to the building site, but to no avail. But despite not being able to take on the big jobs, he has been happy to help along the way, arranging the slating, plumbing and electricity and the underfloor heating and flow-screed.

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And Builder#2? Well suffice to say he’s not being invited to the house warming party.

Airtightness nerdery and yet another disaster. 

Today we achieved an airtightness value of 2.54. This means that, under the 50 Pascales pressure applied during the test, the house exchanges 2.54 volumes of air with the outside world every hour. This might seem like a lot, but when you compare that with current building standards, which is 10, this is very respectable indeed.

It’s not passive house standard which is 0.6, but I’m feeling happy, especially given the state in which Scotframe’s builder left the house after the panel erection. And it’s down to Jamie who has also been fitting the Mechanical Ventilation Heat Recovery system. This is a system of pipes taking hot humid air from areas like kitchens and bathrooms, exchanging the heat with that in new air coming into the house. And it keeps hot air from escaping from the house while maintaining the air quality.

He did a great job. And it’s made me almost forget the horror I experienced when I arrived to see the first stage of the MVHR work to find that three 100mm holes had been drilled through the substantial beam that is holding up the whole roof. These holes had the MVHR ventilation pipes passing through them, instead of (as was planned) underneath the beam within a false ceiling in the utility/plant room.

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The swiss-cheese beam is amazingly that same beam which was missing the vital and substantial piece of metalwork when it was first erected (see previous blog). So I was NOT happy.  And I as rather flabbergasted it could have even happened, as I had spent an hour on the phone the previous evening talking through every thing with Jamie. And the design for the lowered ceiling came from Paul Heat recovery, who designed the MVHR system for the house, rather than from my architects. And they had contracted Jamie to install it.
Jamie had been anxious about drilling a row of 100mm holes through the OSB I-joists keeping the floor cassettes rigid. He’d asked me to go back to Scotframe to confirm that would be ok. So you can imagine my surprise that he had drilled three 100mm holes through the middle of the main wooden supporting beam without checking. (It would have taken quite some time to do that – some thinking time to consider the engineering implications….)
Jamie was there that evening so we chatted through his plan to go back to Scotframe engineers to seek a solution. In the end he did a great job sorting it all out with little hassle to me. The Scotframe engineers came up with a solution which was then OK-ed by my engineer involving bolts coming through the beam top and bottom and holding all the laminations of the wooden beam together.  It’s yet another thing to add to the growing resource of dinner-party anecdotes. II’m still standing (as Elton John once said)

Action stations. 

Had a visit up to the house again on Monday and, at last, after a long haiatus  things are really getting going. 

When I arrived three men were busying about fitting the panels of 125mm  insulation on the floor.  

  Then as soon as that was done, the plastic sheet went down and insulation around the edge of that. Blink and you’d miss it at the rate they worked. 

I was pleased to see that the racking panel wall was in at last – And the masonry wall behind where the stove will go. Fortunately Scotframe’s mistake in sending an additional supporting wall served to our advantage as the wall that was made to go there was badly warped beyond use and so the other wall they sent served in its place, with some adjustments.  Pieces from the warped wall were canibalised  to support the masonry wall.  

   
We were actually able to utilize some of the tens of thousands of masonry ties that Scotframe delivered with the kit. I needed to get them ID-ed by the experts on Twitter as I had no idea what they were for.

    

 (Apparently they are to tie a Masonary wall to a wood frame design.)  so we managed to use about 25 out of the overflowing boxes (I am concerned that they reproduce while I am away as there always seem more on my return).  I donated the rest of the ties to the builders – I hope they can make use of them elsewhere.  

It was all looking good except that the hearth wasn’t in place.  The amount of effort, I thought, and frankly blood sweat and tears that had gone into working out the hearth (link) meant I had a small panic when I saw them laying the insulation panels where the constructional hearth should be. 

  Here’s the poor guy sawing up the insulation to make room for the Foamglas insulation

Builder #2 was supposed to put that in when they did the walls and it seemed that they hadn’t. Fortunately I was there at exactly the right time to make sure it wasn’t forgotten. The guys swiftly cut the Foamglas to size while I was out calling builder #2 and it was all pretty much solved in the time I had managed to get a signal. 


By the time I left, the underfloor heating was being laid 
  
Plan is, the Glen Almond screed comes in over the underfloor heating and also over  the Foamglas to form the constructional hearth. 

That’s the plan. 

It’s happening on Thursday so I am trying not to be stressed and just let it happen. 

Monday starts the plumbing electricity the MVHR and the cladding.    Unless there is a crisis in the meantime that is. 

Ending the Radio silence – I hope….

There has been a radio silence on the blog recently. Which happens to coincide with a few mishaps and problems (“yet more?!” I hear you cry). I didn’t want this blog to be a litany of disasters and moans, and retain the upbeat, good news and optimism-in-the-face-of-house-Armageddon attitude, but that has unfortunately resulted in zero material for the blog over the past couple of months. So here is a bit of honest-blogging. There isn’t a neat narrative and happy ending to this (yet).

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One of the problems I’ve been dealing with is the aforementioned missing piece of structural metalwork. Another has been waiting for the large numbers of  things to be fixed by the framers. It seems many were the fault of the timber frame company for not providing the right items at the right time and the framers have been doing extra work at the site to fix them (fortunately not at my expense).
But it is hard to work out why the wall dividing the kitchen-dining room from the utility room is still learning against the wall, happily warping in the damp air.
Those readers who have been paying attention will remember this wall and its mysterious imaginary  neighbour had already been causing some consternation and much to-and-froing between the various camps of engineers on the project while we were in the final stages of getting the house translated from the architects plans to the timber kit. (See blog)
And despite all the back and forth to persued the timber kit company that one of the walls they had made a structural wall (a racking panel to be precise – tying together the house to stop it flexing in the wind, rather than holding up any beams etc) was not a wall at all – only the diving line between open-plan kitchen and dining room – both walls had been delivered and were sitting there.

IMG_9940Just sitting there warping (but the good side of having an extra wall I didn’t need is that I can use the one that isn’t warped – but is too short- in place and add bits on…)
There is also the issue of the windows. They have been fitted in the wrong place. It really is just too wearisome to describe here. You’ll have to wait for a bit of good news on this front before I dare to draw out a blog on this one…

There’s also the small issue of not having anyone to do the cladding for the house. I may have, in my trusting nativity, put a bit too much faith in the word of the framing company that they would be able to do the cladding as well as the frame erection.  Anyway, when it came to it – the pressures of lots and lots of houses to put up – meant that they didn’t want to do the cladding in the end and I was left with scaffolding and a half built house and no prospect whatsoever of getting cladding on it anytime soon.

I started the search for a company to do the cladding. The brilliant builders who did the foundations are tied up with two or three builds and couldn’t manage within my timeframe (the time frame of “GETTITUP!!!-the-scaffolding-is costing-me-and-the-rain-is-pouring-in-bigtime”) and calls to umpteen companies and visits from a few resulted in zero companies who could start this calendar year.

Eventually a company from Oban have been up and looked at the work and pointed out a few problems I have (including the window problem) and have sent me a quote. I am readying myself with a stiff drink just in case before I dare open the document.

And to finish with, here’s a nice sunset (it really went all these colours) taken from the Holly Tree Inn where I have been buying more than my fair share of cappuccinos recently to escape wind and rain and lack of reception and low battery power. It’s to remind me that life is beautiful despite the tiny issue of a troublesome house build.

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The mystery of the missing metalwork

Have you ever spent all afternoon making a piece of ikea furniture and you sit back feeling rather pleased with yourself and, just as you set off to make yourself a well- deserved cup of tea, you see a large, essential and important element still  lying on the floor. ‘Where the hell is that supposed to go? You shout in exasperation.
Remember that feeling?
Now imagine that you have a fully erected house and you are just starting to think of what colour to paint the bathroom*, when you look down from gazing up at your wonderful edifice and see a large significant looking piece of metalwork sitting at your feet. The kind of bit of metalwork that would hold a couple of beams and take a very significant role in holding a house in an upright position.


A piece looking just like this.

This is exactly what happened to me a couple of weeks ago. I was showing long-suffering husband the wonders of a house upright when he pointed to the piece of metalwork on the ground in front of the house. (It hadn’t been there the las time I was at the house).
We had just finished wondering to ourselves ‘where the hell is THAT supposed to go’ and started to search about for the number of the contractor, when our neighbour, the farmer, popped over to  pass the time of day and ask whether we’d seen one of his free-ranging cows on her wanderings.

‘What’s that’ he asks, pointing at the metalwork

‘I was just asking myself the same thing’ I mumbled in reply.

‘Funny, we’ve got something a bit like that, but bigger, lying at the end of our track’

We headed over to his track and there lay an even larger piece of metalwork, one deigned to hook over one beam and take two more beams.


‘Oh dear, I think that must be ours.’
I could just about pick it up. With help I got it back to the house, took some pictures and emailed them to the contractor. I put the next stage on hold until we knew what was going on.
A week later I was back at the plot with the chap from the framing  company.

It turned out that the larger piece of metalwork was a shoe for the centre of the house to hook over a beam and hold up the beam that holds up the ridge beam.


It seemed to be rather a miracle that the house was able to stand up without it. The framers had bodged some hangers for the beams, which were holding it all together and which explained why the short beam at the top of the stairs was held in by nothing more than a few nails driven in at an angle.

IMG_9775Theres now a hanger on one side but the beam is still held up by nails on the other….
The other large piece of metal was a specially commissioned shoe to act as a retrofit to replace the original shoe which meant that it could be slipped over the existing beam, and under the other and bolted into place and wouldn’t necessitate the dismantling of most of the structure to put it in.


Well that was a relief (of sorts) the plan was OK-ed by our engineers, and fitted successfully. (with a little panic when I first saw it and thought it wasn’t installed in the right position – but it was, thank goodness). It could have been good to know about the issues in advance of coming across the pieces of metal scattered around the neighbourhood but it is, at least, one of the numerous issues sorted and dealt with.
And now I have a large piece of metal which I suppose I could sell on e-bay. Or have it as part of a very over-engineered bench at the front of the house. Something to remind me of the trials and tribulations, stresses and strains, hubris and horrors of building your own house.
* slight exaggeration

The agonies and the ecstasies

I’m bathed in a warm glow of light. The sky is more blue, the birds more eloquent. There is an ecstatic quality to the everyday, it’s all swimming in a haze of benign joy. It’s like I’m a little bit in love but not quite sure why and with whom.

I’m on cloud nine (or is it cloud cuckoo land?) The house is starting to come together.

I’ve been like this for a few days. It’s quite nice really. I’ve got other things to do – work, family, other busyness. But when I have a few moments spare I retreat back to this happy golden and sun-shining place.

It’s actually rather a novelty, given the stress and woe of the project recently. But, thinking philosophically, I recon you just cannot have the ecstatic highs without the miserable barrel-bottom-scraping lows.

It makes it all worth it.

And that’s why I’m going to enjoy it.

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Timber kit day 3-4: in which things go pear shaped again ….

IMG_9210-0.PNGHeavy rain and strong winds were forecast again for Thursday and, as I sat in my Glasgow office, I looked out at the trees bending in the wind and heard the whistling through the telegraph wires, I thought of the guys up at Cuil Bay. The weather up there was worse – really horrific. Rosco and the team managed to get another layer of panels and roof beams up in a lull in the gales in the middle of the day, but things weren’t looking good.

I was feel a little miserable until I received a couple of photos from my neighbour showing how much they had managed to achieve.  Wow. Look at this – and with that weather too!

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On Friday things deteriorated further. The team heroically tried to get on the roof panels and managed four, but it was far too dangerous and they had to stop. The rain was torrential. They sent the crane home at 2pm as the wind picked up even further.

So we needed a crane for Monday. I already knew that the Oban company we had been using had the crane booked out all the following week, and the Fort William company was booked out the whole month building a school so I was at a bit of a loss. Dumbarton?

James from the company erecting the kit suggested I contact a company in Lochgilphead. They didn’t exist on the web, but he gave me ‘Harry the Crane’s’ number (as it came across from his contacts list).

Yes he could do it. (hooray!)

But could he be there at 8am?

‘That’s fine, we’ll just set off at 5am.

And No he couldn’t get directions to the plot by email.

‘I don’t ever go near a computer. Do you know how old I am?’

I checked the weather forecast. High winds all weekend and into Monday. A lull on Tuesday and then a full gale by Wednesday. Tuesday is the day! I confirmed the booking.

In the meantime my house is sitting utterly exposed to the elements and lacking a roof in torrential rain and high winds. Gusts of 99km/h forecast for Monday afternoon. I hope the house is still there when I get to the plot at 8am on Tuesday.

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I NEED a crane

I’ve never needed a crane before and I don’t think I’ll ever need one again but I need one more than anything else just now.

With this project turning proper self-build with me as defacto project manager (or, as I tend to call it, chaos manger) I have needed to set my hand to such things as getting cranes and scaffolding. I thought this would be utterly straightforward. But I am gradually learning that almost nothing is.

I’ve got a date that the frame arrives. 23 February. 8am. It rolls off the factory floor and off on a huge lorry to Lochaber. I need to have a crane ready and waiting for it at 730am and a full setup of scaffolding built and then, over the next three-four days, the building goes up. Doors, windows and all.

I sought out some names to contact to get them booked in. ‘Be patient with scaffolding guys’ was the advice, ‘they’ve been hit in the head by too many bits of metal’….

Easy peasy. I’ve got two quotes coming from scaffolding companies (or at least I should have a second one coming but their email address is nowhere to be found on the web and the one he gave me over the phone doesn’t work).

Then I called the crane company but all their cranes are booked out for a school build until March. Eeeek. And where are there any other cranes? Oban. Well at least that’s not too far away. What if they are busy? That will be the central belt then. Oh.

I have taken to calling the crane folks on a daily basis -it’s joined the morning routine- kids up, twitter, breakfast with Radio 4, packed lunches, bike lights? Check. Helmet? Check. Ten layers of clothing? Check. Call the crane people? Check.

At least they have me on the radar. But they have only one crane driver and according to an unattributable source ‘a crane out of the Burrell collection’. But let me tell you, a crane out of the Burrell collection is better than no crane at all and I am going to keep on calling.

PostScript: this morning I called and it was all sorted out. A crane and a crane driver £50 an hour is mine from 730am on 23rd February. Phew.

And because I really am more comfortable with birds than machinery here’s a picture of a real crane

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How many engineers does one project really need?

I thought I just had one engineering firm on this project.

I know they are my engineers because they send me bills. And they send me reports and stuff. They came by at the very beginning and charged me loads of money to peer down some pits that Ronnie the local digger-driver had dug (They did more than that actually – they also made a lovely detailed contour map of the plot and told me about the water table and where the rock was)

It was really only this week that I discovered that there are actually three lots of engineers working in my project.

I need to write this blog if only to get my head around what happened on Friday.

We are in the final stages of getting a building warrant for the upper building (we’ve had the warrant for the foundations for ages and they are, in fact nearly built) and the SER certificate from the engineer was the final thing we needed. On Friday all the documents came through but there was an extra foundation wall or two in the diagram from what we are in the process of building. This, as you can imagine, is not a negligible difference.
IMG_8114.JPGLook here the foundation walls as we have them

IMG_8774.PNG…and here’s the Scotframe Diagram the builder was working to …. Identical

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….and here’s the final ‘thank-goodness-it-wasn’t’ Engineer’s diagram that arrived on Friday

This probably should have created general panic from me but this came on one of my working days, which contain enough panic and chaos of their own. I’ve managed to compartmentalize life and work so one doesn’t bother the other too much during the 9-5pm, so, instead, I felt a rather distant unease, as if viewing the horror from a far-away planet.

In fact we’d been through something like this before – underneath that lovely screed in the part-finished foundations photo is a beautiful strip foundation. (But that’s another blog…)

It turned out there are engineers working for the timber kit company and still more engineers contracted by the timber kit company. And these engineers don’t seem to talk to our engineers.

Fortunately the architects flagged up the discrepancy to me and I pointed out that our architects could have been working from an earlier plan. With much difficulty we got hold of the various engineers and got things sorted. Or rather the archticted did, I don’t really know what happened. All I know is now that the engineers from the timber frame company sent back some annotated drawings and all is now well with the foundation plan as we have it. Well until the next thing goes wrong anyway.

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Self-Build Insurance

I suppose it might have been an idea to get site insurance before we had the foundations more or less complete.

We’ve have third party liability insurance on the plot since the beginning (a extension from an existing policy that we have for a woodland – it’s miles away but it cost us no extra to have the plot on the policy) so I think I had that box ticked in my mind and thought no more about it.

It was only when I was trying to work through the box-ticking exercise , which is seeing if you qualify for an interest free loan to install renewables, that my mind was tweaked: having self-build insurance was one of the ways to prove that you were a self-builder to enable you to get the grant.

‘Oh. Self Build insurance? Ah. Better get some’

So I spent the morning in the phone to various companies. Mostly to sales folks
Them ‘What kind of heating will the house have”
Me ‘air source heat pump’
Them ‘can you explain?’ (I do my best but perhaps go too far into the idea of a reverse fridge and the principles of squeezing a gas to make it hotter and confuse her)
‘Well I’ve never come across that before’ she said at last.

Another hadn’t heard of SIPs (structured insulated panels and the kind of construction we are going for with the kit house). She had it down as ‘unconventional construction’ and said that they probably wouldn’t be able to insure us (later when I sent accompanying documentation she did send a quote)

But one company, BuildCare, put me straight through to a reassuringly expert sounding man rather than going straight into 20 minutes of asking my personal details. I am not sure whether it was his gruff North of Aberdeen accent but I imagined he was straight off a constitution site and seemed to understand my totally ameteurish descriptions of everything and translated it into builder-speak for the forms.

That all seemed so simple and now I have a couple of quotes (two people I was dealing with – seemingly from different companies – Zurich and SelfBuild appeared to work at the same company and worked at neighbouring desks) so much for looking about for the best price..

Now I have reams of forms to fill in and I seem to have to register as a developer. Some questions seem
A bit hard – my project manager? Eeeek. Contracts? Eeeeek eeek.

One of the questions I was asked by every insurance brokers on the phone comes into stark contrast ‘Will you be selling the house once you have built it?’ …. Eh? ‘Surely no one goes through this just so they can sell it?’

The foundations go in

I’ve been meaning to write this for a while. It was going to be a story. But there’s so much going on and so I thought I’d just post some photos of the progress of the foundations.

IMG_6696.JPGMid June. Nothing started. But I walked across Scotland on a sort of birthday pilgrimage. And popped by to see the plot and the work at the plot next door while I was at it.

IMG_6903.JPG July: still no progress but a lovely few days at Cuil Bay in the holidays

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IMG_7665.JPG Start of September and the work starts. What was once a bog turns out to be a perfect building plot with bedrock right near the surface. Except in this corner which needed some concrete.

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IMG_7733.JPG End of September we visit and it starts to feel like we are getting somewhere.

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IMG_8115.JPG End October the screed has gone in and the walls complete and that is where it has stayed. Anytime now the concrete slab will go in, in preparation for the frame arriving!

We’re building!

Building has started at Cuil Bay. It seems a bit of a miracle (and this is just the first stage – the groundworks) but the digger actually made the first dig into the soil on 12 September. We might not have even submitted building control for the main bit of the building yet and have no view further than getting these foundations done while the weather is still dry. But we have STARTED BUILDING!!
20141006-151830-55110223.jpgthe ground conditions are apparently pretty ideal says Stuart our contractor from SECarmichael Building, the slate bedrock is about a meter below the surface in most parts of the plot. 20141006-152239-55359121.jpg It’s only in this south east corner that the bedrock is at depth and we’ll need to stick a load of concrete in.

Apparently the neighbouring plot which was all dry and level and perfect-looking before the digging started was all gravel and sand underneath and whole truck loads of concrete needed to go in to stabilize enough for the foundations. On the other hand, my plot, that seemed all boggy and wet and was wall-to-wall rush and puddle, is apparently the better site with bedrock right underneath.
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It’s certainly encouraging to know that all that bogginess was actually because the water had nowhere to drain to due to the bedrock.

I’m clinging to the good stuff especially with the long journey this has been and that it is, by no means, anywhere near the end.

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A tale of two cycles: Part 1 – Cuil Bay to Ballachullish

20140714-210834-76114055.jpgCycle Route 78 is entirely off road from Cuil Bay to Ballachulish and much of it is along the old Oban- Ballachulish branch line which shut in 1966. The plan is to extend the cycle way off road all the way to Oban but there seem to be some difficult negotiations with land owners along the way (see part 2 of the story) and so there are some bits that are still on the main road.

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However the route we took on day one of our family cycle adventures was one of the nicer routes I’ve done and perfect for a bike with the kids, about 7-8 miles each way.

We started at Cuil Bay and cycled along the minor road to a crossing with the main road which took us through fields and across a beautiful new wooden bridge curving elegantly over the river Duror.

Cycling past banks of foxgloves and meadowsweet, the path wove between fields and then onto the old railway, through cuttings and under a viaduct that must have once taken a road or another railway. In Duror a panel told of the connections of the area with the Appin murder the inspiration for Stephehson’s classic novel ‘Kidnapped’. A cycle up the glen would have taken us to the birthplace of James of the Glen, the subject of that most infamous miscarriage of justice.20140714-210827-76107787.jpg

Passing Duror campsite and some gypsy caravan glamping we were back on the disused railway again, following the contours of the vast shoulder of Beinn a Bheithir, the Ballachulish Horseshoe. The track leaves the railway to climb up for a splendid view of Loch Linnhe and the architectural copses of trees on the Ardsheal estate, before a, rather-too-steep decent takes you to the Holly Tree hotel (the perfect stop for lunch and a swim) and then back onto the old railway now running along the shoreline.20140714-210826-76106674.jpg

The views arcross to Ardgour and Morven were divine, and later there were views of the pap of Glencoe and hints of larger mountains behind in the cloud. We made a short detour up into the forest at Letir Mhor to see the monument at the spot where Colin Campbell was murdered.20140714-210825-76105023.jpg

While we stopped for water we were passed by two ladies on low-slung trikes. Each was holding an umbrella spray painted silver. Kit and provisions were piled on to the back of each bike and while one had a pack of warburtons sliced bread bungeed to the top, the other trailed some Tibetan prayer flags.

The final four miles of the route is alongside the road from South Balachulish to Glencoe. Amazing views of the mountains of Glencoe looming ahead was rather distracting given the very fast and busy road the track runs alongside. However, all in all it was a perfect family cycle ride. We rode back for a very deserved dinner and swim at the Holly Tree.20140714-210828-76108786.jpg

LINKS
Sustrans leaflet on cycle route 78 Oban to Fort William

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Ten reasons why we love holidaying in the West Highlands (even when it rains)

20140409-110902.jpg1. Weather.

You might have heard that the weather in the West Highlands isn’t always balmy, sunny and dry. The weather forecast prior to our current Easter at a rented house suggested that we were due for more than our fair share of rain. But did this put us off?

Of course not. Because this is part of the attraction: you never know what the day will hold. No matter what the weather forecast says, you will get some sun, some showers, some wind to dry you off and you will get some picturesque clouds and stunning light.

The quality of the light is special in the west Highlands: bright sunshine slanting in from under clouds to flood the golden mountainsides with light. Weather is a spectator sport. Find a window seat, look out at the mountains reflected in the loch, and wait for the weather to start the show.

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It might be pouring with rain, but the light is like a Landseer oil painting: Eileen Donan Castle from Letterfern (spot the rainbow)

2. Waterfalls

Due to the West Highland weather, particularly, it seems, on this holiday, there is always water aplenty rushing down the mountains. White ribbons of water flow down every hillside, braiding around rocks and heather. Almost everywhere are waterfalls, from the small, to the mighty. Gorges with rowans clinging to the side and leaning into the spray are where you will find a miniature forest of incredible lichens, mosses and ferns. Smoothed rocks for basking on during a dry summer day, transform into torrents of wild water after a night of rain.

3. Watersports

We used the rain to advantage the last couple of days to explore the burns flowing down the hill behind the house. An ordinary burn is made extraordinary once you step into it and start to follow the course of the water, scrambling over mossy boulders, balancing along dead trees washed down and wedged across the stream and ducking under tree branches growing over the vertiginous bank. Mosses and lichens cover everything and it felt like we were the first people to discover this lost world.

We were out with six children aged between 6 and 11, and it became a real adventure for all of us, helping the children up little waterfalls and bigger waterfalls, until we were halted by a 10m long chute of water. It’s not usually the children begging to go on while the adults suggest a retreat to the house for tea, but this time the kids dragged us onto the bank and around the obstacle to continue the adventure.

They returned today to conquer the waterfall, with ropes and harnesses, and every child climbed through the rushing torrent, made it to the top and declared themselves victorious.

4. Wetsuits with Wellies (and waterproofs)

Wetsuits, wellies and waterproofs are the essential outfit for kids on holiday in the west highlands. They were all dressed like that for the 20140408-233403.jpggorge ascent. A friend introduced us to this stylish and functional holiday wear on another Easter holiday: wetsuits to keep warm, waterproofs to keep off the wind, and wellies. Children will be happy on the beach all day dressed like this. As the maxim says ‘there is no such thing as inclement weather, only inappropriate clothing’.

5. Wildlife

There are a few species that everyone wants to see: I am always looking out for eagles. I know there should be white tailed eagles around and I am hoping to see a golden eagle. It wasn’t too far from here, when climbing a ridge, a golden eagle appeared just below me, rising on the up-draft.  For a few moments, it was only a few wing-spans from me and then suddenly banked, soaring out of sight over the ridge.

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unfortunately in a glass case in the house, haven’t seen the real thing yet this holiday.

6. Walks

Isn’t north west Scotland just the very best place for walking? I love low level coast and loch-side walks, but I especially love the mountains, I never get bored in the mountains. Not least because weather and conditions make every walk one-of-a-kind.

While the children were ascending the waterfall, I took the chance to get into the mountains. We were rained on (a bit) we were blown on (which dried us out) and we had a constantly changing vista as clouds passed, drew in, and then parted.

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Cloud and light on our walk up Sgurr a’ Bhac Chaolais in Kintail

7. Wilderness

We climbed up over a bealloch (coll) along a path that was once used by soldiers and those droving their cattle. It was high, around 700m at the top, but we were surrounded by higher mountains. We met no-one all day, and we looked over into a glen, completely remote. If we had carried on walking down the glen and southwards we would have reached Knoydart, the largest area of uninhabited land, wild land, in Britain.

On the second day of the trip,  we visited Sandaig, the site where Gavin Maxwell wrote Ring of Bight Water. It is a deserted place, the house is gone and two monuments, one to Maxwell and one to Edal the otter, bear testament to the lives that were lived in that place. It certainly felt wild, with a derelict cottage and an expanse of rock, sand, shingle and sea. 20140409-105021.jpgThe poignant air of the place brought to life in the book, now deserted, reminded me that most of the wild glens, and coasts of the West Highlands, places that we now call wilderness, were once filled with dwellings. Thousands of people living off the land, with homes by lochs and in the glens, and sheilings where, in the summer, women and children stayed with the cattle at the high pastures.

The house we are staying in has a few ancient browning photographs of blackhouse settlements on the walls. The houses are made of woven hurdles and stone and thatched with heather.  In one photo a group of children, barefoot  and dirty, stand with their mother at the door to the house. I think I recognise the place as just around the cost from here. There is nothing left there now but stones.

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A photo on the wall of the house we are staying in shows some of the communities in areas of the coastline now deserted.

8. White-Water crossings.

Because the West 20140408-233205.jpgHighlands are wild, and untamed there isn’t always a bridge to hand, even on marked paths. This isn’t strictly something that I love about the West Highlands, but I crossed a freezing and rocky mountain burn today, in bare feet to keep my boots and socks dry.  It was very sore and there were patches of snow on the ground, and I am proud of it, so I thought I’d put it in….

9. Warming up

Part of the joy of the wild, the wet and the windy is the warming up at the end. After the day at Sandaig we clustered wet-suited and wet children round a driftwood fire and they toasted themselves and their marshmallows.blog warming up west highlands

10. Whisky

Obviously, good for warming you up, especially in front of a wood-burning stove. And also, as I have found out, good for cooling down. On our second night I was tasked with the communal meal and made whisky and honey ice cream. Having forgotten the key ingredient I borrowed some from the bottles brought by my friends and so discovered my two favourite flavours of ice-cream: Talisker and Highland Park.

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Monument to Edal, the otter of Ring of Bright Water at Sandaig. ‘Whatever joy she gave to you, give back to nature’

 

 

 

 

How much?!!……

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I’ve just found out our house build is going to cost nearly as much as Blenheim Palace. And I’m having a wee sit down.

I’m in the middle of Bill Bryson’s book ‘At Home’ which tells the the fascinating history of our domesticity. I have enjoyed chapters on the evolution of lighting and how the some of the earliest preserved homes in the world are at Scara Brae on Orkney. However, I am finding the current chapter on the building of the world’s most extravagant homes in history rather more uncomfortable.

It recounts the obsession of the über-rich in building the world’s most lavish edifices; Blenheim Palace, Castle Howard, Fonthill Abbey, and also the cult of the first celebrity architects.
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These great houses had hundreds of rooms and covered acres of land. They also went vastly over budget. Blenheim was budgeted to cost £40,000 and ended up costing around £300,000, which is presumably why I am finding the chapter rather painful reading.

Yesterday I received the latest cost plan from the Quantity Surveyor (a couple of weeks too late to be really useful for the latest part of our decision-making) and it appears that, despite cutting the floor plan size and reducing the spec, we have actually miraculously increased the projected costs of the build by over £15,000.

We are not budgeting for 300 rooms, nor to cover an area of seven acres; we don’t plan to cover every inch in intricate stone carvings and turrets and fripperies; however it appears that our modest construction is going to cost nearly as much as Blenheim Palace.

This is obviously not good news. However perhaps here is where the celebrity architects of the day can help. The inheritors of the great mantle of Robert Adam, the Scottish architect of Culzean Castle, the Trades Hall Glasgow and almost every other grand building of note are now helping us make better use of corrugated iron, take out redundant walls and forage for wall-coverings in local skips.

Welcome to Piers, the demonstratively arm-waving and plummy architect and Kieran the designer with the outré spectacles from the BBC show ‘the House that 100K Built’.
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I admit to absolutely loving their show (despite the awkward name). It must be the combination of the impossibility of the ambitions of the couple of the week, Piers’ pleas to use chipboard, and bits from decommissioned industrial units to cut costs, and the inevitable triumph against all the odds.

I am certainly going to be heading off to my local architectural salvage yard (and in fact have been resisting the almost irresistible urge to stock pile things from skips and gumtree in the spare room) but it seems to me that the thing that folks do when they run out of money is they start doing the building themselves. Presumably this is because it is where the biggest savings are to be made. It is also probably why it makes such great telly.

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This is where the discomfort comes in. I am supremely hopeless in the practical skills department, and so, too, is my best belovéd. In my nightmares, Piers pops up waving his arms at a truck-load of chipboard and effuses about how lovely it is to live in a packing-case.

‘It’s time to think radical’, as Kieran would say (while taking a trip to a house made of fencing offcuts and reclaimed traffic cones). I am wondering whether reintroducing barter as a currency could be the radical solution. A few of my friends have more aptitude in the skills useful for fitting out a house than me, and perhaps they would gladly give their labours in exchange for ad libitum holiday opportunities in such a lovely place as Cuil Bay…..

At least I suppose it’s worth asking, because I don’t think I am quite ready to embrace packing-case chic. Yet.

Eight Steps to Wild Thing Nirvana

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In a couple of weeks ‘Project Wild Thing‘ will be launched. It’s a film documenting one man’s attempt to get his kids to play outside and thus inspire a nation that would rather be on their X-boxes than out in the woods getting muddy.

So it’s fitting that we’ve had a weekend of living the Wild Thing dream.

I’ve written before of the challenges I’ve had getting my own offspring to venture forth into the wide and wild open. So it is with great joy that I can document here, with delighted smugness, the kind of weekend that would make a Guardian lifestyle features editor drool.

So here are my very own 8 steps to Wild Thing Nirvana.

Step One: Find your spot
Obviously this can be anywhere – park, woodland or wild place, but we happened to be on a raised beach surrounded by hazel and birch woodland on the shore of a Scottish loch. And the weather was OK.

Step Two: A wild swim.
After a long, hot walk-in, the sea was startlingly cold. Daughter managed a few strokes then stood waist-deep looking for sealife in the weed. Ignoring the pain of constricting capillaries in the extremities I paddled frantically until a warm glow started to spread over my body. Slowing to a more stately neck-out breast stroke, I parted the seaweed clad in an invincible tingling aura. Anyway I think the aura was from the cold water, it could have been from the smugness.

Step Three: A wild swing
A sure-fire way of warming up, the kids sailed out over the 20ft drop and nearly into the branches of the (hopefully sturdy) oak tree. Fighting over whose turn it was must have been warming too.

Step Four: Make a den and have a picnic
Absolutely standard fare for being a Wild Thing. Our den was built with the help of a length of blue fishing rope found on the beach and some twigs from the woods. It was a pretty good lunch spot and we plucked a few trefoils of wood sorrel to have in our sandwiches.

Step Five: Watch the sunset.
Sitting still and watching anything for more than one minute is not something that myself and my older daughter have ever managed before. Sitting on the beach together, listening to the sea and watching the colours of the sky change was actually a very special experience. However soon the urge to shout out bizarre names for the cloud formations became overwhelming and the spell was broken. ‘half chicken half worm!’
‘A horse wearing deely-boppers’
‘Pig’s head on a skeleton’

Step Six: Star gazing
In the uncharacteristically warm late September evening we sat outside and watched the constellations gradually appear. We also happened to be listening to radio 3 and a performance of Tintagel by Arnold Bax, which is obviously too pretentious for words but daughter wanted a soundtrack and this was the only one we could agree on. In any case, it suited the occasion, the lapping of the waves on the beach and the wind in the grass.

This is where a bit of that evil screen-time hugely increased our enjoyment of the experience. The wonderful Night Sky app showed us the names of the constellations and significant stars and satellites. We even saw a few shooting stars.

Step Seven: Phosphorescence

I’ve only experienced phosphorescence once before and it was under similar conditions: a warm autumn night after a long hot summer. We wandered down to the water’s edge, splashed our hands and, sure enough, a few sparks of phosphorescence shot into the dark and disappeared. It took a lot of splashing for a couple of sparks but, what magic sparks they were.

Step Eight: Sleep out under the stars.
This is obviously the absolute pinnacle of Wild Thing achievement. It wasn’t really something we intended but the idea had started germinating last week when I received an email telling me that someone had sponsored me to sleep out in my garden.

This wasn’t a phishing scam from a criminal gang-turned environmental education collective. It was related to a test page I set up on JustGiving while organising the RSPB Big Wild Sleepout in August. Somehow, someone had tracked down my page and felt moved to sponsor me, but they hadn’t left any contact details, leaving me in a bit of a dilemma.

I was fretting about the morality of being unable to contact my benefactor to tell them I was a fraud when the inevitability of a night out au naturel dawned.

We dragged camp beds and sleeping bags down to the beach – daughter categorically banned me from taking an actual bed and mattress down. I had planned to just lie and look at the stars and listen to the waves for a while but almost immediately we were both asleep.

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We didn’t manage a whole night though. The night sky had rotated around the North Star by about 60 degrees when I was awoken by a frozen cold daughter and we sprinted back into relative warmth.

So, I hope that puts my sponsorship dilemma to bed so I can sleep at night again (sorry couldn’t resist). Next year I think I’ll go the whole hog and get properly sponsored for a proper sleepout.

Inching our way towards the finish line?

Well when I say the finish line, I mean that the final decisions are being made and we may go out and engage a contractor at some point soonish….

The latest version of the 3D virtual model is looking lovely. We’ve widened the passage from stairs into living area and I think it looks rather pleasing now. Look at the two photos below. However I hope that the need to jiggle with the masonry stove won’t change the beautiful symmetry of this too much.

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Here’s the previous version

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Here’s the new one – doesn’t it look lovely?

Reducing Costs and a Recap

A little recap may be in order given the amount of time it has taken to get planning permission. After the quantity surveyor had costed the initial specification and it was way beyond miles over budget we have been looking at ways to get the cost down a bit.

Firstly we reduced the floor area. My original plans were for a generous area where you come in to shed wet, muddy clothes from various outdoor biking/climbing/skiing/marine adventures with a drying room, boot area and utility room. And also a fantasy pantry. With a bedroom above. This has shrunk to a small hall, with a much reduced utility/drying room. A bench at the bottom of the stairs gives a place to sit.

Although we managed to reduce the floor area by about 20msq, the lovely architects (did I mention they were lovely) managed that without losing much functional space. We lost a little storage space upstairs but with a bit of clever shenanigans around the stairs the third bedroom upstairs can still sleep two.

Secondly we discussed the specification. I know I chose Matt as an architect specifically for the ecological design aspect of his skills and interests, and he certainly demonstrated that on his initial specification for the build. However having ideals seems to come at a price and, once we had the QS report it was obvious that something had to give. Achieving top-notch eco credentials for energy performance, eco-friendly materials and low embodied energy just didn’t seem to be possible within our budget.

The best compromise that we came up with was to retain a high insulation and air-tightness – though short of passive house – and use cheaper materials for the build. Rather than the more natural materials of timber frame with warmcel insulation (or similar) and fibreboard, we moved towards foam insulation in a timber kit build. We have also thought about our use of windows, reducing the spec of some of the most expensive ones and examining how many we really need.

Oh and we lost the zinc roof too- which was quite a relief to me and probably for the planners too. More on the long road to Planning permission in the next blog….

Walking through the House at Cuil

I got a chance to go into our new house for the first time this week.

No, there hasn’t been a sudden miracle and we have gone straight from planning to fully constructed house in a couple of weeks, I have just been walking through a 3D model of the house on my smartphone. I walked in the door, up the stairs and then straight out of the landing window and into mid-air.

Until now Scott and Matt, have been able to wander at will through a virtual House at Cuil Bay using their fancy architect software on their fancy architect computers in their fancy architect office, while I have been bending my head around pdfs of plans and stills from the software.

Given my 3D visualisation is probably far less developed than that of an architect, I am utterly delighted to now have this virtual walk-through House at Cuil Bay on my very own iphone. I can wander from bedroom to en-suite bathroom, then down to the kitchen/dining room to gaze, dewy-eyed at the view. I can even levitate onto the ceiling to see what a room looks like from above and then pass effortlessly through the floor and end up under the bed in the room above.

The architects (did I tell you they were wonderful?) have used Graphisoft BIMx software to do this and all it took was for me to download the app, save the file they sent me and set out on my virtual explore. It is totally gobsmackingly fantastic and even has a very gratifying thudding action as you walk up stairs.

Just as I was getting excited about the walk-through model, the children were getting excited about minecraft, a kids’ computer game where you mine for resources and create cities. They have built swimming pools and high rise blocks, one with a full farm on the roof of the 10th storey. And, not to let the architects get ahead, now they are building our house.

In contrast with many computer games minecraft has none of the CGI effects and smooth outlines, it is simply a land created from cubic blocks of various materials. These materials include diamond, ruby, quartz, wool, hedging, but not, apparently, harling, or slate. It turns out that minecraft wasn’t created with West coast of Scotland construction techniques in mind.

The priority appears to be making your house Zombie proof. Not something I am expecting to be an issue in Cuil Bay. I certainly didn’t put it in the spec. The lack of appropriate building materials didn’t, of course, put the children off their project, ‘Should I build the white walls from quartz or wool?’ they asked. I put this to Scott who recommended quartz on the basis that, according to the minecraft wiki, both were classed as blast proof but that quartz was less flammable.

The look might be rough and homemade but they have managed to create a walk-through model pretty similar to the professional one (if you ignore the rough edges and improvised fixtures and fittings – a furnace instead of a cooker, more quartz blocks for sofas). They have had trouble installing the stairs: you have to climb over the bottom step to reach the kitchen and they resorted to a ladder to get up the last bit, but I am rather impressed. I think that it might even have impressed the architects.

I’ve put a couple of screen grabs from the architects design (and from the rookie architects too) on the blog to give you a bit of an idea. However these can’t possibly communicate the full joy of this wonderful virtual house of mine. I keep wanting to wander about in it, spin round in bathrooms, and fly 100m into the air above and orbit the house like a planet. Now that’s something I wouldn’t be able to do with a real house.

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view from the south

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An entire minecraft forest was felled to make room for building the house

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There are no fitted kitchens in Minecraft. These units are made of quartz with a furnace in place of the oven

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The sofas are also made of quartz blocks and a picture hides a hidden corridor

Messing about in kayaks

kayaking“There is NOTHING… absolutely nothing… half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

Thus spake Ratty in the wonderful first chapter of Wind in the Willows. And I can now confirm his assertion to be true, having spent a blissful morning drifting around the sea near Arisaig in a sea kayak. The sea was green, the sky was blue (in parts) and the islands of Eigg and Rum, and the Black Cullin of Skye made a heart-lifting backdrop.

My experience of messing about in boats has, save some punting while at university and the pedalos on lake Luzern, been almost entirely vicarious. My first experiences of boating were with Ratty on the river (picnic essential) and with Titty

Continue reading

The Glen of Ghosts – Kilmartin

The Southern Stone circle at Temple Wood, Kilmartin. From www.flickriver.com

The Southern Stone circle at Temple Wood, Kilmartin. From http://www.flickriver.com

Kilmartin has one of the most important concentrations of Neolithic monuments in the UK. Within 6 miles of Kilmartin there are over 150 prehistoric sites: standing stones, cup and ring-marked rocks, cists, cairns, stone circles.

And it isn’t just a place for pre-history, Dunadd, the hill fort which was the seat of power of the Celtic kingdom of Dalriada is only one of many hill forts in the glen. Continue reading

OK, I’ll settle for a shed

I woke up in the night with a brainwave. What I need is a shed. We’ve got one in the plans: a bike/canoe/ski/wetsuit and general kit-storage shed. But I had, for some reason, envisaged it going up at the end of the building process, almost as an afterthought.

It is now glaringly obvious that I need a shed right now.

We can use it to put things in, and when we actually start on the long-awaited build I can lay a sleeping bag in it as if sheltering in a sturdy wooden tent.

My friend from across Loch Linnhe, Jake of Sound Wood, has built himself a beautiful, inspiring workshop all from wood cut at his sawmill.

Now imagine that in mini-size as my shed. I’m going to find out whether he could build me one at Cuil Bay.

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Winter Climbing: My Glencoe and Ben Nevis Top 5

Stob Coire nan Lochan

Glencoe and Ben Nevis is really the home of Scottish Winter Climbing. A veritable wonderland of ice, snow and frozen turf. The Atlantic climate gives very special climbing conditions that are particular to Scotland and draw thousands of people to its gullies, ridges and ice-rimed rock. Continue reading

Skiing at Glencoe

glencoe ski photoThe ski area at Glencoe must have one of the most stunning views of any winter sports venue.  Meall a’ Bhuiridh, the mountain on which the 19 runs and 7 lifts are set is right on the edge of Rannoch moor. The last soaring peak before the flat, wild expanse of peat bog, pools and open heather moor. Continue reading

Real Food Cafe: the perfect pit-stop

The Real Food cafe is the absolutely ‘must stop’ place to eat on the way to Cuil. The food is perfect, the welcome is warm, and the ambiance is buzzing with climbers refueling after a day in the hills, families with sleepy children on the way north, and West-Highland Wayers. Continue reading

Planning documents go live

It’s taken a few days for Highland Council to get all the relevant documents up onto their planning website. But now all the documents related to the house at Cuil Bay are now live.  If you want to see them then click on the photo below and it will take you there.  If it doesn’t work go to the Highland Planning website and type in the code 12/03817/FUL or click here

Now there is a period of consultation where comments are welcomed …. waiting with baited breath!

I will be maintaining radio silence on issues related to the planning application until the process is complete, however expect more time for blogs on things I like to do near Cuil.

The Evolution of the House at Cuil Bay

I said that I would do a blog on the various iterations that the house has gone through on the long road between twinkle in the eye in January to planning permission-ready this week.

So here I present a kind of ‘Decent of Man’ for the House at Cuil Bay.

We started with a veritable Cambrian Explosion of ideas and sketches. The single-story flat-roofer went extinct early on. But a couple of designs made it into the computer software.

The first was a barrel-roofed house reflecting the shape of the big red barn in the field by the plot…we ruled it out right away

At the same time we saw a pitched-roof, slit window house with one of the rooms a single story on the end.

Next came a set of three variations on a solar-gain design: First with a single pitch sloping room on the back…

Then with the roof on the back room sloped up to the back (not pictured). And lastly with both roofs single pitch

We preferred a conventional pitch and so the next design made the front more attractive

However, never satisfied I asked for a change in orientation and general look and the house became this… ..Now we really were getting somewhere. I liked this one a lot.

But the quantity surveyor told us it was way over budget so I asked Matt to look at making it smaller. The next was a bit smaller but rather odd looking – the turret had a raised battlement behind which the solar panels sit. It had lost the eves and reprised the box-extension theme.

Back to what we liked originally and a shrinkage in the ‘east wing’. What you can’t see from this picture is that it is looking a bit awkward around the side you can’t see. But still too expensive and a few things that didn’t work yet in terms of layout.

Now we are pretty much there. Smaller, and a lower roofline but a change in entrance configuration to allow for utility room.

And at last, on 2 October, this is the house that went to planning (I think). As far as I can see this house is pretty much identical to the last apart from the addition of the wood/bike shed (and an extra car!).

The Appin Murder

Just north of Cuil, close to the site of the old Ballachullish ferry are two memorials that tell the story of the Appin Murder.

The first memorial, on the old Ballachullish-Oban road through Lettermore wood, marks the spot where, on 14th May 1752, Colin Roy Campbell of Glenure, also known as the Red Fox, was murdered by a single musket shot.

Continue reading

First Design Your House …

I suppose I’m just a wannabe architect.

I have images of what this house might look like bumping about in my head, morphing and circling.  I spend the moments between laying my head on the pillow, and my flight through sleep, trying to solve the problem of how to fit a bathroom between a door and a window. I spend stolen moments while children play at the park, or while peeling potatoes, trying to work out what happens when two sloping roofs meet (that one took a trip to the scrap paper drawer and a bit of origami.)

It’s nice to have an inner life again.  Welcome activity for the mind, displacing the constant rolling of to-do lists, and the buzzing of urgent tasks.  Reminiscent of the feeling in the run up to finals as facts and concepts birled around my mind trying to grab onto everything else and wrap it up in a theory of everything.   Or the challenge of trying to work out the way the international financial system works after a programme on Radio 4.

I have actually started to get quite opinionated about what this house should be like over the months of the design process.  I know exactly what I like when I see it, but can’t put my finger on exactly why or explain what I want in the abstract.  In short, I must be utterly infuriating for any architect to work with.

At the start of the process, our architect Matt asked me to send photos of houses to give him an idea of the kind of thing I liked.  I totally failed.  In all those years of looking for a plot secretly, I hadn’t felt that the project was concrete enough to actually venture into the real and start capturing images of what I wanted.  And then things started happening really really quickly.

Matt sent me some photos of houses he suggested I might like – all stunningly beautiful, all flat topped or barrel roofed and all utterly not me.

So what do you like, he asked. “Well I like…eves” – I couldn’t think of any other way of putting it.  I don’t know whether it is the product of being married to a Swiss, but I do like eves, and steep slopey roofs and the distant ring of cowbells on the alp…..  I couldn’t help notice that most of Matt’s house designs didn’t have eves, in fact they didn’t have many jutty out bits.

Matt soldiered on, with incredible efficiency and he and his colleague produced reams of beautiful drawings of potential homes for me.  They started with a trio: tall and barrel-roofed, reflecting the large red corrugated barn next to my plot; low slung, single story with a flat roof; and two-story steep pitched roof, with a flat cube to one side.  Nope; Nope; Nope; was my ungrateful response.  I took the liberty of having some ideas of my own, mulling indulgently through the possibilities, and sketched them out, trying to explain it to the architects.  It had a slopey roof and eves.

What I discovered was that things that are eminently possible in my head, often turn out to be completely impractical when it reaches the realms of the real world.  Stairs for example are strange things to get your head round, and it really matters where they are. Rooms need to have doors that can be opened and closed. Weight-bearing walls hold up the roof or floor. You need to be able to stand up while going to the toilet.

The next iteration of design bore no relation, to either the original three drawings, nor to my own. This time they called me in to give me the blurb before presenting me with the options.  Architects are good at blurb. I wonder whether they go to blurb classes at architect school.

They had me convinced: what I really wanted was a house of two stories, wood-clad, with a single-pitched metal roof and big windows across the front.  More or less as far as it was possible to get from the outline planning consent on the plot (one and a half story, harled and slated, 45 degree angle roof, windows predominantly vertical). The design progressed to incorporate a couple of my suggestions – it was part harled, part wood and returned to a conventional roof-shape.  They had also done a lot of work making the front of the house look lovely with large south-facing windows in all the main rooms and a balcony all across the front.

Whenever I spoke to them I was convinced it was right, but when I came home, I had niggling doubts that chased the plans and ideas from my head and kept me awake.

Feedback from neighbours following a letter I sent round the neighbourhood to introduce ourselves and our plans for the house, suggested that, in general, they thought the house not suited to the site so, with weight of neighbourly opinion behind me, I met Matt to discuss the project.  It was, of course no problem to change the designs and, in fact, a relatively small tweak: keeping the floor layout in the main, but changing the orientation by 90 degrees and changing the windows gave us something much closer to what I was looking for.

Since then we have had a couple of re-sketches, but we are moving incrementally to something I am beginning to get rather attached to.  The excitement has been rekindled and I have started to imagine what it would be like to live there…at least I had until we heard back from the Quantity Surveyor.

It was bad news: our plans massively outstripped our budget. And I mean MASSIVELY.  What a blow.  Yet another rethink looms.

Postscript.

A rethink on my wannabe-architect ambtions is probably also in order.  Setting aside the decade of retraining I’d need, and the question of intrinsic aptitude; if architects invest a fraction of this emotional energy in their projects (and I suspect they put in a great deal more) then they can keep their jobs.  I think I’ll stick to what I’m good at (while retaining the prerogative to be opinionated about my house!)

Photo: Garbh Bheinn in Ardgour taken during a walk from Cuil Bay