Wildflower meadow

The garden that, during the build, and for months afterwards, was a total mudbath is now a beautiful meadow. I thought I’d share some photos.  

I haven’t managed to found many before shots as it just looked so awful I didn’t take photos. But here’s some just after the digger had been to smooth it all out and it looked not too bad. 

   

We planted Scotia Seeds wildflower seeds. Flowering lawn and pond edge mix. Also wet meadow for the wet bits. Somehow I madly did it months and months before the fencing was done (see blog) do it is now pockmarked with cow footprints on all the ‘lawn’. Which is annoying. 

 And here is Jamie the farmer making the fence at last back in March.    
 
This is just an interim photos as the grass grew in early spring. 

 
But here it is now. Beautiful! 

   
    

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More Boring Electricity and Heat stuff

Doing a reading for my Renewable Heat Incentive has made me do a few calculations and see how the energy use in the house is going.

We don’t have a realistic winter season to look at yet (here are the calculations I made), as much of the time when the heat pump was on, we had it on full, drying out the house. I could only turn on the MVHR when the work in the house stopped, due to the dust, and so I always had at least one window open until we switched the MVHR on in April.

However we now have a realistic summer. I turned the heating off in the house in April/May (I forget the date) so the following heat calculation is just for hot water. The house has stayed quite happily at 20degrees since April despite having no heating on.

 

Date Heat meter reading Electicity used for heatpump Total Electricty reading Solar generated
1 Sept (approx) 0 0 0 (May 2015) 0 (Nov 2015)
5 April 8870 3406.5 4024 817.6
13 August 10392 3846 5015 2215

So over the summer period (131 days)

We used 991 units of electricity in total (paid 14 p per unit)

  • 440 units of electricity for heating (47p per day)
  • 551 units for the rest of the household (58p per day)

 

We generated 1397 Units in solar electricity (we were paid 12.8p for – £1.36 per day)

 

I really cannot work out how the energy we use when the sun is shining is calculated though. Does this go on the electricity meter….

 

Who knows. Who cares.

 

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. 
   
 

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 Self build: An amateur psychologist’s analysis

Last week, in the monthly meeting with my team at work, We did one of those psychological tests that tells you what kind of team-worker you are. I usually have a healthy scepticism about that kind of stuff,  but a friend recommended it and I thought it could be good for us.

 

It was rather like one of those questionnaires you see highlighted on the front of an issue of Cosmopolitan lying in your dentist’s waiting room. The one you pick up because you just can’t stop wondering “Well what Disney character AM I most like?” or “So what IS my superfood/compatible dog breed/ ideal male jawline?”.
However this quiz has apparently more basis in research and psychology and is called the Belbin Team Role Inventory. It’s supposed to help you see what roles people play within the team.
We all filled in a quiz sheet earnestly, added up the scores and then chatted about what it revealed.
It turns out, rather unsurprisingly for me, and for the people in my team, that I scored ‘null points’ in the team roles of Monitor Evaluator and Implementer. However, in the category I was convinced I’d score lowest, Completer Finisher, I actually achieved one solitary point, which pleased me beyond measure.

 

 

It doesn’t need me to explain to you that being rather challenged in these three areas is probably not a help when you reach the final stages in a build.

 

Or, come to think of it, at any stage in a build.
The Implementer is systematic, organized and does what needs to be done, not just those tasks that are most exciting. OK. Well let me think. There might have been a little bit of unsystematic thinking in the project (see here).

 
The monitor evaluator is prudent, a good critical thinker who makes shrewd judgements and is immune to getting over-enthusiastic. Hummm. Yup. Quality of decision-making may have been somewhat questionable.


The Completer finisher is orderly, conscientious and doesn’t start what she can’t finish. Right. Well, I suppose I admit I may have been neither orderly nor conscientious, but I jolly well am determined to finish this thing.


So given that all these seem pretty useful traits for getting a house built, and they are about as far from being me as it is possible to get, I’m actually left asking myself how on earth I have managed to get this far?
It turns out, also rather unsurprisingly again, that my highest scores were (jointly) Plant (rather a pleasing name isn’t it?) and Coordinator, with Resource Investigator trotting along as a close second.
 Being a Plant (innovative, creative, unorthodox and having ideas lacking in practical constraint) may explain why I have not really enjoyed much of building a house, except telling the stories in my blog, and thinking about the splashbacks –

 Gannets on dibond in the downstairs shower, 


fused glass from an artist for the en-suite, 

and a geological map on Perspex in the main bathroom. 

But it could also explain how I got started on such a ridiculous project in the first place (by throwing aside thoughts on the practicality of the idea).  Had I been a Monitor Evaluator this project would definitely not have got off the starting blocks.

 

I’m not sure I recognise myself entirely in either the plant role or the Coordinator (calm, confident, good at delegating, trusting and controlled) but I certainly have found that tackling problems calmly is the way to go. And I have stayed calm through some really big problems (eg  here and here )

 Perhaps it was the Coordinator in me exhibiting, what my quiz sheet tells me is the distinguishing feature of coordinators, ‘causing people to work towards shared goals‘ that did it. And the delegating. Who knows. Or perhaps the Resource Investigator in me (extroverted, enthusiastic, curious, communicative – ah that sounds more like it…) finding the right people and resources for the project?

 Whatever. I suspect that the conclusion of this exercise is that there are many ways to skin a cat, or indeed to build a house. And people do it according to their own personalities and inclinations and with a greater or lesser success.
But one conclusion I can come to, having worked through and discussed this Belbin quiz with my team, is that if I had been able to draw on the diversity of talents in the people I work with, building this house would have been a whole lot easier, and more pleasurable.

 

However, to state the bleeding obvious, it hasn’t just been me working on this house (or it really wouldn’t have got anywhere at all) everyone in the project has contributed with their different approaches and personalities, from architects to builders, engineers to electricians. And one of the reasons I have managed to keep going in the face of my own natural inclinations is because of the people working on the project. It turns out it really has been a team effort, and I couldn’t have done it alone.

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.  
 

    

   
  
   
  

Form Filling for Fun 

Stephen always calls at the most inconvenient times. He doesn’t answer his phone, or texts, or emails. In fact he is almost impossible to get hold of, so when he calls I behave as if it might be David Attenbourough on the phone calling me to say he’s retiring and they need a front-woman to travel the world and talk calmly to camera while an angry gorilla makes warning charges in her general direction. 

  
Today I am cycling through Kelvingrove park on the way to work but I manage to answer the phone while in motion. It proves rather dangerous to try and negociate crowds of primary school children wandering towards the school gate while trying to hold a conversation about building a house so I dismount.
  

I’m beginning to think it might be a deliberate ploy to catch me off-guard without my list of essential things to hand (the only thing keeping me somewhat on track in this build). Anyway, it’s a very effective way of making sure I can’t think of many, or even sometimes any, of the things I’m supposed to be telling him. It doesn’t help that I am far too easily distractible with chat about other things so effectiveness seems doomed, especially as I haven’t met Stephen on site for a very long time. 

  
The house might seem done but it isn’t. There’s this and that to do and I need curtains, landscaping, shed and lean to thing that will be a wood store/bike shelter, but officially a bin store. And I also need to pay people (including Stephen). All this takes yet more money. SURELY NOT MORE MONEY???

 
But before I spend any more money I need to claim back my VAT and before I can claim back my VAT I need a building warrant. And for the building warrant I need an EPC (done!!!) a Form Q (see below) and all sorts of stuff to be sorted. I ask Stephen when I should arrange the final visit from building control. 
“When it’s all done”. He says. 

This, if my experience so far is anything to go by, could be forever or it could be never. 

 
So I gather together all the documents I need to send to get my building control certificate and I arranged a visit from Tony the building control officer three weeks hence. 
  

And it shouldn’t be that hard. There’s only a few building-control-critical things that need to be done. This drainage pipe is one.      

 Whether we need a step at the back another. And a barrier at the turn of the stair. And a few other miniscule things like a sustainability certificate stuck in the utility room, and a notice about the wastewater treatment. 
 

I have taken to calling the house phone to see what’s happening at the house – it gives a bit more information to me since the flow of information direct from Stephen more or less ceased. Peter was there and let me know what was going on. He was putting in the thing on the stairs in Pine. PINE? IT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE OAK. I yelled to myself in my head and immediately texted Stephen. He actually got back to me straight away for a change and aquiesced after an emphatic text or two. Peter would take it out and It Would Be Oak. 

  

   …and doesn’t it look nice in oak?

 



I gathered EPC, electrical and fire alarm certificate, Form Q, heat pump certificate, and a few other bits of paper and filled in the form. Then I sent it recorded delivery. 

  
There was a lot of impenetrable guff on the form. Read the following and decide if you are a relevant person. Was I a relevant person? – I decided that I may not know whether A or B were true but C certainly was. I am a relevant person. isn’t it nice to feel relevant?   

  

Form Q

This is apparently a form where my engineer certifies that my house isn’t going to fall down, which seems rather brave of him. He wanted detailed information and evidence about the windows and how they were installed and about the Juliette balcony, which only had to go in to satisfy building control when we found that the windows weren’t how they were supposed to be. (Grrrrr again Scotframe).
   

I was supposed to have evidence of how the windows were attached in place (fortunately I took a photo of a window before the plasterboard went on to get the size of the windowsill so I had that). 
 

I get all the bumpf sent off for the FormQ and get started on the VAT claim so it’s all ready to go. 
 

Much of the text was indesipherable by normal human beings and was designed to make the most anally retentive pedant want to chew their own arm off. I plodded through receipts and invoices and piled them up till I had a file 2 inches thick. 

 

So now we have the paperwork ready to go and a deadline for everything to be done. So where is the form filling fun as suggested in the title? Has it been fun? No not really, I just thought I’d better write about some of this boring stuff and wanted to try and make it interesting. Besides, I like a bit of alliteration.  
Postscript: it’s now 6 weeks sis ve I wrote that blog. I have my completion certificate. But I don’t yet have my VAT refund. 

 

Complaint Letter to Scotframe

Now all the work we need done by Scotframe is done, I am posting here the complaint letter I sent to Scotframe in February after a litany of disasters that impacted our project, brought to head by being told, 10 days before the frame delivery, that they wouldn’t make the date and they didn’t know when they could get it to me.

The letter resulted in getting the frame delivery for one week later, but none of my other queries or complaints were followed up.

To: Cecil Irwin

Date: 13 February 2015

Subject: Urgent for Cecil Irwin: Response Needed Today

Dr Mr Irwin

I am writing in some urgency to obtain a date for delivery of my house. I have scaffolding coming in on Monday and so I need to know today at the very latest, a delivery date for the kit so that I know when to arrange the scaffolders to come. I had been advised by two separate members of your staff that you were the only person who could help me with my query but you did not return my calls yesterday.

What I have experienced the past couple of days I think throws up some serious problems in your company and I would like a response to this as well, although appreciate you will need longer than today to get back on this issue.

I have been working to a date of 23 February since October when we set the date and, as you will know, building a house involves a lot of other factors to be arranged. I have paid you around 90% of the total costs already.   I have scaffolding coming in on Monday and a crane arranged for 23rd February. I have also booked four days off work and a cottage to stay in during the erection.

I called on Tuesday to check that everything was going to plan and was told that, not only was it not going to be ready for 23rd. There was no way that I could be given a date for the delivery of my kit. This is really not acceptable 10 days before a kit arrives that was booked in so many months ago.

I asked what was going on and apparently X can’t give me a date until he has the drawings on his table. I asked him to find out when the drawings would be on his table from the appropriate colleagues but he said that he couldn’t find out and that the only thing I could do to find out when my kit would be ready was to call the Managing Director, yourself.

I found this extremely odd, as you can imagine, and concerning as it suggested a disfunctionality to the way that your company is managing relationships between departments.

I called Y who had been dealing with me over the steel beams and asked if and when the drawings would be ready. He also suggested that you would be the person to speak to. I tried Z, who I have also had dealings with over engineering and technical matters who told me the floor and roof drawings were already with X and they were waiting on the walls. He couldn’t tell me any more than that.

All this was happening on Tuesday. Only 10 days before I had been told my kit would be ready.

My architects and I have already had to wrestle figures out of the technical department three times in the process of this build.

Firstly – back in September – We had to put the foundation build on hold for some considerable time while awaiting the layout for the foundation walls and we ended up having to wait weeks for this to be done.

Secondly getting the information for building control was painfully slow. In the end it was good that we had to put back the erection from late September to February due to there being a BT line in the way as we didn’t actually manage to get the right information from your engineers for building control until January 12th. Fortunately all the other documents were already with building control and once they had this final bit of information they could issue the warrant.

Again this week there appear to be even more last minute issues that weren’t done or flagged up at either of the first two stages and that mean the build is having to be put back.

Over the period of dealing with you, my architects and I have been dealing with at least 6 different people within your company and with your engineers direct. This creates issues of communication within your own company as no one person in Scotframe appears to know what is going on and have the overview. You don’t prioritisie effectively – I was being asked about the colour of the front door back in August and the windows were ordered up in late summer, months and months before we could have started the build because we didn’t have the appropriate plan for the foundations from you nor any of the information we needed for building control (as I said, this eventually arrived in January). Ordering the windows so ludicrously far in advance has caused you problems of storage and at one point X was trying to get me to store them onsite – which was totally impossible.

My immediate issue is needing a firm delivery date today. But I would also like to let you know that due to their experiences with Scotframe, our architects have already warned one client keen to use your system away from Scotframe.

I would like to know what you are planning to do to ameliorate the evident issues I have experienced. When I called the crane company to reschedule they said that Scotframe is always late and cause a lot of problems for clients so I think you need to do something to change the way people experience your level of service in the ground.

However right now I need a delivery date so that I can shift all of the organisation I have put in place. So please get back to me with this today. I am interviewing candidates for a job all day today but can check emails and will return a call when I get a break.

Yours

Self-sacrificial slapstick and the art of giving the gift of weeping with hysterical laughter this Christmas

I must admit to being somewhat single minded in the past few months about the house-build. It’s been hard to think about anything else. I hope I didn’t let that cloud my judgement of what my entire family want for Christmas. Well it’s the combination of that, and a singular lack of money, brought about by the self-same house build.    

Every member of my belovèd family will get an edited, formatted and hard-back-printed copy of my blog from the very beginning. I managed to get it down to 194 pages. I hope they like it but, since my parents are my blog’s number one (and perhaps only) fans, it’s sure to get a happy welcome there. I didn’t get one for the tween-agers you’ll be pleased to know – my judgement hasn’t slipped that far. 

 
In addition to the house-build themed Christmas presents, we also had a house-build themed Christmas. Over four days we managed to transform the house into a livable space and transform it back into a building-site, every surface covered. We decorated, painted special slate worktop stuff on the surfaces, then tried to work out why it went all smeary and sticky. We put up the post box/name plate for the house, Cleared up enough dust to switch the MVHR (mechanical ventilation heat recovery) on and cleaned all the windows and frames of bits of plaster and stuff. 
    
Christmas Eve was taken up with wholesome and thrifty pursuits like making plaid covers for the freebee Salvation Army cushions (granddaughter and grandmother) and upholstering the same plaid onto chairs I’d bought as an impulse Salvation Army purchase (grandpa without much input from other granddaughter). 
     
Boxing Day was all about ridding the site of wood-based detritus. The waste stuff (water-logged chipboard, OSB and reams of  cardboard) was thrown onto a pyre and sent in clouds of smoke into the ether. Farewell to the year. Farewell to a life totally taken up with this house build. 

 
  
Wood that could be used in future as firewood or for other things had to be moved from the enormous wood-mountain I had allocated it to at the very start of the build. 
 
I’d chosen that site specifically as the only place I could put it that I would never have to move it again. Ever. (Erm… So why are you moving it Kat?) Well you never can account for where people decided to put their water pipes in the historic past, and we discovered that one runs right under my wood-mountain and that it needs to be dug up. And we discovered it has a leak that has turned the back of the house into more of a mud bath than usual. 
 
I made some of the wood mountain into a woodshed as husband moved the wood with the concentration of a someone playing a real-life game of Tetris. Each time making the journey across a no-man’s land of mud which became more icky, more squelchy and more sucky with each crossing, until it threatened to eat our wellies whole, and some of the rest of us too. 

    
In the spirit of using the less pleasant experiences of the build for good, I’ve incorporated a memory-nemesis into that shed. Half of the dreaded partition wall that sat for months in the newly erected and sopping wet house without being fitted and then warping beyond use is now the shed roof. The OSB wasn’t in best condition which isn’t a surprise given it’s sat in the pouring rain since April but I patched it up with bits of the Mystery OSB which is lying around in the fully-built house that no one knows what it’s for.  

 “Don’t saw off the bit you’re standing on” I joked to myself as I sawed through a long bit of OSB hanging over the woodshed roof. Mum and dad had finished packing to leave and were hanging out of the upstairs bedroom window with husband watching progress on the woodshed roof. 
 
It was only a few minutes later that I forgot my own advice to myself and found that progress was easier with a foot on either side of the saw and merrily sawed away until….. CRACK!!! 
  
The saw made the final cut and I fell dramatically and theatrically into the mud-field we had created. It wasn’t quite headfirst. I am told by my audience that it would have been an award-winning bellyflop if I hadn’t landed too far over on my side. Both arms sunk up to the elbows in mud: face and hair was plastered: grit between my teeth. 
 
It was one of the funniest things that I can remember and I was consumed by hysterics (as was my audience, augmented by the kids who ran to see what all the noise was about). It was a long time before I could regain my composure enough to finish what I needed to do, strip off my dirt-caked clothes, and make my way to Christen the beautiful shower with mud and grit. My only regret is that, although husband had taken some video of me making the shed roof, he switched off just at the moment it would have been useful to capture on film. 
 
Nevertheless, the memory of myself wallowing in mud after my cartoon-esque schoolboy error will stand me in good stead if I need cheering up in future. And, as some psychologists at Cornell University have found, giving memories rather than material presents at Christmas gives a more lasting pleasure. So perhaps Im glad that, at a time when every available penny is being spent on the house build, I’ve given such an unique, entertaining and enduring present to my whole family.  

 
Ps. Some photos in the immediate aftermath of the mud-dive exist, but I am afraid that they will remain classified for evermore.  I’ll leave it up to imagination 

    

 

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

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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

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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!

 

 

Kitchen in. Kitchen out. Shake it all about. 

At last. AT LAST. The kitchen is nearly done. I say nearly because it should have all been done and it isn’t, because nothing ever goes to plan.

I knew that something was going to go wrong with installing the worktops on Sunday, but it was too late to rearrange Stephen the stonemason who has been crafting a pile of old snooker tables into smooth shiny worktops.

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I had to arrange the kitchen around the maximum size of a piece of snooker table slate, which took a bit of changing things around with the original plan. But I thought slate would be nice – the house being near Ballachullish and all, and I nearly died when I saw how much a proper slate worktop costs. So I went to my local salvage yard, did a deal on five bits of snooker-table and then set about finding someone who could make them into worktops.

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While I phoned round every stone mason in Glasgow, my worktops sat in the salvage yard, waiting to be fetched. IMG_9916

 

After most had said no, I spoke to Steven who said he hadn’t worked in slate before but he thought he’d quite like the challenge of something new. (Or at least that’s what I assumed he’d said as I had a bit of trouble understanding him, despite my long long apprenticeship in Glaswegian, and despite two daughters who regularly tell me I can’t pronounce the letter “R” and try and get me to speak like them)

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In fact, in the end, I had to arrange to go and meet him somewhere in town one lunchtime so I could speak to him face to face to make sure we were understanding each other. He said he was down at the Spiritualist church quite often (which rather freaked me out), but in the interests of the slate worktops I arranged to meet him there and, to my great relief, found him up some scaffolding pointing at bits of sandstone and covered in stone dust.

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So Stephen said he’d pick up the snooker tables and do the necessary. I checked with the salvage yard a few weeks later. They were still there. And a few weeks after that.

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Eventually, at the moment I was about to despair, he fetched them to his yard where I met him again with some sketches (this time he showed up in a shiny suit and pointy shoes and a 90s shiny, pointy car, all of which rather surprised me)

IMG_1221

From then on I would contact him from time to time to tell him things had been pushed back. And he was always intensely relaxed about all the date shuffling and uncertainty (which at least is something to be grateful for). 

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But this time I didn’t call to push the worktops back again, although perhaps I should have done when I found out that there was a problem with the kitchen.

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Cue another aside about the kitchen …. Tom, who made the kitchen, is a good friend from University, who after a high-flying degree and a stint trying not to climb the greasy pole in London, decided to retrain as a cabinet maker and move to a wet, isolated and be-forested part of Stirlingshire to make kitchens and furniture in a shed.

He has built me an absolutely beautiful kitchen. I gave him the sizes things needed to be and chose the colours (‘can I have some of it red like that barn outside?’) but he decided on most other things, which cut down the number of decisions I needed to make. (Though I think I suggested the bookcase on the end and the tall-slidey door).

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He incorporated a sink that has been sitting in my front garden since I found it abandoned on the street about ten years ago. Over that period it has been a pond, at request of husband, and then, once declared a wildlife deathtrap, it became an algae-growing garden ‘ornament’. When I visited the house to see progress on the kitchen it still had the algae and the distinct smell of pond water.

IMG_9870

I also wanted Tom to incorporate an ex-lab bench I fished out of a skip at the university and took home in a black cab when I was doing my PhD about 16 years ago. This lab-bench became an enormous coffee table when we sawed the legs off it to get it into the cab and has taken up most of the room in two sitting rooms since then. It wouldn’t be for the whole kitchen – the rest is slate. However since it would cost the same to have an oak worktop on that bit instead, due to the labour needed, I went with that. The lab-bench will be my dining room table (once we stick some bits of wood on again to lengthen the legs).


So the kitchen is beautiful, and I did so love it when I saw it. But it’s in all skew. One wall is warped and goes in in the middle. I probably did a blog about that ruddy wall which caused me so much grief to get in in the first place….

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However fortunately that run has the stove in the middle of it and so the units on each side tilt inwards (but parallel with the wall) and Stephen simply left the worktops a little long and cut them on the angle alongside the stove sides.


The more serious problem was that Tom put the kitchen on the other side on an angle all the way along and not parallel with the wall. This is what I found out the day before the worktops were due to arrive. It was all due to a socket being right behind the fridge which, when the plug was in, pushed the fridge outwards which meant that the whole run of units came outwards. But, since a drawer had to come out and run past the handles on a unit at right angles, he put the whole kitchen on a tilt so that it would work.

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This meant it was simply impossible to fit the worktops, they overhung by a completely different amount on each side of the kitchen and also from one end to the other of the units on one side.


We decided we needed to get the whole kitchen moved and so Stephen and his team left for the long drive back to Glasgow.

 The first woman working on the house!  

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It’s now getting rather close to Christmas (which we are going to spend at the house even if it involves eating sandwiches off a piece of plywood propped up on boxes). So the plan is the electrcian comes in this week to finish off, Tom comes to move kitchen on Tuesday and Stephen returns to finish with the worktops. The only thing outstanding then will be the tap for the kitchen sink which I seem to have lost.

 Don’t they look lovely? Snooker tables do scrub up well – especially when you have little inclusions of fools gold in them. Hoping they’ll be less liable to scratching once they are treated. 


  

Ode to my portaloo 

O portaloo. O portaloo.
It’s sad to see the back of you

Your inky depths of lurid blue

I hold so dear 

 

O portaloo. O portaloo.

I’ll never do another poo

And try in vain to flush it through

To leave it clear

 

In the house I have, brand new,

A bathroom; shower, sink and loo,

I have no further use for you,

Or you for I, I fear.

 

It’s been a week of much action. Lights are on, showers in, Loos went in eventually, wood floor in. Access ramp being built, visit from building control officer, visit from Ronnie digger driver to plan the landscaping, doors going in.  Slate tiles on floor finished. 

 
 It’s actually been quite fun building a house this week. And it’s only Wednesday. We are back up at the weekend to see how progress is rest of the week.  

    
    
   

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’

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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’

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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….

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.
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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.

   
   

  

Monumental Scotframe scheduling disaster

Post from way back in February. Now the Scotframe Part of the build is out of the way.  

 

From end February 2015 

 

 Scheduling has been a bit of a challenge during the build. I feel a sense of physical pain when I think of all the phone calls with Scotframe’s scheduling guy about some issue or other. The worst was calling him 10 days ahead of the due date for the kit delivery and erection to be told it wasn’t going to happen.

  

Apparently they were running behind, and no they couldn’t give me a revised date, and no they hadn’t thought to contact me as soon as they knew. I had booked crane and contractor and scaffolding, and even more critically, time off work, which I need to do months ahead as my diary is so busy, and I had even booked a tiny little cottage to stay in for a few nights.

 

 The full story is here: 

 

In short I had been advised by two people in two separate departments of Scotfame that the only way to sort the problems were to speak to the Managing Director. 

I ended up following their advice and contacting Cecil Irwin,  Managing Director, by phone and by email (see letter below). A date for delivery was pretty rapidly provided. It was rescheduled to be one week from the original planned date.

  Small victories… but I didn’t have the time off work.

To: Cecil Irwin

Date: 13 February 2015

Subject: Urgent for Cecil Irwin: Response Needed Today

Dr Mr Irwin

I am writing in some urgency to obtain a date for delivery of my house. I have scaffolding coming in on Monday and so I need to know today at the very latest, a delivery date for the kit so that I know when to arrange the scaffolders to come. I had been advised by two separate members of your staff that you were the only person who could help me with my query but you did not return my calls yesterday. 

What I have experienced the past couple of days I think throws up some serious problems in your company and I would like a response to this as well, although appreciate you will need longer than today to get back on this issue. 

I have been working to a date of 23 February since October when we set the date and, as you will know, building a house involves a lot of other factors to be arranged. I have paid you around 90% of the total costs already.   I have scaffolding coming in on Monday and a crane arranged for 23rd February. I have also booked four days off work and a cottage to stay in during the erection. 

I called on Tuesday to check that everything was going to plan and was told that, not only was it not going to be ready for 23rd. There was no way that I could be given a date for the delivery of my kit. This is really not acceptable 10 days before a kit arrives that was booked in so many months ago. 

I asked what was going on and apparently X can’t give me a date until he has the drawings on his table. I asked him to find out when the drawings would be on his table from the appropriate colleagues but he said that he couldn’t find out and that the only thing I could do to find out when my kit would be ready was to call the Managing Director, yourself. 

I found this extremely odd, as you can imagine, and concerning as it suggested a disfunctionality to the way that your company is managing relationships between departments. 

I called Y who had been dealing with me over the steel beams and asked if and when the drawings would be ready. He also suggested that you would be the person to speak to. I tried Z, who I have also had dealings with over engineering and technical matters who told me the floor and roof drawings were already with X and they were waiting on the walls. He couldn’t tell me any more than that. 

All this was happening on Tuesday. Only 10 days before I had been told my kit would be ready.  

My architects and I have already had to wrestle figures out of the technical department three times in the process of this build. 

Firstly – back in September – We had to put the foundation build on hold for some considerable time while awaiting the layout for the foundation walls and we ended up having to wait weeks for this to be done. 

Secondly getting the information for building control was painfully slow. In the end it was good that we had to put back the erection from late September to February due to there being a BT line in the way as we didn’t actually manage to get the right information from your engineers for building control until January 12th. Fortunately all the other documents were already with building control and once they had this final bit of information they could issue the warrant. 

Again this week there appear to be even more last minute issues that weren’t done or flagged up at either of the first two stages and that mean the build is having to be put back. 

Over the period of dealing with you, my architects and I have been dealing with at least 6 different people within your company and with your engineers direct. This creates issues of communication within your own company as no one person in Scotframe appears to know what is going on and have the overview. You don’t prioritisie effectively – I was being asked about the colour of the front door back in August and the windows were ordered up in late summer, months and months before we could have started the build because we didn’t have the appropriate plan for the foundations from you nor any of the information we needed for building control (as I said, this eventually arrived in January). Ordering the windows so ludicrously far in advance has caused you problems of storage and at one point X was trying to get me to store them onsite – which was totally impossible. 

My immediate issue is needing a firm delivery date today. But I would also like to let you know that due to their experiences with Scotframe, our architects have already warned one client keen to use your system away from Scotframe. 

I would like to know what you are planning to do to ameliorate the evident issues I have experienced. When I called the crane company to reschedule they said that Scotframe is always late and cause a lot of problems for clients so I think you need to do something to change the way people experience your level of service in the ground. 

However right now I need a delivery date so that I can shift all of the organisation I have put in place. So please get back to me with this today. I am interviewing candidates for a job all day today but can check emails and will return a call when I get a break. 

Yours 

 

 

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. 

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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.  


   

   

A lot of rubbish and a good day

Today was a good good day. It wasn’t really because we got the heating working again, or because the plaster boarding is done and the stairs in, or because the electrician gave me the various documents I need for my FITs claim, or that I found out that we actually do have wiring in for the cooker hood, or even that apparently it isn’t a massive issue to actually get some lighting in the huge cavernous stairwell. 

 

 

It didn’t even start that well with yet another call to the floor fitter to put him back again*, which made me feel a bit bad. Fortunately I was jogging along the cycle path at beautiful Loch Creran at the time and could spend a little time ripping out baby rhododendrons which are recolonising the oak woodland there, which made me feel much better. 

 

What made it a good day was that I spent a very large part of it filling bin bags with rubbish.  Never has clearing up vast quantities of builder-detritus felt so good. Irn bru bottles and cans and crisp packets and wrappers. It’s was like checking under the 12 year-old’s desk after she’s shouted “I ALREADY TIDIED MY ROOM MUM!”. And to add to the joy;  plaserboard and half dried out buckets of paint and plaster and boxes of stuff that have been sitting about since the beginning of the build.

 

And why is that all so good? Well, certainly, it was a chance to clear out the last remnants of Builder#4 **, stick it all in bin bags and drive like a bat-out-of-hell to the dump, slipping in moments before they shut the gate and, with utter abandon, lob it all into a giant skip.

But really I think it was the nature of the task. I’ve been spending pretty much every minute of everyday for the last three months organising myself, organising work, answering questions, making decisions, sorting out problems, organising the build, organising children and, when I’m away at the build or with work, organising the husband to organise the children.  It’s pretty exhausting really.  Life is usually pretty like that for me. I must like it that way, but this is taking it too far. To be honest, I think I have reached the maximum percentage of one’s brain it is possible to devote to this stuff without tipping right over the edge into a void it’s impossible to climb out of.  

 

So to spend the majority of a day simply sweeping and carrying and shifting, with a bit of singing at top volume to some 80s classics blasting out of the decorator’s very paint-spattered radio, was peace and blessed escapism. While the taper and decorator lunched downstairs conversation on The Jeremy Vine show turned to debilitating period pains and endometriosis.  I entertained myself with wondering what the painter would make of it when he came back after lunch.  

 

I loaded the pile of rubbish I had taken out of the house into my car with a great sense of satisfaction and started contemplating whether Builder 1 had been serious when he’d jokingly offered me a job.  It was after I’d shown him the deeply unimpressive shed panels I’d built following a bit of a tutorial from his son (during which I looked intently vacant).  Well perhaps he was joking. But perhaps he wasn’t.  

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Yes, it could be a good life being a builder’s labourer.  Every now and again anyway (and if you can stand your snot being the consistency of chewing gum…) 

 

* The heating has been off and the floors have had to be put back due to something that happened while I was up at the build last week.  The joiners were putting up the small wall in the kitchen and drilling through to affix to floor. It seems an underfloor heating pipe wasn’t in quite the place on the plan and they drilled through it.  When I came in Chris was chipping away at the screed floor with hammer and chisel to get at the pipe. Chris put his thumb in the pipe and I was reminded of the story of the dutch boy with his finger in the dam that saved the village.  I wondered whether Chris would be staying there until the plumber showed up.  He didn’t….The plumber came to fix it but couldn’t turn the heating back on again and forgot to let me or the heating company  know of the problem, so the floor is still damp.

**combined with more detritus from the Builder3 joiners and the taper

 

Having EPC Difficulties

You really have to like filling in forms at this stage in the build. It helps if you have kept meticulous records and if your spreadsheet of all money related information hasn’t unaccountably disappeared off your computer.
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Unfortunately I have been slightly remiss in backing up my computer and now I have had to go back to a version I last updated in May. Which, in the lifetime of building this house, is an awfully long time ago.
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It isn’t just about the pain of paying bills and yet more of bills, it’s about keeping track of all the various paperwork, permissions, schedule of building control visits and other official things. It’s been a trying time for someone as uninclined towards forms and form-filling and crossings of ‘T’s and dotting of ‘I’s.
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And it isn’t really helped that, last month, George Osbourne announced the decision of a huge cut to the feed in tarrif for solar electricity. After January payments will decrease by 87%. This has come really suddenly with the initial consultation published at the end of August, after we had installed our panels.  Kenneth the electrician first alerted me to how soon this is and how we really need to get a move on with everything.
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To claim the feed in tarrif I need to fill in a form and attach screeds of documents. One of which is an Energy Performance Certificate.
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Fortunately I already have an Energy Performance Certificate in one of my numerous files on my computer. I seek it out and breathe a sigh of relief. It looks OK to me. I show it to Stephen the builder who points out that the certificate number is 12345678. ‘It’s useless for claiming FITs’ he says.
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As you can imagine I am rather puzzled. I have an EPC but it’s no use for claiming my Feed in Tariff. I call the architects. Matt explains that the EPC he produced was for building control purposes. It looks the same (apart from the registration number) but in order to produce an official EPC he would need to be properly certified to do them. He, and a few people in the office, have done the training but they are all waiting for their official certification to come through and that could take weeks, or months.
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And even if they were certifyed it wouldn’t be a simple process to convert my EPC into a proper EPC. All the information would need to go into the official computer package and be done again.
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I also need an EPC for my completion certificate and I asked whether the EPC I had was sufficient for that. I think the answer to that was no but, to be honest,  I couldn’t get my head around the process Matt was explaining to me about how his EPC becomes official for building control purposes via the whole building tender process and contract.
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As readers of this blog will know, I’m not making anything simple for myself in building this house. And so I don’t have one contract with one builder to build it (get up to date here. And here. And here)
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So I need an EPC for my feed in tarrif claims and for a completion certificate. I ask Stephen and there’s one company in Oban that does EPCs, I call them up and talk to a chap called donald. He explains they do EPCs for existing houses. It’s a simple process of visiting the house and making assumptions about type of construction and putting it into the computer package. It’s called a reduced SAP EPC. He’s not sure whether it’s valid for a new house but he can come and do one at my house as soon as it’s complete. He recommends I check that it would be valid for a new house.
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I call the Energy Saving Trust. It’s apparently my energy company who deal with FIT applications. I call Scottish Hydro. Surprisingly I get put through to a human being straight away and without negotiating a ‘press one for accounts, press two for ….’ decision tree of epic complexity. I suppose one must be grateful for small mercies.
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The man I speak to isn’t at all sure what I need and there isn’t anyone who can answer my questions. ‘We just type in the certificate number and press a button’ he says. ‘I didn’t know that they were any different for existing houses and new houses’
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At some point in all this process, I also call Al, an architect who I only know from Twitter but who happens to be a neighbour in Appin. I’m on my way to the house at the time I call him and stopped for a coffee on the drive up. He helps me get my head around things.  I definitely need a proper certified certificate.
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And will this certificate do for building control? I call my friendly building control officer. It’s straight to answer phone as usual. But one thing that is especially fantastic about my building control officer is that when you email him, he emails straight back. Usually within 15 seconds. The email may just say ‘Noted’ and nothing else, but it’s a comfort to know that your building control officer cares enough to email back.
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I emailed him to ask and it seems building control needs a full post completion EPC.
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This sounds more complicated than the certificate Donald had described. It needs to incorporate all the changes made during the build from the original building warrant and the air tightness test results. I think. (Please, dear reader, don’t take what I’m writing here as fact as I have spoken to so many different people who have said so many different things my head is swimming with alternative universes of EPC form filling)
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So I call Matt the architect back. He has a colleague working in another practice who is registered and can do my EPC. And it will be valid for both building control and my Feed in Tariff. And apparently she can do it without visiting the house. I need to provide  all the updates to building control and the airtightness test. And, hugely importantly, she can do it in a week and cost-wise it was very reasonable. I am a happy woman.
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So it seemed a good day in the main. Like watching a TV thriller and feeling the satisfaction of almost understanding how the plot fits together at the end. But not quite, and going to bed with a few puzzling questions that fit together in your head by morning. (That’s a very generous way of looking at the process of getting an EPC anyway…)
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So after a long day at the build and a long drive back in the dark and a day on the phone working out my EPCs and all the other paperwork (amendment to building warrant, Renewable Heat Incentive etc)  I was chatting with Husband over dinner and a few medicinal glasses of wine.

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He asked how things were going at the house.
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‘Well. Ok I suppose. But I’m having some EPC difficulties.
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Husband looked mildly puzzled.
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‘So….. What exactly do you mean when you say EPC?’ he asked
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I began to explain the blaringly obvious in painful detail when it dawned on me that EPC is common parlance to behavioral ecologists, but one that I’d totally forgotten in the years since my PhD. It stands for Extra Pair Copulation
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I have to admit that I don’t think I stopped laughing until well into the next day, such is my juvenile sense of humour.  I suppose it’s only fortunate I wasn’t thinking of my biologist past during my day of sorting my EPC difficulties or I may well have not been able to hold it together on all those serious and important phone calls.

Hearth-ache

Hearth-ache (n.) /hɑːθ eɪk/

The pain and stresses of trying to work out where to place your stove and constructional hearth in order to comply with impenetrable building standards documents and reams of technical sheets from the stove company.
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Matt the architect was effecting a very successful poker-voice on the phone. But I just know he was thinking ‘I told you so’. He might not have said it out loud but I know if I was him I would be singing raucously to myself ‘I told you so i told you so ITOLDYOUSO!’. Fortunately for me, given the misadventures on this project, every professional involved with this project has remained entirely discrete on matters of how they think things are going, and Matt is fortunately of that ilk.
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This conversation was an attempt to discover a miracle substance I could use to make my constructional hearth. It had to be an insulator, have a really high compressive strength and also be non-combustible.  The internet couldn’t provide me with many ideas. The stove company suggested a mixture of perlite and concrete. But I couldn’t find any figures on how insulating this would actually be.
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The first decision, of course,  is whether you actually need a constructional hearth in the first place. This depends on the stove, and the temperature that the area under the stove will reach. The stove manufacturer will indicate whether you need a constructional hearth and, for our inset stove, we did. More about choosing the stove here.

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And the reason that I would have been chanting ‘told-you-so!’ At top volume if I were Matt?  Well it was because in his original designs the concrete floor was laid on top of the insulation. This would have meant that the constructional hearth (at least 250mm  non combustible material under the stove) would have had insulation underneath. And cold bridging would not be a problem.
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With the insulation and concrete reversed (for the very sensible and pragmatic reason that it was recommended by the builder and it made it considerably easier to get the house built) it was a bit more of a challenge.  What I needed was a material that could form part of the constructional hearth but was also an insulator.
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Fortunately Matt had an idea – try Foamglas he said. I called the very helpful chap at Foamglas who talked me through the various types and what would be best for my situation.
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We decided to get 100 deep Foamglas to maximize the insulation (it has roughly half the lamda value of kingspan) and then allow the screed to fill in the space so it was 80mm thick. A 50mm concrete slab on top of that would give the belt and braces for building control of at least 125mm concrete under the stove.
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I bought a box of Foamglas sheets and also a box of Foamglas perinsul- to go under the masonary wall that was to go at the back of the stove. Peninsul has a really really high compressive strength so can go under even load-bearing walls.
foam glas
An engineer friend was kind enough to do some calculations for me on the back of the envelope and, although he said that Foamglas sheets with a compressive strength of xx would be plenty strong enough to support a masonry wall and certainly the stove, it would be sensible to use the perinsul with a compressive strength of 3200 for under the masonry wall.
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The size of the constructional hearth and the superimposed hearth was the other puzzle. The question of using the manufacturers instructions (generally German building standards for a German stove) or Scottish Building Standards. And to confuse event further, the area of the superimposed hearth is not the same as the area and position of the constructional hearth.

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I could write reams of utterly boring blurb on calculating the size of the various hearths so I’ll spare you that (there a bit more in this blog). But I’ll tell you that I did read the building standards documents, and the stove technical documents, to within an inch of their lives (I even had to call the German offices of the stove manufacturer to get the answer to a couple of my questions that the stove retailer couldn’t answer) and eventually managed to get my head around them.

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In the end I had a plan. It was all a bit time-dependent, as usual, as Builder#1 was about to put the underfloor heating and screed floor in.  But, of course, nothing is simple when you are piecing together lots of different builders to do different bits of the build. Builder#3 was to put in the masonry wall that would be behind the stove and mortar down the Foamglas before the floor came in. I called him a few times just to be sure it was all go.

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I arrived on site one Monday morning at the very moment that the insulation was going down with a membrane on top, ready for the screed coming in the next day. The first thing I noticed was that the masonry wall was in, with the Foamglas Perinsul underneath, but the Foamglas for the hearth wasn’t there and the Kingspan insulation had already been laid down.  The plastic sheet was just being laid down and stapled up the walls ready for the underfloor heating and the screed to come in.

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Fortunately it was just in time and they took a saw to the Kingspan and the Foamglas and put it in (phew). The screed came in over the top and then a 50mm concrete slab cut to size went directly under the stove.

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That was bit was not without mishap (what isn’t) but it all went in well and now the stove is in and fits and I am glad I went through all the Hearth-ache of working it all out. If anyone else wants to put in a constructional Hearth, I’m your woman to ask…..well perhaps not.

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Here’s the definitive blog on the stove

Building and Builders Blog (part 2)

Previously in Cuil Bay’s Blog…… she is let down by Builder2 and has to find someone to do the cladding for the house as it stands in a month-long torrential rainstorm surrounded by expensive scaffolding on hire. Unfortunately she finds that there is a glut of building work in the area and not enough builders to go around.

I set about calling local builders. A few came out on site, saw that the job was needed there and then and turned me down straight away as they were too busy.  Some didn’t get back to me. I even asked the builder that a friend, with parents living across the loch, had specifically advised “don’t touch him with a barge-pole”. I ventured further afield and called a whole pile of numbers of builders from Fort William to Oban, starting by asking whether they would be able to start within a month.

Eventually I found Stephen. “Yes I think I’ve got enough people to be able to fit this in” he said. He came back out on site the day that I’d asked Matt the architect to come up to look at the timber frame. By this point it had the slate roof on and the replacement metal shoe in place but it had become evident to me that faith and hope is simply not enough when building a house (or it isn’t if you don’t have Stuart building it…)

Matt liked Steven, which was a good sign. Matt and Stephen bonded over some larch cladding chat, and we sorted out what we were going to do about the windows. Stephen has a solution to everything, which is certainly handy when there are plenty of problems to sort out.

IMG_9827-0.jpgStephen had already spotted on his first visit that the windows were set in the wrong position within the frames and I’d spent more than a few sleepless nights worrying about other as yet undiscovered problems with the most expensive part of the house build.  The windows were set in the position they would normally be for a house that was to be clad in blockwork and render rather than cladding.

It’s difficult to reflect on the house build in this blog without sounding, even to myself, like a hopelessly trusting naïf. Sometimes, in the cold light cast back by retrospection, my decision-making seems verging on the self-sabotaging.  Rather like pedaling a bike that is already freewheeling downhill, that undimmable optimism telling me things will be better in the future seems to reinforce a sort of reckless nihilism. I kept telling myself that it will all work out in the end, and, anyway, if it goes to hell in a hand-cart, there’s bound to be a jolly good story in it.

So all this decision-making led me to where I was: It hadn’t occurred to me to double check that Scotframe was designing the same house that the architects had sent to them. It seemed to me that, since every plan and diagram they had received from us showed that the house was to be clad in a combination of wood and render boards, they would design the house as such.

IMG_9913-0.jpgWe received three huge boxes of mystery metal thingies with the Scotframe kit. It didn’t occur to me to ask what they were until it was obvious that they were redundant to the build. Thanks to twitter they were quickly identified as masonary ties, for attaching a masonry wall to the timber frame. We also had received around twice as many caberboard floor boards than we needed (which me and the family shifted with great difficulty up a ladder to the upper floor so the screed floor could go in). In retrospect it was clear that the kit was issued with standard gubbins (masonary ties etc) despite all the information they had from the architects. It was also clear that they had issued instructions to their contractors doing the kit erection, to install windows to ‘standard’ spec. So they hammered them in with a nailgun in a few minutes flat (see timelapse – blink and you’ll miss it) in the wrong position. And left a hell-of-a headache for Stephen’s guys coming in afterwards who needed to get them out and move them.

It took a couple of weeks, but eventually all the windows were in the correct position in the frames. There was some headache with the scheduling of the windowsills and I ended up going to Cumbernauld to collect them from Scotframe on the way up to the house, but all the various Scotframe scheduling headaches have merged into one long shimmering, nauseating, debilitating migraine, and I forget the details. I certainly feel a sense of physical pain when I recall the countless phonecalls I have had with Scotframe’s scheduling guy. The most agonsing was calling him 10 days ahead of the due date for the kit delivery and erection to be told it wasn’t going to happen.(link)

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Before

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After

In the end we were left with one fewer windowsill than we needed. Scotframe said that they had made a mistake and omitted a 2 metre windowsill. Stephen had installed all the windowsills and was left without a 1 metre sill. So Scotframe sent us one of each, just to be sure.

Then the cladding started. The architect seemed to have specified a cladding system for the render that none of the builders I had been in contact with had heard of. It didn’t help to get the house built that’s for sure. The usual cladding system that the local builders seem to use is called K-Rend, Stephen had used Weber on another house and recommended it, so we went for that.

Next episode – link

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Builders and Building Blog (part 1)

There were some issues with the timber kit erection. Some I knew about, including the missing beam shoe and a myriad other things; and some I didn’t.

There will, inevitably, be an asymmetry of information about the house build between myself and the builder, especially when you know as little about building a house as I do.  I was worried about things I didn’t know about that could have gone wrong. It was pouring with rain, every day the rain was more torrential, everyday more drips were appearing in corners and every day I seemed no closer to finding someone to do the cladding for the house.

Unfortunately, as well as leaving me with all sorts of issues to clear up, Builder2 also let me down on the cladding. This was something they had said they would do for me straight after the build but, when it came to it, they said that they had too much time pressure from other timber frame erections they needed to do. Since I had naively assumed that they were dong the cladding, I didn’t line up any alternatives and was left with a half-built house in the mid-march torrential rain, scaffolding sitting there doing nothing, and no realistic prospect of getting it sorted in the near future.

All the various difficulties I have encountered can be traced back to a decision.  The first misguided decision was to build a house in the first place. But deciding to go on and get the house built (see blog) when the architects had received no tenders was inevitably going to bring glory or annihilation, and most probably the latter.

It was all going swimmingly to start with; one of the builders who we had sent the tender to, and who came highly recommended, was getting stuck into building the house next door. He had the diggers on site, portacabins, a loo. I called him to ask whether he would consider doing the foundations drainage and stuff while he was on site and he agreed to do that. He couldn’t do the rest of the build, but he could arrange the slater, underfloor heating, plumber and electrician. Oh goodie, we could start. And so Stuart became Builder1.

IMG_7733The foundations appeared; effortlessly, beautifully, perfectly, and everything went to plan. The architect fretted a bit that the foundations might not be the right size so I bought a huge tape measure and we went to measure them. Each wall of the house was accurate to within 1-3 mm – in fact it was probably my measuring that was inaccurate. Nothing was a stress for Stuart. He navigated my questions and requests and general ignorance of building with the calm of the Dalai Lama. I decided that faith, hope and love are really all you need to build a house.

IMG_7794So when I found out I had been let down by Builder 2 I went  to plead with Stuart.  Up until that point, Stuart had mainly managed to get by in discussion with me with a reassuring ‘Aye yes, that will be fine’ and a pensive ‘’Aha, yes’,  (except when advising on how we should build the foundations).  But unfortunately I didn’t get the hoped for ‘Aha yes, that will be fine’ this time.   Stuart couldn’t help with the cladding, he was building two houses close by. The rain was particularly torrential the day I asked him and Stuart was building strip foundations on a site with a depth and consistency of mud that hasn’t been seen since the Somme. The trenches were filled with water, and I wondered whether those scuba divers that work on oil rigs could be persuaded to build West Highland foundations when they are off-shift.

IMG_7737I had to look elsewhere for the cladding.

Next episode

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We have that phone line at Last – but what about everyone else?

Today we actually got our phone and Internet line installed.

I had a call at 810am from a nicely-spoken engineer. After a lot of waiting and disappointments, they were on the way. Would there be someone on site? Asked the engineer.
So I had the customary panic, called the builder and yes, someone would be there.
The engineer called back at 9am. There wasn’t anyone on site and he didn’t realise the pole was on the farmer’s land. He needed permission.
Action stations: call the farmer who owns the field with the pole in, yes it’s fine, call the builder, yes they are on their way.

I couldn’t call back the engineer as the whole area is a mobile reception black hole (hence the need for a phone-line…) so a text and crossed fingers had to suffice.
Later this afternoon I called back the builder to find out how they got on. The porch is up, the wall at the back is up and the perch for the way pump is on the way. And, best of all, the BT line is fully installed.

photo by Stephen Campbell

So am I happy? Well I am certainly feeling rather more jolly than earlier today while contemplating the stresses of getting the interior finished. I felt elated as I dumped sacks of rubbish from the site in the dump (official moratorium on rubbish on site to all builders from now on…on pain of death), zoomed to the hateful Hillington Industrial Estate to look for tiles, taking a little time out to strutt my John Travolta stuff on these sparkly disco tiles.


However I’m feeling a bit of, what can only be described as survivor guilt, too. When I chatted with the engineer this morning I checked that he was also putting in the line for my neighbour. I know they are also awaiting Openreach action and have been for a long time. The engineer didn’t have it on his list for the day (which seemed rather an enormous omission). I asked if he could find out about it but they can only do jobs allocated on the day. It seems like a huge problem of efficiency, customer service and everything else on the part of Openreach.
So I have a line now. But it seems that my neighbours and the many people who have tweeted me following my blog posts on openreach do not. There is a population of people out there who just aren’t getting any kind of service from Openreach. BT Openreach may have responded to my mini campaign for installing my own line, but a response to the wider issue of thousands of people waiting with no phone or internet obviously needs to be addressed.
You can get a view of the size of the problem from the submission of Sky, in June, to the Government consultation on whether Openreach should be split from BT. Here are their main findings:

  • Approximately 90% of new line installations, which require an Openreach engineer to attend, take 10 calendar days or longer. Almost one in ten installations takes longer than 30 days.
  • Openreach changes the agreed installation date for Sky customers on average around 12,500 times a month.
  • Openreach misses over 500 appointments each month to install new lines for Sky customers and fails to complete a further 4,000 jobs per month.
  • Fault rates across Openreach’s network increased by 50% between 2009 and 2012, the last year for which reliable data is publicly available.
  • Openreach’s performance in fixing faults is consistently below the targets set out in agreements with service providers.

(Not) Building the shed

There’s loads and loads of excess materials hanging about on site and, having observed the process of building a house, I thought it could be a useful exercise to attempt to emulate it in miniature in building a shed using left over materials. Following a quick tutorial from Builder1’s son, straight out of joinery school, (which I didn’t understand any of at the time he was explaining it), I made a plan.

I’d hoped this timelapse would show a shed emerging out of the dirt, but unfortunately it shows quite a bit of looking for a lost 10mm hammer drill-bit which we lost in the first five minutes, quite a bit of tea-drinking and, among it all, me buzzing about clearing that huge pile of rubbish almost blocking the camera.

Fortunately dad came to the rescue on day 2 with another drill, but the raising of the shed will have to wait for another day.  At least the rubbish got cleared

Joy and Cladding 

It was while I was running a team planning and review day on the Isle of Cumbrae that the scaffolding, at last, came down.

My thoughts fell to calculating how massive the bill for the scaffolding will be, but I perked up when I received these photos from the builder who has been working on the outside of the building.
It really does look lovely. (Russwood larch and Weber render system in case you are interested, and all so expertly stuck on by SEC Joiners and Builders)


  

Photos by Stephen Campbell

and meanwhile….IMG_1203Important note: It was mainly spreadsheets and powerpoint inside, with a wee bit of  flip-charts on the beach

Holiday Horrors

Look. Here’s how it is.

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It’s builder holiday season at the moment. Both Builder#3 and Builder#4 have jetted off to the other side of the Atlantic for weeks (not together I assure you) and things are not too good.
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Before Builder#3 left he completed everything on the list encompassing (broadly) the outside of the house: the wood cladding, the building the porch and the base for the heat pump as well as the and fire boarding. Everything was hunky dory. Happy me.
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Builder#4, on the other hand, was supposed to have finished the plaster-boarding and taping and even the painting before he went on a week holiday in mid September. He always had a schedule he would cite at me when I grew anxious that he wasn’t making progress.  He sounded convincing even though forward motion seemed to be painfully slow.  It certainly didn’t help that he didn’t seem to be up at the build much – mainly 2 and a half day weeks towards the end, and the occasional 3 and a half day week. He took to coming to the build on a Tuesday during a critical period in September, when Mondays are the only days I can get up to the house. After two weeks like this I switched my working week around to coincide with him on site. I didn’t get much communication about how things were going. I got thumbs up emojis when I asked for information.
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He came back from his week of holiday with only two weeks before another holiday, this time of two weeks. Yes he would get things done. I stressed the urgency: I had a week booked off work, which I need to do months in advance otherwise my diary fills up with back-to-back meetings that can’t be moved. We’d planned to be away on holiday as a family that week but I decided to stay to get things done and spend the week up at the house while the family frolic in mountain meadows in Switzerland eating fondue and drinking süsse, a sweet and slightly fizzy, lightly fermented grape juice.   I had arranged for lots of things to happen that week; flooring and bathrooms and lighting and kitchen and etc etc.  it would distract me from the fondue and the süsse, and besides, the house needs to get done.
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I unfortunately couldn’t make it to the build on the Monday in the middle of those vital two weeks to check progress. I sent anxious texts and I called, never getting through.
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He was going to be done by the Friday and would go on holiday on the Tuesday the following week, however as the time approached he said he’d be up on the Monday to finish things.  That didn’t sound good. My final text on the Thursday saying ‘Is all on track to completion by Monday? am getting a little anxious about it.’ Was replied with a ‘All is good’
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When I arrived at the build on the Monday I was shocked with how little progress had been made. And when I mean shocked, I mean pretty much bowled over, knocked for six, whacked in the face by a cricket-ball.  We were miles and miles off being ready. And time had run out.  I walked around the house, and then I walked down to the sea. Sitting on the shingle as the sparkling waves drew my eye out into the bay, I watched the strings of gulls spanning the grey-blue water to Balnagowan like white bunting. I thought about all the many things I have to be grateful for, I thought of other things; anything else. But there were things to sort out and so soon I was crash-landing back into the painful reality of the present.
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I went back to the house. We had a chat: we went through the outstanding list of work, which was rather long. He had lost people who had agreed to help with the build and was effectively operating as a one-man -band. He agreed it would be hard for him to finish it alone. I would look for someone to take over the work.  He started packing up straight after lunch and was gone by 3pm. I immediately called Builder#3, could he help? He possibly may be able to, but as I knew already, he was going on holiday too, and for nearly three weeks.
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So this coming week I have various things booked to happen. I will cancel them. Builder#3, despite being on holiday, sent his guys in to look at the extent of the work still to do. But it’s hard to escape the reality that he’s away on holiday and that, if I were on holiday, I would be feeling pleasantly detached from the woes of someone else’s house build.
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And my holiday? Well I was feeling a bit miserable about that. No holiday, and having to cancel things at the build. I arranged a bothy adventure with a friend who has a mission of visiting and photographing every bothy in Scotland (see his blog and wonderful photos). And also, so as not to exaggerate the enjoyable qualities of my holiday without the kids, I arranged a massive decluttering of our house facilitated by someone I know who runs a cleaning company. It turns out, that when she’s in her professional capacity, she is a terrifying TV-Style decluttering dominatrix (and hopefully just who I need to sort out my hoarding problems). But it’s going to be painful.
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Well that was the plan until we got out the passports for travel and discovered that younger daughter’s passport expired in July. And, although you can get an adult passport in 24 hours, it takes a week to renew a child’s passport.
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So perhaps two disasters can work together for good….. I get to spend the holiday with the family.
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However, if positivity starts to blossom, I should remember that I still have that decluttering booked. And I still have those wake-in-the-night-in-a-cold-sweat, everything’s on hold, plaster-boarding worries to sort out.

The Openreach emails….

Some more emails to and from BT Openreach – we don’t seem any nearer to having a phone line, but I am thanking my lucky stars that I actually have a real engineer-type person to correspond with (and now a second one too). Names have been changed to protect the innocent…  this letter to the CEO gives a good summary of the situation.

16 July 2015 (day after the site visit)

Hi Kevin
How did things go yesterday? The electrician says he saw you on site.

What is the next stage?
Thanks
Kat

17 August 2015

Hi Kevin
We were in correspondence a month or so ago after you had visited cuil bay for a reconnaissance. You were going to chat to the local team and sort out a line installation.

I haven’t heard anything from you or them since then. What progress are you making.

Our electrician has put a wire through the wall and we are just waiting on the BT box being put on the outside.
I still have the armoured cable you left but have no idea where you want it so it is just sitting in the house for safekeeping.

Kat

21 August 2015

Hi Kevin
I am just calling to see how the plan to install the phone line at Cuil is going.

I now have the line going through the wall into the house and just awaiting connection from the outside. I still have your cable you left which is for the outside. I don’t know where you want us to put it.

Kat

28 August 2015

Angus,
Can you advise Kat please.

Regards,

Kevin

28 August 2015

Dear Kat

The cable is to be installed from the house to the pole adjacent to yourselves leaving enough to go up the pole and a metre or so at the house to allow a connection to be made. The job is waiting a pole renewal to allow the lines to be put through to the pole adjacent to yourself. When this work is to get done is something I have no involvement in but it should be on the order notes and getting fed back to yourself through the service provider who is meant to be keep you up to date with progress.
Any queries with regards to putting the cable in from the house to the pole please give me a call as I can help you with that.

Regards
Angus

28 August 2015

Dear Angus

Thank you for the update Angus. Is it the pole in the field west of the house that you are referring to? And is this the pole waiting on a renewal? or is that another one?

Can the cable be installed and left on the surface to be dug under when we dig the existing cable (that was dropped from the poles over the winter to allow the construction to take place)? At present we have the cable that was dropped between the two poles lying across the site and we will be putting that into a trench so it would be good to do these at the same time.

Who can advise me of the timescale for the pole being renewed, as no one has been in touch about this with me.
Kat

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 ….

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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.

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

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

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

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‘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’.

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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)

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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)

Bathroom showrooms of despair

This weekend the sun decided to come out at last, after the worst summer I can remember in Scotland. Sunshine brought all of Glasgow out into the parks.  It was even hot enough for  ‘taps aff’ and some of our city’s finest gents had their bellies on show, glowing a fine cerise.

Unfortunately I had earmarked this weekend to choose and buy all my bathroom stuff. It really needs to be on site this week, and I work best with a looming deadline. I managed an hour or so in a massive bathroom warehouse in an industrial estate just south of the river before I felt the unbearable urge to go to Loch Lomond.

We collected friends, zoomed out and my daughter and I swam in the breathtakingly freezing water for a good half-an-hour. There is, something about those soulless godforsaken bathroom showrooms and the knowledge that you have joined the ranks of consumerists accelerating our planet to disaster, that, ironically, makes you feel like a bath. And swimming in the clear and icy waters of Loch Lomond has got to be the ultimate bath.

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But it didn’t get me any nearer having my bathrooms ordered and on site. So I went back on Sunday – with husband and daughter as back-up. We had an hour.  Ricocheting around the showroom with the plans we made good progress but a garden party for a friend’s leaving do called and we left un-bebathroomed once again.

I write this having at last settled on the bathroom furniture. For once it was cheeper than I had expected and I ended up doing it online in the end.  I do, however after many years of hardly ever buying anything new and protletising about the ills of our consumer society, feel like I am now a fully paid up and inducted member of it.

There is no getting away from it, building a house is the ultimate consumerist act. No matter how eco you think you might be (and I would like it recorded in the minutes of my life that I paid extra for water saving taps….) and no matter how energy efficient your house is going to be.  see a previous blog on the matter…

So to cheer myself up I went along to the school PTA meeting. I doodled some designs for bird boxes to fit under the eves (must put them up before the scaffolding comes down) and ended up signing up to be vice chair. image1-1

We have so much leftover wood on site I could go into production on these nest boxes but the plan is to replace the nest sites on the half built house that were used by a pied wagtail and a house sparrow. I will add a few others for good measure and a couple of platforms for swallows while I am at it.

So my consumerist house with my consumerist bathrooms may be somewhat redeemed by the chirruping of happy fledglings this coming spring (and the chi-ching of the PTA cash register)

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Openreach saga update: part 3

An update following previous blogs here and Here
A few further calls to the ‘new connections’ line never elicited an answer so I chased up the Galasheilds engineer who had come out to site.
He was really helpful but there seem to be quite a few problems with the connection. He audibly sighed during our conversation while recollecting his investigations.
It seems that the infrastructure on the ground simply doesn’t resemble anything in his maps and inventories. The dropping of the line (with such efforts in November- I’m still to traumatized to have blogged that encounter with Openreach) doesn’t seem to have been recorded.

But that’s just the start of it.
He said the records suggest there is only enough capacity on the line for one additional house, rather than the two plots that need connections. However having seen the lie of the land he is not at all sure and would want to get a surveyor onto site to see.
He also said that another neighbour, whose ground the phone line is in is also looking for certain things from Openreach including replacing the pole in their garden.
We await progress. In the meantime I need to try and get a number as the order number I seem to have doesn’t relate to anything the engineers on the ground can identify with. Apparently I need a VOLO number.
And I need to work out what to do with the 45m of cable Openreach left for me. The engineer I spoke to suggested that we take the cable into the house through the wall and leave the rest for BT to deal with when they eventually work out what to do.  The electrician tells me that cable is what goes from the pole to the house, not into the house.

In the mean time I get daily phone calls from various customer services officers from Openreach and now from BT following my letter. They don’t seem to have contact with th actual engineers on the ground.
To be continued …..

Openreach Saga part 2

I had only posted my letter to the CEO of BT Openreach on Tuesday morning (and to my blog Monday evening). But later that same morninI received a phone call from an engineer in the Galaheilds office. He had heard I needed a line installed and was passing by when in Fort William the next day and would pop in to see the site. 

He didn’t have any information about the request as my apparent order number didn’t seem to be on his system. But he’d come out nonetheless. I got his email address and phone number (a massive step forward) and hope started to grow in my heart. 

I was somewhat flummoxed. How on earth could my letter (not yet picked up from the post box, and my blog (tweeted to my modest Twitter following ) receive such an immediate response? I called Stephen the builder who I’d called previously to see whether he had the local number ‘Oh you’ll never get that number’ but he’d also said he knew one of the local engineers and would check with him what was going on.  He hadn’t yet spoken to his contact, so he wasn’t responsible for the miraculous movement. 
  Ten minutes later I found out when the next door neighbour (also a self build) called me to ask about how I was getting on with openreach. Her son had seen the blog and she had called Openreach’s emergency line before 8am to ask that the line they have been waiting on for months got installed at the same time. 
It had an immediate effect. Men on the ground in 24 hours. They arrived, and our very dedicated electrician was there to receive him on, what proved to be, a flying visit. He dropped some cable and was gone. 
I emailed the engineer and heard nothing. When I checked my emails I had received a posting on my blog from Anon (email nope@anon.com …?!) but posted from a BT server with this website 
Appearing to give the magic number I was supposed to be calling. For Scotland this number happens to be  0800 141 2650 I called it. Held on until a recorded voice clicked on it told me the number was for builders and developers only – well includes self-builders too… So I held on past a few more rings. Then the voice clicked on again. 
‘The person you are calling cannot take your call right now and there is no voicemail.’
Oh
To be continued….

BT Openreach AGAIN!

installing a simple BT line to a new property? Hellish.

Letter to their CEO sent today and also emailed to high level complaints hlcopenreach@openreach.co.uk

Thanks to phonebt.com for the contact information. For a communications company, they make themselves almost impossible to communicate with.

Mr Joe Garner, BT Open Reach, Kelvin House, 123 Judd StreetLondon, WC1H 9NP 

Dear Mr Garner

Order Number HMNAAZZ04502760469[1]

I am hoping that, as CEO, you will be able to help me navigate the impossible architecture of your new lines installation process and assist with the impasse I have encountered in dealing with your organisation. 

I have been told by your own staff that I need to contact the local New Installation Team to discuss putting a phone line into a new property but, ironically for a communications company like yourselves, there appears to be no way of obtaining the number to call.

It was easy enough setting up the installation: I have a phone package, I have a direct debit set up, I know how much it will cost me a month, I even have a wireless router that was delivered to me.  However when I get to speak to your new installations team it is like entering a parallel universe where everyone is impeccably polite and reassuring-sounding, and yet they have absolutely no useful information to impart.  They call me daily with updates on the process but they don’t seem to be able to answer any of my questions.  Here are a few things that they cannot do to help me:

Firstly: They can’t change the date the line will be installed until the date I had been given was confirmed. And they can’t, for some indefinable reason, confirm the date of installation.  Even on the day before the installation was due I couldn’t change the date. I asked them to cancel the installation. I am not sure they even had the power to do that.   

Secondly: They can’t tell me the works that I need to do before the line is  installed.   When they called the day before the line was due to go in they asked me to confirm that all the necessary building works were complete to allow the installation of the line.  I asked what the works I needed to do were but they couldn’t tell me.  I asked them to email me a list of work that they want me to be complete. No email arrived.

Thirdly: They can’t tell me the number of my local new lines team.  The most recent two calls I received, one this afternoon, – said that I should contact my local new installer to get information on what needs to be done.  They could not give me the phone number of the local team and told me that local builders know the number. 

I then spoke to two of the local builders working on my house and the electrician and none of them knew the number to contact the local office. I called back your new installation team and, after the customary 10 minutes communicating my order number (see below for info on how to improve that for customer experience), and other personal details I spent half an hour trying to persuade them to give me the number. 

The man I spoke to reiterated that local builders know the number (I told him that the builders I am working with don’t know it and neither does the electrician).  He then said the same thing again a couple of times and so did I. He put me on hold a couple of times to check with his supervisors and each time came back with the same spiel. Once he suggested that I pass on the builders’ number and I had to explain again that I am leading on the build and don’t have one single builder dealing with everything. If anyone was to contact the local installers it would be me. Could he please pass the number on to me? He put me on hold again.  Unfortunately, my battery died while I was on hold for this stretch. I had a phone message when it came back to life again telling me that, No they couldn’t get me a number. But engineers would be on site by 21stJuly to look at the situation.

Now I expect that you will agree with me that this is not an efficient use of your staff time nor my time. I am unlikely to be on site when the engineers visit and so I presumably will receive another call from your call centre, with as much information as they have at present.  I have already asked for information about what works need to be on site and if they are not done when your engineers visit then I presume this is a wasted journey for them.    What I really need to know is the number for the local office so that I can arrange to have everything ship shape and Bristol fashion for when they turn up. This saves your time, and it means that I get my line installed as soon as possible.  At present I am in an impasse which I have no idea of how to extract myself from: Your call-handlers tell me I need to contact the local office, but can’t get me the number.

I hope that you can help with finding this mythic number for the local office so that I can contact them and arrange for the work to go ahead.

For the future, it would be useful to look at the way you handle new requests for lines as the customer experience has been nothing short of appalling.  One useful thing that could be achieved quickly would be some training for staff at your new lines call-centre to ensure that they have knowledge about how phone installations happen so that they can usefully advise people, like myself, who call up.  The staff at the call centre are all very polite and try to be helpful but it is very evident that they do not know anything about the procedures for installing a new phone line and are essentially only there to be a voice at the end of a line.  If they had a little more information about the process of installing a new phone line to a new property, I am sure they would be able to make the experience of dealing with BT slightly less infuriating. 

Secondly another very quick way to instantly improve the customer experience would be to look at the length of your order numbers.  You have given me an inconceivably long order number – HMNAAZZ04502760469 which is almost impossible to communicate correctly over the phone.  It took a full 10 minutes to communicate this number to the call handler correctly – and a similar time for me to take it down correctly in the first place. 

A brief calculation tells me that there are 3 to the power 27 possible configurations of this number (3 with 27 zeros on the end) which is 430,000,000,000,000,000 (4.3 billion billion) times the total population of the world. Putting this another way, this gives enough order numbers to give every cell of every human currently living on the planet 116,000 opportunities to set an order with BT.  This suggests to me that if you made these numbers easier to record and communicate accurately you are unlikely to run out of order numbers within the life of the universe. 

 

 

Yours sincerely 

 


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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Time lapse of the build so-far

So excited about this video. This is an interim video just up to midday 10th March, but I’ll upload the rest when I have it! For those interested in how I did the time lapse – it was actually really easy. I used a Bushnell Trophy Cam on Field Scan mode taking one photo every 2 minutes between 6am and 5pm. This camera is waterproof and fixes onto a post or tree. I took out the photos taken on the days that no build took place and so this film is made up of shots from Wed 4-6 March and the morning of 10th March.

 

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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The Timber kit arrives


Right. I totally owe you a nice, positive blog like I usually do with a story and a happy ending….

Well I can manage something but perhaps not the happy ending just yet.

So far the story of the past week has all the elements of a ripping yarn: woes and despair, stratospheric highs, hope, tension and jeopardy, heroes, and some extreme snow sports.
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This story starts in the snows of Rannoch moor as, yet again, I take the high road to cuil bay in yet another blizzard. This time it was – at last- to actually be there for the frame going up. All set. 730am Tuesday morning crane arrives, 8am frame arrives. Friday morning – house. Just. Like. That.

The phone call came at 430pm from the crane company. They had done their very first rece to the site at 420pm the evening before the 730am start and didn’t like the base to sit the crane on. Days of rain had made the ground sodden and the areas prepared for the crane had gone all wobbly- like a jelly. He wasn’t going to set up.

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I sat on the Moor and made phone calls. To the company putting the frame up, to the kit manufacturer to try to stop the transport of the kit – too late it had already left – to Ronnie the digger driver. Trying to pursued the crane company that all could be well with some steel plates. Trying to work out what to do. The snow got worse and after an hour I had to leave the land of reliable reception before I was snowed in there of the night.

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Things seemed bleak. I popped into the coop and bought a bottle of single malt, and a few bottles of wine.

Yes I know – a bit much just for me, even after the day I’d had.  In fact I was stocking up – If this house actually happened, some people were going to deserve some presents. I’d also baked a whole tin of cakes to butter up the builders. But I do admit to sneaking one for me in that lay-by on Ranch Moor (desperate measures…)

I still didn’t really know what was going to happen until 7pm when our first hero of the story, Ronnie the digger driver, called me in a miraculous moment of telephone reception and said that his boys would get stone from the quarry at 6am and he’d be on site at 7am to dig the holes so the crane could get in for 8am. It actually took me a while to realise that this is what he was saying as I can only understand every second word these construction-industry types say as there seem to be hundreds of technical terms for what is essentially bits of rock of different sizes. When I worked out what was happening I went all weepy and made a rash decision of who would be getting the whisky.

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Dawn broke hopefully; calm and cold. No snow thankfully and the sun was even trying to come out when I arrived at the site at 730am.

But all was not well.
No crane (it didn’t bother setting off from Oban as they had some snow – they eventually sent it at 8 and it didn’t arrive until 940am, two hours late).
No rock – the guys had been to a couple of quarries that morning and all were snowed in. Ronnie did as best he could with what he had available – steel plates and extra gravel.
And then two articulate lorries arrived at 830am and were all ready to go sitting in a narrow layby on the tiniest single-track road and presumably charging by the hour.
When, eventually, the crane driver arrived, he didn’t like what he saw and refused to set up.
And then the weather took a huge turn for the worse. Gales and horizontal snow.

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And so, in the midst of mud, despair and torrential rain, another hero emerged. Rosco (Sunday name Martyn, or so I was told), the Glaswegian in charge of the band of four responsible for getting the frame up went to speak to the crane driver.

I don’t know what he said but it wasn’t long before the crane had found a place to set up to unload (although it wasn’t suitable for the build). Periodically Rosco aimed a bit more pep talk at the crane driver for good measure to keep things going. Rosco’s arctic russian-type furry-ear-flap-hat even managed to rival my knitted moose hat for silliness.
I gave everyone a cake.

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Next difficulty was getting the articulated lorries in and out. Three of them.

The first up um-ed and er-erd, sucked in his teeth and wandered about the tiny turning area looking sceptical. At this point the tension got too much and I took myself off to a cafe. But when I returned, after a bit more motivational chat from Rosco the lorry driver had not only made it into position, they had unloaded and he was reversing. The turn they effected in the area he had was phenomenal.

And it was still raining. And blowing. And snowing.

The unload happened slowly, the stacks of panels being deposited in the thick gloopy mud around the plot and all over our next- door neighbour’s drive. Rosco had talked them into letting us put all the roof cassettes, and a load of other stuff on their drive and park our two vans, leaving a postage stamp area for the neighbours car. I went to thank them profusely and gave them a bottle of wine.

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I spend the rest of the afternoon while the rain lashed down and the wind blew ‘visiting’, ie keeping the neighbours updated on movements and when the road would likely be blocked. Fortunately this activity kept me out of the rain and due to the friendliness of the neighbours I was furnished with cups of tea and even a soup, oatcakes and cheese meal. The spirits of the amazing chaps on site seemed unsinkable as they toiled tirelessly on.

We had a small triumph at the end of the day when one of Ronnie’s team arrived with a tipper truck full of, what I now know is called, Type 1. and we all waved good bye as I headed back to Glasgow, wet and muddy but with a small glimmer of hope that things would be better on Wednesday.

If you are concerned that no stratospheric highs nor extreme snow sports feature in this blog, you’ll need to tune in to the next installment in which despair turns to ecstatic joy (but don’t get your hopes up, it doesn’t last…)

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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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We have a Building warrant at last!

At last, the final piece of paper work has gone in and we now have a building warrant.

I can barely contain my joy. But I am also rather relieved. I had absolutely no idea it could possibly take this long. We were just awaiting the engineers final plans and it was finalized last week.

The build can’t start without the fabled building warrant so it’s pretty good that I had to put back the delivery of the kit months in case I couldn’t get the phone line moved and the. Missed the production slot so couldn’t move it back before Christmas again …

Moral of story – things take at least 20 times as long as you can imagine would be possible. But it feels good when they at last start to happen.

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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Everything you need to know about building a house from someone who’s never done it before

So now I am in charge of building this house what is the plan?

Well…..It may be because I am totally naive and know absolutely nothing about building houses but it seems to me that the process of building the house comes in three simple sections.

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Firstly the ground works, foundations, drainage and pipes and stuff.

Secondly: the frame. We are getting this made by Scotframe. It will have doors, windows, internal walls staircase, insulation and all, all prepared in the factory. It gets erected on site to wind and watertight in four days (FOUR DAYS?!) It then just needs the cladding and slates on.

Lastly: By then you’ve basically got something that looks like a house on the outside and you need all the stuff done on the inside: heating, wires, flooring, bathrooms, kitchen.

Does that sound right to you? It sounds simple enough doesn’t it?

Look I have organised loads of stuff in my life. Once, when my youngest was a baby I arranged for some fallen trees on Arran to be transported back to Glasgow, made into a boat by the amazing Galgael and then sailed back to Arran where it circumnavigated the island stopping at four ports on the way to different festivities and events. I keep the family logistics running, I run the Naseby Park Cherry Blossom Festival, at work I organize everything all the time. When I have a few moments free I invent new things to organize to fill the time like complex multi-day walks following a massive birthday celebration or a business doing ceilidhs to disco music.

I think I should be OK with building this house. I hope …. Watch this space.

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Going it alone

So now I am in charge of getting this house built. I suppose I always was, but I felt rather removed from the action. I can’t say I feel like that now.

We put out tenders in April to six builders, five were local and one a project manager based some distance from Cuil Bay. By the closing date we only had one quote back, which came from the distant project manager, was double the money we have and 30% higher than even the, already utterly unaffordable, estimate of the quantity surveyor. The architect suggested this was a quote from someone who didn’t so much want the work, as showing interest to keep their names on the architect’s list.

Over the past year, every estimate of costs we’ve had has been terrifyingly high, but each time this happened and I squeaked with alarm, the architects soothingly said ‘let’s wait until we get quotes in’. However now we were at the end of the process and we didn’t even have any quotes in.

I had been warned by my sawmill friend from Morven that the building market was buoyant and we might struggle to find builders with only sending the tender out in April. And he was right.

The other concern was that by going with the architect as project managers I was losing the control and the involvement in the build myself. The very reason for wanting to build a house in the first place. The architects, used to managing big social housing developments or other big schemes had a very paperwork and process-heavy system involving a QS who keeps tabs on costs at every stage and the architects to ensure every detail is delivered according to spec. I had been happy to take this route being completely new to this building thing and in the hope that the QS would help keep costs under control.

However there is the addition of costs doing it this way, that I had convinced myself would pay for itself in the end. The QS would be paid a percentage of the build costs.

It did fleetingly cross my mind that paying a QS a percentage of the build costs is rather a perverse incentive: If they do their job the very best in keeping the costs down they will get paid less than if they slack off and I have to pay more for the house. But I shrugged this off – we’re all professionals.

Anyway it wasn’t that which made me decide to go it alone, it was that we were getting absolutely nowhere with getting anyone to build my house. It looked like local builders had enough work to take the jobs they wanted and the extra hassel of dealing with QS and piles of paperwork and bills of quantities and forms to fill in when they usual deal directly with the client meant that I wasn’t going to get it built anytime soon.

This house needs a different approach and it looks like that approach is me….. Me with a busy job and a demanding family and with my naisant company calling ceilidhs to disco music.

This should be interesting.

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Screen debut for The House at Cuil

A few weeks ago the guys from Graphisoft came by to film a case study about the software that Matt and Scott from John Gilbert Architects have been using to designing the house. And particularly that rather funky fly-through model I have been waxing lyrical about for toooo long.

Are you in the best seats in the house? Is your popcorn at the ready? Let’s roll the reels ……

There is loads more information about the build and the design at my building the house at Cuil blog

and these posts are particularly relevant to the video

Walking through the house at Cuil
I’ve got virtual art in my virtual house

 

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.

Visiting a timber frame factory

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It’s taken me a while to get round to writing this up but here goes.

In July I had the wonderful opportunity to visit Scotframe, a timber frame company with a factory in Cumbernauld, just outside Glasgow. It’s the first time that Matt has used a timber kit approach with the houses that he has designed and was keen to see the processes and the factory in action so I tagged along and, since it was school holidays, so did the kids. It was a hot and sunny day – one of the best of the summer thus far, and they moaned and groaned bitterly at the prospect of a morning sitting still and behaving on an industrial estate in one of central Scotland’s less picturesque spots.

We met Ray Waite, the business development manager and sat in a small and airless office meeting room. We talked through the basics of the process: a frame made from timber, with foam insulation between, refective membranes on each side and covered by chipboard. The panels are made in Cumbernauld but the insulation injection machine is in Aberdeen and so panels are transported there for finishing. You can choose the thickness of the walls, depending on the insultation you want in the house. I think we are having the most well-insulated version.

I have to admit to being somewhat bewitched by our host’s hair – a classic 80s do, with ample flicked fringe and luxurient demi-mullet. Something that the Hoff would have been proud of in his knightrider glory days and something that you just don’t see enough of. However, I am sure you will be glad to know that I didn’t let this distract me from collecting useful information for this blog.

We were all dying to see the factory though, and it was here that Ray really came into his own. It was obvious that he was happiest on the shop floor and he showed his real enthusiasm for his product – I’m not a great fan of professional salesmen but you can tell a guy who loves his precision nailing device (I think the impressively complicated machines actually do a lot more than nailing by the way).

Once our house is manufactured in the factory – windows and doors mounted in frames, panels packed up and labelled with the postcode, incredibly it will take only 4 days to build it to wind and water tight. Yes, you heard correctly. Four Days.

Once the kit is built, the slates and external cladding for the walls would need to go on but we would, essentially, have what would be recognisably a house. This is a dramatically shorter amount of time on site than conventional forms of building and far more controllable. It needs only a small weather window and, from there, the work can largely be protected from inclement weather. The system seems perfectly adapted for building in the notoriously unpredictable West coast of Scotland climate.

Given all of these advantages I wonder why Matt hadn’t specified this method of construction in previous houses. (that’s me sold on it)

The other query is whether this is going to give us the ‘Eco-house’ we so desire (see previous blog). It may be mainly timber but the insulation is made of evil petrochemicals.

I suppose this is a good point to remind us that we went to this system due to the costs of the extra-ecological-all-natural construction method Matt originally specified. This system looked to get us the best insulation and air-tightness for the cost.

The Scotframe panels can apparently achieve very good airtight ness as they fit together like a giant 3D jigsaw, with a female end (chipboard overhanging the wood frame) into which the male part – rounded ends of the wood frame fits. The membranes overlap and ensure a really airtight fit (figures were quoted but I was too busy keeping the kids quiet, or observing the mullet, to write them down – apologies). They use Scandinavian timber for the structural elements: slower growing and with a tighter grain, they give better strength than Scottish wood apparently. But they do use Scottish timber where they can, in the fibreboard/chipboard stuff.

The process they use has an impressive lack of waste. It will take a couple of weeks to program the designs for the house at Cuil Bay into their computers which then calculate how the machines need to cut the timber and assemble the panels most efficiently. This leaves about 3% waste – very impressive when compared against the 40-50% waste that there would be in a timber frame house being constructed on site.

The process all looks extremely efficient. Which is very comforting as it means that, presumably once we are past this current slow moving bit and we have made all the decisions and got all the permissions, the house will magically appear on the site. I can’t wait.

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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?

Haven’t we come Full-circle?

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This is the sketch that accompanied the tender document from the architects in November 2011.

The story of the design for the House at Cuil started with a little sketch that Matt, the architect, drew as part of the tender document for the job. It had a main roof-line north-south, harled, and a wood-clad gable extending west, making it an L-shape. There was a deck in the enclosed corner facing south and west.

I liked this sketch when I saw it and, in fact, it was one of the reasons that I chose John Gilbert Architects, and specifically Matt Bridgestock, to do the job. However, until recently, I hadn’t thought much about that little sketch.

It’s been a long time since Autumn 2011 when we finally bought the plot and engaged the architect, and between then and now, the house has been through an eclectic assortment of different styles, none bearing much of a resemblance to that original idea in outward appearance. This may have been because the spec had changed at that point to a four bedroom house and so needed a different approach (we are now back to three bedrooms due to needing to keep a lid on costs) but I’m not entirely sure.

Despite my initial enthusiasm for the simple sketch’s design, I had forgotten all about it until we had a meeting with our planning officer to try and get the planning permission sorted for the house.

As the discussions with the planing officer progressed and we agreed changes to the design, Matt noticed that we were heading full-circle. We were heading back towards the design, that we had sent to planners in the pre-application and, frustratingly, we had altered at their suggestion. But it bore an even more striking resemblance to that original sketch. Both have a similar shape, orientation and materials for cladding. Even the interior is similar, except for the position of the stairs.

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After all the grand plans and changes and tweaks and headaches, we’ve come full-circle. Which leads me to ask why it has taken such a long journey to end up so close to where we started.

I’m thinking of it as akin to a refining process: you start with potential; something sparkly but not very useful, and via a long and tiring process, with many unrecognisable intermediate stages, you finish

with the refined gold. I think that this long process of designing the house has been useful, necessary even. The journey itself has added immeasurably to the final design.

I loved that original sketch and I love the final design even more. I am glad that, somehow, we found our way back there.

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house plan

The Quest for Planning Permission

We actually do have planning permission now. A proper piece of paper arrived printed with the words, so it must be true. It’s been a long winter hibernation for the project and I had settled into a happy suspended animation with regard to the house as the weeks and months of waiting progressed. I am, at last, beginning to rewarm the cockles of house enthusiasm that I put on ice in October

The past few months have been busy in the other 99.9% of my life with a new job, the organisation of various community activities and general family busy-ness so it has been a good time to have a wee break. Now I hope I can make a little mental space during the summer to reanimate the project after its long hibernation.

I’m not sure what took the planning process so long. We were told that it would be eight weeks but it turned out to take more than eight months. That seems like a very long time to me but, no one I’ve spoken to about it seems surprised at the lengthy gestation.

In the lead up to planning in September, I wrote a letter to all the residents of Cuil Bay explaining our hopes for the project and introducing ourselves to the ones that didn’t already know us. Delivering the notes by hand gave a great opportunity for meeting people and I drank many cups of tea that morning doing the rounds of the little community.

This initial letter had the first thoughts on what the house might look like and we invited comments and feedback. We also had submitted a pre-application consultation, a process almost as formal as the full planning, to get comments to help us with the final design.

We combined all this, with comments from neighbours and my own thoughts, and came up with a rethink on the appearance of the house and in October, before we submitted planning I sent another note round to the community with an update.

We expected a swift response from planning after we were assured that there was an 8 week turn around for applications, not including any time they sent things back to us for work.

Things went rather quiet after that, for quite a long time. In January Matt and I set off for what turned out to be quite a road trip to visit the planning offices in Fort William. The weather was absolutely foul, with rain already turning to snow as we left Glasgow. The forecast was for worse and, as we crawled along the A82 in the settling snow, I began to doubt that I would make back in time to pick up the kids from after school club. There would certainly be no detour to the plot for a site visit.

We stopped at Tyndrum for coffee at around 11am, already about an hour and a half later than we expected and found, to our bitter disappointment, the wonderful Real Food Cafe closed. The discussion hinged around whether to go on over Rannoch moor and risk not being able to return if the snow continued, or whether we should postpone and return, beaten, to Glasgow. In the end it was the motivation to sort out planning that overcame the worries and we set our faces to the driving snow and pushed onward.

The driving conditions improved markedly past Tyndrum and we arrived in Fort William only 2 hours late for the meeting. The aim of the trip was to establish our planning officer’s general feeling about the plans and what, if anything, we needed to change.

Matt talked us through the theory and philosophy around the design for the house, expanding somewhat on the arc-waffle contained within the design statement. He appeared to be doing a passable impression of the Jedi mind trick and the planning officer nodded in agreement through an intoxicating wave of architectural technicalities.

The officer was very happy with the design: it was well suited to the area, it was sympathetic to the vernacular while demonstrating good sustainable design principles and it was great we’d already had contact with the neighbours about our plans. But then the spell started to waver: the neighbouring plot had planning permission for a modern version of the Highland two-up two-down and our house needed to reflect that design.

Matt wasn’t put off his stride, he extended his argument to the, as yet unbuilt, house next door. Our house could be considered a steading to the house next door, our ridge height would be lower than the house next door, the wood of their planned garage reflected the wood construction of our house.

After a bit of really useful and productive discussion we came up with a happy way forward – we would switch from a T shape (main roof line east-west to an L shape (main roof line north-south) and harl the main north-south section and wood-clad the other gable (rather than wood cladding the major part).

This change required some minor fiddling and actually resulted in a more satisfactory interior layout with space in the centre of the house for a masonry stove. Both the architects and myself feel that we now have a better house after the discussions.

Within a week Matt had the revised plans back with the planner and then things went silent again. By March the architects were regularly emailing and calling the planners to check on progress. I felt like I was waiting for a bus that would never come. Perhaps someone had set up a diversion that I didn’t know about.

Then, all of a sudden on 9th May the status of the application on the council website changed. We had planning permission.

We are actually going to build a house.

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….

Art for my virtual house

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I was having a drink with an artist friend last night and, as I have been doing lately when meeting someone I haven’t seen in a while, I whipped out my phone to show him round the 3D model of the house at Cuil Bay.

Apart from being amazed at the tidiness of the place and the lack of clutter (why do people always comment on this?) Geoff was concerned by all the blank space on the walls. When the children made the minecraft version of the House at Cuil Bay they hung pictures on the walls (skull and crossbones seemed to figure prominently) and even made the entrance to the en suite behind a large picture, Harry Potter style.

Geoff suggested that he should have his next exhibition in my virtual house. His landscapes, collages of imaginary mountains made up from photos of many different Scottish mountains would sit well in a virtual house. A picture of a mountain that doesn’t exist, exhibited in a house that doesn’t exist (yet). Geoff’s latest series will include both mountain-scapes and sea-scapes and the setting of Cuil, set between sea loch, and mountain seems a fitting venue.

After our evening’s discussions, I am now beginning to wonder whether this would actually be possible. Graphisoft, who produce the walk-through design software for architects saw the blog I did previously and their marketing department have been in touch. Perhaps they would like to help facilitate a virtual art exhibition in the House at Cuil Bay.

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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

I think we might have planning permission

I am just finishing a tentative celebratory tipple to toast our new-found planning permission.

Ten minutes ago I found an email from the architect saying he had checked the planners’ website and it says that permission has been granted for our house.

We haven’t had any official confirmation or contact from the planners, hence the tentative celebration, but hope is renewed.

Here’s the page where the magic words ‘permission granted’ are written. Ive saved it here for posterity (click here for link)

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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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Eco-house or just …. a house ?

Of course it’s going to be an eco-house! Isn’t it pretty much compulsory for all self-builds to be eco-homes?

We want an environmental, ecological, toasted wheatgerm and hand-knitted jumper kind of house; of course we do. Who wouldn’t?

However, if I’m blogging the design and build of our house then I suppose it would be useful to explore what we are aiming for in the design and the motivations and reasoning behind it in a bit more depth, so here goes….

Since we have lived in it, we have been trying to make our (Edwardian terrace) home’s carbon footprint as low as possible.  Admittedly we have gone for the relatively low-hanging fruit – we haven’t stripped the entire house back to bare walls and started from scratch.  But I checked the meters, then turned down thermostats, insulated, draft-proofed, re-checked the meters, hung duvets under curtains, installed a woodburner that heats the water, and solar thermal too, and kept on checking he meters.  I even founded my own NGO about 8 years ago to encourage others to make their own homes more sustainable.  It was called eco-renovation network and was established of a frustration of policy makers focusing effort on lowering energy use of new buildings while ignoring the millions of existing new homes.

These efforts have left me with a house that does, admittedly have very low gas and electricity bills, but it isn’t really properly warm,  has irritating residual drafts, and where you are only really guaranteed a steaming hot bath on a hot summer’s day, when you least need or desire one.  The disadvantages and challenges of retrofit have become very evident to me during the years of my (admittedly relaxed) mission to greenify my house.  Older houses are not designed to be sealed units, and will become damp if you seal them too much, solid walls have a high heat capacity but are hard and expensive to insulate, and our hot water tank is in the attic where the heat that leaks from it and the pipework is useless to warm our home.

So I have come to the conclusion that you can only go so far with an old house and this is my opportunity to see what can be achieved when you start from scratch.

The next question hanging on everyone lips now is ‘Well what exactly is an eco-house then?’

Is it a house which has very low energy use? Or perhaps it’s a house with renewable energy made on site, or a house whose materials have a low embodied energy – being made with recycled materials or those that take only low energy to make.  It could be a naturally-breathing house made with traditional materials and techniques, or perhaps one made with modern and technological ecological materials manufactured from natural products and minimising chemicals and petroleum products.  What about a home that makes space for nature, with swift and house sparrow next boxes, bats in the attic and a wildflower meadow in the garden?

Confused? You bet I am.

In the end, though, it comes down to what you are trying to achieve and what your priorities are. Having measured my own carbon footprint for years I know that our current lifestyle in the city does have a low carbon footprint. Work, school, activities, friends and leisure are all a walk, cycle or, at most, a bus-ride away.  And we live in a small terraced house, sharing two walls with neighbours, and having a relatively small volume of air to heat within the house. Moving to the country, where everything (except the countryside) is a car-ride away is only going to increase our carbon footprint in total.

It is clear that building ourselves a house on the west coast of Scotland is not going to decrease our carbon footprint, so what do we want it to do? Our priorities are that it is as sustainable as it can be, in materials choice and in energy consumption. We want to use wood from a friend’s sawmill just across Loch Linnhe in Morven, we want to take advantage of the boggy plot to make a little stream, pond and wildlife-friendly garden. We sought out and found a south facing plot so that we can take advantage of solar gain in the design. We would like to use ecological and recycled materials where possible and build a masonry stove, like my in-laws had in Switzerland to heat the house very efficiently.

That is a long wish-list. We will have to see how far we get with it.  So in the meantime we’ll just call it the House at Cuil Bay. But if anyone asks – it is an eco-house – of course it is!

The Yearly Review

It’s been nearly a year since we saw the plot at Cuil Bay on an Oban Estate Agent’s website. So it seems a good time for a look back at progress.

When we visited the site the weekend of the Glasgow September holiday last year, I imagined that we would be well into the build by now …. what wishful thinking that was! However, we now have a design of house that we really like. It is exactly what I was hoping for, despite being unable to articulate it. It is now on its 6th permutation and we think we may even be able to afford to build it – just.

I’ll get round to putting the various permutations of design on the site at some point: a kind of ‘descent of man’ for the house at Cuil Bay. Changes have been made as we move towards the house we yearn for, to bring the staggering cost down, but also in response to comments from our neighbours after I sent them a letter introducing ourselves with initial designs for the house.

Most recently we sent our designs to the planning department to get initial advice on the design. Since January, when I called them to discuss the application and they were happy to chat things through with me, they have changed policy and now only accept queries regarding the pre-application process in a format akin to that of a full planning application.  The sainted architects duly sent in the designs but these were returned a couple of weeks later with the comment that the extent of the plot was outlined in black, not in the required red.

Having submitted something very similar to full planning, we received comments, generally supportive, with the main issue being orientation of the house.

So, changes having been made (again) we are now almost ready to submit to planning permission.  The plot already has outline permission. We are only awaiting the results of a topographic survey which will enable Matt to place the house at the right height on the plot among the other houses and landscape, and also determine whether we will need a retaining wall behind the property.

We’ve also had an enginner and a digger and driver on site to dig the holes and look at the conditions of the ground.  The results were encouraging: the water table is very high (we already knew that) meaning that we can’t use a conventional septic tank, but the ground conditions are close to ideal with bedrock overlain by gravel which means that we will be able to use strip foundations and the excavations will be a bit cheaper than we had anticipated.

So, in short, we are ready to go….. well ready to go with the monumental planning effort, then building control, then builders, then…..perhaps it’s best if I just don’t think about it.

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

At Last the First

It’s harder than I thought to write a blog about the process of building our house.  It’s not so much the Mañana attitude, though I suffer from it, but because I am actually finding the whole thing quite difficult to put into words for public consumption.

It wasn’t until we had bought the plot, engaged the architect, spoken to Scottish Water and SEPA to ensure water and drainage was likely to happen, and actually had the very first initial plans drawn up that I actually told some of my friends that we were building a house.  Many don’t actually know yet – it hasn’t really come up in conversation.

It’s strange really, we are building a house that we are not going to live in for some time, in a beautiful, small community on the west coast of Scotland but we live in Glasgow.  It’s something I secretly always wanted to do but knew I never would. Our jobs are in Glasgow, the kids are happily two of more than 400 at primary school.  We have school, shops, cultural pursuits galore, choir, beavers, brownies, athletics, swimming, piano, football, tennis (yet the world does revolve around the children….) all within walking distance.  And the beauty of Highland Scotland is close at hand when we have need of it.

I have always been of the opinion that second homes are a scourge, sucking the life out of struggling rural communities, pushing prices up and ensuring that youngsters leave for the city’s bright lights and jobs as soon as they can.

So what has changed?  Well I suppose the thought that we will be going to live there in the now not-so-distant-future is one.  The time when children are fledged and work becomes more flexible (here’s always hoping) now resides in the realms of the imaginable, rather than in another universe.  Things seem more possible, and the world opens up as the terror and seat-of-your-pants parenting of the early years fades into mere chaos.  Only a couple of years ago the pressure of work, which I felt qualified for, and caring for my young children, which I certainly didn’t, created a peculiar tunnel vision.  The insight needed to imagine things could ever be different was suppressed in favour of day-to-day survival.

Also it was the plot, our hoped-for but never spoken-of, Eden.  I had been surreptitiously looking for a building plot for years. I would happen to drive past plots I had seen on the internet on the way to ‘somewhere’ and say casually “Oh – a plot – let’s just have a quick look, seeing as we’re just passing”.  Our filing cabinet started to complain as one section grew thicker that its allotted space with plot particulars.  “Just out of curiosity”, I said.

In fact the very act of calling up an estate agent to ask them to send particulars, was a significant move from plot as secretly harboured desire, to plot as reality.  The need to put voice to my wish, gave the project a level of certainly which had not previously existed, not even in my conciousness.

But in all our searching and visiting, in virtual and real worlds, none captured us. Insurmountable obstacles rose up in my mind “could we live here?”, “perhaps something better will come up”, “how would you get here by public transport?”  But eventually the right place found us.

In searching for the particulars of a building plot we had seen in passing, Google suggested I look at a plot in a place that I hadn’t dared hope one would appear.  It was in Cuil; a scattered settlement of homes around the rim of a raised beach, with the massif of Beinn a Bheithir, the Ballachullish Horseshoe, rising steeply to the north; and the islands of Lorn, with Mull beyond, visible across the bay to the south.  It was the place where, on countless occasions, I had donned an enormous rucksack to start the walk to Leachnasceir, the remote and rugged one-room cottage which we have had the immense privilege of co-owning for the past 10 years.  And the vendor of the plot was the same man who, more than 40 years ago, had given a lease to a Geologist with a vision to rebuild a dilapidated croft cottage across a bog and a moor from Cuil Bay.

By serendipity, we were planning a visit to Leachnasceir for the long September weekend and I called the landowner, who we have got to know in the years we have been visiting Cuil.  I took my daughters on the understanding that the younger one would avoid the usual verbal jousting and mutual name-calling games she plays with the retired farmer, in favour of diplomacy and persuasion.  But my concerns were unnecessary.  A simple “Erm….I’m interested in buying your plot”, resulted in a “Well we’re interested in selling it to you.”  And that was that. (Save for the subsequent months of protracted solicitor-wrangling – presumably so that they could justify their vast fees…).  In the end I had to drag the 6 year-old away mid flow through the immortal insult  “you are wearing a girl’s cardigan and you are soooo old.”

And then there was the urge to build a house that was future-proofed. A place without constant drafts whistling through despite hours grovelling under sinks and behind kickboards with insulation and expanding foam. A place where the solar water heating and wood burning stove were an integral part of the house rather than tacked on in a less-than-ideal retrofit.  A place which would be properly insulated, properly low energy, and where we would not be living on top of each other and even have space for guests, and our children’s guests.

And what about the second home issue?  Hummm… well we’ll be renting the house at Cuil to pay its way until we make the move.  At present we’re thinking holiday lets so that we will be able to enjoy it at those times when it is not occupied.   I could write a whole blog on this but will stop here – perhaps another day.

So here we are.  I have reached the stage where I have, not only bought the plot, got the initial plans, and am waiting for the budget cost estimate from the Quantity Surveyor,  I have even gone public with the fact. I guess it really is going to happen at last.

I’ll try and keep you posted.

PS the photo is taken at the shore in Cuil Bay – the fisherman’s bothy and the cow.