First, to finish where we left off; the extension rebuild. I lost most of my photos of the build, but it went up a treat once the foundations and concrete slab had been laid. The presence of a non-breathable concrete floor has had no ill-effect on the rest of the house, and I suspect in part because all the adjoining walls and floors are breathable.
Because it was as ugly as sin, we decided to celebrate the fact that it is quite obviously an add-on to the older fabric of the house, and we clad it in birch so it juxtaposes with the brick/stone of the rest of the house.
The inside of the extension is warm and cosy, and where we had the external wall sandblasted back to the stone it looks fab as a feature in the room. Getting the awful white gloss paint off that wall was money very well spent indeed.
The extension also houses a bathroom - where we've been able to make a space that is a great size relative to the house and has a bath with shower over it. One thing of note is that we bought all the sanitary stuff from Victorian Plumbing. Never again! If you're not very comfortable with DIY then the fact that nothing fits, and the parts are so incredibly "cheap" will probably lead you despair. They do look good once you've shoe-horned everything together with putty, cable-ties and screws though.
Shortly after the extension was finished we decided to have all the internal doors in the cottage stripped. They were variously covered in paint, varnish and wax, and looked naff. We found a specialist antique restoration place with a caustic bath, who quoted us £100 a door to strip and dry them for us, so we took them all down at once.
Unfortunately, this then happened to the poor chap's workshop.
So all our doors went up in smoke. Honestly, you couldn't make it up. All of them. The house suddenly seemed so... airy.
Hey ho, life goes on. The chap gave us £2000 to replace the 9 doors, which we had made by the same joiner who did our staircase in a european Oak. I sourced blacksmith-made latches and hinges from a place in Birmingham and fitted them myself to save money. The new doors look great, but new. We're deliberately not being careful with them so they get a good bashing and some character. It feels funny having them all match and be so much newer than the rest of the house, but the holistic effect is to make the house feel like it's been "done up". Which it has. So I suppose that's OK.
We also had the joiner make up new window frames for two of the front-facing windows on the house. We had planned to repair the existing, but they'd rotted beyond the point of no-return in the 3 years we'd live here. There were hand-sized holes in both, so they had to go.
We cleaned up the original casements though, and the new oak frames look amazing. They, of course, match the new doors and staircase, so we have an oak theme to go alongside our stone theme.
OK, so let's move on to what have been the triumphs and failures of the project, with the benefit of 4 years of living with the house.
Breathable limecrete floors and flagstones with wide lime mortar between them. This has made a HUGE difference to the house. Not just in the way it looks, but in the way it deals with the damp coming up from underneath. Long term readers may remember that there are no foundations, and the whole thing sits on clay. We dug out and installed a "sump" of Glapor, then insulated limecrete, then flagstones, so that damp has to evaporate and travel up through the floors rather than just soaking upwards.
Stripping off any gypsum and concrete from walls, and replacing with lime plaster. This is expensive, and a pain in the backside, but in combination with the floors it has transformed the house. When we moved in, the humidity throughout the house was 70%, and now it's around 40%. The way that the house deals with moisture from the ground is truly amazing, and the breathable materials throughout mean that humidity doesn't get trapped and destructive in any surfaces. In a solid-walled house you need to work WITH your damp, because working against it will be a never-ending battle which you'll lose.
Clay paint. I cannot over-emphasise how much I love this stuff. It's hella expensive, but you use far less than modern paint and the coverage is superb. It's as thick as custard and goes on with an amazing vibrant colour. The deep-green wall in the picture above is clay paint, and it's on a wall which wicks up a LOT of moisture from the ground. The clay just lets it breathe.
In fact, the combination of the three points above means that we've been able to create a library room in what was the worst, cold, damp and inhospitable room of the house. It's perfectly dry and cosy now.
Sandblasting. If you're in the market to buy an old house, or one with solid-walls, before you move in get anything that's been treated with modern paint sandblasted. The house will thank you in the long run. Walls which were cool to the touch are now warm. Paint that was flaking is now gone, and the original materials of the house can breathe again. You've got to treat old houses the way that people who build them would have - no plastics, no sealants, no modern paints.
Surface-run electrics and bespoke fabric-wrapped wiring. OK, so we could have gone for metal conduit, and had a more industrial look for our wiring, but we wanted something a little more unique and soft. It's subjective, I know, but I really like it.
Lime plastering. I admit defeat when it comes to plastering; I'm no good at it. The professionals, however, can do some wonderful things with modern lime-plaster mixes, and get a finish which is as good as gypsum. The advantage is, of course, breathability. The disadvantage is cost, but in the long run it means you'll have a drier house, and lower heating bills because of it. This is the archway that I rebuilt a couple of blog-posts ago.
Fabric-covered walls. If you have an old house, you need to embrace that nothing is going to be straight, flat or even. Wallpapering is a therefore a pain in the bum, and paint sometimes lacks texture. However, our ancestors had a good idea, which was to just stretch fabric across walls and therefore hide a multitude of sins. We're going to do the same in 2 rooms. You use 5mm ply strips as batons, cover the wall with thin clothing padding, and then stretch the fabric of your choice between the batons. Easy peasy. This is a fabric-sample being tried for size (and not the final effect!)
Chalk paint on damp walls. Rumour has it that chalk paint is breathable. It may well be, but it's nowhere near breathable enough if you have a solid-wall that is dealing with damp. We have a few such walls (bordering concrete-floored rooms, so they are acting as wicks to the damp clay below), and the chalk paint has failed. Use clay paint instead.
Use pre-mixed lime plaster soon. We had a bunch of bags of pre-mixed, coloured lime made up when we started the flooring project and it was over a year before we got to the end of the floors. The latter mixes of lime are failing, and every time we hoover more and more of the mortar between the last flagstones we put down dissappears. The first rooms we did are fine. You can see the mortar channels getting lower than the flags here:
VictorianPlumbing bathrooms. As I said above, you get what you pay for and if you're not confident with plumbing, the cheapness of these parts could well drive you to drink. Or at least to hiring a plumber.
Modern taps. Why, oh why, do modern taps have such god-awful clamping mechanisms?! That tiny nut which is impossible to get to unless you practice yoga, and which comes loose if you even look at the tap menacingly. Hateful, hateful design.
Handmade mexican terracotta tiles. These are really pretty (see above), but holy moley they're delicate. They were a bit of a fail as a kitchen splashback for us. We've cracked a bunch of them when utensils have glanced them a blow. In a bathroom, they'd be lovely.
Esse 990CH multi-fuel stove. I can't even begin to tell you what an utter disappointment this purchase was. Actually, I can. It was a £13,000 disappointment. A disappointment that tried to kill us. A dangerous, ineffective, white-elephant of a disappointment that neither the manufacturer nor the installer would admit was their problem, and which has left us over £8000 out of pocket. It's a big AGA-like cooker which also does the central-heating and hot-water. We originally had a coal and wood-burning version installed, and it spent the next few months filling the house with smoke, setting off the Carbon Monoxide alarms and tainting any food with the smell of smoke. In the end we had to turn it off and spend a winter without any heat. Thank GOD for electric showers.
|7C in the house. Thanks ESSE 990CH.|
We eventually had it replaced with an oil-fired version, which has been OK, but the terrible experience with ESSE's (lack of) customer service, and the virtual shrug of blamelessness between them and the installers left a very, very bad taste. Almost as bad as the taste of food made in it.
This is the new one. You'll notice the splashback is slightly bigger than the cooker because the oil-fired version is less wide than the multi-fuel we had to get rid of. So far, however, this one has not tried to kill us.
I'll just sign off for the last time with the key phrase which has guided this project, and if you're thinking of getting an old house should inform every decision you make about it:
Work with your damp and not against it, embrace your draughty doors and air-bricks, and let the whole thing breathe. Modern materials and old houses don't mix well.