Sunday, 4 February 2018

18 months on - an update

We stalled on the blog for various reasons, but it's still getting web traffic and comments so I thought I'd do an update, and highlight what have been the triumphs and not-so-triumphant bits of what we've done, now it's all had a chance to bed in for a couple of years.

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.

The actual build was as cheap as possible, with twin-layer cement blocks (insulated with rockwool) and a very-slightly-sloping roof which we had finished with fibreglass resin.

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 waney-edged boards are just screwed on to treated batons, which in turn are screwed on to the concrete blocks. No rocket-science here.

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!)

Not Triumphs

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.

The End.

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.


Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Building the extension slab

The rain held off for 24 hours so we cracked on with shuttering and filling the trench with a strong concrete mix, and reinforcing bar because of the clay underneath. Our trench was around 18-inches deeper than the bottom of the hardcore, and a further 36-inches below finished floor level.

We had to lay some old smashed concrete on the slab area just to walk on it without collecting clay-mud on our boots.

Because the house itself has no foundations, and the bottom of the stonework lays at the exact level we are building UP to with the concrete, we were in great danger of causing a collapse of the house. So an important task we did in carefully managed stages (not many pics to illustrate it, sorry) was to build a large concrete buttress below the corner of the house.

We did this by creating a form-work out of concrete blocks, and carefully digging in to the clay below the corner, We hammered in several rebar sections and then filled the area with a strong concrete mix 2ft deep and 4ft long. 

Whilst that set, and before we did any more work in scooping out the clay near the house, we set about moving back in to the slab area tonne after tonne of hardcore. It took 2 full days with 4 people to hand-shift bricks, concrete, tiles, slabs and stones, smashed down to half-brick and smaller sizes to fill the slab area and make a stable base on top of the clay. Worst job we've ever had to do.

In fact, we ran out of 'clean' hardcore so we had to start sifting through the earth which we'd dug out of that hole to get large stones and bricks to throw back in. We ended up with around 10 tonnes of earth left over, which a kindly local farmer took away to fill some holes!

The amount of materials used in the extension has boggled my mind. My rough calculations are that, to get to finished floor level, we've hand-shifted in barrows 23 tonnes of 'stuff'. I'm not kidding when I say that I now have a knackered back and a new appreciation for labourers. 

By day 4 of having the Builder on site, we'd got the first blocks up towards finished floor level.

Here's a day's effort of filling that level with hardcore. The top of those blue bricks is finished floor level to give some appreciation of the task in hand.

Our trusty barrows - three at a time in operation during the day.

On top of the hardcore went down a layer of scalpings, which were whacker-plated to flat. You can see that below. On top of THAT went a layer of sand to smooth off any sharp corners, and then a layer of Kingspan insulation.

And eventually, after what was only 8 days but which seemed like an eternity of barrowing, the Builder got the concrete laid and level, and it started to look like a floor. Hoo-flippin-rah.

Foundation trench for the extension

Oh good, it's forecast to rain for the next week, just in time for the heavy clay foundation trench to fill up like a swimming pool. How we laughed.

When we finished laughing we strung up an enormous tarpaulin to try to keep as much of the rain off the trench as possible. You see, once the rock-hard clay/stone mix of ground got even the slightest bit wet, it turned from ground which you'd have serious trouble getting a spade in to, to ground which you'd have serious trouble getting your shoes out of.

That was a horrific couple of days of soul-destroying shoveling to get the trench to final depth (4ft-plus below finished floor level) and the entire area of the slab down to a flat and stable 3ft below finished floor.

Clay, you see, shifts and moves and grows and shimmies as it absorbs water, so the regs say you have to go deep, and provide a solid, heavy, reinforced base which won't cause your extension to crack. To hell with the fact that your house's foundations are (literally) above the finished floor level you're aiming for, and that it's just plonked down on the clay.., that's old building with stone and lime versus modern thinking and materials.

And the rain, as if to illustrate the fact that the clay was absorbent, kept on coming. Our tarp served to redirect most (not all) of it in to a bathtub we rigged up, where we pumped some away, and watched as more filled our trench repeatedly. It was frustrating, shall we say.

But in the end we got there, and you can see the bottom of the trench, where we threw in some spare Glapor to give us a walking surface, versus the finished floor level (see the gravel line on the house wall).

It took 3 days of manual digging and fettling to get the levels right. 

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Reinstating a brick arch doorway pt2

Last night I decided to crack on with the brick arch so we can block up the doorway properly and get a little security back in to the house.

I started off by tracing the curve of the existing upper arch bricks (which have loosened a little more), and cutting a 110mm smaller radius in to two sheets of 18mm ply.

I nailed those two sheets to a block so ended up with a curve that you can balance a brick on.

It was then a case of holding it in place and mounting it to two uprights to keep it in place.

I chose 9 clean but old (reclaimed from a now-removed chimney stack) bricks and placed them in to the former to check for size and fit. It also tested the former for bearing the weight of the bricks whilst they dried.

I gave the existing arch, and the new bricks a good soak in water to stop them drying out my NHL5 lime mix, and then set about the task of 'mucking them in' using that lime.

It was a particular pain of a job, and the last brick had to be persuaded in to place with a rubber mallet.

The new arch was allowed to dry for 15 hours so the lime had a chance to harden (but not yet completely go off). Then I slowly relaxed the support from the wooden former to see if anything was going to slip.

It held fast, and is now slowly drying.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Reinstating a brick arch doorway

Further to the last post, I had a brief conversation with a blacksmith (who happens to be a dab hand at period property renovation) and who assured me of the structural virtues of brick arches. And that, if I could support the arch whilst doing it, adding proper supports both sides would give more than enough structure to safely resurrect the arch without need for an iron bar.

So I sat with a cup of tea and planned how to attack the job, and in what order things had to be done to stop the thing collapsing.

The arch bricks are deep, and supported by two separate oak lintels. I was able to cut away the larger of the two lintels and remove the fill above it to expose what I was working with properly. The large protruding stone on the left is huge, and solidly embedded in the wall, so it gives a good platform for building another layer of stone on top and the arch off that.

On the right, the oak has been cut and left in place (it took a hell of an effort with a chainsaw!) and will form the basis for a platform on the right hand side.

Once cleaned up of all the old lime and bits of fill, the protruding stone shows a really nice flat face for mounting another stone on top of, and by using an oak wedge, and bits of stone fill, I was able to balance a perfectly shaped (and interesting) stone on top of this, lock it in to place and then use NHL5 mix to secure it in place.

I had to cut the second oak lintel in order to get the new stone in to place. It's enough of a cantilever to hold the remaining fill and brick arch up until the NHL cures (dry in 2 days, cured in 7-10).

Once it's cured, I'll build a wooden former and add another layer of bricks to form a lower arch - the aim being to match the height of the outer arch - which you can see in the above photo is about a course of bricks lower than the inner arch.

The new head height of the doorway, with a raised floor to minimise the issues with our lack of foundations, will be around 6ft at the middle of the arch. That's a couple of inches higher than some of our internal doors!

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Raising a doorway

In tandem with planning a step up somewhere in the extension, I began looking at ways to increase the head-height of the doorway from the main house, and as such allow us to raise the floor level even further without compromising too much.

You can see the faint outline of an arch above the doorway, so today I set about investigating if that was structurally intact and whether it would help our problems.

The external arch is sound and strong, and has been supported by a large protruding stone on the right of the doorway. It was easy to remove the modern-ish door and frame, and peel this back to the original arch.

However, I suspect that when the 1880 extension was built, they did a fair amount of buggering about with this doorway and pulled out some of the internal side structure. They put in two oak lintels, about 3 inches deep and 6 inches wide, and bricked up the internal arch.

The lintels aren't sat on any kind of structure on the left of the picture below (except for a bit of lime holding them in place), so I had to think of the best solution to create a taller door and keep the structure.

I've decided to have an iron bar fabricated to support the internal arch - similar to the ones used to support curved fireplaces. I can cut this in to the stone on both sides and it will prevent the weak arch collapsing. Above the arch sits another oak lintel (shown in above photo) which is taking most of the weight of the 2nd storey walls.

More on this when the builder has confirmed my plan looks OK.

Digging extension foundations

We hired a 1.5t minidigger and a skip-lifter for the weekend in order to dig out the foundations for the new extension.

We've planned to have a continuous floor level from the doorway you can see at the top right of the below photo, to future-proof the new bathroom and study for less-able people. 

We hit thick yellow clay mixed with rocks after 6 inches of gravel (the previous extension's foundations!) and it took some serious skill on the digger (not by me, I should add) to get the area clear and vaguely level.

Once we were down 18in from finished floor level, we set about planning the foundation trench, which will be a further 18in deep, 2ft wide, and be filled with reinforced concrete.

Getting the digger to work at any sort of decent angle to the trench in an area 4m x 7m was hard work, and the trench was slow-going.

In the end we decided that a slope-sided trench would have to do, and gives us the option to shutter and backfill the sides if needs be later.

By the end of day 3 it was as complete as we could do with a digger. The rest would have to be done by hand. And as you can see we're considerably lower than previous ground level.

In fact, that ground level thing through up a bit of a nasty surprise. We'd often wondered what the large concrete moulding on the end of the house is. I finally twigged its importance today! 

When the house was built, it was built in to a hill. Original ground level was at the height of the line 18 inches up the concrete moulding (where it goes smooth). 

At some point in the past, that 18in of clay has been removed to increase drainage and allow for a walkway around the side of the house.

BUT, the house has no foundations, and only a couple of courses of large stones which were originally in the ground! What you can see in the picture below is it... there is no more stone beneath those walls - only clay and small rocks.

Suffice to say that, once I discovered that, all work on the digging stopped.

You can see in the photo below, towards the barrow, a dark line on the wall. That's the sub-foundation clay on show. It was quickly covered back up to keep it from drying out, and what you can't really see in these photos is that the digging-out from that point comes outwards at 45-degrees, so structurally we're still dissipating the weight of the house OK.

However, this does put any plan of having a floor which is level with the bottom of the door (far right of the pic above) out of the question. We're going back to the drawing board with the extension and re-planning the internals with a step up at some point.