Winter to late Spring 2007

My sincere apologies for the delay in updating the site. As the main contractor's work finished mine started and I have spent the last 4 months fitting insulation, plumbing and electrics; fire fighting, negotiating, phoning, following up, chasing and generally chasing my own proverbial tail.

We were made homeless in January as the house we were renting in Castletown was sold so the emphasis swiftly changed. We moved in to Thurso with my parents but made a very conscious decision to spend as much time as humanly possible on site and to try to get occupancy at the earliest possible date. Simon came to the rescue and helped to move the contents of the Castletown house to site with the aid of Ian's van. Things were pretty tight especially after we took the other furniture out of store and squeezed it all into bedroom 4. Simon must like Caithness as he came back again in April to help for another 2 weeks clearing large areas and putting up insulation - very much appreciated.

It is now well after Easter 2007 (7th May) and because we only have a joiner for about 6 hours on alternate weekends things go very slowly but they do go forward without me having to spend loads of time doing remedial work. You may remember my old friend Hector - he works very like I do and has helped me enormously over the last couple of months.

Plan A was to have moved into our caravan by now but, once again, the BBC weather forecast turned out to be a joke. On a day with a forecast of 25mph winds the caravan was blown over 270 degrees and one of its legs went through the portacabin window, The nearest weather station that I am aware of was recording 75mph sustained wind with 95 to100mph gusts.

It was clear that it wasn't going anywhere as a caravan again but I thought I could make a decent trailer out of the chassis so the builders righted it and just over a week later we had another breeze and this time the whole thing blew 30m to the East and most of it ended up as matchsticks.

I digress.

One of the significant problems during the wet parts of the build was just how waterlogged the ground became. Did I tell you the story of how we had Simon, Hector and Dad all stuck in the mud within half an hour and how we towed Simon's wellies out using the truck? On a wet day the field next door becomes a river but thanks to our new improved multiple field drains the site is markedly improved.

The main story is that we have insulated the central part of the house, installed mains water and electricity and a functional toilet. So far only the first part of the drainage has been inspected by Building Control but we hope to be applying for temporary occupancy of the central section within a couple of weeks. Basically it's getting quite comfortable and we have been known to fall asleep in the stressless chairs after our evening meal more than once!

The Utility or Temporary Kitchen (it now has fridge, freezer, washing machine and dish washer, 2 gas rings and 2 electric).

The Plant Room - note the central vacuum system; the space to its right is for the heat recovery ventilation and the water tank will be replaced with a 300l high pressure version so I can have a bath!

The partially tiled wet room 4 looks like this

The kitchen furniture arrived (that's where the dishwasher came from) but, as it will be perhaps 4 or 5 months before the kitchen has a floor it's all in the living room.

The garage is a store and workshop

As an exercise in insulation things are going almost to plan. The original insulation was to be polyurethane above and below the 45 degree rafters. I wasn't happy with the U value and I was distinctly worried about the structural integrity given Caithnesian wind speeds. My back of a fag packet calculation suggested that, as the outer sheet of polyurethane was only supported by the rafters over 8% of its width, the wind load on the slate roof was effectively multiplied by a factor of 12 and sufficient to compress the outer inulation by several mm. Over some years I suspect that the whole lot would have become loose. When I opted for a better U value and a traditional Scottish roof with the insulation split, part horizontal at ceiling level and part below and between the rafters, things became difficult and, yet again, I discovered that product tech support could only quote from what their computers were telling them with no real understanding.

It took several months but I was eventually told of a small (but perfectly formed) heat loss programme from the organisation that is the UK standard bearer and, having bought it, I was very lucky to obtain another programme to do condensation risk analysis. It appears that my scheme for a 'cool' roof has less condensation risk than the 'above & below' version and has a U value of 0.09 rather than the 1.4 that it had. We are getting there at last. At the moment we have 50mm of Polyiso at ceiling level (total roof U value 0.36) and, over the next few weeks, I will be adding 200mm of not quite the best fibreglass to give a roof U value of 0.13. The bit in the loft space between and below the rafters will have to wait till later in the year but, even now, we have only required heating twice in the last month, on days when the outside doors were open for several hours and then only 800W for half an hour or so in Janet's workroom. The inside temperature is pretty stable at 19 to 20 degrees even when the outside is 4 or 5 degrees with only the computer and 2 humanoids for energy input.

Another 'several month' story relates to electrical wiring passing through insulation. I was aware 30 years ago that PVC insulation lost its plasticiser to expanded polystyrene if it came into contact. Our bricks are expanded polystyrene so I was acutley conscious that cables should be protected in conduit where they run through polystyrene but, we are also using polyurethane/polyiso insulation and I questioned many knowledgeable people (including the product tech support - surprise, surprise) over several months and never found out whether the same migration of the plasticiser occurs on the PVC/Polyurethane interface. I spoke to the CEO of a body which produces standards for UK electrical cables and he didn't know and I fed a query to the IET (was IEE - of which I am a member); they came up with 'don't know' responses but thanks to Ken for his efforts. I also put a query on a UK 'electrical experts' site. It has never been responded to. The nearest I got was a referral to a BRE publication which said words to the effect of 'if you are puting cable through insulation it should be in conduit' - absolutely no justification. If the experts don't know, who does and what happens when building control don't know either. Not a lot of good when I'm trying to lay cables.

We are still getting over 5l of water per day, most of which must be coming from the building materials, from the dehumidifiers which run overnight on off peak. Unfortunately under certain wind/weather conditions some lintels are leaking. How's this for one night's worth through an 850mm lintel. There was a little more on the floor but I think a sizeable tub full is pretty impressive. The new tub is bigger still (approx 10 gallons/50l) and tonight it might start filling as it's raining with a strong westerly.

Speaking of off-peak; when we had our first real meter reading I discovered that we were using mainly peak rate electricity. You try telling your electricity supplier that the time clock takes 25.5 hours to do 1 revolution. That means that if off peak is midnight till 8am tonight it will be 1.30am to 9.30am tomorrow night with the result that, after 5 days, all our timed appliances are running on peak instead of off-peak and wouldn't revert fully to off-peak for a further 11 days. I delegeated that report/complaint to Janet who did eventually manage to persuade them to regard it as a fault.

Humidity measurement is a nightmare as well. I now have 5 different devices (from £15 to £150) which measure relative humidity and the worst case error is quoted as 3% so why is it that if I put them all together on the table they measure anything from 50 to 68%?

We have had 8 tiles and one ridge tile down in the breeze that shifted the caravan 30m but that's not unusual for a new roof and they were fixed within a week.

Here are a few of the things that have kept me busy since the January update.

This is the drain in wet room 4. Suffice to say that it should all be below floor level but normally the drain is at the lowest point. This one wasn't! I have had to resurface the floor to resolve that one. I also had to cut the tan pipe 200mm below floor level and graft in most of that white bit using mastic. Not a nice job but it looks as if it's all OK.

This is the control unit for the biodisc - and this is how I first saw it - after the builder had gone...... This is the same biodisc that lost its lid twice in the breezes and now sports 2 breeze blocks until I can find something a bit more professional. The accompanying inspection chamber cover has also blown off. This story could run & run!

Last week my windmill/wind turbine arrived having been driven up from deepest Englandshire by Russell in one day. It was only after he had gone for a meal in Thurso that I discovered that it had a tail when it shouldn't have. The big bolt on the left is for the tail. At Murkle the blades would need to be turned to 90 degrees from the wind direction in a decent gale but unfortunately the tail system won't allow that so I need to have a motorised version to force it to 90 degrees. It appears that the Chinese have had production problems but, with luck, mine might be in the next shipment.

Meanwhile the only tail-less one around is

Yesterday our top-soil was delivered and today Brian came back with the big digger to distribute it. With luck I will be able to sow the wild flower meadow as soon as the gales and rain abate. I apporve of wild flower meadows. Basically use a mix of grass and flower seed and you can let it become a jungle as long as you mow a path through it. That makes it a meadow. If it's good enough for The National Trust it's good enough for me.

Meanwhile the house looks a bit like this except for the piles of top-soil and the big digger and the rain and the gale - and the hard-core drive is a bit more chewed up but that's another gripe. Higher-res version on the first page.

and, a moody Northerly view

The stickie up bit on the left of the distant headland is the "Old Man of Hoy". Actually I'm cheating and that snow doesn't exist these Spring days. Try this one instead.

I know there's no Old Man of Hoy - that mist/har stayed all day despite a brisk Southerly wind so we never saw the Old Man that day. Just be content with the most Northerly bit of the UK mainland!

To be continued...