Friday, 27 February 2009

Getting back on track

Things are starting to get back on track after the 'wobble' earlier this week.

Our house is now set to arrive on Tuesday 10th March - so it's only to be one week later (better than two!) thanks to Lars sweet talking the lads in the factory in Sweden.

Our new stove is ready to collect and go down to site once the shell is up (see pic).
We'll be using it straight away to help dry out the concrete - so it will be nice and warm in there from the outset. Generally, it is really there for use in winter and a 'back up', for times when we have been away and thus the house may be cooler than usual. The house is 'near passive', which means that most of the space heating comes from heat we create in the house (the fridge, cooker, bathing, breathing!). The heat recovery ventilation system (HRVS) means that this heat stays in the building and is used to freshen the incoming air. Thus, the house is , well insulated, well ventilated and warm. There is also very low energy underfloor heating which gives a very low level heat. It takes a while for the heat to filter through, so the wood burning stove is great if we've been away and want some instant heat. Once lit, the HRVS then spreads the warmth evenly throughout the house - so I'm led to believe. I really am looking forward to the idea of all the rooms being an even temperature (rather than the room with the fire being warm and others very cold).

Also, I believe that our well is being drilled today. Fingers crossed that they hit water early on (and it doesn't have to go to deep...deeper = more expensive). They'll let us know on Monday.
Then we have to set up a pump. There is no mains water or group water scheme on our road, so a private bored well was our only option.
It will be great, as we've been bringing water down to the caravan in 5litre plastic bottles - and it is amazing how many you get through in a day (we usually use at least two) - with washing up, making tea, washing ourselves - and things like making hot water bottles .. and setting up the camping toilet).
Mind you, we'll have to wait until after the shell is up to get the pump fitted - as the team need clear areas of ground to build the roof - and we'll need to build a pump house for the pump, or is it the pressure vessel?(It all gets a bit technical for me). Anyway, we'll still be bringing water in bottles until mid March at the earliest.

My strawberries arrived yesterday and are heeled into three large pots, waiting to go to site in a couple of weeks.Think I'll try them in the polytunnel. I'm tempted to do them in guttering or on suspended shelves, to keep them away from pests. We did some here in beds last year and they got quite badly nibbled. I blame the straw mulch - it was a haven for slugs.

Haven't got round to sowing any seeds yet - but did get some rootrainers to ready myself.

I'm still deciding on the polytunnel. Will check the size on the plot next week and then go for it.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Arrgh! The best laid plans ...

(Looks like Sally might be waiting a while before she gets to be meeter and greeter for the erection crew!)

Yesl, so much for 'one week to go' nerves.

I happened to ring Scanhome to check something - asking if the team needed running water next week - when I heard a pause, then a "next week?"

Long story short - our date has been changed .. and I hadn't been told. Lucky I rang or I could have been sitting in the caravan with relations and friends next Tuesday wondering why the lorry wasn't there!

I was then told we'd been moved to the 17th March. Fair enough you say - unless you live in Ireland - when you know it's St Patrick's Day and NO work gets done on that day.

So, after I pinched myself enough to be sure it wasn't just a bad dream, I rang back, 'cos, as I suspected Scandinavian Lars hadn't twigged of the importance of March 17th. He hadn't.

So, as it stands I don't actually know when we get our house.

If only I drank alcohol- it would be time to sink a large one. (Never mind - Sam can have one for us both).

Well, I suppose it would be silly to have thought we'd get away without any hitches on this build.

So now our timings for studding out, roofing etc are all out of whack. Oh dear.

Lets hope that tomorrow things look a bit more promising.

We'll still go down to site next week as the groundworks team are back digging some ditches - but it will be very strange - after having the 3rd of March in my head as THE DAY for nearly 5 months now.

Think I'll go sort organise my seeds (in order of when to sow) to cheer myself up.

One week to go / polytunnel planning

To say that I'm counting down the days until our house arrives (I still can't get used to the fact that it just turns up on a lorry one day) is a massive understatement. I have been counting down for quite a while - and getting very excited at the 'two months to go', 'one month to go', 'two weeks to go' phases.
So, this is the final countdown, the final week of waiting. I'm trying my best at distraction tactics, as somehow I'm getting nervous rather than excited - even though it seems that we'll have friends and relations there to witness the great event (it is the thought of seeing walls flying through the air that really causes a stir - hopefully it will all be very controlled and serene!)

Anyway, we had a great time visiting the Sally Gardens Smallholding near us last week and it was a great help to my polytunnel quest to get to see theirs. Many thanks to Rebecca and Dan for answering my near endless questions (and subtly getting me hooked on the idea of ducks .. well their ducks managed that all by themselves - cute, big eggs and great slug eaters).

I've been trying to plan what to grow in our tunnel and then trying to work out the size. The bigger the better seems the golden rule - and we do have a lot of space, so it is very tempting to go mad - especially with the poor summers we've had lately. I'd originally thought of 4x8 m (25x14ft?) but I'm now getting tempted towards 6x12m (nearer 21x40ft?). We're not on site, so it is hard to make the decision without marking it on the ground - but I really would like to get an order in this week - so we can put it up in early March (just after the house goes up) and thus make use of it asap.
Funny enough nerves are setting in even about the tunnel - size, cost, ventilation etc. Silly me. I've already convinced some friends to help put it up, so really all should go well.

Here, there is some progress on the fruit and veg (despite not sowing yet).

The garlics in pots are putting on some growth (we'll plant them out later as they are too close together to stay in the pots).
Our bare root raspberries (autumn bliss) have arrived and have been heeled into a large pot - to take down to site.
and we bought some summer ones in a garden centre to give us a longer season

We now have a small Blueberry (Sunshine Blue), which will go in a pot - probably on the veranda (once we have one).
.. and we have a goji plant! I love the berries so much I think I'd need an acre of them to be self sufficient, but it's a good start.

There are some strawberries on the way - Sophie, Alice and Honeoye to give a long season.

We also have some potatoes chitting away
Despite my plans of waiting to sow until MarchI'm getting very tempted to get the leeks and broad beans started this week - even though it will mean transporting them as frgaile seedlings. We shall see.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Other people's gardens

Over the past two days I've had the pleasure of 'playing about' in other peoples gardens. I've been doing some garden design, planting and maintenance - mainly for friends - for the past year now and I adore it. So, although I don't currenly have my own garden, I now have several gardens to play in and keep tabs on. It's nice to have gone a whole year in some of them now, seeing the whole cycle through (especially with those that were neglected or overgrown at first and now are full of pleasant surprises).

It all started when I got Sam to make a planter for a friend's birthday and then I bought her some plants to go in it - her balcony was so bare before and I knew that some plant life would cheer it up a bit. (She already had the small conifer and I couldn't be so mean as to chuck it .. so it stayed).

Actually, we've done a few planters for those with limited space. I've yet to convince people to grow veg in them - but I'm working on it!. Mind you there is some sage in this one below, which is a good start.

Isn't it nicer to have this than an empty space ? I think so anyway.

Gardening for others has been a pretty good substitute for having a garden of my own and whenever I go and 'play' in them the buzz is as good (and buying plants with other people's money is just as good as it was buying them for myself). I guess I've been lucky that I've been given pretty much free reign. It is just so exciting to see a the potential in an empty (or overgrown) space and then bring it to life.
So, I have my fix of garden pottering and planting for this week. When the sun came out yesterday I don't think there was anywhere in the world I'd rater have been than in a garden.
Maybe perhaps being in MY garden - but that doesn't exist yet (that part really is still a field right now).
I have two almost conflicting desires for MY garden. One the one hand I'm looking forward to creating it slowly, taking account of the seasons, the sun, wind and views .. and letting it gently evolve. However, I am also really quite desperate to get planting (could you have guessed that from previous posts?). It's the veg I'm desperate to get going with. I'm quite surprised at the depth of my excitement for 'growing my own'. I know there is the desire for control (to know that my food is of good quality and well cared for) and of choice (there are so many more varieties to choose from when you grow your own - and better organic choice) but the best buzz, for me, is watching things grow, watching life spring forth from a tiny seed and then grow into a fine plant, then a fine crop and also more seed. It is a childlike wonder, almost an awe. I'm aware of the risks of potential disappointment - but it's worth it when it's time to pick the first tomato or garlic or rocket leaf.
Soon it will become REAL and shift out of this planning stage. I'm not scared of hard work and I'm really looking forward to doing it, yet I have moments of wanting to hold onto the dream stage where everything feels so simple and pure. I feel it shift already, as I wonder where I'll get enough manure, or just how tricky my clay soil will be to work, or how much compost it will take to fill for potato tyres, or if it is crazy trying to grow quinoa in Leitrim.
I'm also very curious about how I'll marry my desires for productivity and beauty. I know that I want both and I'm sure that I'll do mixed planting and have some flowers in with the veg (and some veg in flower borders when/if I get round to it). Of course, vegetable plants are beautiful in their own right (wasn't it the climbing bean that was originally used as an ornamnetal because of those striking scarlet flowers?). Also, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so if straight rows float your boat - then it's beautiful.
Hmm, so the question really is 'What is beautiful to me?'

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Planning the house .. with Sam's model

I can't remember how long we've been planning the house for now. To be honest in the past month we've been too busy sorting out the groundworks and foundations to remember that we'll actually have a HOUSE at the end of all this.

I can hardly remember what it's like to have a house of our own, it seems a world away, even though it's only two years since we left England (it will be two years on the 7th of March to be precise, by which time we should have our shell up - a nice synchronicity).

It's not like I've been planning a self build for years either. In fact, I remember some years ago thinking that I'd never want the responsibility of it. Yet, somehow, here we are.

At first, we were going to buy a house over here, with a bit of land. We weren't scared of a renovation project either. Yet, as we looked, it didn't seem to add up for us - with Sam being so tall that he'd be forever stooping under low doorways (he hits his head enough on the doorways here in my aunts house), worries of finding the house has no foundations when it comes to extending / renovating, not having much scope for extending etc.

That, combined with my growing passion for 'eco-building' and low energy living and a desire to get exactly what we wanted in terms of living space, was enough to tempt us down the route of the self build.

I had great fun researcing different build options including straw bale, cob and earthships. I still remember my visions of friends coming over to help stack bales or lime render walls etc. In the end we went for timber. We'd looked at Scanhome for years and visited several times before making up our minds. I'll confess that partially I was daunted by the idea of trying to get an unconventional build through planning and having to organise work parties, but I also felt that the timber house worked well for our needs (all those instruments and studio equipment need space!). I noticed that a lot of cob and straw bale houses work really well when they are quite small. That is great in terms of low energy footprint, but just didn't suit us so well.

The Scanhome is low energy (not fully passive as we have one woodburning stove, but very highly insulated and with a heat recovery ventilations system ... I just wish they had a 'passive stack ventilation' option that wouldn't have needed constant power, mind you the power consumption of the unit is very low .. but it is still a constant drain of energy). I like the simplicity of it, the design, the natural materials used throughout .. and the fact that we can take over once the shell is up. Turns out that we'll be rendering the outside to keep the planners happy, rather than having a wooden finish (when the shell comes the outside is cladded with a special board that we render onto). The photo shows one once the shell is up and it is ready for rendering (plastering to be precise .. what exactly is the difference anyway I wonder?)

Sam has made a model of the house, which is great and reminds me that it IS real.

He even has cut outs of us and Sally the dog (I keep forgetting that he is so much taller than me!)

Having a 3D reference is wonderful for decision making, such as where to put the wood burner so as to avoid being too near the veluxes and too far from the ridge (I'd wanted it near the edge of the house but there it would have needed external support - too messy and ugly). The biro is ably representing the stove flue.

Here is the downstairs layout. I love the way I can hold it up to the light and mimic the direction where the sunlight will shine in - we are standing in the front of the south face, so that side will get most of the sunlight during the day)

Here's a rough version of the upstairs layout - still a work in progress. We're trying to decide how to best integrate the chimney flue, as it sticks out into the landing / library area and Sam thinks it will look odd. I did suggest that we cover it in chicken wire and turn it into a great big papier mache tree, with branches going to the ceiling - but he has yet to be convinced!

Friday, 13 February 2009

Seedlings are in the wars whilst I dream of polytunnels

You know those tomato and basil plants I had started on the windowsill?

Well, when we got back from 'supervising' the foundation work we discovered that they had been cat attacked (I had taken them out of the propagator as it is warm enough inside and they were getting a tad leggy). I guess it was inevitable.

Anyway, the tomatoes had been completely trashed, but some of the basil plants were ok.

It isn't a big deal as I'd started the tomatoes too early ( they'd started to germinate when I left them to ferment too long when collecting them).

Not to be defeated, I hastily came up with a new, hopefully cat proof, enclosure. It is an old rodent cage, so should keep the cats out and keep the seedlings safe.

I have also added a very crude 'lightbox' ( to reduce spindly growth caused by the plants continually leaning towards the light from the window) by putting white polystyrene on three sides. This should reflect more light back to the plants. Silver foil may work better - I might try an experiment with one propagator lined with sliver foil and the other with white card to see which gives best results.

Anyway, at least the basil is safe for now. I'm still rotating it every couple of days to stop the plants leaning out too much - so maybe the white polystyrene isn't that great.

I'm not going to sow too much else here, as I don't want to clutter up my aunt's house and I don't want to leave germinating seeds unattended while we are away at site.

So, most of the sowing will be done in March and April on site. I'm not in a mad rush to sow early anyway, as later sowings can usually catch up with earlier ones, so it doesn't make a big difference to me not to be sowing right away.

Anyway, I still have to prepare my soil. Mind you, I'll be growing a lot in containers this year - and in the Polytunnel. The tunnel is still being researched right now, but I'm hoping to get it in March as we have friends over to help with putting it up - and then I can get to work in it straight away. I still have to prep the soil that will be underneath it though .. and figure out what size of tunnel I want!

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Now we have real foundations.

What a week we've had on site. The team from Scanhome came to do the foundations - and they did a great job. The weather has been pretty cold, but at least the sun shone at times (sometimes for most of the day), which made the place look lovely and gave us a sunny disposition despite some snow flurries.

Somehow, this part really helps it feel real to us and reminds us of the route we are choosing to build - low energy / near passive. It was great to see the whole thing go together and the detailing and care that went into it.

Without getting too technical, the foundation is extremely well insulated by two layers of polystyrene board, then comes the radon barrier (the red plastic), steels to strengthen the concrete, cables for electric underfloor heating (and other water cables in case we change to solar water underfloor heating in the future). Then the concrete is poured (it has a high content of recycled ash - so may look a little darker than normal - apparently) and smoothed out. If anyone wants more details, just email me.

Here comes the picture tour of the foundations springing into life.

The pad (of levelled stones) is ready for the foundation work to begin

Sally is meeter and greeter

The Corners are marked out

The shuttering is ready to go up
The shuttering goes up (pipes are in underneath it)
The polystyrene
Polystyrene in place
Me in my builders hat
The radon barrier is put on

Steels at the edges for re-enforcement

Radon barrier is down, pipes sealed

All the steel is ready
All prepared for the pour

Heat cables

A frosty start to the day of the pour

The pour begins

The concrete is levelled off a bit

We inspect the good work

More levelling

Whole pad is poured and is being 'fine tuned'

The concrete lorry goes

Here's our shiny new pad (just needs a touch of power floating)

Well that was our big excitement for this month. I never thought that I'd be excited to see some concrete being poured - but it was actually quite a moving experience. The team were lovely and even even dragged a couple of them down to the Folk Club at Farrelley's on Thursday night!

It is touching to think that we'll be able to look back (once we're settled in the house) and remember this process - the changes, the people, the excitement, the nerves.

I was really excited to see the shadows fall on the foundation at different times of day (thank goodness there was a bit of sun) and I can imagine how the sun will come through the windows - this time of your it will stretch really deeply into the rooms.

Anyway, we're back up north for a wee while now. I'm crossing fingers and toes that we'll be able to sort out a few niggles - like the Eircom pole that needs re-locating from the boundary.
(We were told it was an electricity pole .. and so I duly informed the ESB that it needed moving. Try to imagine my face when they came out, looked at the pole, looked at me and informed me that it wasn't their pole!).

We have the artic coming in less than a month and it would be hard for it to get past the pole. Eircom have come out to do a survey (and charged for it too) and I'm keeping my fingers crossed that it won't cost a fortune to move and that they can do it in time. Otherwise we'll have to temporarily widen more on the other side, but it will still be tight. I'll get onto them again next week.