Diary of the house build - the beginning
At the time we started looking for houses in Shropshire we had never envisaged going down the self-build route, but in April 2000 we saw a one-acre site which most people looking at would have thought we were mad to consider. Despite obvious problems with the site (it was too difficult to walk over most of it for a start), we fell in love with the brook running along the back boundary and hoped something could be made of the land - we also loved the village and the location. It took seven months to buy the land but once it was ours we were eventually able to place a contract with Border Oak, a local firm who specialise in properties made in the style of early half-timbered houses, but using modern techniques. We thought the houses were very much in keeping with the many ancient buildings in nearby Ludlow.
Little did we know that it would be two years from that first sight of the plot before we were able to move in. There were several hard lessons to be learned along the way: everyone goes over budget; everything takes longer than you expect - and if you’re looking for a sub-contractor and find one who is available at short notice, that isn’t necessarily a good sign! We also discovered that self-build isn’t easy - anyone who says they haven’t had problems is being economical with the truth.
Because the land had formerly been used for brickyard spoil, our first task was to get some test drilling done; this confirmed that the foundations would need to be piled, which started on 9th April 2001.
Border Oak had started making the frame in their workshop, which we were able to photograph before it was delivered to site. Meanwhile, back at the plot, we had to move the location of the garage at the last moment because of the unexpected appearance of the water main in the wrong place - luckily we had a very understanding planning officer. However, you solve one problem and gain another; we now had to reduce the level where the new garage was to be and build it up at the opposite end of the house. The money was starting to flow out. There seemed an awful lot of earth to shift, and we were beginning to acquire what looked suspiciously like a large slag heap, but in between our hedge planting, we sat on our favourite log in the sunshine with coffee and hot cross buns and thought that life wasn’t all bad.
By tne end of May, the foundations were all complete and the beam and block floor was in. Then four courses of bricks were laid up to floor level with the damp proof course incorporated after the first course. It was exciting to see that our chosen bricks looked even better than we had hoped. The blazing sun must have been hell to work in but at least we had firm ground to walk on. The weather was so good that we started to entertain thoughts of living on site in a wigwam.
There was a day of great joy on 12th June when the oak beams arrived, together with the infill panels which are pink in their raw state but are eventually plastered over. Work started on erecting the frame immediately, and as the frame went up we could already see the proportions of the rooms although as yet of course there were no walls! Once the frame was up the infill panels could go in to give the real feeling of a house.
By 2nd July, the bricklayers were back on site doing the section of the house where we were having brick construction on the ground floor with a timbered construction above - the sitting room wing had a full timbered construction. We thought their workmanship was superb; it made such a difference when we had seen brickwork by other builders which wasn’t even laid straight and with careless mortar stains all over.
There was a bit of a delay in the latter part of July with no-one on site for a week or so, but we were hard at work planning all the electrics and plumbing locations. We had to decide on the location of every light switch and socket - not easy when you can’t walk through the upstairs, but we did a mental walk-through of how we would use the house. With the ground floor brickwork finished, the oak timbers then went into place for what would eventually be our bedroom and “minstrel’s gallery”. The piles of oak around the site were gradually diminishing as the oak frame neared completion.
Once the frame was complete and the infill panels were all in place, the weatherproofing went on the outside of the panels. At the same time, the chimney was being built, incorporating one of the soil pipes in the cavity. The chimney made the house look much more finished. Now that the outside shell was in place, the upstairs floor joists could be started at the beginning of September; the roof carpentry would follow as soon as the chimney was complete.
By mid-September, the bricklayers had started on the blockwork for the study and utility section - this was the “cheap” end, and would be built of blocks with featherboarding on the outside. We liked the balanced look that would give, and it fitted in with the traditional look of many old houses of this type.
The roof structure was begun on 17th September with shaped fascia boards above the dormers, followed by the trusses - the shape of the finished house was beginning to appear. By the end of September the main roof carpentry was all complete and the roofers could start work, using reclaimed clay tiles which would not look too modern.
Since we had a stream running along our back boundary, we had decided it would be environmentally sensible to run our storm water drainage into it; large quantities of pea shingle and scalpings were now delivered around the plot and lengths of the biggest (9”) pipe were bedded into the pea shingle at the far end of the trench, nearest the stream. The pipes looked a bit like vacuum cleaner hose, with a ridged outside but smooth inside, and the size gradually increased from the house down to the largest ones near the stream.
The roof started with a weatherproof membrane being laid on the trusses, with battens initially at 12” intervals, filled in subsequently with more battens at 4” intervals. Because the tiles were all different colours, the roofers were careful to mix them all over to avoid having large patches the same. Once all the tiles were in place, the edge tiles were all cemented in. At this point, we were amused to get our first letter to “The Occupier”asking why we didn’t have a TV licence for the property …
By mid October, work was under way on the fireplace, which was to have a lovely shaped oak bressummer. The garage was separately being built - also with an oak timber frame construction, albeit a simpler one. The weather was so good that I was able to write my daily diary (an essential part of self build) sitting down in the dingle by our brook; it was absolutely magic with nothing but the sound of the brook, a gentle wind in the trees and an occasional twig falling; I could believe there was no-one else within miles.
With the roof complete, the carpenters fitted the ceiling boards. Fermacell was used where there were exposed oak floor joists (as above the sitting room), because it was strong enough to walk on; everywhere else they put non load-bearing plasterboard under the joists. We busied ourselves trying to keep the site reasonably clear, shifting away loads of broken roof tiles and so on to fill holes in the mud.
By the end of October, the weatherproofing was complete on the outside wall panels, and they were covered with a white material which would be the key for the plasterwork. Meanwhile we had now chosen all our kitchen units, sanitary ware, tiles for the bathrooms and so on. There was a lot to think about all of a sudden. At this stage also the electricians and plumbers moved in to do their preparatory work - all the pipes and cables had to be laid in position before the underfloor heating and upstairs floors could be installed. Meanwhile, we had been playing kitchen designers and had produced our draft kitchen layout which we pinned up for their use. Another job off the list!
On 29th October we were thrilled when the oak windows arrived, which were loaded into the workshop, covered with a tarpaulin for protection. The plaster and sand for the outside rendering was also delivered - two different sand colours, for the base coat (the scratch coat) and the top coat.
Once the plumbers and electricians had finished the first stage, the carpenters were back on site to lay the insulation and bearers ready for the underfloor heating. Upstairs an Isowool acoustic and thermal insulation material (which looked a bit like fleece) was used, but downstairs they laid a rigid white foam insulation board on top of a radon membrane. At this point they discovered that the soil pipe came down from upstairs and met the blockwork floor but had no exit - could be difficult.
On 6th November, the installers of the Rehau underfloor heating system arrived and started work fitting metal heat-conducting plates into the first floor space, laying the pipes and fitting the two manifolds which would control the heating. The windows were also being installed at this time - unglazed as yet, of course, but the rooms looked so much more finished with them in place. It was bitterly cold and we didn’t envy the workmen. By the end of the week, the heating was complete and was washed through and filled with water under pressure, which was then supposed to remain in there. (Yes, someone later let it out!) The installers would not be back until it was time to commission the system. Once the underfloor heating was finished, the ground floor was screeded - this was done as soon as possible to protect the pipes.
20th November - a year since we exchanged contracts on the land. We spent a few hours cutting back brambles to get some rabbit-proof fencing in, while the remaining windows were being installed. The next day, the scaffolding started to come down at last, and the house was revealed more or less as it would finally look. Out came the camera! We had decided on flagstones throughout the ground floor except for the sitting room, where we had opted for oak floor boards, and the flagstones were installed the following week. They were then sealed before being pointed.
The northern end of the house was to be of block construction, with featherboarding applied to the outside. The carpenters put battens up ready to receive this, complete with frame for the built-in cat flap. With the featherboarding done, they then turned their attention to the chipboard floor upstairs. The battens could then go in for the stud walling upstairs and for the downstairs cloakroom (wherever there was no oak frame construction). These were all done by mid-December - one skin was left open for access for the electricians. We put a little Christmas tree in the fireplace, just for fun. No doubt the resident wildlife enjoyed it.
In mid-December the glazing of the windows was also started, and was done in batches. They were all in bar the French doors by Christmas. The house was beginning to feel just a tad less arctic. However, the new year started in freezing conditions with water dripping everywhere. Someone had mistakenly turned on the outlet valve on the upstairs manifold while it was frozen, which had then thawed and - guess what.
The plasterers began the inside in mid-January 2002. We had opted for an uneven plaster (we called it lumpy plaster) on the panels between the oak beams, with a conventional finish on the block or stud walls and the ceilings. By the end of January, all the inside plastering was finished, and the carpenters had also been busy fitting the guttering and downpipes.
It was quite a moment in early February when the front door went on. We thought it looked lovely. It was good to get the key to the door - mind you, there was as yet no back door, nor any glazing in the French doors, but it was the principle which mattered. By mid-February the electricity meter box was in (although no supply yet) and work had started on installing the internal doors. Now it really had the feel of a house. Having carefully worked out our final kitchen plans on the PC, we now marked out all the kitchen units in chalk on the walls to make sure it all worked.
At last work could begin on connecting the outside services, starting with the water pipe into the house. Some of the finishing off was also underway, with the oak beams being cleaned on the outside of the house, then treated with Fiddes dark teak oil. This really sharpened them up. Inside, the structure was first cleaned with dilute oxalic acid, then eventually Fiddes Supreme Wax Polish in Rugger Brown was applied and then buffed up. This latter stage couldn’t be completed until the plaster had dried out sufficiently, by early March.
By the end of February the main part of the staircase was in and those of us with an aversion to ladders (who, me?) were able to go upstairs and prowl around. It was a strange and wonderful feeling. Mind you, without the balustrade it was a question of cringing along the landing and hugging the wall.
Since the glazing was now all complete, including the French windows, the house felt marginally less freezing; we were able to start on the decorating, although with snow on the ground outside it wasn’t exactly cosy.
Things were moving pretty rapidly now; the oil tank, boiler and hot water cylinder were all in by the end of February, as were some of the electrical fittings (switches, sockets, lights, phone sockets etc). Although we had planned FM radio sockets, we were amused to see (since we don’t have a television at all) that a socket had also been installed for satellite TV. The internal doors and architraves and skirting boards were also complete.
Meanwhile, things were not progressing so well outside. The first unpleasant surprise was to find that our existing water connection was in fact probably a feed off the nearby reed bed supply; since we had decided on a moving date of 15th April (a year and a week since the start of the build). this was not good news. We arranged for a water inspector to call and kept our fingers crossed. The fitting of our kitchen units had also now been put back to just a week before our projected move - things were getting tight.
We were also told that we would need about 100 tons of stone for the drainage and for bringing up the level round the outside of the house where the land fell away; we were quoted at least £9 a ton, so were looking at £1,000 worth of stone before we started; however, there was nothing we could do about that - we were just so pleased to see that all the final drainage and sewage work was under way.
The water inspector came as promised on 5th March and confirmed that our water was in fact not ours (as we’d been told a year before), but coming off the next door works supply. He recognised the urgency of the problem and would send someone up as a priority to find the location of the water main in the road (they weren’t sure where it was...). We desperately needed to know where the water main was before the sewage pipe was put in to avoid the possibility of going through it.
By the first week of March, all the light fittings were in and working. Mind you, we had to rush from room to room with our one light bulb to test them. Off to the shops for 50 candle light bulbs for the wall lights. When we got back, we went round the house putting all the bulbs in, turned all the lights on and stood outside to look at it. Very satisfactory.
On 13th March the central heating was finally commissioned and turned on. There was a noticeable warmth in the house, which was lovely, but all the windows immediately started dripping with moisture. At least the warmth meant that the plaster would dry more quickly. The second fix joinery work - putting shelves in the airing cupboard, bolts on some of the doors and so on - was also completed during this week. Now that the plaster had dried sufficiently, the oak beams could have their final wax treatment and the stairs were also done. We had opted for oak stairs, and were thrilled at how they looked.
Well, we now had hot water in the house, which was necessary for washing the flagstones (very dusty from the plastering), but as yet still no mains drainage - so it was a bucket and chuck-it job every time we ran a tap. We had news that our water connection would be made on 27th March, which was good; we hoped that the sewage connection could be done very rapidly afterwards, although the delay had held everyone up.
The oak floor was delivered on Monday 25th March and was stacked in the hall to acclimatise to the heating; it was due to be laid the following week. Three weeks to moving in.
Wednesday 27th March was supposed to be the day of the water connection, at last. Two men duly arrived armed only with a spade, and were very surprised to find they’d need a mini-digger. After a phone call this materialised and they dug a big hole - but failed to find the water main. Much scratching of heads. They then had to get permission to dig another hole (no comment), and an Inspector eventually arrived with a metal detector (useful for a plastic pipe), failed to locate the main and then went off leaving them to dig the second hole. They eventually found what might be the sewer in the road (which was very useful) but no water pipe. Since it took three days to find the water main next door, we should not have been surprised. Unfortunately it was all holding up our sewer connection, which had been scheduled for this week.
Then the man arrived to read our non-existent water meter …
We were told that an inspector would come out on the following Tuesday to locate the main with some special equipment, and then time “had been allocated” to make the connection that week. However, no-one had appeared by the Friday, when we were then informed that a supervisor and inspector would definitely be out that day or the Monday to locate the main and that the work would be done as the highest priority. We now had only a week scheduled before our main furniture was being moved in, and the time which had been allocated by our digger driver to do the sewage connection had now gone, and he was fully tied up the following week. Luckily the portaloo was still in place as an emergency!
For security purposes, Sally started to sleep at the house from the Saturday night. It was a very spooky experience, with no carpets, no furniture, and the windows banging throughout the night because of having no catches on them while being decorated. There are always strange noises in a strange house - was that the boiler, the wind, the beams cracking or a car outside? Up at 6.15 for the trip out to the portaloo - reminiscences of camping holidays. The kitchen was fitted and the oak floor in the sitting room was laid over the weekend, but the timing was looking a bit tight. However, it was great to have a kitchen sink (even if we couldn’t yet pull the plug).
Monday 8th April - a year since the start of the build. The water inspector and a supervisor, complete with “special” equipment, turned up. They were very helpful, but still could not locate the pipe because it was so deep (they thought possibly 3m deep). They said they would bring in a 7-ton digger from Telford the next day. The upstairs carpeting was all laid in a day and made a huge difference to the feel of the house. There was to be no carpet downstairs - an oak floor in the sitting room, and the remainder with flagstone floors.
Finally about midday on the Tuesday the water main was located, about 2-3m deep. Now we just had to wait for our drains to be connected to the sewer. Meanwhile, we exhausted ourselves moving some of the smaller items into the house using our trailer, and on the Friday, our heavy furniture was moved in. This was the day also that the Go-Store and portaloo were taken away. It was lovely to see them go at last; fortunately a friendly builder lent us the keys to his garage with emergency facilities. Luckily we were still able to shower in our rented bungalow.
On the Sunday we moved the cats in - at long last. The poor things looked quite bewildered surrounded by boxes and very busy people but at least they would see more of us than they had in the last few months.
Monday 15th April - our final moving in day. We were delighted to see our digger driver Dave Davies arrive to start the sewage connection. His pick-up was closely followed by his digger, a tractor with a trailer full of some kind of stone, and a lorry load of traffic cones, traffic lights etc. Within a very short time the road had been coned off and work had started; they thought the sewer would be 1.7m deep at the spot they had picked for the correct angle to join the sewer. It turned out to be 1.8m deep, so their measurements were fairly accurate. Now that it could be started, the work could be done and was all approved very speedily. By the Wednesday we could have a bath at last!
And this, of course, is where I finally ran out of steam to write my diary from which these notes are taken - but we were in, and connected to the mains drainage, so it seems quite an appropriate moment. Our first overnight visitors arrived on Friday 19th, by which time by a huge effort we had the hall more or less cleared of furniture and boxes and felt that at last we could relax and do the remaining work (in the house and on the land) at a slower pace (although it hasn't always felt like it).
We hope that the story of our house build is interesting to those embarking on the same kind of project. If you want to ask us anything, please feel free to contact us.