Building an art studio #9 - moving in!

Well, we didn't quite make it in by Christmas, but over the last couple of months I finished the interior boards, Alex primed and painted the walls white, and I fitted guttering (and moved the water collection tank from its old position). Next was to construct a rack for storing paintings: I've done this a few times before and it's pretty simple, although I had to work out a cunning way to avoid tying the rafters and floor together, as the cabin may settle a little over time. We've now started moving paintings from their old home, where they were more at risk from damp and rodents - it seems they've mostly survived living in a shed for the last five years, which is a massive relief:


To store drawings we bought a plan chest from eBay, from a retired architect - it will also make a great table for preparing canvases. I've also built bookshelves from spare roof boards and put up the odd coathook, but apart from some tidying of the outside of the cabin (we want to add a simple deck around it) we're pretty much finished:


The new studio is very light due to the skylights we added, so at present there's little need for artificial light - although we plan to add some solar powered ones at some point. It currently has no source of heat: we have a Calor gas stove which could be used (although condensation may be a problem) or we could add a woodburner, but since it's very well insulated it should be usable without heating for most of the year, given enough jumpers! I have some plans to add a greenhouse on one end, which may open up options for passive solar heating.

It's been around a year now since I started the project - Alex is very happy with her new workspace and looking forward to creating art there. Hope you've enjoyed following the process!

Cheapskate thrills

I'm proud to be a cheapskate. Inspired by my dad (who once had to go outside Hamleys, the famous London toyshop, for fresh air after feeling faint at the thought of people spending so much money) I've always looked for bargains, tried to repair things if they still have some use in them, been happy with second-hand and watched what I spend (apart from a few years after university when I lived on a permanent overdraft - a lesson learned eventually after realising the interest I was paying).

It isn't easy being a cheapskate today. From the rapacious entertainment industry, endless reproducing the same content on slightly different media (what exactly *is* BlueRay?) for us to buy, to the electronics sector pushing out ever shinier must-have gadgets, to invented 'shopping holidays' like Black Friday, there's a lot of pressure to Buy Buy Buy. If Primark can sell you a new T-shirt for £2, what's the point of sewing up the hole in the old one? Just click a couple of buttons and the Internet will provide a replacement for anything you've broken. However I'm lucky in that my wife shares my cheapskate nature, so we watch the cost of everything and break out the sewing kit or the superglue where necessary.

Having children opens up new worlds of potential spending. Our NCT antenatal instructor handed out a list of all the equipment that apparently parents would 'need' before their first kid arrived, but then asked the question 'how much of this do you actually need' - it proved to be a lot less. Luckily young children don't actually care, so you can dress them in hand-me-downs, charity shop finds and gifts from generous friends and relatives and they'll often find more amusement in a stick or conker than the latest toy. Alex is very canny about re-selling old clothes and toys at the sales run by the local preschools, which are also a rich source of replacements. Our two are also very fond of charity shops, proudly clutching the £2 slightly battered cuddly animal or a handful of 50p books as they leave. This year's major Christmas present for both was a Thunderbirds Tracy Island, bought from eBay for £30. From the positive reaction to this, I'm pretty sure we're not ruining their childhood through a lack of generosity. If anything, you can get more toys if you don't mind them not being brand new.

Although I work in IT we're seriously behind the curve in terms of gadgets. There's nothing from The Cult of Jobs in the house (can't stand their lock-in business model, no matter how shiny their toys), we don't own any tablets and we don't play videogames. Much of the television we watch is recorded from Freeview (it's remarkable how many kids' films you can collect by keeping an eye on the schedules - and even more remarkable how expensive it is to buy Disney films on DVD, even the old ones). Our car is elderly, untidy and was bought mainly because it can carry huge loads of children, camping equipment and building materials, and we'll run it until it's uneconomic to repair. Our bicycles are secondhand and look the part, which has the useful side effect of making them less of a target for Cambridge's many bike thieves.

I don't want to imply that we're poor - although we only have a single income, we're much luckier than many, live in a nice part of the country in a house we (mostly) own and live comfortably. If we're careful, we have enough spare cash for the odd foreign holiday, can fund our own projects (such as building Alex a studio), can eat out occasionally, buy rounds of drinks, feed my addiction to the printed word and Alex's pottery collecting. In a world where Austerity is king, perhaps being a cheapskate is the best strategy.

Building an art studio #8 - flooring and insulation

Now the building is watertight I have been working sporadically over the last few months, work and family commitments permitting, to insulate and finish the inside. First was to cut phenolic foil-faced insulation boards to fit between the floor bearers, using special plastic 'Celotex clips' to hold the boards in place. The seams are sealed with foil tape to create a vapour barrier (this is theory stops warm wet air from condensing on the cold wood on the other side of the insulation as damp) and then floorboards are nailed on top:


Next was to insulate the walls. Since the cabin walls are made up of individual logs which may expand and contract, it's not recommended to tie them together with vertical beams, thus the battens that will support the insulation and internal walls are only fixed to the floor and don't go all the way to the top. Note that this gets a bit fiddly around the windows! More insulation goes in between:


Then plywood boards are cut to cover the insulation and nailed on (I've never been so glad I bought a rechargeable circular saw, there's a lot of cutting to do):


Note that I've covered two of the windows to make more wall space for painting: but if Alex changes her mind and needs more light, these can be easily removed as the covering boards are just screwed to the battens. Eventually I'll fit more insulation just below the roof, using some Rockwool between the insulation boards to create an expansion gap. Some more plywood, hanging down from the roof, will overlap the boards on the wall and hold everything together. The overlapping plywood boards will (hopefully) cope with any movement in the cabin walls.
The large pile of flooring, insulation and boards is now gradually reducing - this weekend I should get close to finishing the walls, and we should then be on the home straight, ready for Alex to paint the internal walls and move in before Christmas:


In a field again

I'm standing in a large marquee in a field somewhere in Oxfordshire, chatting to an enormous Brummie punk about the current fashion for burlesque, and whether it is a good or bad thing for professional circus performers. To my left a young mother asks a friend to watch her 3 year old daughter as she picks up three juggling clubs and throws them a few times to warm up, before standing opposite another juggler and beginning to pass them back and forth. There's a hard-fought game of table tennis in one corner and in the next tent four people are playing a complex board game involving hundreds of small cardboard and wood pieces. Outside, there are four jugglers playing a variant of volleyball - volleyclub - and several others are sat down watching, drinking chipped mugs of tea and munching cake. We're all surrounded by an eclectic collection of tents, living vehicles, caravans and shelters, and there's also a large fire ringed by old sofas and chairs made from recycled shipping pallets.

I worked out recently that I've spent nearly a year of my life in fields very similar to these. The pattern is familiar: I arrive, spend most of the first day saying my hellos (and I'll probably spend the same amount of the last day saying goodbyes, if I can stand it), put up my tent and take a large bag of props into the marquee, where it will probably stay all week. This is the only group of people who make me feel completely at home - they're my tribe, my second family even, and provide an anchor against the tides of changing jobs, relationships and homes. It doesn't particularly matter where the field is - outside a water park in Slovenia, a scout camp north of Bristol with a view of the Severn River, behind a sports centre in Doncaster - after a day or so it feels familiar, as at least some of the same people are there. We'll sit round a table and drink, chat, joke, take the mickey, discuss tricks, props and shows, and revel in our shared strangeness. None of us ask each other "how many can you juggle" or "are you a clown" or "could you just come and juggle at my event, I'm sorry I can't pay you, but it would be great publicity I'm sure". An easy generosity is prevalent - sit still for more than half an hour and someone will offer you something to eat or drink, even if you haven't met them before.

We're not all professional jugglers of course - in fact, these are probably in the minority, it being hard to make a decent living as one while balancing family life, keeping our skills up to date and dealing with the 95% of the life that entails travelling, loading, unloading and waiting as opposed to the 5% of fun performing. Some of us are also electricians, or doctors, or postmen, or software engineers. However even those who haven't picked up a prop in years will still come to these events to catch up with old friends and enjoy watching others juggle. There will be shows, of course, featuring whoever has a new (or very old) routine they can perform. Finding people to construct the stage (out of whatever we can find), run the lights and sound, stage manage etc. won't be hard as we've all been involved in running circus shows somehow.

The evening is drawing in and I have a vegetarian curry on order from the cafe, served by a cheerful young chap in a white chef's outfit and a hat made of modelling balloons. Later on I'll listen and sing along tunelessly to a guitar-playing juggler who has driven up from Cornwall while drinking tequila slammers with a Kiwi making a six-month tour of the British juggling scene (this will be followed, inadvisedly, by gin and then rhubarb vodka). I probably won't be in bed before the early hours, and tomorrow is my last day before the end of the event.

I don't want to think about that too much as for the moment, I'm home and it's marvellous.

Building an art studio #7 - fitting the roof covering

I've used tar paper on a few of our sheds and it's not particularly pleasant stuff to work with: it's very heavy and needs to be glued down with some awful black gunk that will ruin whatever gloves you're using and indeed anything else it touches. It doesn't last very long either: less than 4-5 years in some cases, and will tear if the wind gets under it. I thus decided after some research to use an EPDM rubber membrane which although around 50% more expensive should be a lot easier to fit and may last up to 50 years.

The rubber arrives as one single sheet and at 9m x 4.5m was heavy and bulky - despite managing to drag it to the site on a sack trolley singlehanded, it needed three of us to lift it onto the roof. After unfolding it, waiting a while for it to relax (you only need a few hours but it turned out to be a week or two, but stapled down it made a great temporary covering) you have to fold it back on itself and glue it down with a water-based adhesive, rollered onto the roofing boards. We cut it to fit around the skylights first with scissors:


Using a broom it was very easy to brush out any wrinkles and we had the sheet fixed in a few hours. The edges of the sheet are then glued down using a contact adhesive, which has to be painted on. I left a large overlap over the skylights and after cutting a slit to allow the edges to be folded back had to apply an extra patch on top:


The edges of the roof presented a problem: how best to direct water towards the guttering I would eventually fit. Although it's possible to buy all kinds of expensive plastic edging systems, instead I chose to fit a piece of treated 2x1 timber on the gable ends, which lifts the rubber sheet to form a 'kerb':


On the other edges of the roof I wanted the rain to run cleanly off the edge, so I cut a triangular section of treated timber and fitted it underneath the eaves: the rubber was then glued over it:


There were some fiddly bits where the roof meets the skylights


On the gable ends, new treated barge boards were screwed to both the battening mentioned above and the purlins (the large timbers the roof rests on) - this effectively clamps the top edges of the roof to the main building. I had to buy new boards as the ones supplied with the building were too narrow, considering the insulation fitted to the roof:


Alex has now painted all the exposed wood with two coats of Sadolin Classic clear woodstain - so thankfully we're now watertight and can continue with the internal work (flooring and walls). It's looking smart!


Building an art studio #6 - roofing

It seems every time I have something large and heavy delivered it rains all day, and this was certainly the case when the insulation and boards arrived: all had to be shifted by hand down the narrow path and kept dry, which took a day or two. Here's it all stacked up in the cabin:


I'm modifying the structure of the roof supplied with the building slightly so as to add long skylights above each wall: this entailed leaving off some tongue-and-groove sections and cutting others down. Most of the roof will be covered first with 50mm foil-faced insulation boards and then 9mm plywood: to make this easier to fit and to keep the edges tidy I fitted some roof edge boards supplied with the cabin upside down (they're meant to hang down from the edge of the roof):


Then the insulation sheets can be cut to fit (with a sharp knife) and the boards cut to fit on top (with a marvellous new purchase of a rechargeable circular saw). You can see here the purlins, tongue-and-groove roof boards, insulation and plywood, not to mention the black plastic sheets used to cover the roof EVERY HOUR or so during the rainstorms that plagued the day I chose to put the roof on. Very tedious taking them off, doing some roofing, putting them on, sitting and waiting for the rain to stop, rinse and repeat...


The next delivery was a 4m x 2m piece of polycarbonate roofing sheet, which was also a fun thing to carry down the path:


The skylights needed additional support and had to be raised to a similar level to the eventual roof surface, so I fitted extra rafters both to the ends and in the middle, plus some additional framing round the edges:


Polycarbonate roofing comes as part of a 'system', for which you need all kinds of sealing gaskets, metal strips, plastic fittings etc. - and it's taken a while for me to figure out how it all works (with a few mistakes along the way). However one skylight is now temporarily fitted. Next will be to fit the other, finish the insulation and boarding and cover it all with a rubber sheet - I've chosen this as a slightly more pricy alternative to tar paper, as it will last a lot longer and hopefully will be quicker to fit.


Growing a circus and planting it in pastures new

Back in early 2006 I was the Administrator for Cambridge Community Circus, where I also ran most of the Sunday workshops. We were based in a converted church hall in central Cambridge, the Drama Centre, where we had a small storage cupboard that also held the gas meter and enough room to hang some very low trapeze bars. It was a great venue as it also functioned as a theatre, and we'd run many cabaret and community shows there. However, suddenly we had the news that the building had been sold, as part of some deal involving the expansion of Cambridge's Junction venue - and after a few months it seemed the new owners (Anglia Polytechnic University) weren't so keen on us as tenants, wanting the building to themselves. Our Sunday juggling workshops which ran from 5pm to 8pm and generally attracted 5 to 20 people would need a new home.

There ensued a short panic while we tried to find somewhere else to move to. Luckily an old community centre down the road had just been bought by a local charity, who were hoping eventually to rebuild it into a social enterprise space. We knew the building well and it seemed a perfect, if temporary venue for us. There was a huge storage cupboard, steel beams in the roof that we could rig aerial equipment from and enough room for all kinds of activities. We moved in March 2006 and I set about trying to fill the space, with a serious programme of publicity including juggling on the radio ("you can't see this of course, but now he's spinning a plate!"). The numbers started to rise and Sunday nights became a lot busier, with sometimes 50 or 60 people coming. By this time I was spending more or less every Sunday night running the workshop.

A few years later others took over the workshops from me, gratifyingly some of them having first learnt their skills under my tuition. My own businesses (circus and software) were taking increasing amounts of my time, as well as renovating the house we'd just bought and running a juggling convention. I'm not great at taking a back seat but something had to give and the people taking over also had more considerably youthful enthusiasm than me - oh, and a few years later our kids arrived which ate up any free time I might have had.

Fast forward to today: and CCC (or Camcircus as it's generally known these days) has grown beyond all recognition. Their Facebook group shows 938 members, there are classes and practise sessions all through the week and the Sunday session alone lasts from midday to 8pm. Aerial skills are incredibly popular and the range of classes includes parkour or movement training. The Cambridge Juggling Convention, which I helped run back in the day, has returned to great acclaim, there's a regular show at Strawberry Fair and Camcircus people are now going on to professional circus careers with both their own companies and travelling circuses. There's a growing youth circus which I've even taken our own kids to enjoy. My own involvement is limited to at most an hour's juggling on a Sunday night followed by a drink in the pub.

But as ever, things are changing again: the temporary venue that turned out to be a home for over 8 years has also been sold (local objections torpedoed the charity's plan to rebuild it). Luckily a new venue has been found in north Cambridge which has huge possibilities. The amount of enthusiasm and energy in Cambridge for the circus arts is incredible and I believe we have one of the most active groups in the country. It's all come a long way from the handful of people in a little hall, with their props sharing a cupboard with the gas meter!

Building an art studio #5 - starting the big build

By mid June I'd got as far as putting down the battens that form the base - and had two friends booked to help me put the cabin together:


The construction technique is fairly simple as long as one makes sure everything is square and level - the timbers are all pre-cut to interlock and once you get going it's a bit like Lego:


As you build up the walls the door frame is inserted:


and then the windows (which come pre-built, missing only their glazing):


The windows are glazed, a relatively easy job - just put the sealed units in and then nail some thin trim pieces round the edges to hold them in:


Next are the apexes (the triangular bits on top of the end walls, which had to be disassembled to work due to a mistake in the instructions) and roof purlins, which the roof boards will be nailed to:


Next the roof is nailed on - we only completed part of this as I will need to make some modifications to add skylights:


We then used tarpaulins and DPM to cover the cabin until I can get the roof and the floor finished:


Huge thanks to 'Uncle' Jon and Sarah for their help - the three of us spent most of one weekend getting to this point and there is now only one pile of wood left to use up. I was impressed by the quality of what was supplied by Dunster House, there were only a few minor niggles with how things fitted together and most of it went like clockwork. There's still a lot to do but at least now we have what looks like a building!

Building an art studio #4 - late delivery of a lot of wood

Unfortunately my plans of constructing the studio on the May Bank Holiday were stymied by Dunster House, who messed me about several times on the delivery date - it eventually arrived the week after in the pouring rain. It took over two hours for three of us just to unload the lorry into four large piles in front of our neighbours' garages. Over the next two days, in the pouring rain, we moved it all down a narrow path into the patch of land where it was to be built and stacked it up as the next time I would have a chance to start construction would be in June after a holiday.

Make no mistake, there was one hell of a lot of wood! We divided it into four piles (main cabin, extension cabin, main cabin roof & floor, extension roof and floor) and put it on pallets borrowed from another neighbour to keep it off the damp ground. It was supplied with some plastic coverings but these weren't really enough, so we added various tarpaulins and DPM (damp proof membrane) coverings, weighted down against the wind and rain with logs and scrap wood.


And there it sat until June, gathering a collection of ant nests, mice burrows and baby rabbits...