Building an art studio - #3 - making the base

So 2 tonnes of sand and a lot of wheelbarrowing later - everything we get delivered has to be transported by hand down a narrow path - we have a base for the plastic Hawklok tiles that will support the studio (note the telegraph pole section used as a roller - I first hired a waterfilled lawn roller but it didn't help much, not being heavy enough):
Sadly the Hawkloks arrive in packs of 6 with only 4 connectors per pack, so I had to send off for more....anyway I got them all down, noticing that some didn't lock together very well. A little constructive criticism from the neighbours followed and this helped me to realise that I'd created a mound of sand rather than a flat base - a very flattened mound, but still a mound. So I took all the tiles off, bought some 100mm x 25mm tanalised timber and fitted edging, carefully made level and square to act as a reference. There wasn't enough sand to fill this timber box so we ordered and shifted another tonne and half, but the base is now actually level and square:

Pollarding and fencing

In the corner of our vegetable plot is a large willow tree which I've been meaning to reduce in size for a while - willows grow quickly, especially when their roots are next to a stream, and I also would like to see if it regrows some thin stalks suitable for making into baskets and other things. Here's how it looked this winter:


As I don't own a petrol chainsaw (they scare me rather, and in any case dropping such large branches in one go would have destroyed a few of our new-ish fruit trees) I decided to start by climbing up into the tree and cutting down the branches by hand with a Bahco pruning saw - which is an excellent tool, cuts through 10cm trunks in a trice and safe to carry while climbing up or down. It turns out that one tree contains quite a lot of wood:


The larger trunks are piled in the background, they'll eventually be firewood for our woodburner once they've seasoned for a year or two. The smaller stuff isn't much use for anything so went on the bonfire, but the medium-sized (around an inch or two thick) seemed too useful to burn, so I stripped all the side shoots off with a billhook - I have a Suffolk pattern billhook which I bought as a 'vintage' item from eBay as it's rather difficult to buy a decent modern one. This left me with a large pile of sticks which the kids had a lot of fun making dens with, but I needed to find something slightly more long-term to do with them. The fence between ourselves and next door had blown down in the recent storms, so we decided to make a woven willow replacement:


It's entirely possible this won't last more than a few years, but it was a lot of fun to make and of course the materials were free! Here's the finished article:


I also asked a neighbour who isn't scared of chainsaws to tidy up the stumps of the willow, which is now looking a lot better:


Building an art studio - #2 - levelling the ground

Several weeks later and the ground is beginning to look a lot more level. I've dug out as many of the nettle roots as I could (something like 2 cubic metres of them when piled up on the bonfire!), filled in some rabbit holes and spread out various piles of earth that were originally turf taken off the vegetable patch. The bonfire itself was in the way so it had to go: the ash is now spread out. While digging I found the usual mix of 'interesting' rubbish and a 6 foot long railway sleeper that is luckily just out of the way and a few inches below the surface - so it's staying put!

Finding the level on such a large piece of ground is hard - so my solution is to tape a long spirit level to a long bit of scaffolding board (I've been buying lots of this to edge the vegetable beds). The area is level-ish now with a few humps (molehills, mainly) and before the weeds and grass start growing in earnest I want to get the next layer down - 2 tonnes of builders' sand, a weed-proof membrane and then the plastic interlocking grid that will form the base. I'm hoping to leave this for a month or so before we build the shed, so if anything slumps or settles I'll have a chance to lift it and stick some more sand underneath!


Building an art studio - #1

Part of the reason we moved to this house was the space available to build a studio for Alex to paint in and we're about to start the process. Here's the site, currently a muddy grass area between the fruitcage, shed and vegetable patch:
Once I've cleared the old telegraph poles, concrete/asbestos roofing sheets, assorted scrap metal and other rubbish I'll have to fill in a few holes (it's where our Christmas tree has spent the last three summers, part-buried in a pot with holes in it) and try to level it. The foundation for the studio will be Hawklok recycled plastic tiles laid on a base of sand and weed membrane - it would take a massive amount of concrete and a huge amount of labour to prepare the ground otherwise.

The studio itself will be 3.5m x 8.5m, a 'log cabin' style building from Dunster House. We considered designing and building a building from scratch, but although this would be a lot of fun it would take a lot of time that I simply don't have, so we'll be adapting an existing prefabricated building (which also neatly sidesteps the issues of planning permission as these buildings are under the various height limits required for planning). We'll have to add some skylights (Alex would prefer as much wall space as possible with indirect lighting, so we might even need to block up some windows), insulate the roof, walls and floor and line it with boards. The site is a long way from our house, so there's no chance of a mains power connection - heating will be via a portable gas stove and lighting will be a solar system using LEDs.

It's going to be a significant project but we hope to have it finished by the Autumn when our youngest goes to primary school. More photos to come!

Energy efficiency & green living

According to the news energy is only going to get more expensive over the next few years, which made me ponder how efficient & green we are at home. Here's my vague conclusions:

Transport - I don't commute, so that's a plus (occasional business travel to London etc. is by train), and we only run a single vehicle, an elderly petrol Zafira. We cycle as much as we can, including with the kids in a trailer which they're rapidly growing out of, but there's no getting away from the fact that we regularly drive them to school/swimming lessons/the supermarket. Sadly also I've been flying a bit for business recently - but again, for a company with a lot of international clients we do most of our work remotely over the Net.

Heating - we've currently got an old oil boiler and a woodburning stove which we only use in the winter. The latter is about to be refitted after some renovations and we're lucky enough to have enough trees that fall or are cut down nearby to provide free wood. We probably spend £800-1000 or so a year on oil for hot water and heating the rest of the house which it would be good to reduce, but that's not going to happen until we fit a more efficient boiler with a thermostat (which we will do if/when we extend the house). In the meantime we've insulated the loft & cavity walls where we can and are fitting insulated plasterboard to the older non-cavity walls when we refurbish rooms - this has made a huge difference to the living room (which also has new double glazed windows). It was an old, draughty, damp and cold house when we moved here and it's a lot better now. If all else fails we put on an extra jumper!

Electricity - I switched to LoCo2 Energy's Planet tariff last year which is reasonably priced and fully renewable. They've said they're raising prices soon but I doubt they'll rise as much as the big 6. Naturally we use low energy bulbs and turn things off that we're not using, but we do have an electric cooker (no gas round here).

Water & waste - I'm pretty sure we're still using less water than the average (even with the kids we're not the sort of household to feel a shower/bath every single day is necessary), plus we store rainwater for the garden. Our drains feed a mini treatment plant. We compost, recycle everything we can and throw very little in the black 'general' waste bin - I even sort scrap metal in my workshop for occasional trips to the dump. If I can, I re-use it.

Food - we're now growing a great deal of our own fruit and vegetables - but probably at most only 30-40% of our annual needs, and there's no room for any more beds or fruit trees. Some of this produce is ordinary and some unusual, like Oca, so we get to eat things you can't buy anyway. This year the fruit harvest has been a great success and I have loads of jam, jellies pickles and chutneys - I doubt we'll need to buy any for a while. I have a plan to build a proper cold store so we can preserve more of what we grow.

So there you are. I've not completely turned into Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall - no chickens or livestock and no plans to get them - but we're doing our best and hopefully the children will learn from the process. As an engineer any waste or inefficiency seriously annoys me! I'm not an obsessive Green but part of the reason for moving here was to try and live a little more sustainably, and I think it's working.

How many sheds??

We currently have no less than seven sheds: ranging from the office I'm typing this from, built in stone (well, the soft cheese of the stone world, clunch) to a triangular lean-to where we store wood for the stove. We have plans to remove quite a few of them in the future to open up the site and give us better views, but most of them are currently full: so I've taken advantage of an unused triangular patch to create another shed for storing bikes, kid's toys and garden equipment, with the intention that we can then start knocking others down.

The previous owner had left us a huge collection of scrap wood - most was past use and had to be skipped, but I saved some of the best bits for the frame of the shed:
As one side is right by the stream I couldn't paint or cover it in situ, so I built the side as a single piece and covered it in tar paper. The wood for the side panel is recycled from sheets we used to block off half the living room while I took the ceiling down:
When fully built and covered in tar paper it was pretty heavy, but balancing on a sack barrow and with the help of a neighbour I managed to get it into place:
The door was until recently the rear entrance to a porch, which has been demolished. I'm not intending to get post here!

I made a window to fit a piece of glass, also saved by the previous owner of our house:
The floor is made from the remains of large shelving units, built by the previous owner, that were fitted in alcoves in the living room:
IMAG1339Finally I covered the roof with more boards and tar paper and finished the sides: if you look carefully you can see another old door being used here (I can't be bothered to remove the rusty old handle):

I think in the whole build I only used 2 new pieces of wood (some 4x2 that was necessary to make the roof strong enough for me to climb all over it while adding tar paper). All that remains is some solar lighting and painting, but for now it's dry enough to start filling with bikes and tools.

Of course now I have eight that enough? Perhaps I should build a few more....


The plot  where we grow fruit and vegetables is quite far from our house and therefore we can't run a hose or use mains electricity, so I've had to work out a solution for storing and pumping water. Luckily there's a stream running down one edge of the plot, but unfortunately this dries up in summer (at least most of the time) so it can't be relied on, and it's a bit awkward climbing down into it to fill watering cans. When we arrived there was a collection of old plastic drums which had been used to collect water from various shed roofs, so I started by using these as waterbutts, having fitted guttering to the shed in the plot. However last spring we'd had a drought for several months (yes, I know that didn't last for long!) so I bought an IBC to hold 1000L of water and raised it on a collection of scrap wood:
TankYou can also see the guttering from the shed (I'm just about to cut this down to feed the tank directly) and some of the older waterbutts. Note it's a black tank which apparently helps to reduce algae growth.

To use water from this tank or the waterbutts (which I'm still using - with our current weather forecast for a long hot summer I want as much water available as possible) there's a choice of filling watering cans, which takes ages, or a hose - pumped by a 12 volt bilge pump powered by a portable 12 volt battery pack (a bit like this one). I can also use the pump to fill the tanks from the stream when it's running.

Future plans include a solar-powered charger for the battery, an automatic level switch to trigger the pump and keep the tanks filled (although to be honest I only need to do this occasionally) and some automatic drip-fed watering for the patch while we're away. The more beds I cut the more watering is required so anything that cuts down the labour is good for me and the plants!

....And we're back with more exciting tales of gardening, DIY, children and occasionally circus

So it's been a couple of years. No real excuse but I have a few people I know will be interested in continuing tales of sheds and potatoes so I'll try again.

In the interim I've worked a lot on the vegetable patch: here's the new fruit cage, containing red & blackcurrants, gooseberries, raspberries and loganberries:
You can see the three compost bins nearby as well.

There's also a new vegetable bed: this will be for perennial veg such as asparagus, rhubarb and artichokes: currently it has a lot of oca and some very new asparagus:

Then there's the original bed for rotational, annual veg - you can see onions in the foreground, a frame of bean poles and potatoes at the rear, with unused areas covered in black plastic against the weeds. There are also four cordon-trained eating apple trees, and on the right you can just see the new quince tree - there's a cherry, plum and pear that went in last year as well:

The rest of the patch is now regularly strimmed and mown in an attempt to keep the brambles and nettles down - although I leave quite a few of the latter around the edges for butterflies and other insect life.

More to come - especially as I'm messing about with the way I store water currently.

Office conversion part 6 - done!

Finally, after 6 months, the conversion is finished and I moved in this week. The final jobs were to paint the inside with a oil-based primer and white emulsion and fit an offcut of carpet, and to build out, insulate and panel the existing door (no point having an insulated room if the door lets out all the heat!):

Next was to fit track shelving on three of the walls, so I can finally get my books out of storage:

At long last I was able to move the office from its temporary (well, 18 months of temporary) home in the corner of our bedroom. I've now got a desk I can fit everything on, a filing cabinet with actual files in it and a chance of properly organising everything that has just been piling up...most satisfying:

Everything is all hooked up and I can even get a mobile phone signal inside thanks to a Vodafone SureSignal (basically a mini cellphone aerial that piggybacks on our broadband). Needless to say, I'm pleased with what I've achieved - it's been a long process, due to having very little spare time, but I think it's been worth it. Next!

Office conversion part 5 - the end is in sight!

Next on the list is to panel out the inside with plywood - unfortunately I chose to use the thinnest, most splintery and hard to cut plywood (but it was cheap, at least). It's beginning to look like a proper room:

The electrical supply from the house has to come a long way: from the fusebox, up under the floor of our bedroom, out the wall and through a 18 inch deep trench under the patio - which is part concrete. I had a very hard time chopping through the concrete (especially the part where I found a metal plate reinforcing the slab - I decided in the end not to cut through this but to burrow underneath it) but for most of the trench all I had to do was lift paving slabs and dig a lot:

I'd prepared the way through the house for both the electrical supply and the network cables I needed to run, so when the electrician came he had a reasonably simple job to do and finished in a single day, laying steel wire armoured cable outside and fitting a new fuse box, sockets and a light to the new office:

The spare cables you can see are 3 CAT5 network cables which are also buried in the trench - although protected in 32mm waste pipe here, and in conduit when on the walls. They run from the front hall and will carry network traffic, a phone extension and possibly an intercom (this only takes up about one and a half cables, so I have some spare wires!). I've also pulled through some orange builder's string just in case I need to put more cables in there in the future (I really don't want to dig it all up again):

The power supply all works and I've started filling in the trench: the network cables have been fitted to a proper faceplate and box to keep things tidy: here's me testing the network connection:

So now all I need to do before I move in is to finish the panelling, paint if I think it's necessary, add some shelves and a carpet - shouldn't be long now.