The Specialists

August 12th 2014, and I have been neglecting this blog. As the build got closer to completion, I seemed to be busy all the time and a nasty bout of flu slowed me down. To be fair, finishing Burn Song has been the same as finishing any other modern house, the house was always full of the “specialists”. Let me introduce them.

burn Song Specialists

Willy came in and finished the harling in his own kung fu movie style. He carefully covered up anything not to be harled, and then let rip. We have been so lucky with the weather, to allow this to be done at what should be the coldest time of the year, a frost would have delayed him.

Burn Song Specialists

Chris from Greenway Heating and James from Ross-shire Plumbing and Heating are both men who seem to know how to knit with copper pipes. These are the connections from the ground source heat pump, under floor heating, the solar thermal heating and the hot water storage tank.

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Jimmy Anderson was the next man to spend over a day in the plant room as he wired in this lot. Thermostatic controls for the underfloor heating.

Burn Song Specialists

The engineered oak floors were already in place when the ‘tapers and fillers’ came to tidy up the walls and ceilings, making the walls smooth and the corners sharp, they were fast and accurate.

Burn Song Specialists

Tom worked for nearly 4 weeks with myself as sole labourer, to lay almost 70m2 of rustic slate floor. It looks stupendous and will be hardwearing and forgiving on the dirt. During this time the carpenters were working elsewhere, to allow the mortar and grout to set undisturbed and for us to wash, rewash and finally seal the slate several times. Tom didn’t shout at me once!

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As the floor was finished Scotty and Struan came back and turned my salvaged fence posts, discarded by the railway, into our kitchen island. They gave me a disbelieving look when I showed them the pile of weathered timber, but we were all very pleased with the results, and it has been an inexpensive kitchen.

Burn Song Specialists

Dave Goulder finished our wonderful Galloway Dyke. A drystone wall built entirely from stone found on the site. Dog proof and very handsome. The mice and lizards have already taken up residence in the crevices.

Burn Song Specialists

One of the features of the house is the 3.5m tall central window where the front door would usually go. I got hold of some cast iron railings from Glasgow Architectural Salvage, with a motif of a twining ivy stem. The first 4 arrived in 8 pieces, thanks to rough handling by the courier. Replacing them slowed down the building of railings around the first floor void. When the second batch arrived, I sprayed the stripped railings and the 3/4 inch steel rods that are the plain spindles, with matt lacquer and they add a touch of individuality to the upstairs hallway.

Burn Song Specialists

The painters were with us for two weeks and finally the building site started to feel like a house. We kept the colours simple, buttermilk walls, Farrow & Balls Dorset Cream eggshell on the woodwork. Each bathroom has different coloured T&G panelling.

Burn Song Specialists

Once the painters had left we could get down to the final details. Jimmy & Struan helped me to turn a French Ox Yoke, purchased on ebay, into a rustic chandelier for the snug. Our scruffy 70’s furniture was moved into position and even the dogs started to feel at home.

Burn Song Specialists

We moved in on April 9th 2014. Just over 5 years from our initial efforts to find a house or building plot in the Highlands of Scotland. It is the fulfilment of our dream, a house that fits the way we live, it has seriously green credentials, a lovely view, great salmon fishing and is in an area where we have been made welcome by the locals. People assume that I will have found the process of building our house stressful. I haven’t. I have had so much fun this past year. Northmuir have taken the stress and allowed me to observe. I just watched our dream take shape. I was almost always around to decide about details. Rather than just sit and watch them, I have tried to find unskilled jobs that I could get involved in, it always took me far longer than the professionals, but I know that there are parts of the house I helped with. I know the location of our ground source ‘slinkies’, the septic tank, and having discovered the remains of a Toyota in a shallow grave,while we were landscaping with a digger, I know where we reburied it!

Burn Song Specialists

For now the house is full of unpacked boxes, but I hope to post one final blog later, with pictures of the finished interiors. In the meantime I would like to thank everyone involved in designing and building Burn Song, for our lovely house. Bryan and I hope to live here for the rest of our lives.

Burn Song Specialists

 

 

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Down to the details.

January 20th and we still have mild weather. The build continues, no longer in the broad brush strokes of the heavy construction jobs, but now the men are working on details. The silver paper has all been hidden, inside and out, rooms have all been formed, dwangs are in place.

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Where we used a ladder to access the first floor…….

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…….now we have stairs! A huge improvement.

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The build stopped for two weeks over the Christmas holidays, giving me time to wash my slate floor, 68 m2, both sides of it. It is now ready for Tom to put down, when the time comes for the floors. Some of the slates are really beautiful, and there are crates full of them.

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Angus Ross put in the gate posts and then hung the gate during the holidays and soon after Dave Goulder showed up and started work on the Galloway Dyke, a type of drystone wall which will be made from stone found on the site. All these important details are now starting to fall into place.

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One of the final days when the upstairs was open plan, the flue is now in Bryan’s office as he appreciates warmth. Several days later….

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…and the spare room was a seperate room from Bryan’s office.

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Andy has been cutting plasterboard and Fermacell in the master bedroom, the house has been full of dust and they have used dozens of jigsaw blades. I specified Fermacell instead of plasterboard. I believed the advertisements in the Self Build Press, about it being easy to use, strong enough to hang things on, and not needing skilled finishing. That’s fine I said, If it is OK for unskilled labour, then I will do the finishing, big mistake, clearly I am too unskilled!

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I now dislike working with the stuff as much as the carpenters, and can’t wait for someone else to take over the joint filling …please!

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Outside the scratch coat has been a revelation. Willy is the master harler. He works his own system, this involves drinking a lot of tea until the atmospheric pressure, temperature and zen moment are all right, then he emerges from his van and like a scene from a kung-fu movie, with both floats a blur, he applies the scratch coat. Today he rendered the ingoes on the windows. If the omens are right and the planets are in harmony, we are hoping he will continue with the harl during this week. It is good to have another skilled craftsmen working on the house, a joy to watch.

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The things that make this house special are now concealed below the conventional finishes, but inside the house is kept warm with one tiny woodburning stove. The plant room is jammed full of pipes and pumps from ground source heat pumps, underfloor heating and solar thermal panels which will all be connected to the hot tank at a later date. We have high hopes of our low energy house and are looking forward to living here.

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Winter is snapping at our heels!

We have had snow this winter, for one day, and the 3 inches at Lairg on our jetty weren’t matched at Burn Song, where there was just a dusting. A reminder that the year had been very kind to us so far. Fingers crossed that continues.

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The site has been busy with Tom putting the finishing touches to the blockwork, which is now completed. There is hope we can start on the ingoes (Scottish building term)  and the scratch coat….. we still need a good stretch of mild weather.

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Scotty puts the finishing touches to the ridge on the garage. We finally chose powder coated sinusoidal steel, but had initially been going to roof both the snug and the garage in ‘mill finished aluminium’, also in the ‘wriggly tin’ profile. But having talked to the men at Highland Roller Doors, we decided that at least with powder coating, you knew what you were getting, we had no idea if the aluminium would still be shiny in 5 years time or if it would have a streaky anodise on it.

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Andy springs into action with a plank of cladding for the garage. Once the garage doors were in place they could clad the front of the garage as well.

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The garage doors were powder coated to match the roof and the porch doors. Everyone is pleased to have the garage closed against the elements.  It has been so gratifying to see the attention to detail that Northmuir have put into everything they have worked on on the house.

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Work on the transitions between the garage and the porch and the house and the porch have been complicated and time consuming. Here is the mesh on the house wall, over the porch where there is nothing to support blocks, it had to fit neatly over the steel flashing for the roof and will take the base coats for the scratch coat and harling.

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At the other side of the porch roof, where it meets the garage, there is a narrow red wood trim between the two steel flashings, every piece of wood was placed with precision, and the unseen end grain of it sealed with the Falun red paint. It just looks wonderful.

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A full view of this side of the porch roof, crisp and neat with lots of spaces for roosting bats! Probably fewer than the bats would like.

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The veranda is up, the cladding on both sides of the patio door will also be in Falun Red and it is a snug place to enjoy a cup of coffee on a wet day, dry and sheltered from the wind. I know because I tried it today.

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The next few days we have snow and gales forecast, so work will move back inside, the flatpack staircase has arrived and soon we will have interior walls. The changes are continuous, frequently revealing parts of the house that are a delight, like the veranda!

The house is so snug inside, with only the dehumidifier going and a small woodburner running for a few hours a day. Our drafty 1900’s house in Lairg doesn’t keep that warm with the boiler running full belt most of the time. We are really looking forward to moving in.

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Stages of development or metamorphosis of a house.

Autumn up here has been spectacular and the few frosts we have had have done little to stop the procession of colours as trees and grasses change through golden and bronze. Our house sits under this blanket of mist on a chilly morning. There was snow on all the surrounding mountain tops but autumn down on the Kyle of Sutherland.

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The house has been like an insect, slowly changing its outer appearance as it nears maturity, the OSB has given way to silver, some of which changed into red cladding, the roof has a tough exoskeleton of slate, but inside, invisible to the people driving by, important changes are taking place. The whole of the interior has been lined with a silver, thermal airtight membrane, this has all been taped at any joint or cut to make it very airtight, and here the first floor awaits the strapping that will take the Fermacell, and which initially, will hold the membrane in place during the airtightness test.

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Our low energy house will be so airtight that it will require a Mechanical Ventilation and Heat Recovery device, MVHR, this will regularly change the air in the house, heating the cold incoming air with the warm outgoing air. Any failure in the airtight skin inside the house will result in the loss of warm air and drafts. On 25th October the house had its first airtightness test, to ensure that everything was well sealed. Colin arrived with a device he placed in the door, and he switched on the big fan, which sucks the air out of the house, (not all of it!) The silver paper started to bulge, and I could see why it needed strapping. Colin was constantly making adjustments and taking notes. At one point he changed the white disc over the fan, explaining to me that this could only be used on the more airtight houses. The results were excellent. Without any extra taping needing to be done the initial calculation was a reading of 0.5  Northmuir had done a fine job of making the house airtight, the Katzbeck windows did not disappoint, so we had an all round good result.

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The first fix is well underway and the plumber James from Ross-shire Plumbing and Heating and James Anderson the electrician both laced the house with pipes and wire, all will be hidden when the plasterboard and fermacell are added to walls and ceilings.

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Tom has been back on site and is making progress with the blockwork that clads the main part of the house, slowly the shiny silver house is transforming into something with less bling.

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It was a relief when Vince and Sandy arrived with a big and a small digger and started to put in the drainage. Trenches were dug for the soil pipes, the external pipes were joined to the pipes they had laid months ago, below the foundations. These now connect to the first fix inside. Levels were checked and rechecked.

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Pressure tests were taken and everything was good. The next job was to bury this part of the build.

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It was time to dig a very large hole for our 3,800 litre septic tank, suitable for a household of up to 10 people.  It too is now out of sight and underground. I am getting a good idea of the levels around the building and our house prepares for another stage of development.

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I am pleased that I have been hanging around to see these bits of the build go in. I will always have a better understanding of how the house works by knowing what went into setting it all up.

The weather has been showery but fairly kind to us. Work continues both inside and out.  The Veranda gets attention on fine days and the first floor ceilings if it is wet outside. The longer the hard frosts hold off, the better.

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Air-injected Wood Fibre Insulation

The cassettes on the house arrived without any insulation in them. Now that the roof is on and the house is dry, we have been able to fill them . We have been told that we are the first ‘house’ in the UK to use this system of air-injected wood fibre insulation. The product comes in bales, but when the machine has fluffed it up, it looks like this. Millions of little needles of wood fibre that lock into each other and stay put.

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The product is Steico zell and comes from the forests of Eastern Europe, it arrives in plastic covered bales.

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The bales are broken into pieces by hand and fed into the silver coloured hopper on this machine from Germany, the wood fibre lumps are fluffed up and then run through the accelerator drum in the foreground before being pumped down the long hoses to where the operator is working.

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Matt Stevenson from CARBONlite Design and Build Ltd, which supplied and installed the insulation,  set up the machine on a couple of ground floor cassettes, he can work the machine with the remote control. The cassettes were all pre-drilled with holes that were covered with thick plastic when each cassette was filled. Up until Burn Song, CARBONlite had only used the product on smaller cabins and lodges that they build.

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Lewy then took over from Matt, here he is using the longest lance to get the wood fibre into one of the long gable end cassettes. First filling the lower half of the cassette and then putting the lance to the top and moving it down as the space fills up.

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To check that everything is proceeding to plan they took core samples at regular intervals. Here Struan is drilling out a disc of OSB so Lewy can take a sample.

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Using a cylinder with a blade around the top Lewy winds it into the wall, taking care that he gets all the wood fibre right back to the far side.

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The cylinder full of fibres is put on the digital scales.

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Using the tables wrapped around the cylinder Lewy calculates the density of the fibre. Densities of between 30 to 50 Kilos per cubic metre are acceptable, ours seemed to be running at about 34 to 35 kilos per cubic metre.

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CARBONlite arrived with a good number of bales and during the week more were delivered. Northmuir calculated that the weight of wood fibre in the roof cassettes was the same as the weight of the slates on the roof.

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During the week we had a chance to see how well the product works. Struan has a thermal imaging camera and when he pointed it at an empty cassette, the i-beams were clearly visible as cold and blue, when the same cassette was pumped full of wood fibre the i-beams were still blue and the wood fibre was orange, and warm. 24 hours later the whole wall was orange where the i-beams had come up to the same temperature as the wood fibre.

We had planned to use mineral wool insulation but the wood fibre is nicer to work with as it has no irritant qualities, and because it is air-injected, it gets into every little nook and cranny in the cassettes. As well as keeping us warm in winter, it will help with decrement delay and stop the rooms in the roof from overheating in summer.

Today the carpenters had a small wood stove burning, they were all in t-shirts and the upstairs windows were open. The house is very snug!

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Wind and Watertight

I have been concentrating on the more dramatic aspects of the build, the kit and the windows, and not mentioning the essential details. The sarking went on the roof before the windows went in, the breathable membrane is on the roof and I have been painting Falun Red paint on sarking boards that will be used to clad the garage and the snug. The roof trusses for the garage roof have been put up and have been boarded, much of the house has its exterior wrapping of thermal, silver building paper. Products have been ordered, some have arrived, others haven’t, but everyone is busy.

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The cabin has been built for a while now and if you look carefully to the right of the heap of topsoil, you will see the train passing along the bottom of the garden on its way to Thurso. The views from the scaffolding are especially good, being unimpeded by window frames!

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We are thrilled with the Falun Red Paint. Used on Scandinavian houses for centuries the paint is made from water, Linseed Oil, flour and coloured with a waste product, copper oxide from now closed copper mines. It is used in places we are very familiar with and has a very long life, so our cladding of hit and miss planks should last well. Andy has had a flashing made to protect the top of the lower plank on tall walls, it deflects the water out rather than it trickling into the end grain of the lower plank.

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The gable end of the snug has the top band of hit and miss planks in place but below it only the backing boards are finished, so the silver paper shows through. In six months time I will have forgotten that my house is wrapped in silver paper like a cake, and that it sits just below the surface of all the claddings.

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Independant roofing contractors Donald Ross and John Bonthrone worked together to put the slates on the central section of the house, the weather was pretty good and they put in some late nights to get it finished in time. They finished work on Saturday October 5th. The dormers look very chunky but this is because the sides of them are 300mm to accommodate the insulation. This house should be warm.

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The slate is Spanish and is similar to Cupa, so it has some interesting edge detail. Today the house looked wonderful against the dramatic skies, with a rainbow across the kyle as I drove away from the site.

Now the building is wind and watertight work can start inside in earnest. Tomorrow there is anticipation because the firm that will put in the insulation are due on site, it is an interesting system where shredded wood fibre is blown into the panels. We are all looking forward to seeing it in action.

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We have continued to be lucky with the weather, skeins of geese have been flying over the plot as they arrive from Iceland and Siberia to spend the winter on nearby fields. It has been good to spend so much time busy on the site, then sit with a cup of tea and a cup cake and watch the tide roll in across the mud flats. The build is exciting and I love the juxtaposition of the traditional Scottish form of house with the Scandinavian colour of the wood, and expansive areas of glass.

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Triple glazed windows, and a key to the house.

With the roof on in the nick of time before a proper change to autumn weather, the interior spaces were magnificent but more than a little drafty. So it was a relief when on September 9th the first windows started to be fixed in. Katzbeck had delivered them to us very promptly, so there was no waiting around for windows.

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Many of the windows on the North of the building are fixed panes, and one of the first of these to go in was the long narrow window in the snug. It frames the view of the kyle beautifully and I suspect will be one of the wow features of the house. Everyone was on their toes to get the fixings in and the window squared off in its frame of insulation.

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One of the hardest parts of the build has been working with the dour locals! Scotty and Struan attach the fixing plates to the patio door before it is lifted into position.

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The fixing plate is screwed to the wooden window frame and then attached to the building on the outside. A combination of this and the frame of insulation all around the window make a really good job of stopping any ‘cold bridges’ that could lead to cold patches, condensation and mould. This is just tacking the window in position, later more screws were added and the gaps filled with foam.

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The house has no front door and where it would be on a traditional Scottish one and three quarter story house, we have a 3.5 m high central window. Katzbeck were able to supply this as a single pane, (triple glazed), so we didn’t have to have a joint at the floor level, making the window very dramatic, but not the easiest to get into position. Northmuir used a forklift and removed the center of the scaffold for a few hours until it was in place.

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The largest and heaviest window is the patio doors on the south side of the snug, this was moved with the forklift and no drama at all. This is a particularly outstanding window, it operates like a dream and is admired by everyone.

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The dormer windows didn’t go into place until the Fermacell sheets were loaded through the space onto the first floor, to save carrying up each sheet individually. After dealing with the huge central pane and the patio door, the dormer windows were the last to be fixed into place, and went in quickly an easily.

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Our house is now glazed, The windows are beautiful, the slightly textured surface of the exterior aluminium cladding on them gives the impression of being sturdy and slow to show marks. Thank you Katzbeck for supplying us with such a quality product, and Northmuir for getting them in intact!

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We now have keys to our house and the next phase of the build is stacking up on any spare ground around the house. The next few days sees lots of deliveries. I had hope for September to offer a gentle indian summer but that hasn’t been the case. The more we can get done before the frosts, the better.

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