Keeping the cows out…

Have I ever mentioned that my barn is quite remote – stuck up a hill in the middle of nowhere. Bit of an issue when people ask me to ‘just send them an email at the weekend’. No problem. If I walk up the hill and sit on the fourth fence post along, and the wind’s coming from the Northeast and it’s not too cloudy – yep, you’ll get your email…

As for actually using the Internet – I drive 30 miles on a Sunday morning just to find a wifi signal strong enough to upload this blog – so next time you’re moaning about your 3G not being a 4G, spare a thought for those of us in the wilds who don’t have any G at all!

But living in a rural community can have its advantages. I’m a commuter-belt England girl where gardens are usually the size of postage stamps and boundaries are jealously guarded. Put your fence panels half inch too far to the left or get a bit too enthusiastic in pruning your neighbours’ invading cherry blossom and you’re likely to start a turf war. Up in the wilds of Scotland, everyone’s too busy with the farming to worry about the size of the privet hedge. Even so, it was with some trepidation that I agreed to meet the local landowners to discuss the question of fencing.

Living as I do in the middle of farmland, animals are constantly being moved around, so the issue of fencing can be quite important. When I first bought the property, there were no fences around it. As the barn was being used to house animals, clearly it was less of an issue if they took a detour into the building to inspect the decor. But now I was trying to turn the erstwhile animal shed into my des res, cows in the living room are something to be avoided if possible.

To be honest, I didn’t really have any clue how much land owned. I mean, the property brochure when I bought it said 2.47 acres. But how much is that?? The only reference point I had was a site map drawn by hand on an A4 sheet of paper, with my property shown as an L-shape, about 3cm long, right in the middle of the page. Not exactly imbued with accurate detail.

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My neighbour had helpfully tried to point it out to me when I first went up there after winning the bid. “Well it goes from the gate in that field there, down to one of those trees, the 4th or 5th one down. Or maybe the 6th. Somewhere down there. And then it comes back up to a corner behind those trees. You can’t really see from here…”

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Excellent. That makes it all clear as mud.

I met up with the farmer and the local Laird on a drizzly Sunday afternoon and we walked around ‘my estate’, to mark out the boundaries.

“What do you reckon? About here?”

“Seems about right.”

“That’ll do then.”

It seems that in a remote community the issue of territory is a bit less fraught.

Having thus ‘formally’ marked out the boundaries, by the simple expedient of dropping a few large boulders in strategic places, it was agreed that the laird would get his estate manager to arrange the installation of the fences and we’d split the bill three ways. Since I’d assumed I was going to cop the cost for the lot, that felt like a bargain. A week later all my fields were fenced off.

That just left me to sort out the fences around the house and the track. And here the farmer had added a note of caution. “Not so much of an issue at the side of the house along the track, we can pen the cows in. But if anyone accidentally leaves the gate open at the top, and a bull gets out and comes running down the the hill, and sees himself reflected in the glass of your windows, well he won’t be able to stop…..” No pretty white picket fences for me then. Any fences I put in had to be stock proof- ie. had to be able to stop 2000lb of charging bull invading my kitchen. No pressure then…

And I had a deadline. The farmer had told me that the annual animal-field rotation party was due to start again the following week. Having taken down all the temporary security fencing, I needed to get its replacement installed that weekend. Well hey – bit of fencing – how hard can it be….

So I ordered in a large number of hefty posts, umpteen hundred metres of rails, two 10ft gates and a couple of tree trunks to hang them on. And set to work.

I hit the same problem as the guys putting in the GSHP pipes – there’s an awful lot of rock to dig through. It was back breaking work. I hired a pneumatic drill. It was still back breaking work, just with added vibration.
And of course, it started to rain.
For the fencing to be solid enough to hold back the hoards of angsty livestock, not only do you have to have larger-than-average posts, but they also need to be truly madly deeply buried in the ground. I swear my fence posts are a bit like icebergs – 90% of them are hidden beneath the surface.
Deep and narrow is obviously a job for specialist tools. I just had my vibrating drill. And a shovel. Until the shovel didn’t fit. When I moved on to a narrower trench shovel. Till that didn’t fit. And I was on my hands and knees with a garden trowel. Until finally I was lying full length on the ground in a puddle, with my head down a hole, scooping out mud with a tablespoon. I can think of better ways to spend a weekend.

Very cold, very wet, and feeling like I’d gone ten rounds with Mike Tyson, I finished about 10.30pm on the Sunday. But job done. The sheep arriving on their annual summer holiday to the higher fields would not be using my house for their afternoon tea stop.

And I can say with some pride, that in the all years my fences have now been up, I’ve never had a bull rampaging through my china cupboards.

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Green building

A loo that works. An electric shower with hot water that didn’t have to come from a kettle. What more could a girl ask? I’d even slapped a bit of paint on the wall and hung some curtains in my little bit of self-contained civilisation. Admittedly the floors were still bare concrete and the worksurface on the kitchen units was made up of a few random bits of MDF, but by comparison with the caravan it was heaven.

But right at the point I got one small part of the building looking vaguely habitable, work decided to send me off overseas again – this time to India.

On the plus side, home became a 5-bed villa with pool, tennis courts and gym, and came with a maid and a driver. Hard to compare with the cold stone shell of a building in remote Scotland – yet another ‘sublime to the ridiculous’ moment in my life.

On the downside however, commuting 5000 miles every weekend to work on the house wasn’t an option – neither my bank balance or my body clock could have coped. Which meant that the project was, if not quite mothballed, certainly considerably slowed down. And for any work I did want to get done, I was dependent on finding a contractor. It quickly became apparent that my bad builder experience was not a one-off – trustworthy contractors in the building trade seem to be a very rare breed.

From fairly early on, when my house-building dream consisted largely of an untidy heap of Homebuilding & Renovating, and Build-It magazines, I wanted to build ‘Green’. Super-efficient, super-insulated, passive-house style building was the plan. Buying a huge, draughty old barn in the wilds of Scotland kind of scuppered most of those plans – metre-thick stone walls constraining any thoughts of building with polystyrene Lego blocks.

But whilst I couldn’t do much about the green credentials of the existing fabric of the building, I could influence other elements. So a couple of things I did decide on, to do my bit for the environment:

Firstly, a rainwater collection system.
Yes I can hear you – anyone who knows Scotland is laughing themselves silly at this point… Rainwater harvesting in Scotland – where average annual rainfall is probably measured in feet not inches – why would you??
Well there is some reasoning behind the apparent insanity. When I was first looking at buying the place, my neighbours-to-be informed me that I would have difficulty in getting water to the site. While it was being used to house animals, the barn shared a water supply from a spring at the top of the hill on their land. Understandably they were reluctant to continue that arrangement with a domestic dwelling that was proposing to have several bathrooms and a couple of kitchens.

Mains water was not an option. The barn is too high above the local reservoir level to get a mains supply without a serious amount of expensive pumping. Which meant a borehole was really the only choice. No issues there. As per previous blog, all you need is a water diviner, a few magic crystals and a bloody great big drill. So why on earth did I feel the need to back that up with a 6000-litre rainwater tank? Well maybe it was just scaremongering; maybe they wanted to justify their position on the matter. Whatever the reason my neighbours told me that a few years previously during a prolonged spell of hot weather (in Scotland???) their spring had almost run dry. Call me gullible if you like, but I had this nightmare vision of buying in bottled water by the truckload and rationing the showers.

Better safe than sorry. In went the rainwater recycling system. Inevitably it hasn’t stopped raining ever since. I suspect that the overflow from the tank has, by now, drowned all the rabbits in the field below the soakaway, or at the very least given them an indoor swimming pool to play with.
Hey ho! I’ll consider it a long term investment – if the global warming experts are right and everything south of Hadrian’s Wall is going to turn into a desert, at least I’ll have the last laugh, eventually.

And my second inspirational eco friendly project? With over 2 acres of land to play with I decided to install a ground source heat pump to provide all my heating and hot water. A decision I would come to regret – massively.
For anyone who doesn’t know what a GSHP is, don’t ask me to explain. The best I can do is say you bury a load of pipe in your garden, about a metre underground. Whatever flows through the pipes draws heat out of the ground. It is passed through a heat exchanger and is turned into something hot enough to heat an entire house and provide all the hot water. If there are any experts reading this, forgive the numpty explanation – I’ve given up trying to understand it. For most people a boiler is an ugly white box on the other all that you hide in a cupboard somewhere. For me, it is an entire room full of scary stuff….

But I can confirm it works.

So if this miracle of technology works, why do I regret installing it? Because getting from the point of original installation to the point of actually having a fully functioning system has been a long, painful and very expensive process.

The outside pipe work and the heat pump were installed just as I departed for India. But the associated underfloor heating and first fix plumbing were sporadically completed whenever I was back in the country on annual leave. So although it had been switched on and tested to get the ‘commissioned’ certificate, it had effectively been mothballed thereafter, until I returned from India. With disastrous consequences. The mice had moved in, taken up squatters rights and chewed their way through everything they could actually get their teeth into (which appears to be just about anything). They had eaten all the wiring in the heat pump and were nesting in the water tank.

I called in a ‘Renewable Energy’ company to get it fixed – and that is where the problems really began. Enter the Cowboys!

I was quoted £3000 to get it sorted. Being desperate, and not knowing any different, I agreed and paid a 50% deposit. A very knowledgeable chap came up and spent a week on site repairing the system. When he left at the end of the week he told me that the only thing left to do was to fit a new pump, which he couldn’t do because he didn’t have the rights parts. Unfortunately it was his last day with that company, but he had left a set of handover notes and somebody else would be coming up the following week to finish the job. Fair enough.

A week came and went. I phoned the company. “Yeah, sorry. Been really busy. We’ll get someone up there in the next week or so.” A month came and went. I phoned again. “Yeah, sorry. Been a bit manic. We’ll be up next week.” Two guys went up for two days. The system wasn’t working when they left. I phoned again. “Yeah we’re on it, no problem.” Two months had now passed. I phoned, and gave them my best ‘rocket-up-the-backside’ speech.

I was at home the following week when a van turned up with three guys in it. One of them didn’t get out of the van all day. I suspected he’d was suffering the aftermath of a really heavy night out. They arrived at 11am. They left at 3pm. (Got to get a full day’s work in, right lads?) The system still wasn’t working.

But two days later I got a bill for a further £7000. On top of the £1500 deposit I’d already paid. It included a £300 day rate for the chap who’d spent 4 hours asleep in the van. I checked some of the materials prices too. I was being charged £700 for a part I could have bought at Plumb Centre for £50. Really? I’m not that stupid! And as an accountant, I’d studied a little bit of contract law; I knew that the original price they’d given me was a quote, not an estimate.

So I wrote them a lovely long letter that began “With reference to the Supply of Goods & Services Act 1985…” And I reported them to Trading Standards. Strangely I never heard from them again.

Fortunately I still had the contact details of the guy who’d been up the first week. Turns out he’d left the company because he didn’t like their overcharging practices. He might have warned me! Anyway, I arranged for him to come up and finish the job. Which he did. We got the system going at last.

Cause for celebration? Well not quite. Because although it was working, it was really struggling to generate enough heat. Further investigation soon revealed the issue. It appears that there was not enough pipe in the ground to cope with demand. There are various conspiracy theories as to why that’s happened. One suggestion is that the original design didn’t specify sufficient ground loops – but since the original design drawings have disappeared, and the original company is no longer trading, that theory’s difficult to prove. The other suspicion is that whoever dug the trenches found the ground difficult to dig (it is mostly rock) and decided that I didn’t really need that amount of pipe anyway, and I’d never miss it if it wasn’t put in…. Well given I have subsequently found a huge number of pipe lengths abandoned in my woods at the back of the house, there’s some evidence to support that theory. Based on the length of one of the original trenches we recently uncovered, and the amount of abandoned pipe, the estimate is that about 600m of pipe was installed – instead of the 1600m the system needs. No wonder it struggled!

So I had to pay all over again to get more ground loops put in. Armageddon in the garden…..

The difference has been incredible. My electricity consumption has reduced to a quarter of what it was before the extra pipe went in. The house is warm, and there’s as much scalding hot water as I want.

The conclusion? I’m all for renewable energy, and it clearly works when properly installed. But the industry is so unregulated it is a haven for cowboys, incompetents and rip-off merchants. My story isn’t unique. I’ve heard plenty of others just as bad. So while it’s all great in theory, who would really want to risk it?

The castle, the caravan and the Corsa…

I love watching Grand Designs when people start talking about the hardships of self-building. People who have sold their existing home to free up some cash, and find themselves moving out of their much loved familiar space and into a dreary rented flat half the size of what they’re used to. Or squidging themselves into a spare bedroom with the in-laws or friends. Or horror of horrors, set themselves up in a static caravan on site…

Now I do feel a slight twinge of sympathy when these guys start looking stressed by the lack of space/privacy/creature comforts. The last thing anyone wants when they are struggling with the hassles of building a house is having to come home to a cramped, uncomfortable living space. And let’s face it, living with the in-laws for a prolonged period is probably one of the quickest routes to divorce known to mankind.

But I have to admit, my sympathy is usually short-lived. After all, given all the magazines, TV programmes and blogs on the subject, anyone going into a self-build project should be forewarned that it isn’t a particularly easy ride. And apart from one or two rare exceptions, in all the programmes I have seen, the harassed self-builders did still have all the basic necessities of life: A roof over their head, running water, heating, hot water, a toilet. There were many occasions I would have given my right arm to be able to say the same about my living arrangements during the build…

When I first took possession of the barn, I was living just outside Edinburgh in a gorgeous apartment in a C19th listed house overlooking the firth of Forth and the bridges, and the 65-mile drive North every Saturday and Sunday was actually quite pleasant on the (relatively) traffic-free country roads of Scotland. But as time went on, it became increasingly difficult to juggle the finances of paying rent whilst trying to fund such a huge build project.

Everything changed when my job took me to Germany for a 3-year assignment. There was absolutely no way I could afford to run an empty flat in Edinburgh just as somewhere to stay at the weekend. So I let it go. Which meant I no longer had anywhere to stay when coming back to visit the site. Needs must – I slept in the back of the car. Unfortunately the car I owned at the time was a Corsa. Life becomes a bit surreal at this point. I spent the working week living in an awesome apartment in a converted 1000-year old castle, complete with moat, drawbridge and gatehouse..

And I spent the weekends living in a Corsa…

images Possibly the ultimate ‘From the Sublime to Ridiculous’ statement?

A few months later the lease on the Corsa ended so I gave it back. My weekend living was then entirely dependent on the car hire companies. Fortunately one lovely chap working at Avis in Edinburgh discovered I was sleeping in the cars I rented, and thereafter made it his mission to give me an unofficial upgrade to the largest car he could find on the system. Sleeping in the back of a people carrier is marginally more bearable than a Corsa!

After spending couple of years living like this, I arrived up at site one day to a lovely surprise. A guy who was doing some building work for my neighbour, heard I was sleeping in the car, and so took it upon himself to source a redundant old caravan and set it up on site for me. You can’t imagine how heavenly it felt to be able to stretch out full length for a nights sleep. The caravan was plugged in to the electricity supply – so suddenly I had heat and light in the evenings. Bottled gas  supplied a hob. There was even a TV ariel, so I went out and bought a little 19″ TV with integral DVD player. And felt like my weekends up at the barn had turned into a life of luxury.

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But living like that at the weekends is fine, when you have somewhere to escape to and recover for the rest of the week. After nearly 3 years in Germany in my castle, followed by almost a year in an incredible C17th house in the heart of Amsterdam, my international assignments came to an end and my job returned full-time to Edinburgh.

Suddenly the caravan became my permanent home, seven days a week. And it coincided with one of the worst winters we’d had for years. Temperatures plummeted as low as -21 degrees and I was living in a caravan that felt like it was made out of cardboard and tinfoil. One night my portable heater blew up. I went to bed fully dressed, wearing my winter coat, a woolly hat, 3 pairs of socks, in a sleeping bag and under a duvet. When I woke up in the morning there was ice on the inside of all the walls and windows. I used to leave at five in the morning to get down to the office in time to use the showers and that morning I discovered even my shampoo had frozen.

And of course there was the ‘other’ issue of having no running water on site. The squeamish amongst you might want to skip over the next paragraph. But when I sacked the builder, he stomped off in a huff, taking his portaloo with him. Which leaves – well have you ever been bush camping? My local Tesco, about 12 miles away, closed at 10pm and I used to nip down last thing at night to use the facilities. But that’s not always enough. Suffice to say, a shovel is occasionally required…. And in the middle of the night when it’s -20 degrees and there’s 2ft of snow outside, believe me that is not a fun way to live.

The plans for the barn included a self-contained 1 bedroom cottage and I now threw all my efforts into getting that habitable. Desperate to get out of the caravan I set up a bed in a bedroom with bare concrete floors and unfinished plasterboard walls. And focused on getting a bathroom working. There can be no sweeter sound to somebody who has been camping in the concrete shell of a house for months, than the sound of a flushing toilet. I phoned my parents who were off enjoying a luxury holiday somewhere. And I flushed the loo down the phone at them. It had to be shared. I had returned to civilisation!!

But I cannot swing a cat in here…..

When the roof was finally on, and the building finally watertight (well more or less, but that’s a whole different blog..) I could finally start work inside. Woo hoo! The exciting stuff begins!

And putting up the very first stud wall was definitely an exciting moment. But the euphoria lasted about 3 seconds. As I stood back and proudly surveyed my handiwork it rapidly turned to wild panic. ‘That can’t possibly be right, it’s nowhere near big enough to be a bathroom. I must have got it wrong.’

So I checked the plans, measured the room I’d just created. Double-checked the plans. Went and found another tape measure, just in case the first one was wrong….

Nope – all still telling me I’d put the wall in the right place.

BUT I CANNOT SWING A CAT IN HERE!! Never mind fit in a bath, a shower, a couple of sinks and a loo.

The problem was, I’d lost all sense of proportion with the barn. The main living room, before any dividing walls were built, was over 40ft square. The area where the first stud wall went up was a huge cavernous space 50ft long and reaching right up into a vaulted roof.

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So creating a room that was a measly 7ft wide felt ridiculous.

In despair I did what most girls do. I phoned Mum! To ask how big her bathroom is. Maybe not the usual advice you seek from your mum, but it gave me a reference point I could relate to. And made me realise that I had completely lost my sense of spatial awareness – because at 7ft by 14 ft, the size of the bathroom I’d just created was probably twice the national average.

Even so, I pulled down newly built wall, moved it out a bit and put it back up again. (Well an extra 6 inches always makes all the difference.)

So on to the next room…… And the next….. And the next.

The excitement soon began to fade. Because it wasn’t just about creating rooms. All of the external walls had to be framed out, so I could insulate the building. Which meant in the main living room building a stud wall 5 metres high.

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Insulation wasn’t the only reason for framing the building. I also needed to hide the damp proofing that was required in a number of places. Since I’m not a big fan of chemical solutions, I’d opted for a more mechanical solution, which came in the form of a giant plastic egg box on a roll.

Believe me, the novelty of building walls wears a bit thin when it also involves drilling into a granite wall to fix a giant egg box to it….

And on to the next room….and the next……

By now I would have been happy to never see another bit of wood again. Still on the positive side, at least I had the option of moving the walls to suit myself. Now I can swing that cat……

 
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Frogs and mushrooms…

One of the last jobs my builder completed before we went our separate ways was to fit the windows – all thirty of them – including 6 sets of French windows, a 17ft high wall of glazing in the music room and a glass roof over the snug above the fireplace. (The barn as I bought it was unusual in the number of openings it had, allowing me to incorporate masses of glass without upsetting the planning committee too much).

Relations with the builder by now were not great. The disaster with the foundations could be put down to inexperience (if I’m being polite – blatant incompetence if I’m not) but his apparent inability to comprehend the very simple concept that water will not flow uphill in the valley of the roof was beginning to worry me.

Unfortunately at this point the windows had already been ordered so it seemed easiest just to let him put them in before I let him go. After all, a window’s a window right. He must have put plenty of them in before – what could possibly go wrong? Well, call it minor detail if you like, but I did have to point out that that he’d put the windows in the glass roof in upside down (it was the little sticker I saw on the outside of the glass that gave it away- it read “this side of the glass should be on the inside of the building”…. ) And I do have one small window that will never open more than 2 inches because it was put in too close to the stone wall… But hey, easy mistakes to make, right?!

A couple too many for me; we parted company at that point!

Still, I had windows and they made a huge difference to the feel of the building. It suddenly felt like a place that might one day be habitable. Admittedly that was back in 2006, so there were still a fair few years to go. But it was at least a hint of things to come…

At this point on ‘that’ telly programme, you usually see people break open the champagne, or at least do a bit of a celebratory dance or some thing. Got windows = the building is wind and watertight. Big milestone in the project.

I wish! One of the problems with being a hands on builder on a project in Scotland while living and working in Germany is how long it was taking me to get the roof slated. Given the size and complexity of it, even if I had been there full time it would have taken a few weeks. As it was, with just the weekends available, it took me almost a year. The Scottish summer lasts about 3 days. The rest of the year it is wind, rain, snow or hail, and frequently all at once.
Well maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, but that’s what it felt like. I was up on that roof in all weathers!

So although the windows were in, the building was still exposed to the elements through the roof. Every time it rained my barn turned into a giant indoor swimming pool.

I tried everything I could to keep it dry. But the tarpaulins I put up to try to protect the building just got blown away in gale force winds. I bought a dehumidifier. I diligently swept all the water out every weekend. To no avail – might as well try and bail out the Titanic with a wineglass.

I had a family of frogs move into the library. They looked like they were having so much fun splashing around, I didn’t have the heart to evict them. I discovered mushrooms growing in the walls upstairs in the bedroom. (how’s that for rising damp?) There was so much damp in the building, the dehumidifier drowned. At that point I realised I was fighting a losing battle.

So I gave up trying to keep the place dry, waded through my living room in my wellies, and just accepted that when I did eventually finish slating the roof, it was going to take the building a very very long time to dry out. Well at least the frogs were happy…