So, how do I build a staircase?

I’m sure my architect must have thought he was being super cool and trendy when he came up with the concept of sloping the corridor that runs through the middle of the house, and I have to admit I liked the idea when he first suggested it.

Well these ‘architecty’ ideas may be all very well on paper, but who ever thinks about the practicalities of decorating. I decided I want to contrast my slate floor with some wood, but have you ever tried getting wooden planks to bend downhill?

I hadn’t actually given it a thought when I ordered the flooring. Fortunately I bought engineered board, which does have a degree of flexibility, but only because that’s what’s recommended for use with underfloor heating. It was good luck not good planning. And even with that little bit of bendiness, laying a wood floor on a slope is not a job for the fainthearted. Particularly as the unevenness of the concrete in my barn means my floor doesn’t just slope downhill from top to bottom; it also randomly slopes from side to side as well. Oh, and I had to work out how to get it to go round a corner too… Cue a lot of swearing, a fair few bruises and, being very girly about this, lots of broken nails.

Still, it went down a whole lot quicker than the slates did, and wasn’t anywhere near as messy to put down (or clean up afterwards!) And it made a huge difference to the look of the place.

So now the only thing left in terms of floors downstairs was a few steps… There is a reason for the slope in the corridor – pretty much every room in the house is on a different level. Aside from the bog standard straight staircase connecting the ground floor and the master bedroom suite, there are actually 10 other sets of steps in the house. Some of them, like the couple of steps up from the main entrance in the bothy and the steps down into the music room, had been put in when the concrete screed was poured – so all I’d had to do was put down slates to finish them off.

The steps from the corridor up to the kitchen were put in when the first concrete (before the finishing screed) was poured.  But that was done by Mr Incompetent Builder – the one that I sacked – which meant I had six steps, all different, with heights varying from 5-25cm and treads varying from 24-30cm. Not exactly the look I was aiming for, and highly unlikely to be passed by any pernickety building warrant inspectors who may happen to drop in.

So first job was to swot up on the building regs regarding staircases – minimum tread, maximum rise, how to calculate every step was exactly the same height, (clearly Mr IB didn’t read this chapter of the regs). And all of this can be a bit of a challenge when building off a sloping subfloor………a whole heap of things to figure out before just going out and buying a load of timber.

After mulling over the mess Mr Incompetent Builder had made of the kitchen steps, I came up with a cunning plan. I would turn 6 steps into 7 slightly shallower ones, by building a wooden frame and filling it with concrete, and then laying slates. How simple is that?

Elsewhere was not so straightforward. From the corridor down to the living room there was a small cliff-face, 4m wide, that needed steps, and similar going up into the TV room. I’d originally had very grand ideas about having solid oak steps built, but by this stage, the bank manager was not my friend. So I had to fall back on Plan B – out with the trusty old ‘Practical Housebuilding’ book, and a bit of DIY – Building a staircase – well how hard can it be?

First off, I went out and bought me a new toy; because it doesn’t matter how much I mark it off or how slowly I go, I can never make a totally square cut in a bit of wood. And wonky stairs because I can’t saw straight was not a good idea – well with this little beastie, problem solved!


I then I sat down with my calculator and a pencil and paper, trying to work out the whole tread/riser/wonky floor thing. And came up with a design that I have a suspicion is massively over-engineered! So terrified that it won’t be strong enough, I think I probably unnecessarily killed half a rainforest in the construction…

Still, when the frame was in place and I’d plasterboarded the risers, used up the leftover flooring on the treads, and added a natty but of trim to finish it off, you have to admit the finished result is impressive – if I do say so myself.

Another skill to add to the CV……!

Completely floored!

Walls all painted (apart from the bits I couldn’t reach), so what next? Time to think about flooring, and with underfloor heating through the majority of the ground floor, some form of stone was the obvious choice.

I decided to use slate, partly because I liked the variation of colour available, partly because, with somewhere in the region of 250 square metres to buy, it was among the cheaper options for natural stone; though prices and (as it turned out) quality do vary hugely. I love shopping, but trawling through endless internet sites in search of the perfect slate (at the perfect price) did become a bit soul-destroying. Eventually I found what I wanted and got it ordered. It arrived bright and early on a Monday morning; 4 pallets of slate, a pallet of tile cement and 2 half pallets of bathroom wall tiles. All delivered by one man and his van.

He wasn’t a happy bunny. With an order of this size he was expecting a few beefy builders to be around to help. Muttering under his breath about reading the delivery instructions, which apparently stated “there must be an able-bodied person on site to assist with the unloading”, he opened up the back of the van. Clearly, as a girl I can’t possibly be considered able-bodied. But I jumped up into the back of the van to help anyway.

Each pallet of slates contained 52 boxes, each weighing 24kg – time for a bit of weightlifting practise. To be honest, even weighing in at over a tonne, the pallets aren’t hard to move with a manual pallet truck IF you’re on a level surface and moving them to another level surface. Ha! My site would never make anything that easy. The land slopes away from the building at the front, and is anything but flat.

The first pallet, being close to the tail lift came out fairly easily, and when it was lowered to the ground, we managed to drag it most of the way off the tail, and Mr Happy Van Man drove the vehicle forward. Number two came out pretty much the same way. But by the time we got to the last couple of pallets, the van was clearly parked on the slope, and the two of us were hauling on the pallet truck trying to drag a tonne weight of slate uphill in the back of the van. At one point a pallet was getting caught in a piece of wood on the floor, so helpful Happy Chappy went to move it, letting go of his side of the pallet truck – leaving me arm-wrestling with a tonne-weight trolley load of slates. I lost. And ended up on my bum being dragged into the back of the van by a runaway pallet. More bruises in unmentionable places!

It took us nearly an hour to offload everything, and as the van drove away, with Mr Happy Van Man clearly cursing the day Scotland ever came into existence, the collective weight of the delivery left sitting in my garden was about 5500 kg – and it now all needed shifting into the house. It was about 11am; I was already exhausted, and so far hadn’t managed to get a single slate into the house, never mind actually putting anything down on the floors.


But no rest for the wicked; the skies suggested rain was imminent (August in Scotland- what else is there?) so at the very least I needed to get the bags of cement indoors.

Ever optimistic, I’d had visions of getting at least one room slated that weekend. Instead I spent all weekend trying out for the world body building championships – at least that’s what it felt like – 5 tonnes lifted and shifted in one weekend. Why do I bother with gym fees?

But by the following weekend, my muscles had recovered (just), and my enthusiasm had returned (more or less). Time to actually start the flooring.

One minor drawback – because nothing should ever be simple with my house – was that some time between the plasterboarding and the painting, 2 shipping container loads of stuff had arrived back from India. (I went out with only half a container full – clearly indulged in a bit too much shopping out there!) So now I was stuck with 198 boxes getting in the way of putting slates on the floor. And when I say ‘boxes’ I mean anything from boxes of crockery to creatively cardboard-enshrined furniture. In other words, not particularly easy stuff to shunt around while your bucket of cement is going off…

The other ‘minor’ drawback I had was to do with evenness (or not) of the concrete subfloor. In places this is intentional; my architect had decided that it would be a super trendy idea if the main corridor was a continuous slope rather than putting in any boring old steps.  Unfortunately, where the concrete should have been flat it was, in places, doing imitations of a mini-Himalayan mountain range.

I think I mentioned earlier, the slate I bought was at the cheaper end of the spectrum. It was supposed to be calibrated to within 3mm, but in fact the thickness of the slates varied from 4mm (which broke as soon as you looked at it) to 15mm – in some cases from one edge to the other of a single slate. Just as well I changed my mind on using slate on the kitchen floor – it meant I had enough spare to cover all the broken and unusable ones. (But if you’re planning a slate floor yourself, take heed – you get what you pay for; cheap slates are a bit of a false economy.)

That said, in my case, the unevenness of the slates proved a bit of a blessing in disguise. I could use them to offset the unevenness in the floor. Though that did mean that laying my slates turned into something like a giant game of Tetris!

I thought it would take me a few weekends; it actually took 6 months. And I never want to see another bucket of tile cement in my life!

Bit of a paint job…..

It’s amazing what a bit of plasterboard can do. Suddenly I had rooms that felt like they might one day be habitable. So now I get to think about the exciting stuff. Paint, colour, tiles, curtains….. Well almost. One step at a time.  I’d opted not to plaster skim the boards –  partly on the basis of time and expense, but actually because I couldn’t face the hassle of finding a reliable plasterer.

As long as plasterboard is decently jointed, the board gives an acceptable surface finish ( well isn’t that the point of it??)  Okay, it’s not quite that super smooth, sharp, shiny finish you’ll find in an ultra modern posh pad in the city, but let’s face it, there is nothing super smooth and shiny about the barn, so why be different with the walls.  But  I did decide to put a decent basecoat on before I got down to the pretty stuff. I mean, one extra coat – couldn’t take that long, could it?

So I sat down to work out how much paint I needed to buy. And promptly fell off my chair.  If my calculations were correct, the combined paint area of the ceiling and wall was almost 1000 m² – 25 buckets of basecoat. I think I know how those guys painting the Forth Bridge feel… Yet another job I wrongly assumed I could get finished in a weekend!

But area of wall/ceiling to be painted was actually the least of my problems. I know I’ve mentioned this before, but some of my rooms have very high ceilings. My main living room is almost 5 metres high. The music room is even higher, because it’s vaulted.

When I started my paint job I had a bog-standard 6-rung stepladder. I found myself standing on the very top rung, with a paint roller on an extendable pole, that was in turn attached to a long bit of wood, trying to paint that living room ceiling. Painting the forth bridge would have been quicker. I went out a bought a bigger ladder – the largest I could get was a 12-rung beastie. With a height of 3.7m it got me closer to the ceiling, but I still needed the roller on an extendable pole.

Did I mention the vaulted ceiling? The only way to reach that, even with my extendable pole fully extended was slightly problematic:
(Don’t try this at home…)

And a roller won’t actually get right into the angle of the ceiling. So I also had a paint brush on a very very long stick.

And there’s worse. My architect decided it would be really trendy to have a sloping corridor through the middle of the house, rather than putting steps in. A sloping concrete floor, a ladder, a 5m high ceiling and a tin of paint is not a good combination. And before any smug genius out there suggests I should have just hired a scaffold tower, well they don’t work on sloping floors either!

I have (not so) fond memories of standing on the very top rung of an extension ladder, extended beyond the recommended safety point, leaning practically vertical against the wall, paintbrush in one hand, tin of paint in the other. Precarious is a good word to use here. It’s probably just as well I don’t have any pictures to share of those particular ladder tricks – I would probably be put forward as a potential trainee candidate for the Darwin awards!

Though it does have to said, a basecoat of paint made another huge difference to the appearance of the building.

But the thought of having to do it all again with at least two coats of colour was a depressing thought. Somehow, ‘decorating’ had lost some of its appeal! Fortunately, the colour seemed to go on a lot quicker than the basecoat. And completely changed ‘the look’ again. It’s almost starting to look like a normal house!

But I have a confession. To this day there remains a small but very awkward part of the living room ceiling that has defied even my acrobatics to reach with a paintbrush. I think I shall have to leave it as a talking point, see if anyone notices and just call it contemporary art.

Getting plastered….

Anybody who has been following my blog will know by now that I have been building my barn on the basis of two guiding mantras:

  1. If I’ve read it in a book of course I’ll be able to do it
  2. How hard can it be?

And on the whole that thinking has served me pretty well; the slates have stayed on the roof for years in spite of the best efforts of Scotland’s gale force winds, the internal stud walls are still standing, and the cows have not yet managed to breach my defences.

Seriously, I consider myself an honorary builder. If ever the stress and the lunacy of being an accountant in the big smoke becomes too much, maybe I should consider a change of career.

But I confess there is one trade that I have not mastered, and if I’m honest, I doubt I ever will.

When I moved out of the caravan into the cottage of the house, it was a concrete shell. Desperate to introduce a few creature comforts, I decided that I would have a go at plastering. Since I would be lining the place with plasterboard, it was just a case of applying a skim coat. Well how hard can that be? Mix up a bucket of plaster, spread it over the wall and smooth it off to that perfect plastered finish…..

Well the first challenge was just trying to put the plasterboard up. Fairly straightforward getting it fixed to the walls, but have you ever tried to manhandle a 1200 x 2400 sheet of plasterboard on to a ceiling on your own? With nothing more than a stepladder and a couple of acrow props? The air turned blue. Very quickly.

Having boarded it out, things went from bad to worse. In theory it’s just tape joints, apply plaster skim, and smooth over. It’s all in the wrist action I’m told.

Clearly my wrist action needs practice – I spent an entire afternoon with a circular sander trying to smooth out the Himalayan mountain range effect my plastering attempts had created. My neighbours had been on the point of calling the fire brigade when they saw the huge clouds of white smoke billowing from the open windows. Until they saw me emerge from the building looking like the survivor of an explosion in a flour factory. They realised the ‘smoke’ was in fact just plaster dust.
And the walls? Well the politest word I can think of is ‘rustic’…..

The depressing thing was that it had taken me a couple of weekends to complete (badly) just one small room in the cottage. The thought of tackling the rest of building, with its ceilings that are, in places, 5m high, was more than I could cope with. The average house probably takes about 120-150 sheets of plasterboard. In the end, the whole barn took about 400 boards. I’d put up about 20 in the one room I’d done. It would take me a decade to complete the place on my own.

Time for an executive decision. Since I was in any case about to jump on a plane back to India for a couple of years, I decided to hand the job over. Having finally found a tradesman I could trust, I left him to turn the air blue as he wrestled with the job of boarding the vaulted ceiling 5 metres up in the music room.

And I promised myself I would never touch plastering again.

But what a difference it made as the boards went up. Suddenly whole rooms started to emerge from the building site. It would soon be time for the exciting stuff to start. Must go and get a paint chart…..