Nature’s revenge

Sitting in the airport on Friday night, waiting for my flight home, I have to admit I was struggling to come up with ideas for my blog this week. I’ve related most of the historical fun and games I’ve had with building the barn, so now you pretty much get to read it ‘live action’ (if you get my drift.) Which means if I don’t feel like doing anything, there’s nothing much to write about!

And having just had the week from hell at work, I wasn’t really feeling all that inclined to don the overalls and start grouting/plumbing/woodworking ….. Donning my PJ’s and spending a weekend on the sofa with a bottle of wine is much more where my head was. But that wouldn’t make for a great blog, would it?

Then I picked up a text from my neighbour: “Hi. Just to let you know, part of the big tree between us came down this morning….”

So, the revenge of  Mother Nature is the blog this week. Because OK, I admit, I’ve been bit smug about the fact that in spite of the ocean of rain that has fallen on Scotland in the last month or so, I am safe in the knowledge that I will never be flooded. Because I’m about 650 feet above sea-level on the side of a hill.

Unfortunately being stuck up a hill also means I’m a bit more exposed to the gale force winds that are becoming a regular part of the Scottish weather, and I’ve spent a fair few nights lying awake over the years, listening to the wind howling and wondering whether I’ll still have a roof in the morning. And it’s not groundless fears: My pump house shed did once audition for a part as the farmhouse on the Wizard of Oz, landing at the bottom of the next field – if 250kg of shed can just fly through the air with the greatest of ease, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that a tree will come down one day.

So when I get a text like the one above, cue the panic. I instantly had a vision of a 60ft ash tree crashing through my roof. If I’d read the rest of the text before being distracted by my lurid imagination, I’d have discovered things weren’t quite so dramatic.

Remember that storm that buried most of the US under several feet of snow last week? Well by the time it got to Scotland it had turned into 100mph winds and yet more rain. (Like we haven’t had enough of that to last a lifetime already.) And it brought down part of the tree.

 

It didn’t come down through my living room roof – but that’s just the way the wind was blowing!

It meant I had to give up on the idea of being a couch potato all weekend. Since there’s more gales forecast for next week, I thought I’d better take a walk around the grounds to see if anything else at risk…

Well everything looks to be OK. The pump house shed is still in situ. There’s a couple of trees in the woods behind the house that look a bit the worse for wear, but I think they’ve just grown that way.

 

In any case, how would I actually know if a tree was likely to come down – it’s not like they hang a sign on their branches “I’m gonna fall soon”…

I’ll be honest, I’ve always been very nervous about the trees in my neighbour’s garden. Once upon a time there were four, but one of them was taken down several years ago when it was deemed unsafe.

Happily my neighbour has now decided the remaining three are also to come down. It’s a shame, as I do like having trees around, but I admit I’ll feel safer when these ones are gone. And there’s a silver lining in all this – those solar panels I’ve been planning will be much more effective if they’re no longer partially shaded…..

Just for the stove fitter!

To any of my blog followers who are reading this because they got an email notification and are wondering why I’ve started posting ‘out of hours’, well actually this isn’t really for you. I decided that the easiest way to share a load of multi-megabyte photographs without exploding my outbox was to dump them on here.

So sorry – but this is just lots of dull photographs, intended to illustrate the madness of my roof design to the lovely chap who’s designing the flue for my woodburner. Normal service will resume again on Sunday!!

Julian – for your info:

  1. The fireplace – as it was being built

2. The fireplace finished

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3. The loft space

 

4. The measurements (shown as if standing at the opposite end to the picture above)

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5. The roof angle

Based on my O’level maths trigonometry

140 ÷ 200 = 0.7

Tan-¹ (0.7) = 34.99°

(and yes, there was a spirit level under the set square!)

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6. The challenge!

There is a supporting beam, just beyond the point where the flue will need to come through the wall of the snug into the loft space, that cannot be cut/moved/tampered with… (or at least not without involving an engineer and a huge amount of money…)

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I think there is sufficient clearance space but there is also a noggin at the top of the plasterboard of the wall of the snug that needs to be taken into account

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The light fitting will be moved, that’s not a problem. But I think that although the measurement of that piece of plasterboard is just over 40cm, the maximum height that the flue pipe can come through, in order to be clear of all obstacles is about 30cm

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Hope all this helps!

A great big ball of light….

My attention to detail is a bit like a politician’s promise – short-lived and unreliable.  So whilst I could dance around in a big, draughty cow-dung filled barn, getting madly excited with wild ideas of what it might eventually look like, I wasn’t really that great when it came to checking all the details on the plans.

I mean, yes there were lots of light fittings and sockets on the plan, but I never really tried to envisage what that meant in reality. That’s just plugs and lightbulbs – all ‘stuff I can deal with later’. But of course, all the necessary wiring in the first fix electrics goes in long before you get to actual light fittings. And once all the plasterboard is then put in place, it becomes a bit problematical to make major changes. As a result I do have a couple of unnecessarily dark corners. Hindsight is a wonderful thing – I do wish I’d paid a bit more attention. Hey ho! Guess I’ll just have to buy a few extra floor lamps!

IMG_1286The one place where I did actually intervene was in the music room. As a result of the irregularities of the stone wall and the way I decided to frame them out, I’ve ended up with a ledge half way up the wall. I decided it would look quite cool to put some uplighters on the ledge. And it does give a lovely wash of light up the wall.

But it was also almost the cause of me burning the place down.

The sparky had put the fittings in place; I was just adding the finishing touches. I decided to use up some of my leftover oak floor boards to trim the ledge. So I cut a hole through the boards to fit the first light. Then moved on to the second. And wandered off to get something, without realising I’d put a piece of floorboard over the top of the light fitting. And also without realising the lights were on. And got a bit distracted. (Yes, I know – attention span of a kitten in a wool shop..) A while later, at the other end of the house, I thought I could smell burning. I got back to the Music room to find the oak boards smouldering and the light fitting melted. Oops!

So I’ve steered clear of getting involved in the rest of the light fittings, which is maybe  just as well!

As a result, for the most part I’ve ended up with downlighters (about 100 of them in total) as the Mr Sparky’s failsafe-total-lack-of-imagination-fallback option. In the one room that I said I want proper pendant lights of some sort, he has put in a bog-standard plastic ceiling rose and left bare bulbs hanging. OK, to be fair, he’s a sparky not an interior designer, and he didn’t know what else to put up there, because I hadn’t managed to find my dream light fittings at the time.

But these bare bulbs are suspended from a cable that is about 10cm long in a room that has a 5m high ceiling:

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To say it looks ridiculous is being polite!

So this weekend I’ve decided to do something about it – though hopefully without burning the house down this time.

I found my perfect dream to-die-for lights on the internet ages ago. Unfortunately they were a couple of thousand squids each and I need 2 of them. I’ve been hunting everywhere for an alternative that doesn’t need a second mortgage, but without success.

So I have come up with a cunning plan. Baldric will be proud of me. I’m going to make my own by buying a couple of bog-standard chandeliers and creating some large globes around them using hula hoops (the gymnastic kind, not the ones you eat!) OK, it probably sounds a bit weird and hideous, but I know what I’m trying to get to. Trust me. It’ll work.

And for anyone who wants to try this at home, in true Blue Peter style, here’s what you will need.

  • A bog-standard chandelier
  • A couple of random spare bits of oak (I used leftover worktop)
  • Some wooden gymnastics hoops
  • Pliers
  • Glue
  • Varnish
  • Some metal chain
  • A large hole cutter
  • A small hole cutter
  • A router
  • A ball of string
  • A couple of 4 inch screws
  • Sticky-back plastic (just kidding)
  • The patience of a saint (not kidding)

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First problem is that most bog-standard chandeliers are made for bog-standard houses, which have bog-standard ceiling heights.

To make them long enough to look even vaguely sensible in a room with 5m high ceilings, I needed to make the drop longer.

So I went out and bought some chain. Fortunately there was quite a bit of extra cable, so a bit of nifty handiwork with a pair of pliers, and my ‘chandelier’ was a foot longer. (Could have done with another 3 feet to be honest, but there wasn’t enough cable length.)

Then to make the ‘globes’. Cut out a large circle of wood. Route it round the edges to give a more professional finish. Then cut a smaller circle out of the middle of it. Saw a few notches round the edges of each circle. Now all you need to do is cut the hoops in half and slot them in to the notches. Easy, right? Well in truth you’ll need a maths degree to figure out how much to cut out of each hoop to ensure that they still create a perfect circle when you join the whole thing together.

In the absence of a maths degree, I made do with a ball of string and guesswork….

How simple is that???

Now all I need to do is get it up to the ceiling and wire it in. How hard can that be?

The original light fitting was  a mere 4 kg. And although individually the wooden hoops weren’t particularly heavy, by the time I’d added half a dozen of them to each light, the weight had doubled. Bear in mind that in order to be able to secure it to the ceiling, I would need to be able to hold the fitting in one hand whilst wielding screwdriver in the other.

But hey. I’m a gym bunny – I can lift 8kg in one hand no probs. I think my PT would be insulted if I couldn’t. But the problem is, that one-handed 8kg lift has to be whilst climbing a step-ladder. And such is the height of the room, that I’m going to have to ignore this:

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The only way I can reach the ceiling is by standing on the ‘paint-pot shelf’…

And if it all becomes too heavy, or I lose my balance and have to let go of the light, well underneath it is my lovely hand-carved teak, glass-topped dining table – which is too heavy to shift out of the way. So dropping the chandelier is really not an option…

And finally, this was fairly late in the evening. Obviously I’d need to disconnect the power to the lights before I started playing around with the electric fitting.

So, carrying a rather bulky 8kg in one hand up to the very top of a large step-ladder in the dark with just a head torch to see by…… Well why make things simple????

I made it. But I’ll confess to feeling quite shaky when I got back down to earth!

Well that’s one done. One more to go. But I’m bored with this now – I want a different ball of wool to play with……….

Pythagoras in the roofspace

The heating engineer finally made it up to the house on Friday afternoon, and although he has managed to get the system fixed, it can only be turned back on slowly, room by room, so the heat pump isn’t overloaded.

Which meant with the temperatures outside dropping below freezing, when I arrived late on Friday night, my large stone barn had turned into an enormous fridge. It is slowly coming back to life, but in the meantime I’ve been walking around indoors all weekend wearing coat, scarf, hat, gloves, boots and thermal underwear!

So I’ve decided the priority on my ‘to-do’ list is getting the wood-burning stove installed in the living room.

I’ve already got the (shaped like a coffin) hearth finished. I’ve even bought in a large supply of logs ready for burning. All I’m missing is the stove itself.

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In an ideal world you plonk a fire down on its appropriate hearth, and take the flue up through the ceiling and out through the roof in a nice easy straight line.

My barn would never allow anything that simple. A straight line above my hearth takes you up into the snug and out through a glass roof.

I’m sure it is possible, theoretically, to put a flue through a glass roof. But I’m equally sure it would be eye-wateringly expensive.

And even if I could get the flue safely through the glass, building regulations require that a flue either a) clears the ridge of the roof or b) extends for a minimum of 2.3m beyond the point it exits the building. Given the height of my roof relative to the glass, it’s a close call on which of those rules I would have to apply. Either way I would need more guy ropes than a circus tent.

And even then, every time there was a howling gale, (which, let’s face it, is most of the time in Scotland) I would just be sitting there waiting for the crash……

I have come up with a cunning alternative. Take the flue up through the ceiling into the snug. Then angle it, just below the glass roof, through the wall into the loft. Then I can run it below the rafters and out through the roof close to the ridge.

No guy ropes. No glass. No second mortgage required to pay an engineer….

That’s not to say it’s going to be simple. Since I don’t have a chimney in place, I’m going to have to install twin-wall flue. There’s still a whole heap of regulations that need to be adhered to. So I googled it. And came across a very helpful website with a lovely chap who promises he can design a flue for any situations. So I sent him an explanation of my fireplace set up and a very precise drawing to illustrate what I mean….

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He’s promised to get back to me soon, but in the meantime asked if I knew what is the angle of the roof?

Apparently modern roofs usually have a pitch of 45 degrees, but the barn’s been around a while, so I don’t know whether the roof can be considered modern. Besides which, it was Mister Incompetent Builder who rebuild the roof, so who knows what kind of angle it pitches at. Only one way to find out….

First I need to get up into the rafters…with a set square and a spirit level.

Now I need to remember my O’level maths days. Pythagoras theorem: the square of the hypotenuse is the sum of the squares of the other two sides….

Right. Got that. So now I can apply the trigonometry bit. With a bit more help from Google I’ve decided my roof pitch is 35 degrees. Which I suspect may cause a few problems. The angles on the twin wall, from what I’ve read, only come in 45 or 30 degrees. I have a nasty feeling that using the 30 degree bend is going to take the pipe right through a load-bearing joist……. (which is why I need an expert to design it.)

So while I’m up here, I might as well take a few more measurements. I’m sure that stove fitter chap will be asking for them….

 

Expanding foam is not a good hair gel

Welcome to a very wet weekend in Scotland. I don’t think it’s stopped raining at all up here this year!

The amount of water that has fallen on Scotland is unprecedented. Flooded roads are closed, the low lying fields have turned into skating rinks and the villages in the valley are stockpiling sandbags.

Since I’m about 600ft above sea level I’m not directly impacted. I mean, if I ever get to the point of having to buy in the sandbags, then frankly most of the UK will have drowned. But that doesn’t mean the rain isn’t causing problems. And I’m not just talking about the 20 mile detour I had to take to get to Dundee. The barn may be unlikely to flood, but it is very prone to leaks!

Anyone buying an ancient old barn for conversion might as well get used to the fact that it will be full of holes, which will need patching, filling or rebuilding at some point. For me it has been pretty much a constant battle keeping the water out of this building. And my efforts haven’t exactly been helped by employing a supremely incompetent builder who honestly did not understand the concept that ‘water does not flow uphill…..’

In fact, I’ve had so many problems that I invented a new phobia for it – ‘the-fear-of-the-sound-of-running-water-in-the-barn’.

But whilst it was depressing to get up to the building and find pools of water on the floors and windowsills, to be honest, given the sheer volume of rain we’ve had, it wasn’t really that much of a surprise.

Unfortunately it seems some of the remedial work undertaken in the Summer last year hasn’t been as effective as I’d hoped. I had most of the outside of the building repointed in an effort to keep the inside dry but somewhere the water is still seeping in through the stone, running down the walls and dripping through the plasterboard above the window. Well actually above three different windows…

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I got the ladder out and in the pouring rain went out to check the gutters weren’t blocked. They weren’t. Unfortunately, beyond that, there’s not much I could do. If the problem is the pointing it will have to be redone. But not in weather like this. And not by me – I’ve decided to wimp out on that job and gave my contractor chap a call. He can sort it out.

It’s not that I’m not capable of mixing up a batch of lime mortar, raking out the old stuff and squidging in the new stuff. But in this weather – no thanks!

The contractor came up to inspect the damage. While he was there, I decided to point out a few other jobs he could have a look out. Most of them to do with unwanted water in the building.

One of these was the top of the wall/roof in the boiler room. It seems to be permanently damp, but it’s not entirely clear where the water’s coming from.

I’d had a go at fixing this one myself between Christmas and New Year. I’d decided to try squirting some expanding foam along the inside of the roof ridge, in the hope that it might fill in any rogue invisible gaps and stop the water running down the walls.

It wasn’t the most accessible of jobs; because of all the pipes running along the walls and the position of the rafters, I couldn’t get the ladder close enough to reach the top of the roof. So I was doing a bit of a contortionist act to get the nozzle of the can into the gaps in the top of the wall. And since there’s no light in the boiler room, on a murky Winter’s afternoon in Scotland, I was working in semi-darkness.

And that’s when I felt something land on my head. Now I may well be macho enough to trash a JCB or prance around the roof without a safety harness – but when it comes to unseen ‘creatures’ dropping on my head, I’m about as girly as you can get. I have a horror of spiders and creepy crawly things. I practically fell down the ladder in my haste to get rid of whatever it was.

It wasn’t a spider, bat, rat, bird or anything alive. It was far worse. It was a large blob of expanding foam.

If you’ve never used the stuff, it comes out of the can as a glutinous expanding mass. Very useful once it dries as it can be cut, sanded, painted, plastered or otherwise finished as you want. But at the point it first materialises, it is very, very sticky.

So the worst thing you can do is touch it. In my defence I will point out that I had no idea at that moment what it was that had dropped onto my head. But still, it really wasn’t a good idea to reach up and touch it, to see what it was. And in doing so, sort of smear it into my hair.

The next worst thing you can do (having smeared it over half your head) is attempt to wash it off. Sticky expanding foam doesn’t go well with water. It starts to set like superglue…

I blame the manufacturers. I mean surely they must know that there might be a need for a girl to find out how to get the stuff out of her hair – they ought to put the necessary instructions on the can. In big red letters – do not add water…..

The third worst thing you can do (after both of the above) is attempt to put a comb through it. The teeth of the comb all broke off and stuck to the matted superglued hair. I came out of the bathroom with dripping wet hair, looking like I’d had a hair-pulling contest with a treacle hedgehog.

(No – there are no photos. Not even for the sake of blog hits would I let a picture like that go public!)

At this point, if I’d been on my own, I’d have had to get the scissors out and cut a great chunk out of my hair.

Instead I did what any girl does in an emergency – went to find Mum – who patiently spent the next hour or so gently separating my hair and teasing all the congealed foam out strand by strand.

I felt like I’d spent a couple of hours headbutting a cactus – but at least I wasn’t bald!

That’s why my contractor chappy has now been given the job. And my New Year’s resolution is to wear my hard hat more often…….

Can you feel a draught around here…..?

My first Christmas at the barn. Well what can I say? On the plus side, the Aga cooks a wicked Christmas dinner, and my snazzy new freezer providing ‘crushed-ice-on-demand’ made whipping up a Flat White Martini far too easy.

On the down side, my super efficient, eco-friendly heating system decided to start playing up on Christmas Eve. Having finally rectified all the cowboy installation issues earlier this year, it has been working like a dream for the last six months. Sods law it decides to break down on Christmas Eve…

It had cut out when we arrived, and had obviously been off a while as the house was stone cold. I turned it back on, topped up the pressure in the tank, and assumed it would eventually warm up again.

But the next morning the house was still feeling far too cold; the system had cut out again overnight – this time on a high pressure warning.  I tried the good old ‘turn it off and turn it back on again’ ruse. It kicked into life – and died an hour later. I coaxed, I cursed, I swore. No response. Every time I turned it back on, it revved up making a noise like Concorde taking off and 30 seconds later the high pressure warning light kicked in and shut it all down.

The problem with having something like a ground source heat pump instead of a bog-standard gas boiler, is that it is not a mainstream technology. If your gas boiler breaks down, you can just phone British Gas; you’d probably need to mortgage your house to pay the call-out charge on Christmas day, but theoretically it would be possible. But the Renewables industry is unregulated, and as such 90% of firms seem to be cowboys who are clueless about the systems they sell. Finding someone local in an emergency isn’t easy (Read my earlier blog on the joys I had fitting my system if you don’t believe me!).

I am very fortunate in having found a heating engineer who knows my system inside out and back to front. And he doesn’t believe in the bells and whistles and ‘nice-to-have-but-not-really-necessary’stuff that can really rack the costs up. In short, a reliable and honest heat pump engineer – in the Renewable Energy industry that’s like, well, needles and haystacks come to mind ……

Unfortunately he lives a hundred or so miles and a ferry ride away on an island off the West Coast of Scotland. I couldn’t quite bring myself to ring him on Christmas Day.

I waited until the day after Boxing Day and then, feeling very guilty, sent a “Merry Christmas, Happy New Year. P.S. the heatpump’s packed up” text. He phoned me back within the hour. After a lengthy discussion he decided there were two issues: 1) the valve that switches the system between heating and hot water wasn’t working, and 2) there’s air in the system. Not much I could do about the first point, other than turn the hot water off. Fortunately the shower in the cottage is electric, so we did have one working hot shower. It could have been worse.

And I did manage to bleed some of the air out of the heating pipes, which meant the system would work for about 8 hours at a time before shutting itself off. Unfortunately it takes about that long for the building to start to feel warm. So it wasn’t just the G&T’s that were feeling a bit icy over the festive period – we spent most of Christmas wrapped up under duvets!

It’s at times like this, when the outside temperature has dropped and a gale is blowing outside, that you really start to notice how draughty your house is….

These days, building regulations for new builds insist that houses are built as hermetically sealed airtight boxes, to the extent that things like trickle vents have to be manually added, so a little bit of air can circulate without having to open the windows – otherwise people living in brand new houses would probably all suffocate.

Not the case in a barn conversion. As I think I’ve mentioned, the mice (and in places the rain) don’t seem to have any trouble finding their way into the building – so you can imagine what the draughts are like.

As a sort of open plan room with a ceiling up to 5 metres high, my main living room isn’t the easiest space to heat. And with no underfloor heating working, it isn’t helped when the howling gales outside are finding their way in through the ill-fitting door, around all the window frames and under the window cills.

My Dad armed himself with a roll of masking tape and went work, essentially taping us up inside the house.

While I set to work in the music room, where it felt like the Bora wind from Siberia was coming down from the roof.

I found an old duvet, and started putting it to better use…..

It certainly did the trick. But I’m not sure that the view from outside, where the inside of an old duvet shoved up between the window and the roof space is visible, is really the kind of look I’m aiming for.

I think one of my New Year’s resolutions will have to include finding some more permanent draught proofing solutions. That and getting the heatpump properly serviced….!