29 Jan 2015

Fun with first fix


Every month i-build follows Will Anderson as his self-build adventure unfolds. This issue the cables and pipes go into his new low energy home.



If you like puzzles and problem-solving, you should enjoy self-build. Every day on site I find myself stopping and scratching my head, trying to work out how to resolve a new challenge or how best to get the result I want. This isn’t for want of drawings – my architect, Peter Smithdale of Constructive Individuals, has done an excellent job in providing these – but simply reflects the practicalities of turning drawings into a building. It’s rarely completely straightforward.

I’m in the middle of first fix at the moment, putting all the cables and pipes and ventilation ducts in place before the timber-frame walls get boarded up and filled with insulation, so questions are constantly arising about which routes to take the services through the building without one thing getting in the way of another. The studs of The Orchard are upended I-beams which reduce the heat loss across the wall because the web between its flanges are so thin. However threading pipes and cables through all these studs is a rather laborious task as holes have to be carefully cut in every one. I really don’t want to get this wrong.

Piecing together the puzzle

I have excellent professional support from Szymon Berlanga of SB Electrical Contractors to help with the wiring but I’m doing all the plumbing myself. I took a short course at The Builder Training Centre in Croydon, south London, which gave me the confidence to solder, glue and push-fit pipes as necessary. Nonetheless I’m pulling a lot of faces as I’m constantly rethinking how best to route the pipes through the network of joists and studs without messing up the final living space.

It’s been a slow job, partly because I’m a rookie but mainly – I like to think – because I’m determined to get it right first time and stay leak-free for years to come. I’ve had mixed experience with plumbers in the past: a plumber who cares about the quality of his or her work is worth every penny but a plumber who just wants to be in and out as fast as possible is likely to leave you with long-term problems to sort out. I’ve been left with one too many leaky toilets in the past, so I am taking all the time I need to install the toilets, pipes and soil stack myself.

There’s something quite satisfying about plumbing. It’s a bit like the board game Mousetrap: lots of little components that all come together in the end to create a single, seamless movement from one end to the other. It’s a game of two halves of course, with the water supply working on completely different principles to the waste. The supply pipes work under pressure so can go where they want, up, down and over, but the waste works under gravity and so must always be nose down. And never the twain shall meet.

It helps that the building will be so energy efficient that we will need minimal heating: a maximum of 800 Watts for the whole house when it is freezing outside, if our calculations are right. This is so low that we don’t need central heating and can get by with a few small electric radiators, which cuts out the expense and hassle of a boiler and all the heating pipes running around the house.

You only get this kind of pay-off if you go for the very best energy performance. So although I’ve lost the central heating, I’ve spent quite a bit of time recently laying the insulation on our ground floor. This is a ‘floating floor’ design: once the damp proof membrane was down on our slab, the floor was built up with 300mm of Kingspan insulation (yes, 300mm!) with 8’ by 2’ tongue and groove boards on top, which will eventually by finished with reclaimed parquet blocks. It’s going to be warm and wonderful.

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