Self-build is supposed to follow an orderly progression starting with groundworks and moving onwards and upwards: structure, roof, windows and doors, first and second fix, final finishes and Bob’s your uncle. That’s what the tidy timetables in the popular books on the subject say, at any rate. But, of course, few self-builds are rarely that straightforward.
The Orchard is a case in point. It’s not that things aren’t going to plan, though undoubtedly everything is taking longer than anticipated, but rather that the plan involves a dual timetable. For just as I was beginning the first fix of the weather-tight building, the scaffold came down and we started work on the porch and first floor conservatory right at the front of the building. These two rooms are both unheated spaces outside the insulated envelope, so they did not form part of our super-insulated and airtight timber frame. Instead, they are being built in the manner of the Victorian houses around us: solid brick walls, lots of draughts and a complete disregard for energy efficiency. All of which is rather refreshing after our extreme efforts to prevent heat loss in the main part of the house.
The porch is a traditional ‘buffer zone’ between the front door and the airtight inner door. It will be a cloakroom, a larder, a fruit store, and perhaps in time a brewery. It will have no windows other than the fanlight above the front door as it is intended to be a cool space, assisted by the solid brick walls. Solid brickwork – a wall with full brick length thickness – creates opportunities for decorative brickwork that are rare today, given that bricks are now mainly used for facing walls and so are only laid end to end. For the porch wall, the bricks were laid in Flemish garden bond: three stretchers and one header, then repeat. We picked out the headers in darker bricks to bring out the pattern.
Above the porch is the much warmer conservatory, with windows facing east and south. The timber frame company that supplied and erected our engineered timber frame, Touchwood Homes, also put up the traditional green oak frame for the conservatory. However the two frames could not be more different: the former is airtight, invisible and stable; the latter is full of gaps, open to the elements, and likely to move and shrink as it dries and weathers. As with any green oak structure, it will in time become twisted, cracked and characterful. The windows will be fitted with traditional leaded lights, to complete the Arts and Crafts look.
Even the floor between the two rooms was a reminder of how easy things used to be. No need for joist hangers, sound-proof insulation, plasterboard or swanky floor finishes. It was just a matter of banging in some two-by-eight joists – with the help of some resin anchors – and screwing down simple floorboards on top. All done in an afternoon and a perfectly good job.
I am not arguing that everything in construction has got too complex and we should go back to the old ways. I am very happy to have spent the time and money necessary to build an ultra-low energy house. I’m just pleased that every morning I will be able to open the open the conservatory door, step out into a traditional building, and feel the draught around my ankles.