Saturday, 3 March 2012

Living in the Winter Palace, part one


It's a long time - four and a half months - since I last blogged about this house. Then, it was three walls of raw straw bales covered with the skeleton of a roof covered by tarpaulins. Now, I'm sitting in my bed in my upstairs bedroom, leaning back against the panelled wall. Downstairs, in the kitchen, a kettle sits on the gas hob - it isn't worth lighting the big wood stove to boil a kettle. But when I want a hot, deep bath, the stove will heat it for me in a couple of hours.

Although it's a cold morning outside, the thick insulation in the roof, walls and floor mean I'm cosy here inside. And as I sit here and look around at my home, I know not only that I designed it and planned it, but that every piece of wood, every pipe, every wire in the house was cut and fitted by me. That isn't to say I haven't had help, of course. I've had lots of help. I have wonderful friends. And I'm grateful to them. But this is still, very much, a home-made house: my home made house.

So how did I get from there to here?

The first week after the build weekend, I planked the roof. This was the first of many jobs which I assumed I could not do on my own, and then - of necessity - found I could. The bale walls were obviously very vulnerable to rain, and completing the roof was urgent. The planks run from the ridge to the eaves, and are each 4.3 metres long. Each plank had to be lifted onto the roof, carried along to its place, and nailed securely to th ridge and to each of the four purlins it crosses. More, the breathable membrane had to be laid and stapled onto the purlins first, and the planks laid over and nailed through it.

Some learning, here. First, my initial plan had been to space purlins at 1.2 metres, because that's the width of standard building sheet materials and also the width of a roll of roof insulation. I don't remember why I decided to space at one metre, but I'm jolly glad I did. Moving up and down the roof on purlins spaced at one metre was sometimes acrobatic, but possible. But it was at the limit of my stretch. To have worked, alone, on purlins spaced at 1.2 metres would have been much harder and much less safe.

Second, the strips of breathable membrane were a metre wide. You (obviously) can't step on the membrane when it is stretched, unsupported, over the purlins. You also can't easily reach across a metre of stretched membrane to position and nail a plank. So I learned quickly to stretch and staple down the further half of a strip of membrane, plank over that half, then stretch and staple the near half and plank that; and so on. The last few planks on each side were particularly difficult because there were no longer exposed purlins to stand on, and as a result there's one very untidy plank on the south side... but it's done.

The planks are 150mm wide and are laid in two layers. The planks of the lower layer are laid with 50mm gaps between them, and the planks of the upper layer are laid over these gaps. I'm told this style of roof is traditional in some parts of Russia; I first saw it (and did it!) on the roof of the cruck frame at Taliesin. That roof is eight years old now and very sound, so I thought I'd do the same here.

By the 16th of October I'd completed planking the roof, and the walls were protected from the weather. That night I moved in, and the following morning - my birthday - I woke up in the Winter Palace for the first time.

Insulating the roof didn't go to plan. The first plan had been to lay polythene sheet loosely over the purlins, lay the insulation into the sagging pockets, then lay the membrane over the insulation and plank over that. That didn't work for a number of reasons, and so I next planned to plank the roof and install the insulation felt between the purlins from the underside, and support it with cheap nylon net until I could afford to line the roof.

The insulation I used was glass wool felt. I used it because it was extremely cheap, and I was by then extremely broke. It is both heavy and floppy, and it proved completely impossible to support it between the purlins while I tried to staple up netting to support it. I was very much at the end of my money, and didn't even really have enough to eat, but something had to be done. I had planned, ultimately, to line the roof with matchboarding, which would have looked beautiful - but there was no way I could afford matchboarding, and, in any case, I couldn't see how I would support the glass felt while I got matchboarding up. So I bit a bullet and bought twenty sheets of cheap spruce plywood, at eleven pounds a sheet delivered. Even with the sheet plywood it was tricky getting the insulation up, particularly the top panel of each bay near the ridge, and, indeed, I only got the last panel up last weekend - but I get ahead of myself.

It had always been the plan to reuse the floor from the summer palace as the upstairs floor of the winter palace, so as soon as the outer cladding of the roof was completed and I'd moved my bed and the few pieces of furniture I'd had in the summer palace, I dismantled it, brought it here, and re-erected it. By the end of October I had the outer cladding of the rear gable wall complete, polythene stretched over the window opening, and the wall packed with insulation felt held in place with more of that wonderful breathable membrane. I moved my bed upstairs.

Meantime, a proper stove which could cook and heat water had always been budgetted for. I knew that, no matter how broke I was, the difference it would make to my comfort and morale was worth it. So I'd ordered a very cheap Bulgarian stove, a Plamark-B, which I shall probably blog more about later. It arrived with its chimney at the end of October, and in the first week of November I got it installed and fitted. Raising the chimney was another of those jobs I thought I couldn't do alone, and then, perforce, found I could. Obviously, a stove with a back boiler can't be lit without basic plumbing, and it took me until mid-November to get that installed.

At that point, I had four straw walls, a good roof, and a stove. I could survive the winter. OK, so the front of the building was closed only by some second-hand polythene sheet and a tarpaulin curtain, but it was habitable. I'd got there. I had, indeed, reached the very end of my money, but I'd got there.

I haven't, in these essays, dwelt much on mental illness, but I was still pretty ill, often unable to talk at all with strangers and sometimes unable even to be with friends. Some days I was unable to do anything at all. I was quite unable to cope with dealing with the Department of Work and Pensions, which is why I'd claimed no benefit (to which I would have been entitled). I'd completed the basic structure of my house, so I wasn't, any longer, strictly homeless, but I was literally starving. Things were extremely bad.

And then I had a quite bizarre change of luck - so bizarre that it merits another essay.
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