With the busy Christmas period finally over we had a little time to begin work on Luke's bedroom. I ripped out the "fitted cupboards" and discovered that it was once a very small en-suite. The inside of the cupboard was tiled floor to ceiling (and later hidden by artex) and the plasterboard behind was rotten and mouldy. After ripping out the cupboard I began the job of decommissioning the old hot water system. The header tank was so big that the roof space had obviously been built around it and there was no way to get it out without cutting it in half and ripping another hole in the ceiling. Before the tank and pipework could finally be removed I had to put in a temporary cold water feed to the shower in the family bathroom. All that is left to do to complete the decommissioning is disconnect the heating pipes that come from the oil boiler.... next month! Oh yes, I also got my saxophone for Christmas so I need to set aside time to practice.
November and December are the busiest time at the office so we couldn't expect to achieve too much in the house, however, since buying an Owl electricity usage meter we've been on a campaign to reduce our consumption and the electric heater in the bedroom simply uses too much. Therefore one major job we had to complete was to get the underfloor heating working in the bedroom as the weather really was getting cold. The plan was for a temporary solution just to get us through the winter so we removed the radiator in the back bedroom and simply connected the underfloor heating pipes onto the radiator pipes. However, there's always an however, before I connected this up I checked the pipework that had been supposedly pressure tested by the plumber and found that one of the pipes had a nail going straight through it! Another reason not to recommend that particular plumber. Luckily it was the shortest pipe that fed the small bit of the floor by the bedroom door, so wouldn't be too badly missed. We linked up the pipes into a single circuit then connected it to the old radiator pipes in Luke's bedroom. I really didn't want to drain the whole heating system so I cut the pipes and whipped off the radiator ready while Karen was ready to pop the new pipes in its place. Unfortunately, the water in the heating was still quite warm and Karen struggled. A few puddles of black hot water later and it was all connected.
Unfortunately, when I started to bleed the system and rebalance the radiators the pressure kept going down until eventually nothing was happening and I just couldn't workout what was wrong. Eventually it clicked, the expansion tank in the roof was not filling up, the float had stuck but I could not get to the tank to sort it out because the old hot water tank was in the way. Faced with somehow losing 4 stone to crawl through a gap barely big enough for a cat Karen had the great idea of making a hole in the ceiling in the back bedroom to get to the problem, and as we were planning on replacing the ceiling anyway that was the answer. One hammer and a lot of mess later the problem was fixed and we had heating again. The problem we now have is that the ensuit does not seem to get any heat but without ripping up the floor we do not know if or where the plumber insulated the floor and laid the pipes.
Another task was to continue replacing our lights with energy saving bulbs. We replaced the 400w of halogen spot lights in the kitchen with new fittings and two 15w bulbs. Better lighting at a 12th of the energy use, marvellous!
This month our main task was to complete the ensuite that had been only half useable for nearly 14 months since the builders completed the upstairs extension in September 2006. The first main job was to fit the shower enclosure which, although a simple task, highlighted how the walls were not entirely straight. This meant that there would be a lot of cutting of the natural stone tiles (thanks to Graham for the loan of the tile cutter). The plumbing for the recessed mixer tap was made easier due to the fact that we could get behind the stud wall through the access cupboard in the front bedroom.
Outside we did a bit more work on the path by the Blossom Alley, building the retaining wall at the edge of Rhododendron Walk using the smaller trunks of the connifers that we cut down last year. We also planted the 300 bluebells in the Birch Grove which were an anniversary present from Anne. Six months on from "the issues", I'm starting to want this place to feel like our home again and I am beginning to want to make progress.
We got a call from our friendly garden centre informing us that the 8 pink parasol blossom trees we wanted for Blosson Alley were in and ready for collection. This meant that we had to leap into action to dig out the first section of the bark path that will eventually run along the edge of the back garden. We collected the trees but made the mistake of mentioning the laurel bushes we would eventually need. They had just received a delivery of 25 so we bought 10 thinking that would be enough to create the perimiter hedge for the Birch Grove. Oh how wrong we were, having to go straight back and buy another 13. Although we managed to burst a pipe on Izzy she was invaluable in digging the path and boring the holes for planting them all.
Inside the house we put the new plumbing in place to connect the new water tank to the existing taps to allow us to begin the work of decommissioning the old tank. This allowed us to start using the free hot water provided by the solar panels. We also had to install the new electric cable for the backup emmersion heater and did a little bit more stripping and refitting of the back bedroom. In the garage I wired in some low energy bulbs which come on when the door opens.
We arranged for our solar panels to be fitted in the last week of August and had quite a bit of work to do to get the back bedroom ready for the new unvented tank. We started by removing the old cupboard and fitting temporary plumbing to provide mains cold water to the correct location as well as temporary pipework to the kitchen tap. We also had to extend the new upstairs ring main into the bedroom to provide power for the solar power control equipment. This was enough for John (Sustainable Technology Ltd) to get to work. As part of the renovation of the room we started to pull down the plasterboard walls of the bedroom to replace the old and thin insulation with new Kingspan insulating board. New TV and network points were wired in place but it will be some time before this room will be ready for use again.
A relatively slow month for progress in the house except the conservatory which Karen nicely decorated while off work. We then bought some shoe cupboards, chairs and a nice rug to finish it off. We also planted various young plants in the garden only to find that they were a delicacy for rabbits! To be honest, the issues with Sarah have taken away the will to do anything in the house. At this point I would consider selling the house and moving but I'm sure things will improve with time.
The summer was a time to deal with simple maintenance in the garden, cutting the grass every 5 minutes and battling against the brambles that invade every part of the garden. Unfortunately, after a year of hard labour our old wreck of a mower that came with the house finally died so we had to buy a replacement. We couldn't find any used mowers so were faced with buying something new, ouch! We found a good website (AbbeyGardenSales.co.uk) with a large choice but we bought nearly the cheapest mower available, a Husqvarna LT151, a great little machine with similar abilities to the old wreck we had. Ideally we should have bought a bigger mower, or something to go on the back of Izzy but we decided that over time the area of grass that we need to maintain will reduce as more trees get planted.
Before we can get a grant to help with the cost of solar water heating there are certain criteria that need to be met. One of these is the installation of cavity wall insulation. We contacted various companies but eventually decided on Mark Insulation Group who also deal with the energy saving grant paperwork. Before they would carry out the insulation they have a duty to check each source of heating for any CO2 emissions and adequate ventilation. The lounge had a coal effect stove in the fire place powered by 2 huge calor gas bottles outside. Unfortunately there was no ventilation brick in the lounge so they would not do the insulation work until either adequate ventilation was installed or the stove was removed. As we had never turned this on and had no intension to we disconnected the bottles (which were empty anyway), removed the pressure gauge and pipework then removed the cast iron stove. The cavity wall insulation was then carried out and the CO2 checks gave a "clean bill of health" for the oil boiler.
While this was all happening we also decorated our new bedroom (which had been completed 7 months earlier) and had a carpet fitted. As with our last home we had a speckled light coloured carpet and waxed pine woodwork but this time Karen wanted beige and brown walls. Her choice works really well and looks very stylish (in our opinion). So, finally completed, we moved into our new bedroom although the first night was not as we had hoped as issues with Sarah came to light which had a heavy impact on this family and our "home". But, trying to put that aside, we just have to think about getting the ensuite finished now.
This month we started our first project in the back garden, Birch Grove. We bought 10 Silver Birch and 10 Himalayan Birch from the Potted Garden Nursery which they delivered early April. Izzy proved that she was going to be an important team member, drilling the all holes for the trees with an auger in minutes. The trees were then planted and we made a stone circle from granite rocks in the middle to contain our bonfires, of which there were to be many over the coming months. We used Izzy to bulldoze a small tree which had been planted between the rowen and the copper beech, and to clear away the bramble bush around the base.
On the 28th we went up to London for Karen's Open University graduation to see her receive her MA at the Barbican Centre. She had worked very hard on this over the past years and I'm very proud of her!
July 06 - March 07
During the period of July to March my most pressing concern was the Business Unit and apart from the details below most of my time was spent renovating that. At the same time as buyng York Cottage we also bought our own run down industrial warehouse/offices, just to make sure we had enough to keep us busy! For the best part of 7 months I spent one day every weekend and 2 late evenings every week preparing the unit to receive all our stock and refurbishing the offices. Nearer the end of the unit renovation after she finished studying Karen come in to help with the decoration whenever she could. By the end of March we finally gave back the keys to the rented offices in the Enterprise Centre and the staff moved into our new comfortable premises. I have to say that by the end of this period I was completely run-down and drained of all energy and felt the closest I ever have to total exhaustion.
As part of our (Mark's) desire to do as much of the home improvement as our commitments allow, we bought a cheap chinese backhoe and a cement mixer for Izzy from Benye UK. This was delivered 90% assembled strapped inside a large metal frame on a lorry with a tail lift as requested by the seller. However, there unit was on the front of the lorry with no way of getting it to the tail lift so Izzy came to the rescue. I used the front loader to drag the crate off the side of the lorry then lower it onto it's end so the lorry could leave. Then using some rope to tie it to Izzy I lowered it to the ground but the next problem was how to get it into the back garden. Using planks of wood to provide a track across the grass we balanced it on a small pallet truck and slowly dragged it across the front garden and gravel drive around the back, not without a few problems. At one point this ton of metal fell off the pallet truck and in a moment of impatience I lifted the crate and put out my back, badly! We did eventually get the job done and after resting my back for 2 weeks we then had to somehow get the backhoe out of the metal crate. Using an angle grinder to cut the crate away we used Izzy to lift the machinery out and then completed the assembly.
We had a couple of days of great snow and it was lovely to spend time at home playing in the field with the dog. Also, after much searching around for a Thwaites Alldig (very rare) we eventually settled on buying a tractor off eBay. Izzy, a 4WD ISEKI TA530 was delivered on the back of a trailer and cost us £4500. We need to be sure she earns her keep! She had been used on a golf course and came fitted with a cab (minus doors) and a power loader. Now all we need are some tools to fit on the back.
January was spent recovering from the Christmas rush and enjoying the house. We bought one of the "swiss challets" which had been used in the Rochester Christmas Market and put his up on the concrete foundation of an old greenhouse next to the back gates. It looks like we should be selling ice creams from it but it makes a good garden shed.