Sherborne Big Build

Sherborne Town CouncilI am truly delighted to say that Huff and Puff Construction will be in Sherborne this summer helping the local community build their own straw bale community building!

I can't give too much away at the moment as the official launch is just about to happen, however suffice to say this project has been a long time in the planning and it's hugely exciting to finally be getting underway!  For the meantime I am referring to this project as the 'Sherborne Big Build', with a nod to the BBC DIY SOS bunch.

As soon as I can post more details I will do so here, and you can expect regular blog updates and updates on Facebook etc. showing our progress.

Please do a little sun dance for us!

The first year of Huff and Puff Construction

Huff and Puff Construction has now been running for over a year! I took a career break from my other day job (IT software and projects at Bournemouth University - BU) last year and started Huff and Puff Construction with the aim of bringing straw bale building to the masses. This was not such a strange career move as it might sound. I have been always been 'green' and an avid DIYer - and IT project management and building project management involve a great many similar skills. In fact research suggests (I can't find the link at the moment but will add it if I can), that building project management can result in much higher levels of satisfaction all round because its easier to get things right in the first place. However, I think that for all the methodologies in the world, the most important thing is taking care of the people involved, from the customer (very important of course!) to all the people doing the work. The importance of happy workers is often overlooked. And a natural building project has more chances than most to be a happy building project for everyone involved.

At the start of 2014 I had to return to the other day job for a while, which has made for an interesting and busy year to date. The good news is that business is most definitely looking up, and so the other day job has now gone (byeBU!) and I can concentrate fully on the important business of this year's work.

First up I've restarted work on Apple Tree Nook here at Huff and Puff HQ. You can see from the photos we are not out of the ground yet, but many valuable skills and experiences in using diggers and dumpers, health and safety and the best ways to reuse and recycle soil etc. have been gained or improved.  Please see the gallery on this post for a taster of where we are right now.  I'm not sure how much progress we'll make on Apple Tree Nook this year, as paid work is going to have to take priority, and money is tight.  If we can get the foundations and the plinth walls done I'll be happy, then everything else would be a plus.

I am pleased to say Huff and Puff should be involved in another two straw bale projects this year and may have our first project lined up for next year too. I hope to say more very soon about a community project towards the north-west of the county which will be this year's main focus. There is also a house build coming up in central Dorset in the summer that may feature the wonderful Straw Works, run by Barbara Jones (who if you're interested in straw baling in the UK you simply must look up - and do get her book: Building with Straw Bales: A Practical Guide for the UK and Ireland). I've had a few conversations with Barbara now and although last year I purposely didn't look too hard at Straw Works - I wanted to find my own way and ideas - now that I have I am very pleased that we seem to be on the same wavelength about a great many things.  Barbara has a number of builds under her belt that I can currently only dream of - and I'm hoping to make use of Barbara's consultation services in my upcoming builds to make sure we get things absolutely right.

As ever, please get in touch if you are thinking about a straw bale build, or any other natural building work this year or in the future.  I'm always more than happy to discuss your plans.

Doing business the Huff and Puff Construction way...

EthicsThe ethical stance of our business is very important to us. You hear a lot of horror stories about builders. The truth is the breakdown of communities and families means we often have to turn to people we don't know and trust them with work on our homes. Wouldn't it be great if you had friends and neighbours who knew how to help you build a house? (We'd love to see a time when that's a more likely scenario, but that's a subject for another post I think.) Websites that offer references have a part to play, but there's more to it than that. Most people I know - including me - would still rate a recommendation from friends or family above anything else when engaging tradespeople.

Our homes are a massively important part of our lives and we invest a lot of thought, time and money into them. Huff and Puff Construction's approach is to try to make any building project as pleasurable as possible. Building a new home, or adding to your existing home, should be a happy and positive time, even though there are various stresses involved. So why should you trust us with work? Especially as we are a new company and you can't (yet!) look at lots of completed projects? Well, please run through the following points about doing business the Huff and Puff way, and see if you like them.

Why and what? The most important thing in any building project is to decide to build the right thing.

Building generally addresses a need and the most important questions are: why do you want to build something - and what do you want to build to address that. It sounds simple, doesn't it? But often it isn't. Especially when you may need to get advice from all sorts of people to see if what you want is feasible and affordable etc. So where do you start? Well, we pride ourselves on taking the time to discuss with you what you'd like, and help define your requirements. We can give you pointers on how to manage your project, or you may want us to manage your whole build, or for us to help you manage it yourself.

As long as you are considering us for work, we don't normally charge for an initial basic design and estimate - however for house-sized jobs there may need to be some negotiation on that. We promise to be totally honest with you when we discuss your project with you. I would rather see my business fail than give you bad advice, just to get business. I promise that if you need something we can't offer - or even if we can and you'd very sensibly like other quotes or advice - I will not hesitate to suggest other companies that may be able to help you.

Whatever advice you seek from us, the response will be based on getting the best result for your particular circumstances. Whether you'd like to self-build, save every penny possible, or want to spend a lot, we can help with both your design and build. We like creative ways of achieving a lot for a little - and straw bale gives excellent opportunities for this - meaning you can get something that looks fab for less outlay - and what's not to like about that?! We want your project to be successful because it matters to you. And also because we passionately believe in this style of building for all sorts of good reasons.

Finally - and very importantly - we promise you good communication. Once paid work is decided upon we will agree a contract so we both know what to expect and where we stand. Whatever you engage us to do, we promise to meet regularly (on site I'd strongly suggest a quick chat every day) to inspect and discuss progress. In this way any issues are identified promptly and can be resolved with the minimum of fuss.

If the above is all in place then all those other important things that will help make your build a positive and enjoyable experience, will be covered. For example, you'll know when your builder/trades will be on site, what work is being done, when it will be completed, if there are any problems etc. and if so, what is being done.

Does this sound good to you? What do you like or dislike about getting trades in to do work? Let us know in the comments below.

Let there be straw...

And welcome to February! My apologies for the lack of recent blog posts. In some ways it would be nice if the intervening time had involved a spot of winter hibernation at Huff and Puff HQ (I like my sleep), but no such rest has been forthcoming. Instead, I've recently been working on a kitchen refurb that has allowed me to do some internal lime work and also try out some of the materials I'm hoping to use on other jobs. That's nearly complete, so there will be a post and some photos soon.

We have some enquiries for sizeable jobs on the go at the moment, however nothing commissioned yet. In fact the only major job we have scheduled so far is our very own Apple Tree Nook project.

If you are interested in discussing work for this year please do get in touch. Planning and building regulations, if necessary, can take up a lot of time, so now is the time to begin!

Also, please get in touch if you'd like to do some hands-on learning about straw bale building, or if you'd just like some advice on your own build. I'm hoping to post more soon on this sort of thing, however at the moment suffice to say I'm happy to arrange something with you for a small fee for self-builders, or free of charge if we're doing some work for you.

The next post will hopefully cover work on Apple Tree Nook, which I'm glad to say is restarting imminently!

Building with rammed earth

Rammed earth formwork
Rammed earth formwork
Rammed earth is an age-old building technique used in many, many parts of the world. It is similar to cob and adobe insofar as the idea is to build using the materials available on site, however rammed earth is made using much less water in the mix, the initial shape being built in temporary shuttering or formwork, with layers of the mix rammed into place with hand or power tools. Rammed earth also uses no extra binding material such as straw. In many countries where rammed earth is used insects like termites mean any organic material in the mix could be an issue. Another environmental plus is that rammed earth absolutely does not need cement added (although some do). In fact cement can cause problems if used with clay.

Last weekend I did a rammed earth course run by the Brighton Permaculture Trust, hosted at the Brighton Earthship. Earthships are passive solar, off grid buildings. The Brighton Earthship was completed around 2006, and it showcases various natural and alternative building methods. It's a wonderful thing. Not everything that's been tried has worked out, and I think they are planning to make some improvements, but that is part of the joy of learning and experimentation that can also be shared with others. I rather foolishly forgot to take any photos of the outside, but there are plenty here.

The course tutor, Rowland Keable, has amassed a tremendous knowledge of rammed earth and he and his company - Rammed Earth Consulting - have done a lot of work to get rammed earth building standards drawn up and adopted - especially in Africa. The forecast was for a sunny Saturday and wet Sunday, so we did most of our building work on the Saturday, completing it in the rain on Sunday morning.

So, what earth can you use? The 'ideal' mix needs to be roughly 10% clay : 40% silt/sand : 50% graded gravel, but you can play with that a bit. This gives a mix of material that goes from say 20mm diameter right down to tiny clay particles, and as these all get rammed they lock together giving a tremendous density. Materials like chalk work too as long as you have this mix of sizes - this is what we used. To the mix you add just enough water so that you can make a ball of material in your hand that breaks into a few pieces when you drop it. If it completely shatters it's too dry and if it stays in one lump it's too wet. It really takes surprisingly little water. You layer about 100mm of the mix at a time into the formwork and then ram it down in to place. The formwork, as in the pictures below, can simply be timber boards - or much more expensive formwork used for commercial concrete work.

It really is an exciting way to build. Although you don't have all the freedom of cob, for example, because you use formwork, you have the advantage that you can keep going up, by moving the shuttering up, without waiting for what you've built to dry. It appeals to my sense of order and it's really very straightforward to do. I love the way a straw bale wall becomes solid when it gets locked down into place and rammed earth provides similar, if not more excitement, as you remove the formwork. It's somehow hard to believe it's going to work - but there it is - a solid wall made of stuff dug out of the ground! You get a lovely clean finish from the formwork too. Walls take a good while to properly dry out, but unlike other methods they can dry out as quickly or as slowly as conditions permit. Our example just needs a tarp on top, short-term, maybe some coping stones in future and it's good for the UK climate. Yes, there are some more complexities to consider for each job, but it's a great method to consider.

After unveiling our masterpiece, the rest of our wet Sunday was spent indoors with Rowland patiently answering our many, many questions about rammed earth construction. Rowland is a an inspiring speaker on this subject and clearly passionate about vastly reducing, if not totally eliminating, cement use from low-rise buildings. An excellent idea, seeing as cement is hugely environmentally damaging and structurally completely avoidable in such buildings. However, the barriers to this are many. I am sure I will delve into the world of building industry and government monopolies in a future post, but for the meantime it's lovely to meet people like Rowland who not only acknowledge and are keen to point out that such things exist, but who are actually, bit by bit, getting things changed.

I heartily recommend this course (in fact the Brighton Permaculture Trust do a wealth of interesting looking courses) and giving rammed earth a go. I will talk more about specific uses of rammed earth in future posts.

Working with the seasons...

Apple Tree Nook - the site
Apple Tree Nook - the site
Traditionally this is the time of year that the straw bale builder makes sure all projects are finished off or shut down for the winter and gets on with myriad other things until the weather picks up in spring. I have been very keen to keep going with Apple Tree Nook to push our boundaries a bit and see how far we can get before the weather gets too much, however, after a good deal of thought, I've decided that this is just too risky with our first build, even if we are doing it for ourselves. There is just too much at stake. Therefore, I am reluctantly putting the building of the nook on hold until early next year. In the meantime there is still a lot of planning and design work to be done for the build, which I will share with you over the coming weeks so you can get an idea of where we are going.

Apart from that there is a very long list of work to do here at Huff and Puff HQ and hereabouts to keep us busy, plus we really need orders for next year. I like to think I am an honest soul, and the whole point of getting the nook finished was to be able to show you a physical example of the standard of our straw bale work before engaging us for your own project. However, in the meantime I will just have to do that in other ways. Rome was not built in a day and all that, and I am very much concentrating on the excellent progress our fledgling small business has made this year, rather than what has not been done, as there is a long list of things to be done and some of them will take many years.

For example we would love to help people build their own affordable straw bale homes in the UK. That is within our power to do right now. And one day, the charitable arm of our business, yet to be created, will hopefully be able to help build straw bale and other buildings for those that need them in developing countries. I like the fact we've had social and charitable aims for the company in our business plan from day one, and every step we take is in the right direction.

Talking of work in developing countries, my next post will be about a rammed earth course I did last weekend, and the inspirational instructor we had - Rowland Keable - who has done great work with rammed earth building and standards, especially in Africa.

Cranborne Chase Woodfair 2013 - thank you!

Cranborne Chase Woodfair
Cranborne Chase Woodfair
Thank you to everyone who visited us at the Cranborne Chase Woodfair 2013! We had a lovely weekend and met lots of new people interested in straw bale building. I hope we managed to answer some of your questions and have got you in the mood for some sustainable building.

We had an end pitch, which was nice, so we made the stand a bit bigger, left the roof off, and made the most of the glorious weather we had all weekend. Below you can see a few photos of how things went.

This will probably be our last show for 2013, but if you know of any shows - this year or next - that you think would suit us, please let us know below (or some other way).

Cranborne Chase Woodfair 2013 - see us there!

Cranborne Chase Woodfair
Cranborne Chase Woodfair
We are delighted to be exhibiting at the Cranborne Chase Woodfair - - this coming weekend, 5th & 6th October, at Breamore House near Fordingbridge.

We are stand No.44, visible from the main arena.

Come along and see us demonstrating how to build with straw bales, our almost legendary puppet show, and gather info and ask questions about sustainable building.

The show should be bigger and better than ever at its new venue. The show focuses on wood and country crafts, with plenty of things to interest all ages.

Dare I say it, the weather looks promising too! We hope to see you there!

Apple Tree Nook

We have decided to call our first straw bale build 'Apple Tree Nook', or 'the nook' for short.  This is chiefly on account of its position next to an established apple tree.  Have you ever noticed that housing developers tend to give properties and estates names related to all the stuff they ripped out in order to build something?  That always seems a bit odd to me.  When they tear down the current crop of buildings will they call the new ones names like 'Concrete Cottage' and 'Runoff Road'?  Well, down with that sort of thing I say, and instead this is a celebration if what is there, and is staying there.  Although fairly close, the shallow foundations for the build mean that the tree roots on the building side have not been significantly disturbed - it's something I'm keeping a close eye on and I'm confident all is well.

Here are some photos of me using a digger to remove soil for the foundations and floor, more posts to follow very soon!

Dig, dig, dig, dig, digging...

Chickens on the lookout!
Chickens on the lookout!

...Dig a little hole for me. I think this is the song the chickens have been singing as they've been watching the groundworks coming along for the straw bale build. They love a bit of freshly dug earth, and have been spying it enviously.

Wow, this month seems to have flashed by, we've been very busy clearing the rest of the site for the build, and we are in the process of digging out ready for the foundations and floor.

More posts will follow very soon indeed (I promise - there's already a bit of a backlog!).