Fencing project

A short time ago we undertook a job in Yeovil to replace a property's fencing and to renovate an old car port.  It was estimated the fencing was several decades old so it had held up very well, all things considered.  The oak (I think) posts were amazingly well preserved below ground level as you can see in the gallery below.  Wooden posts tend to rot at around ground level or just below, which is why often you'll see structures with the timber on supports just above ground level.  That isn't really an option for fencing, however, so in this instance we used new green oak posts at the front of the property.  Treated fence panels (as per the customer's request) were then fixed to these.
Because of the really heavy clay soil at this property, at the rear the customer had a preference for concrete posts and gravel boards.  Whilst I'm no massive fan of concrete fencing, I was swayed to have a go on this occasion because I hadn't installed any before, and wanted to be able to compare the installation experience with purely wooden materials.  In effect we have an experiment in place, with oak posts at the front, and concrete at the back.  I'll wager the oak posts at the front last as long as the concrete at the back, and it will be nice to go back at some point to see how it's all doing.

In the main the carport was structurally sound, which again was great for timber that was perhaps 40 years old.  The corrugated PVC was removed and the timber retreated with a microporous, waterproof wood stain (I had a tin of this already and it needed using up, but if the timber hadn't been treated already I would probably have used something else).  New timbers inside the carport, out of the weather, were left untreated.  We settled on twin wall polycarbonate for the roof, which has the benefit of being much longer-lasting than corrugated PVC, plus being more recyclable and a lot better looking, in my opinion.

This was an interesting project for me because it involved both renovating existing work and new work, and there are often many decisions to be made for the environmentally conscious builder: what to keep and what not to keep; what treatments and materials to use etc - all whilst engaging with the customer and giving them the result they desire.

Well, I'm happy to say the customer was really pleased with the end result, and I was too.  What do you think?

Great Dorset Steam Fair 2013

Great Dorset Steam Fair logo
Great Dorset Steam Fair logo
Michelle and I spent a very enjoyable day yesterday at the Great Dorset Steam Fair. The fair runs from Wednesday to Sunday in late August each year and is, I think, the largest event of its sort in the world. You can see all sorts of old traction engines and old farm machinery, with an emphasis on seeing things in action. My favourite field is over on the east of the site, where you can see sections dedicated to horses and horse ploughing, threshing and wood sawing, along with various halls for crafts and food. With a fair wind we'd love to exhibit there next year.

We wore our Huff and Puff T-shirts and made some new friends. We saw the most splendid vintage baler - see photos below - which was putting out the most incredibly compact, square-ended bales that you could hardly lift. I do get quite excited now when I find good, construction quality bales, but that goes with the territory I guess!

I've been looking for work to do during the winter months when we can't build with straw or render and we keep coming back to the idea of shepherds' huts. Having done a bit of research I think there are probably in excess of six companies making huts in Dorset alone, and they do seem incredibly popular at the moment. Some are of awesome quality, but I'm not convinced about the eco-credentials of the ones I've seen. Along with quality I think that would be what we'd like to focus on. What do you think? What would you like to use a hut for?

Dorset County No Show

We had hoped to bag a last minute space to exhibit at the Dorset County Show on the weekend 6th/7th September, however the cost is quite simply ludicrous, in my opinion, for a small business.  I won't embarrass them by saying how much, and it makes you wonder who they want there really, but I digress.  Instead, Michelle and I will be there on one of the two days as visitors, wearing our new, organic cotton Huff and Puff T-shirts, attempting to identify and engage in conversation any people who look like they might be interested in straw bale building.  If I'm feeling super-audacious nearer the time I might even make some sandwich boards, if I can work out how to smuggle them in...

Stock Gaylard Oak Fair 2013 - thank you!

wolf-01Thank you so much to everyone who visited our stand at the show, it was wonderful to meet so many new people interested in straw bale building! If we met you there it's very nice to welcome you here! And we'll be in touch sometime soon if you kindly left your e-mail address. Please feel free to like us on Facebook too - the link is either on the right or at the foot of the page.

To set up for the fair, my wife Michelle and I spent part of Thursday afternoon and Friday on the site building a basic timber frame and flat roof measuring about 7.5m by 4m - from scratch, with timber bought from local yards. It was a massive effort, and I think it looked pretty good. We will now either reuse this building at shows or incorporate the timber into upcoming builds.

The idea was to show timber framing holding up either a full flat roof or a first floor, and to build a load bearing straw bale wall up underneath, ready for the frame to be removed and the roof lowered down. It's wonderful to see some people's faces when they realise straw bale can be the actual load-bearing wall. Hopefully at future events we can demonstrate a more complete straw bale wall - I completely underestimated how much I would be able to talk to everyone and build at the same time, so we didn't get a full height wall and corner in place (we'll do a lot more preparation of certain elements next time to allow for this).

We had information material displayed in the middle of the stand, and the crowning glory was our puppet show, which was the first element most people passing got to see. Michelle is a teacher and we were really keen to do some children's entertainment so we told the 'Huff and Puff' version of the three little pigs story, with accompanying little pigs and wolf hand puppets. It goes a little like this (although it grew more elaborate throughout the day!):

There was an old sow with three little pigs, and as she had not enough to keep them, she sent them out to seek their fortune. The first that went off met a man with a pallet of bricks, and said to him, "Please, man, give me those bricks to build me a house." Which the man did, and the little pig built a house with them.

Presently along came a wolf, who knocked at the door, and said, "Little pig, little pig, let me come in."

To which the pig answered, "No, not by the hair on my chinny chin chin."

The wolf then answered, "Then I'll huff, and I'll puff, and I'll blow your house in." So he huffed, and he puffed, and the little pig's house got very draughty and very cold. The little pig thought, if he was cold now, how much colder his house would be in winter, so he ran out the back door to go and find his brothers.

The second little pig met a lady with a bundle of wood, and said, "Please, lady, give me that wood to build a house." Which the lady did.

The third little pig met a man with a load of straw bales, and said, "Please, man, give me those straw bales to build a house with." So the man gave him the straw bales.

The second and third little pig then met on the road, and soon after the first little pig ran up, all out of breath. “There is a wolf he said, we need to build a very strong and warm house!”

So the three little pigs made a house out of straw bales and wood.

Then along came the wolf, and said, "Little pigs, little pigs, let me come in."

"No, not by the hair on our chinny chin chins."

"Then I'll huff, and I'll puff, and I'll blow your house in."

Well, he huffed, and he puffed, and he huffed and he puffed, and he puffed and huffed; but he could not blow the house in.

So the little pigs stayed inside their straw bale and wooden house, all safe, comfortable and warm, until the wolf gave up and went away to find some less well housed little pigs.

I'm pleased to say this seemed to go down very well with children and parents alike. We enjoy a bit of fun and like to think we're approachable - of course meeting potential new friends and customers is a big reason for doing shows, but we are passionate about straw bale and sustainable building itself, and what it can do for both people and the planet, so it really was tremendously enjoyable just to help spread the word, speak to like-minded people and have some fun in the process.

We had a lot of interesting conversations with people who are considering their own building projects, and providing we can secure enough work in the meantime, we would love to be back next year. A big thank you to organiser Andy Langmead, especially for the hand we needed lifting up part of our frame, to Toria for all of her help - and to all the Stock Gaylard crew, especially John, for being so cheery and welcoming!

Thank you also to all our friends and family who either helped or lent moral support on the day - especially our wonderful Kate, Sue 'Mahali Mazuri' Hulbert, and my Mum Eileen and sister Ann. It was also truly splendid to once again meet the hugely talented Fabienne Rumney, who specialises in lime work, and who along with Rob Buckley led the DCRS straw bale course I did back in February - Huff and Puff probably wouldn't be here without you both.

We would now dearly love to do the Dorset County Show in Dorchester on the weekend of 7th/8th September, but we are trying to tally that with all the work we have on for the first straw bale build here at Huff and Puff HQ so that may not be possible. We definitely have the fair/festival bug though - how great it must be for folks to go around and do this all summer!

Please view more photos below in the gallery.

Stock Gaylard Oak Fair - see us there!

Stock Gaylard Logo
Stock Gaylard Logo

I'm delighted to say that we are exhibiting at the Stock Gaylard Oak Fair (close to Sturminster Newton) on Saturday 24th August. This is a wonderful show, full of all sorts of countryside groups and crafts - there are loads of things to see and do for all the family. I think we're over in the 'Machinery & Timber Yard' area, but don't hold me to that. Please see their website for details - http://www.stockgaylard.com/oak-fair/oak-fair-at-stock-gaylard.html. We hope to see you there!

The straw bale tale begins...

I'm delighted to say we are creating our first straw bale building here at Huff and Puff HQ! We are currently clearing the ground and putting in underground utilities while the final building design is being completed. Suffice to say it will be a multi-purpose garden building in which we hope we can showcase our skills and methods, so that our customers can take a look and see what's possible. My wife Michelle and I are very excited about it and we look forward to sharing some more posts and photos in the coming weeks!

Log stores

Sorry for the delay with the next post, best laid plans and all that, I'm trying to get used to updating the website alongside doing projects and it's taking some doing, but we'll get there!

Here are some pictures of a log store we've built here at Huff and Puff HQ. I started with geo-textile membrane and a layer of DTP Type 1 sub-base (if you don't know, this is a mixture of fine material up to larger pieces that locks together when compacted to form a solid but permeable layer), with 20mm limestone chippings on top.

The framing is made from 100mm square oak posts. In this case I've inserted these into metal posts at ground level because we had them around already, but this could be done in a number of other ways. The rafters are cut from treated pine posts that have seen better days, but which are perfectly adequate under cover in the roof. The idea with a log store is to get air circulating around the wood, ideally give it some sun when it's about, and to keep the rain off. The French and probably many others do this with massive overhanging roofs so the wood can be exposed all year round. That's not always possible if space is limited, so the approach here has been to leave a gap to the wall behind the store and put doors on the front (to be added, I'll put more shots on our gallery or product pages in time) so that these can be opened or removed in summer, when the sun should far outweigh any rain issues. We have some reclaimed slate which will be going on the roof soon.

What do you think so far?

Thanks for the timber Phil, but where is the straw, I hear you say! Well, exciting news is afoot, check back very, very soon!

Raised beds

raised_bed_01Raised beds using sleepers are a really straightforward thing to build. The most complicated thing is lugging big lumps of wood about! Here is a raised bed job we've done using new oak sleepers. Oak is, of course, an incredibly hard-wearing wood. There are different types of oak and it comes from different places so, as with all wood, be sure to ask what you are getting and where it's come from - not always information suppliers will have to hand. Asking whether or not it is FSC or PEFC certified is a good start. As an example, I believe this is English oak, but the supplier was a bit vague (which is a bit of a warning sign I think) and I'm still trying to get more solid info from them as they are a supplier we may want to use again.

raised_bed_02Here we have cleared the ground for the bed and set the sleepers down on a thick bed of grit sand. All wood tends to rot first at or around ground level, and using a well compacted grit sand or gravel bedding helps to make sure the ground drains really well immediately underneath the wood so it doesn't sit in water, and also, at least temporarily, it keeps some of the soil-borne life away.

For this bed we have used the sleepers on edge to give maximum height. Sleepers are more unstable this way up rather than sitting flat, so it's a good idea to use solid stakes, for example fence posts like we've used, to secure the sleepers onto horizontally so they can't tilt or fall over. Using sleepers flat you can often get away with just fixing down through the top of each row, which is fine if you have corners that will also lend stability. Too many rather than too few bolts are a good idea, in my book. We use Timberlok bolts (they call them screws, but I always call them bolts) which come from the USA and are pricey, however they will zip straight through virtually any wood as long as you have a drill with enough torque - and they are stronger than a strong thing on holiday in strong town.

raised_bed_03Once this bed was complete we lined the inside with plastic membrane, to keep the soil away from the wood, and gave it a coat of pure raw linseed oil on the outside (not boiled linseed oil which has chemicals in it). Oak can happily be left untreated and will fade to a lovely silvery grey over time. The linseed oil darkens the surface of the wood quite a lot, especially if the surface is fairly rough. Sanding down the wood once you've finished can give a really fine, smooth finish, if rustic is not your thing.

So, what do you think?

Coming soon, bespoke log stores!

Housebuilding styles - history - future

fresco_secco_01When I started writing this post I was sitting in a wonderful 18th century villa on the shore of Lake Garda.

One thing that struck me about the buildings around Garda is how different some of the construction styles are to back home in the UK.  No brick on show, everything is rendered - and often painted to imitate stonework, or with frescoes/seccoes.  The roofs are made of semi-circular 'barrel' tiles (perhaps the oldest style of clay tile there is?) laid alternately up and down, to allow the water to drain down, and the roof pitches are shallower, presumably in part to stop the whole lot sliding off.  Having noted the lack of brick, we visited Verona on our way back and interestingly some of the highest status buildings there are made almost entirely of red brick.

italian_tilesEvery time I travel (which isn't often) I am always struck by these differences in architecture from one country or region to another.  I like the idea that we can always learn from what other people do, and whilst construction techniques that are appropriate in northern Italy might not be so at home, some might be, and these ideas don't travel very easily I think.  People are taught to build in a certain style in whatever country or area they are, and in the UK our current mainstream methods of training reinforce this.

However, sometimes we need to take a bit of a leap of faith, of imagination.  This might be in response to environmental or social changes.  Sticking with the old might not be such a good thing. Interestingly, of course, a lot of new construction methods were brought to the UK by the Romans - roof tiles for one, I think - and then some methods had to be adapted or abandoned because the climate here was so different.

Such upheaval in building methods doesn't happen very often.  We've been building with natural materials - straw, wood and stone etc. - for as long as we've been able to.  A few of the more recent UK milestones are probably other Roman introductions like varieties of concrete (with lime, not the modern version), glass, and even more recently industrial quantities of modern clay bricks, modern cement and structural iron and steel.

verona_arenaHousebuilding in the UK is currently in need of a leap of faith.  Apart from the fact most housing estates being built are soulless boxes - the ubiquitous 'modern townhouse', often with tiny rooms, small gardens and no focus of community (in fact an emphasis on shutting it out) - the method of construction itself has had its time.  The cavity wall, often thought to be the best thing since sliced bread, is refusing to die.  And it needs to.  Originally invented to keep the load bearing inner walls of the house protected, it has become apparent it's a really good way to lose heat in winter. Now we put insulation in the gap, but not very much.  It doesn't work very well, the whole concept is a bit of a bodge, so why do nearly all new houses get built this way? That would be a good question for both the major housing developers and government, and we'll endeavour to examine that in much more detail sometime soon, but basically it's because that's what we train people to build.

verona_brickSo what are the alternatives?  What new building methods could be more sustainable and better address our current issues of a changeable climate and sky-rocketing prices for heating?  Well, let us consider timber and straw.  Timber houses arecurrently not that common in the UK, even though we have quite good access to decent local timber wherever we are. You don't have to go very far at all to find a field full of wheat or any of the arable crops from which straw is a useful leftover.  But why would we even think about choosing timber and straw now we have brick?  Well this is where we come back to environmental and social changes.  Timber and straw houses are inherently excellently well insulated.  As with any exceptionally well insulated building, heat and cold take longer to come in and go out, therefore the building is warm in winter with little extra heating, and cool in the summer.  If you have eve worked out how much you spend on heating in any given year in an average house, you will know you don't have to start saving much for those numbers to be quite significant.

Straw and timber - which I have just cunningly decided to refer to as 'strimber' - ticks all the right boxes for both construction and sustainability.  Quality, sustainable timber and straw here in the UK means that you could easily build a whole house - a warm and beautiful house - made from materials within a few miles of your site.  This isn't that surprising because that's exactly how we used to build houses.  Which isn't to say we are just winding the clock back a few hundred years, we need all the benefit of the good and bad experiences we've had in the meantime and we need modern technology.

In a coming post we'll consider strimber materials and technologies in more detail. In the meantime I'd be interested to hear your ideas about how we should be building sustainable homes here in the UK.

I'll huff and I'll puff - and then I'll do something useful instead...

Phil in a rather fetching straw hat

Welcome to our blog!  My name is Phil Christopher and Huff and Puff Construction is a new family company based in Wareham in Dorset, on the south coast of the UK.  Our business is different to many builders because using sustainable products and methods is at the core of the business.

This is the place where you can see and read about our work in detail.  So what can you expect?  Well, currently we are working on some sample projects here at Huff and Puff HQ to showcase our talents.  Expect timber.  Expect straw.  Expect re-use of materials.  Expect stuff that works with nature and not against it.  Expect breathable, healthy things.  Oh, and expect it all to look really good too!

We also really want to speak to you!  We welcome your comments on the posts - or use the Contact Us page.  Let us know what projects you'd like to do - or see us do.  What do you think we're getting right and wrong?

Watch this space and we hope to speak soon!