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!


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.


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!).


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?


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!