My modest grand design

You may have seen from my social media updates (twitter, facebook, linkedin and google plus) that I went to Grand designs live the other week. After my first visit to the Ideal Home Show I thought I should try this one too.

Quite a strange selection of exhibitors. There were lots of the sort of stylish products you see on Grand designs but also some incredibly hideous sofas and art works that look like the before picture of a home make over show or in one case a living room designed by Elvis and Liberace working together. The Elvis chair

This is me in a giant rotating silver chair, it wasn’t even very comfortable.

I last went to Grand designs 5 or so years ago and it has got a bit smaller since then, a reflection of harder times I guess. But it has definitely also got greener which was very pleasing to see. There were quite a number of water saving devices including my Korean friend from the Ideal home show with his Softrong shower head.

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The architecture section was also excellent with lots of new ideas and interesting companies. I had a good chat with ….. from ….. who was building extremely efficient homes and reducing costs with a standard template. We had a good chat about the houses and materials used, I was particularly interested in the low emission expanding foam he used. This was from Soudal and is Isocynate free so reduces the risk of asthma and other respiratory problems. It wasn’t the cheapest to get hold of but I managed to get some which I used in a project last week and it certainly has a lot less odour than previous foams I have used.

After this we arrived just in time for the debate that interested me most low tech v hi tech materials with Kevin McCloud and Will Stanwix of Hemp Lime Construct There was a very large audience for a debate on materials but maybe some of them just wanted to see Kevin McCloud in the flesh. The host and many of us were expecting Kevin McCloud to come up with lots of exciting hi tech solutions but it seemed he had a bit of a change of heart carrying out his research for the talk and felt that low tech materials had a lot of very useful qualities and could be used in modern developments as well as in restorations. He showed us some of his modern houses built in Swindon

These incorporate low tech ideas liek the wind cowls on the roof which use general airflow to ventilate the building without resorting to mechanical methods and is largely constructed from hemp crete. So in the end Kevin didn’t propose many hi tech materials but just a wider use of low tech solutions in modern situations.

Will Stanwix then came on to talk about his use of low tech materials with everything set up for him. As you would expect he talked a lot about hemp crete and using lime, particular benefits included:

  • Heat storage as well insulation
  • Regulation of humidity
  • Managing water ingress
  • Improved indoor air quality
  • Sequestration of CO2 in materials
  • Renewable, reusable and recyclable

Rather than fighting the atmosphere and setting up barriers you work with it creating buildings that will last and are less likely to fail.

Then the topic was opened up to the audience and we were asked who was currently working on a project, then if we were considering using low tech materials. Before I realised it everyone else had put their hands down so I got the microphone and discussed my wood fibre and lime plaster insulation project. They were both very positive about the idea, my plan is to fill cavities in a wooden house with wood fibre batts and then use wood fibre boards instead of plasterboard to add extra insulation. This will then be plastered with lime so we will create a breathing wall. I had largely reached this conclusion because I wanted to regulate moisture in the house and avoid condensation build up. However after chatting with Will and Kevin they added that using the wood fibre would also add some thermal mass to the building so it will capture heat over the day and release it in the evenings, an added bonus.

So a good end to an enjoyable afternoon out.

Lime pastering course

I have spent the last couple of days on a lime plastering course in Bedford. I am learning this skill so I can deliver more retrofit services to the customers of www.ecoalex.com. One of the key ways to improve the energy performance of older houses is to add internal insulation to walls. There are lots of people offering this service with celotex and other oil based insulation materials. These are very efficient and applicable in many more modern homes, however they do require careful installation of vapour barriers in the walls and have a risk of condensation. I want to be able to offer my customers something a little different, Natural Insulation. This will enable be breathable and allow moisture to pass through it naturally rather than gathering hidden inside the construction of the wall. After talking with a vegan customer I have been looking at wood fibre insulation in batts and boards. To get all this finished properly it needs plastering, modern plaster sets solid and isn’t breathable so I have been learning to work with lime.

There is a resurgence of interest in lime plaster at the moment, partly because of heritage projects like St Pancras station and partly because of a renewed interested in it’s flexibility and breath ability. This meant there was a choice of a few courses, however a lot of them were quite rural and a good distance from London so I chose DIY plastering in Bedford and I am very pleased I did. The course was one to one so I got plenty of help from Paul and could have it tailored to my requirements.

When I got there Paul had prepared two walls, one typical brick one and a second much flatter one to simulate the type of wall I am building using wood fibre insulation. After checking my fitness we agreed to try and plaster both walls so I could tackle any different lime issues. I started with the masonry wall applying two guides across the wall that would cover all the bumps and undulations and produce a flat surface. I then filled in with plaster and used a straight edge to get the plaster flat and even.

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Then we left this to dry and I moved on to the flatter surface set up to simulate wood fibre board. Here I applied a much thinner coat of plaster, embedded some mesh in it and then a second thin coat. This was then flattened using the straight edge. Only 10-15mm of plaster are needed as the base wall is so much flatter than an older brick wall. Once these two walls had dried a little I went over them with a float, flattening the surface and adding some roughness for the skim coat. That was day one completed.

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Day two was all about getting things smooth, very satisfying it was too. After drying overnight both walls had developed some cracks, especially the masonry one where we had a much thicker covering of plaster. Many of these could be sealed again with the floats but the larger ones needed a bit more compression from the trowel and some extra plaster adding. Next we added the top coat of plaster, this had more lime and less sand to make it smoother, but went on the same way using a trowel. Once the wall was covered with an even layer of topcoat we left it to dry. During this time Paul gave me a quick tutorial in filling holes in walls, very useful for my bathroom wall. Then I went over the wall with a float to even out the plaster further.

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After this and some more drying I went over it with a trowel to get it even flatter and remove the air bubbles. It was all very pleasing to produce such a flat surface. At this point you can keep going making it flatter and smoother gradually using the trowel and the float. Looking forward to using the skills on an insulation project next month in Hertfordshire, get in touch if you would like me to help you with your house. I am based in Central London but can travel. There are lots more photos on my Google+ page.

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