Friday, 27 January 2012

Experiments at home

So, still no action on site.

Still no contract either but after an argument about a (lack of) payment schedule we might get one soon. We're waiting for the final drawings to be done and while this keeps being pushed back it really can't be long, can it?

Passiv or not?

When we started out we wanted a house that would keep us warm for little cost because of its efficiency (along with a lovely design by Rob and some big triple glazed windows of course!) and found that the technologies needed to produce that efficiency seemed to be given a lot of lip service in the industry at shows and in chats with keen architects with little experience in the long term benefits.

We found someone for whom that isn't the case and although we live in the shadow of a hill, the house will utilise Passivhaus strategies- and if we're not careful he may be trying to make us completely passiv, a priority that, given our location, would probably compete with our timetable, design, and budget! He built this place, which is claimed to be the first certified Passivhaus in the UK - I've only visited it in the dark but it is rather amazing: Y Foel and the pictures confirm daytime to be stunning! Mark has live monitoring of tempertaure and relative humidity in and outside too...

 “A Passivhaus is a building, for which thermal comfort can be achieved solely by post-heating or post-cooling of the fresh air mass, which is required to achieve sufficient indoor air quality conditions – without the need for additional recirculation of air.”

The idea that the fabric of a house is already something that exists and effects and is effected by its environment so can be harnessed to assist the functions of a modern house is quite exciting. It seems very sensible to use solar gain, solar panels and pv as something our environment already provides presumably without the more violent extraction processes needed for the electric ventilation needed to keep the pumps going...

But a bit of me is a tad concerned about the flipside of the Passivhaus - being sealed off in our 'envelope', for example. We have the groundsource to back it up but the same bit of me worries about if/when a pipe needs fixing, do we dig up the garden? I've been reading an article about Maria Kaika about modern houses' tendency to bury and hide hybrid and natural and cultural processes (delivery of water, sewerage, waste collection etc) in the hope that we can achieve some sort of mythical privacy/autonomy from our social and natural environments ("Interrogating the Geographies of the Familiar: Domesticating Nature and Constructing the Autonomy of the Modern Home" in International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 28.2).

The Passivhaus idea seems to both harness the recognition of natural processes (in solar gain, for example) and require an intensified potential for separation from the outside world. I think I want the dogs and the mud to be welcomed (see below) so home isn't a clearly demarcated line between in and outside, and really did want a composting loo (lost out to design on that one) which surely is one way of embracing hybrid natural/cultural processes! We have had the Passivhaus idea pooh poohed by one architect as inappropriate for wet Wales but it is quite exciting too - an experiment for us at least!

Friday, 20 January 2012

Shoe Shelves & Geographies of Home

Not a lot happening at the moment - although there are claims to much going on behind the scenes...we're hoping to pay an invoice for our triple glazed windows and doors pretty soon and the design-builder is finishing all the drawings in a rush to get started a week on Monday. Here's hoping.

In the meantime I'm reading a lot about geographies of home, this morning was Jacobs and Merriman's 2011 "Practicing architectures" and Mallet's 1991 sociology review article on the literature of home. The first made a case for the prefix 'practising' as something capable of animating architecture - attention to activity and embodiment versus the accomplishment of a (or set of) human(s). In doing so the authors make room for a number of different particpants in design and architecure: the obvious being the architect and the occupier or user, others being visitors, animals, maintenance, fungi, and the weather. Jacobs and Merriman also therefore allow for differing forms of inhabitation - living (eating, sleeping and other specific or combined activities), working, visiting, fixing, passing by - of the same form of architecture.

The Mallet article spans a range of methods and approaches to the idea of 'home', few of which deal with the building of homes and houses (although there is a very brief mention of Heidegger's "Building, dwelling, thinking" and his idea of an inherent 'building' involved in 'dwelling' and approaches drawing upon it from Merleau-Ponty, Ginsberg, & Ingold). Mallet's description of the phenomenologist approach - one of doing and feeling home, rather than thinking about it (so involving ethnographic and indepth interviews as methodologies) as opposed to a social constructivist conception of the home, was a new binary to me...perhaps the traditions have been quite separate but (perhaps with 20 years of further study) they surely aren't incompatible?

Anway - it made me think about the porch in our place.

I once house and dog sat a house in Truckee, California. It was May and hot enough to sunbathe one morning and high enough to be covered in snow the next. The house was lovely, designed for movement it seemed, with cleverly placed windows and fluidly public and private spaces. The architect was a friend of the owners and a cafe's paper napkin with the first drawing on was framed on the wall. Other than Emma, the labrador, my favourite bit was the porch, or entrance really. It was a three sided room covered in coat hooks and I suspect one long bench going around all three walls (in my head I see the bench as also having boxes for shoes and boots but these may have just gone underneath and I have superimposed them on - see below!) It seemed so emminently practical but also, more unusually, terribly up front. And ever since I have liked the idea of the everyday being sort of plainly beautiful.

Since then I have lived in a number a little flats with one and then two dogs and have always managed to make over the entrance to a space where boots, mud, and dog food are somewhat welcome - in porches, stairwells, and landings. Building a big (comparatively speaking) house it was assumed by architects we spoke to that all this action would be for the back door with the front providing the occasional visitor with a clean, impressive encounter with our home. Obviously we have had none of that. We have had to move the entrance to the side because of the size of the plot (and the dominance of car parking in planning new houses) but it will, I hope, be a place that our practice (twice a day) of getting ten legs in and out of the house when excited about walking or imminent breakfast/dinner (human legs included), muddy, sandy, wet, cold, or hot, will be welcomed. In my head I have dark, worn wood that doesn't mind if splattered. And I've managed somehow to describe to Rob a set of squarish dark wood shelves that every pair of shoes and boots can be stored in. Both because I will take a perverse pleausure in seeing that many pairs of shoes in their own place (imagine! in my head it is like those shoes selves at a bowling alley) and because then perhaps our ten legs won't trip and stumble and I can towel a muddy meg and rupert on our own bench, in the proper entrance to our house.

This is the one bit of the house I can see, and have been insistent about. The only other space that has come close is the office which I want to have a sofa in as well as a desk...knowing how I work! Rob is much better at thinking through practice - especially since he works at home. He can visualise and think through the kitchen and the storage spaces and doors and light and floorspace where he works. He works often with very large pieces of art so it is a good job he can think ahead! I know if I hadn't seen the entrance in Truckee I wouldn't have had anything to go on the one hand it feels like I know this need through the 'doing' of dog walking everyday and on the other I have had to employ someone else's idea, a different but still socially constituted idea of the out door lifestyle of a place very far away from west Wales but part of our cultural self identifying as outdoorsy people.

I know there will be pleasant and unpleasant surprises not sure what I'll blame these on.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Ground source Installation...

A guest entry from Rob - as me telling you what he has told me about putting the ground source in would be a bit pointless...

3 days before Christmas:

We dug the first trench at the end of the plot wide enough to take a single, in line, slinky format collector pipe. We dug to a depth of one metre in the knowledge that there would be further soil from the rest of the site moved over the ground source to level the plot, leaving the collectors about 1.7 metres below the surface.

Because the plot is quite small we then had to dig a trench that was wide enough for two slinkys next to one another. We also had to take photographs to record where, in relation to the fence, the pipes were laid and their depth.

We laid a third group higher up the plot, deeper this time because there was no earth to be moved to cover them. All the collector pipes should be 1.6-1.8m below the level of the ground. We laid 375m in total, actually slightly more than we need for the type of house we're building, a low energy house. Whilst it's not passive (below 15 kwh metre sq per annum) it should be between 15-20 kwh which means we'll be drawing quite a small amount of heat per square metre from the ground.

The hardest part of the job was getting all four pipe collector ends to 'behave' so we could direct them to the point at which they will pass under the foundations. This meant unravelling them prior to their burial and keeping hold of them in difficult circumstances. The small size of the plot made all of this much more difficult than it might have been.

Whilst digging the final trench and laying the slinky the trench collapsed on me and covered my left side, especially my lower leg. I was quite shaken, as were the other blokes, and we proceeded more cautiously thereafter. There were no after affects.

Thursday, 5 January 2012


Struggling to get a hold of our designer-builder at the moment but not giving up hope of foundations starting next week. So here are some pics of/from the place we are renting which is just up the road (5 mins drive) from the plot. 

The cats are finding it a bit difficult to get used to the neighbours being so far away and the near constant rain (not represented here!) is making them a bit house bound...but on the plus side the stars are amazing.

A few of our neighbour Mr Thomas' sheep passing by:

It is hard to get an image of the view which is North towards AberdyfiPause and Cadair Idris but it is pretty nice...

Our house won't quite have these views but we'll have some great big Austrian triple-glazed windows facing west and north, so sea (on the horizon about 4 miles away) and some mountains. It'll be nice not to have to put the dogs in the car for a walk, and get muddy every time we get out to shut the gate.  Although Rob's refusal to wash his car till we leave means the dogs and I are enjoying some freedom for now!

I was looking for some evidence of the recent rain and wind but got distracted by the lovely Derek: 
Some hope for us then - even if we do get the sun till very late morning in winter...

Ooh, and this one: though I'm not convinced of the 'interception' argument...

Well, apparently bits of the National Library roof blew off this morning but the windows at work have stopped shaking quite as manically. Hopefully it'll pass now and we WILL get some foundations soon.

Monday, 2 January 2012

New Year

I've heard the numbers twenty twelve so much in the last few years (was it 2007 it was announced?) that I automatically associate them with the Olympics - but now I also can't help wondering if in years to come it will become THE year we built our house... hope so, at least we won't forget it.

So, the field is now a muddy one - with ground source coils got in on one of the two dry days we seemed to have in December with some help from John Cantor ( check out his new book Heat Pumps for the Home, I haven't read it myself [!] but Rob claims it manages to make sense to the lay person) and now we have a big mud bund to stop any nasty run off from our plot.

Here's some picture evidence of what's been happening - from making an entrance:


To a muddy, but FLAT (ish) little field:

To an action shot which makes me feel like stuff must be happening:

Oops, gratuitous pet shot but they do have to get out and I can't help it if the beach is amazing even in the cold...

To pic of one of the nine Victorian pine doors we've bought for most of the internal doors (the ones that don't need to meet the code - like the downstairs loo for wheel chair access etc has to) from North Shropshire Reclamation We spent several freezing hours looking at hundreds of doors and Rob has been busy in the garage cleaning them up - they're marked and have holes and bits of paint and will need all that "door furniture" (really, that's a phrase?) and will probably be a right pain to hang - but they are lovely and will hopefully make our otherwise rather clean cut and inescapably new home feel a bit softer and lived in. I love the idea that they have all come from different houses with different histories.

Lots of weird and wonderful stuff to go back and look at at some point - Napoleonesque busts, old phone boxes, stone lions and wrought iron gates - it feels like being in a Dicken's novel crossed with a Dr Who episode.

Over the holidays we're hoping that the design-builder has finished the drawings of our tomber cassette walls and that the promise of a shortened lead time from the company making them will materialise which might mean we can get the groundworks ready and started on the foundations in mid-January. The sub-contracted builder reckons he is ready to go for then...

So far it's a happy new year :-)