Sunday, 30 October 2011

Down down, deeper and down.

While away on a business trip last week, my wife called to say the general builder had sent two people to start excavating our cellar. I had to sit down. Today was the first chance to look at it (thanks Iberia!), and frankly, it's almost scary.

The idea here is to dig down enough to lay a layer of gravel (though I'd prefer expanded clay pellets or similar) followed by a concrete floor (though I'd prefer limecrete*) without undermining the foundations, which are likely to be more like a gesture, and not very deep. This is to break any capillary action, and keep the room as dry as possible, although we know moisture will climb the stone-built walls which are resting directly on moist clay.

The guys have excavated up to 40cm or more in places, as the previous floor had a slope to drain cow and horse urine out. As a result, the ceiling feels very high indeed! I'll be checking the footing tomorrow, as if they have gone too deep, settlement could be a serious issue, even over a few days.

Some pipes will be laid here, connecting to the main sewer line outside, and this will take all the waste water from the house.

The old floor level can be seen in the photo below as a dark line on the left wall, sloping down along the front wall towards the door.

Looking to the front of the house.
Looking towards the back.
Brick support for former feeding trough still hanging in there!
The clay under here is wetter than I expected, and is pretty elastic. I have the urge to clean as much as I can off the wall surface to minimise moisture creep, but I reckon that'll be futile.

*I was talked out of my ideas for a fully breathable limecrete floor, despite being something recommended by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings as it reduces the need for water to creep up the walls. The current thinking is that if the floor is at least dry, it'll be better for the heating equipment will go in here - though it seems the main problem is what final covering to use on such a breathable floor. I'm not 100% convinced, but at this stage we'll go with the path of least resistance.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Hidden gold

No, not the kind I would have liked, but something to treasure nonetheless: old oak beams.

For a couple of hours most evening the past week, and all day Saturday, the beams in one of the attic rooms have been worked on to turn them from grey, dusty-looking timbers to rich, golden-brown beams, a couple of small steps away from being oiled.

Having played with several ideas (sand-blasting was considered) and methods (wire brushes on an angle-grinder versus nylon brushes), I settled on nylon brushes. One is a pretty specialised tool, a Makita brush sander, which is fast, powerful, yet gives lovely results without gouging into timbers. Hard-to-reach places have been handled with nylon brush drill attachments.

It's a lot of work, and perhaps there are better ways, but it's nice to get a feel for each individual timber in the place while working them by hand. And the results? Well, photos don't really do it justice, but hopefully it gives an impression.



Before and after in one shot!

The roof rafters will be covered in a membrane and cellulose insulation will be blown in between them, so we only cleaned those beams that will remain visible once the final plastering is done. At this level, that might take a couple of years, but I want to get all the dirty work done first, so converting the rooms later is a little easier.

How dirty? This dirty:

Monday, 17 October 2011

Progress report (not!)

No photos, because there hasn't been any progress! Extremely annoyed with all the companies supposed to be doing work for us.

The general builder hasn't shown up for weeks, despite promises. Apparently people are sick. They still have to excavate the cellar floors, lay new waste pipes, pour a new floor, remove the rest of the old kitchen floor and optionally install a rainwater cistern and excavate the field for a heat pump collector. To mention just a few things.

The window company that we met many weeks ago, and that was supposed to come back with a revised offer (relatively minor changes) STILL hasn't come back with the new offer, so we don't know when they say 6-8 weeks, will it be 6-8 weeks after receiving the new offer or after they measured up the windows.

The tender for the external insulation and facade work still hasn't been published (although we did take a long time considering what materials to use). Winter is coming, and it's already frosty here, and that's not good for the lime render we'd like to use. That, and the fact that the dormers are lined with wood-based insulation that should only be exposed to the elements for a few weeks, means I'm getting extremely impatient.

We have an offer for the heating system, which is relatively expensive, so we should go to tender, but that also seems to be going nowhere, so I'm tempted to simply take the offer (with me doing much of the installation of floor and wall heating to save as much as possible) just to get something moving!

And then we're told this is normal! I had high hopes for the German building trade...

Sunday, 9 October 2011

More mindful destruction

It's has felt like a long week. Monday was a holiday, and although it seems to be generally frowned upon to work on such days, I took the opportunity to remove the last of the wattle and daub walls that need to go while we have a container to take it away. Now we have the start of a new hall which will give access to the new guest bathroom and the bedrooms on the first floor. Well, after a bit of work with a chainsaw (which I am not licensed to use, so I don't have one).
New doorway at top of the first stairs.
From the bedroom. The old door, left, will be closed.
Doing a couple of hours every evening after work meant that small tidying jobs quickly added up till the 7 cubic metre container was filled to about 4-5cu.m. Yesterday, we added a bit more as we began to clean down loose clay plaster from the ceilings. In some rooms, we'll leave the beams exposed, meaning the whole fine-coat of plaster has to be removed. Considerably more challenging that I originally though, in terms of the labour and energy needed, scraping away with shovels. A channel was then cut on each site of the beam to allow for nailing in a mesh to support a new layer of either clay or lime-based plaster.

Dirty work, but looks great after.
The kitchen, see below, also needs to be done like this. The clay here looks burnt, so we're not sure is this from a fire in the past, or if it is simply from decades of open fires in the old bakehouse.

Kitchen ceiling. Not looking forward to doing this.

In those rooms where the beams will be plastered over again, we simply removed the loose material, leaving most of the fine clay layer. In a way, it felt sad to be scraping away this stuff. The decades, or even centuries (at least 1.7 of them!) have left a mini stratigraphy of lime and paint, all taken away in minutes.
Ready for meshing or reed matting.

Having tired of this work on ceilings, which was tough on the shoulders, Joerg and I switched upstairs, where one final, large piece of clay had to go. The bit of ceiling above the new bathroom. This was going to be easier, as we could remove it from above, exactly like I removed the floor of the top attic levels. First step, remove the floor boards above the bathroom. An internal wall will later surround this hole, unfortunately taking a chunk from the room above.

Floorboards gone.
Once the clay and lathes were removed, it gave a nice aerial view of the future bathroom below. Most of the beams running vertically in the photo below will be removed (except those that play a structural role), leaving a bathroom with a 3-4m high ceiling, a real contrast to the low headroom in the rest of the house.

Looking down into the bathroom.
Looking up to the apex of the new gable dormer.
Feels like we're getting really close to actually start putting things back into the building, rather than ripping out!

Monday, 3 October 2011


We really haven't found much in the way of datable "stuff" in the house. The previous owners were not hoarders, and apart from a child's shoe up under the eves, there's been little material showing what life was like over the years in the house.

However, today I found a balled-up sheet of newspaper that was stuffed into a hole in a door post, presumably used to pack the hole before the post was plastered over (there was also bits of tiles on the other side of the hole). It turned out to be the front (and back) pages of the Volksgemeinschaft / Heidelberger Beobachter, from the 1st of October, 1937, found 74 years later, almost exactly to the day.

What's interesting about this, apart from the historical aspects of the headline, with Adolf Hitler being invited to visit Rome shortly after Mussolini's September 1937 visit to Germany, is how it ties in with other documents we have from that year.

I've already posted about the various planning documents we have, and one was also from 1937, when part of the eastern gable was rebuilt in brick, and a new chimney was inserted on the western side of the house.

The stamp on the back attests to the regime in power at the time.

So, they applied for permission to do major works in March 1937, and by October they had re-plastered the walls in the kitchen, using a sheet of newspaper to plug a hole in a post. Just another piece of life.

The other, everyday stories in the few pages we have are interesting. Adverts, cinema listing, a piece about the Morning Post being taken over by the Daily Telegraph. History through a keyhole.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Roof complete!

It took a while, more because of our bad timing conflicting with other jobs, but big thanks to Lutz, Holger, Andi and the others for building us a fine new roof! We're really happy with how it looks. The final bits were done last week, with the last three roof windows going into the back on Friday.
The gang in action.
I can't resist a before shot!
All done.
At the back, we have a total of five roof windows. We'd originally planned eight, but I think this is a better balance between cost and light.
The roof windows are relatively small, to minimise having to cut roof beams, but due to fire regulations, we had to have at least one large one that is specced as an emergency exit: the one on the top right.
The escape route.
Our own works continued on Saturday, with the help of friend and neighbour, Jörg, with some incredibly boring, but physically taxing cleanup work. We reckoned it's better than a gym. Basically, we've had piles of clay lying around the house from where we removed the wattle and daub between some of the timber frames, and the ceilings in the top floor. It's remarkable how much stuff they used, and how strong clay and straw can be. We had to get this out, so we ordered a container and spent 8 hours shovelling stuff around, Jörg passing buckets to me out on the scaffolding, then dumping it down (we couldn't get a disposal chute). Making hay while the sun shines, we took out another wattle and daub wall, just for good measure, and tomorrow, I'll open up two new doors through similar walls, while we have the container, as we're only allowed put clay and earth in it.

About 1/5 of what had to go
You could almost eat off the floor. Almost.
A hot, extremely dusty day, but I think we were well-rewarded: