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Wordblog revived

incorporating New Life

‘Eco project’

Dealing 1960s concrete

They loved concrete in the 1960s. There was a lot of it around Ridgeway, including the drive: all of it rather sorry looking with cracks and weeds growing through.

Some of it we removed and crushed on site for hardcore, avoiding sending it to land fill. But we only needed so much hardcore and decided that removing the remainder could not be justified because of the energy required and cost.

The new surface disguises cracked 1960s concrete.

The new surface disguises cracked 1960s concrete.

The drive was even more cracked by the end of the project, from the weight of heavy vehicles and skips. We decided to resurface it with shingle embedded into sprayed tar. That was done yesterday and it has lifted the appearance of the house.

It would have sounded greener to remove the concrete and replace it with a water permeable surface. We are confident that we have not increased the flow of storm water on to the highway and hope we have reduced it by adjusting the levels so that more flows onto our land.

By removing quite a lot of concrete and putting a green roof on the extension we have attenuated water run-off. The bungalow was originally built with soakaways for surface water and we have added another.

Pebbles with islands of sedum hides worn concrete.

Pebbles with islands of sedum hides worn concrete.

But beside the drive quite a lot of concrete was left. A simple solution was to cover it with pebbles,  sold as Scottish. Rather more stone miles than I would like but for understandable reasons taking pebbles from fast eroding East Anglian beaches is not allowed.

We also provided channels for rain water to soak away into the earth around the edges of the concrete. The islands of sedum, left over from the green roof, add interest to this low maintenance area.

Overall, we feel we have reached a reasonable compromise between environmental and practical issues.

Our double and triple glazed windows are reminding us how efficient they are – and saying please clean us

It has come as a surprise that the windows at Ridgeway get condensation — on the outside. It probably should not because this effect on high performance windows is well documented.

The real problem is that the condensation reveals every spot of dirt and every fingermark on the window. I will have to get out there and wash them. But after an hour or so they are crystal clear again: the washing can be put off.

Pilkington, the glass maker, explains:

The choice is between some condensation now and then ...or higher heating costs, a higher environmental load and poorer indoor comfort.

It shows that not enough heat is passing from the house through the glass to prevent condensation. They are doing the job we paid for. It is also serves as a reminder to get the windows cleaned which is also a good thing.

English construction industry should play bigger part in EU plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions

One of the unknowns throughout the building work was how air-tight we could make Ridgeway. We were told it was more difficult with a conversion and we would be doing well if we got a 3 (m3/hr/m2 air loss at a pressure of 50 Pa).

I don’t understand the formula but the lower the number the better. English building regs for new houses is 10, while extensions and renovations do not have to be measured. At the start of the project I told Karl, the builder, that we were aiming at 1. His reaction was: “That would look good on the CV.”

The approach was to nag every tradesman who cam through the door, follow the architect’s instructions and use vast quantities of tape, expanding foam and mastic on every join and anything that looked like a hole.

The first test came out at 2.45 which comfortably meets both German and Swedish building regs. As we don’t need a further test to meet any standards I am not planning to spend the money on one. But we have identified leaks and closing those should bring the figure down to about 1. That is not quite Passivhaus but getting close.

We worked hard on plugging the gaps because air leakage would reduce the efficiency of the air-source heating and the mechanical heat recovery ventilation. Several people told me British workers could not build air tight. We have shown that they can given the right design and by ensuring that everyone working on the site was aware of the importance of blocking every possible leak.

But still major construction firms are apparently often struggling to meet even the inadequate English standard. The fact that on new estates only a sample of buildings are tested and the developer gets to choose which ones are does not help improve things.

With the news today that EU leaders have agreed a pact to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030 improved standards in the construction industry become increasingly important. For anyone who tells me British workmen are the problem I now have the experience to respond: “Rubbish. They just need the right plans and committed managers.”






BT has the worst customer service I have experienced in the UK

BT has the worst customer service I have encountered in the UK, by a big margin. And the rolled eyes when I mention my problems suggest many people share this view. The men on the ground are helpful and could teach there bosses a lot but they are not listened to. One engineer told me: “This is why I hate my job now — I used to enjoy it.”

The fault clearly lies at the feet of the chief executive and main board directors who have engendered  a culture that disdains the customer. Yesterday I was told by someone in Executive Level Complaints (a call centre in the UK and the only person in BT I have a direct line number for) that she could not help because she was not trained for broadband.

It reminded me of the engineer who could not complete a job because he was “not flat roofed trained”. I don’t blame him because it was clearly a serious disciplinary with severe punishment if seen eight feet off the ground. I do blame a management culture which does not trust people to make their own risk assessment and fill in a form explaining their decision.

Thrice men have arrived to do work involving a Power Networks electricity pole which also carries phone lines only to have to call for help because of a sensible safety requirement that a second person is required when a pole has to be climbed. Every time the first man had to twiddled his thumbs while someone else was called from 20 or 30 miles away.

Why did a manager not send two people in the first place? It is typical of the waste and inefficiency I have seen from BT during our work at Ridgeway.

The story began December last year when Power Networks were asked to move the electricity supply to make room for external insulation. They condemned their existing pole which also carried the phone line and said they wanted to underground the supply.

I contacted Openreach, the BT owned telecoms infrastructure business, and asked if they would like to underground their line too. We would leave the trench open or put in a conduit for their line to be pulled through. No, came the reply, they preferred to have their lines overground.

Then Openreach surveyors came to look. The overground man says the cable should go underground. The underground man to whom I explain the costs would have to be met by Openreach because they had rejected the offer to use the trench we had dug for Power Networks, decides it could go overground.

Anxious to get everything in order and working before we moved house, I contacted Openreach who were not ken to talk to me because their customer for this job was Power Networks. But they did. After the third visit and a lot of man hours we had a wire running from the bungalow to the the pole. In between, I had to get someone in to cut back trees. The third man was not prepared to use a new bracket we had fixed within reach of another man without flat roof training. At present I can’t face asking them to come back and remove the extra bracket.

Finally I was assured the job was complete except for a connection at the pole in the street and something which had to be done at the “frame” in the exchange.  On my third subsequent call to Openreach I was assured this work had been done and I was ready to ask BT to transfer the service from our old address 200 metres away.

But I was told there was no service to the bungalow. I explained Openreach said the work had been done. That was not what the “system” said.

Would they ring Openreach to check? No they were not allowed to talk to Openreach.

Inevitably the man, who arrived the day after we had moved, had to call for another man who was working 30 miles away and sit in his van waiting. The connection had not been made at the pole and the work at the exchange had not been done: Openreach had misled me.

When the service starts working I am pleased. Our broadband speed had almost trebled to about 17.5 mb/s.

Some days later there is a surprise visit from and Openreach engineer. He tells me he been sent with some instructions about a conduit and under grounding the supply. I briefly tell him that his employers had rejected the suggestion to underground the line.

Two brackets: one line

Two brackets: one line

“I have driven 30 miles to hear you say that,” he says. Then looks up at the wire and adds: “That is what they have left you with?”

But that was not the end of it. A week ago we lost both our phone and broadband services. The phone was reconnected the following day but no broadband. More hours on the phone. Very busy and the automated voice suggests a ringback. The ringback come from the wrong department so it is another hour waiting.

Then I am told that I don’t have a contract for a broadband service, there is not capacity at the exchange to provide it, and there has been a technical error. They would deal with it in a week’s time. Not good enough and I grow increasingly angry.

Eventually they agree to try to do it with 48 hours. The service is reconnected the following day. But the broadband speed has been cut to less than it was before we moved.

Why don’t a switch to another provider? First, Openreach handles the infrastructure for all of them. Second, BT’s extensive network of wi-fi hotspots means that I can get a connection on most places.





It was a good idea but it did not work for me

At the start of turning Ridgeway from a 1960s bungalow (a very nice one) into an early 21st century eco home it seemed like a good idea to blog about the work. It was a fairly simple writing task which should be well within my capabilities as a journalist and would not take so much time that I would neglect managing the project. And I was an experienced blogger having written successfully and influentially about the media.

What could go wrong? Several things: for a start, I found talking to suppliers, contractors and researching took more time and was more stressful than I imagined. But mostly, I could not find a way of writing entertainingly while maintaining good relations with contractors and suppliers and individual tradesmen.


A memory of high summer: the sedum roof on our extension in flower

Now the work is mostly completed and we have moved in. All the eco stuff is working well although some tweaking remains to be done. We had guttering before the rains of the past few days but no downpipes: it seems they were damaged in transit and further supplies from Sweden are awaited. That is just a minor irritation.

So a New Life, for Ridgeway, myself and Lesley is really beginning now. The blog is being revived with a rather wider focus — a lot will be about the house but also other things which interest me.

We are still opening boxes, some containing things have remained in the loft since we moved from London to Debenham 15 years ago. So some memories will probably creep into the blog as I am reminded of my past life, the places with have visited and the rings we have done.



In search of the right rope

The builders were back on site yesterday and quickly got down to work. Old rubble which we don’t want to send to landfill is being crushed for use as hardcore and a digger is on site preparing for the new electricity supply which is due on Monday.

It is not really a new supply but we needed it moved a couple of hundred millimetres further away from the gable end to allow for the external insulation. Power Networks decided that they wanted the supply put underground from the edge of the property. This involves a new pole on the edge of the land to replace the one close to the house, which it turns out was rotten anyway.

Because it was rotten we are not having to pay for the new one, thank goodness. But we were given a substantial bill and full instructions about digging a trench and burying a pipe as a conduit for the new cable. This pipe has to have a rope in place so the people from Power Networks can pull the new cable through.

It all sounded very simple until we discovered the builders’ merchants sold suitable rope in 30 metre packs. But we are set well back from the road and needed nearly 40 metres. None of the nearest possible suppliers could help.

With Google’s help I located what I needed at Tool Station in Ipswich. Faced with warnings that if everything was not ready there would be extra charges to pay, it was a relief to deliver the rope to the builders.

Power Networks have been a joy among utility companies to deal with. The shrouded the existing over-head wires for safety without charge. They are turn up when they say they will, are pleasant and helpful on the phone. On the other hand BT whose wires on on the same pole just seemed to make life difficult. They transferred me to a call station in India where I doubt the person I spoke to had an appropriate IELTS (International English Language Testing System) score. Both of us were frustrated and she demanded: “Are you saying I am not helpful.” My reply: “No. I don’t think you have the information to help me.” She put the phone down.

The only other way to reach BT Openreach is through a web form, something I hate because they provide no copy of what you have written, or evidence that you have written at all. Responses come from a “No reply” email address.

Eventually a BT based person in the UK called me — after Power Networks had sent them the information.

No builders today and my frustration is showing

No builders. A frustrating morning waiting and then discovering that they are not coming back until Monday. After venting my frustration I am promised a full team at the start of next week.

We have missed a good weather window with sunshine today and a light rain shower forecast for tomorrow. The forecast for Monday is heavy rain so how much will they be able to do?

Getting angry is not going to speed up work but I now have a slightly belated New Year resolution: to maintain constant pressure for speedy progress.

Raising the roof and related matters

When the builders restart work tomorrow (Jan 2) one of the first tasks will be to get the decks onto the three refurbished flat roofs and a small link to the extension. The firings (tapered piece of wood which give the roof a slight slope) were cut just before Christmas so there should be nothing to delay the job.

Often in a refurbishment things are less straightforward that we might have hoped. We had wanted to reuse the roof decks of the detached bedroom annex and the living room. It turned out that water had got in over the years and the sensible option was to make new roofs.  The garage where the roof is being raised to make a utility room was always going to need a new roof.

The living room was going to take a fair amount of work anyway as a four metre concrete lintel has been removed and replaced with steelwork to give the the room a continuous flat ceiling.

Once the decks are in place we will be hoping for a spell of dry wether so that the roofers can quickly get on with the job of adding the insulating and water-proofing layers. That will be a big step forward.

The main pitched roof has also turned out to be more work than expected. The plan was to remove the first half dozen rows of tiles so that we could get the eves insulation into place with a new membrane above. But it turned out that the existing roof felt was so brittle it could not be folded back  and then folded down over the new work. The whole roof had to stripped.

The builders have worked carefully even getting tiles back so that the patterns of lichen are much as they were. That combined with my visit to a reclamation yard to get matching 1960s ridge tiles  means it is hard to see what has changed.



Building has led to a weather obsession

The new year starts with rain after a rather dry Christmas. But tomorrow, when the builders return, is forecast to be fine, a sunny 8C in the afternoon which is good news as we need to get on with replacing the flat roofs.

Since starting building work I have become a bit obsessive about the weather. On the whole we have been lucky but some of the high winds have have been worrying. I had wondered whether the previous owners, and builders, had enjoyed a walk along the ancient Ridgeway path of southern England before they chose it as the name of their new home.

Perhaps they did. But Ridgeway it is a good topographic name as the place catches all the winds. We are going to keep the name. Years ago Lesley and I walked the Ridgeway from near Tring to Avebury, catching the wind and rain as well as sunshine as we went. It was a memorable tramp through beautiful England.

My growing interest in the weather led to my Christmas present from Lesley: an electronic weather station to supplement the beautiful 19th century wheel barometer she gave me years ago.

Setting up the new weather station has been a pain. We are Mac computer users and knew that the software that came with it was for PCs only. But I also knew there was suitable Mac software. Getting it up and running was harder than I expected. One candidate reminded me of setting up software in the 1980s and another was inadequate for what I wanted to do.

Eventually everything was sorted out thanks to fantastic help I have had from Boisy Pitre, developer of Weather Snoop which works as Mac software should. Great things, it seems, come out of the Cajun country of Louisiana.

Our current home is not  really ideal for a weather station. The small courtyard makes the wind direction and speed instruments effectively useless but I know that they are working and reporting to the console in the house. And for the wind direction I can look at the weather vane on the Market Cross in front of the house and for strength the large pine tree behind.

The barometer, temperature and rain gauge all seem to be reporting accurately.

In the long run I am hoping that having interior and exterior temperatures I will be able to evaluate the efficiency of the insulation and ventilation at Ridgeway. As we are aiming to maximise solar gain in the winter it will be interesting to see what happens in summer and whether we need shading.



Government-backed home energy saving scheme collapses

The number of houses where loft insulation was improved this year (2013) with the help of a government scheme  collapsed by 93% compared with 2012. In the year to end of October just 110,000 homes benefitted compared with 1.6 million the previous year.

Cavity wall insulation supported by the scheme fell by 77% from 640,000 homes to 125,000, the Guardian reports.

Why David Cameron felt the need to say, “We’ve go to get rid of this green crap” (Daily Mail) in October is becoming even more difficult to fathom: his Government had already done it. It was in 2006 that he coined the phrase “vote blue, go green”. He said (BBC) it was not a choice between economic growth or a sustainable environment: “We’ve got to have green growth.”

The dramatic fall in home insulation improvements coincides with the start of the coalition’s energy company obligation (ECO) which accounts for most of the installations in 2013, with the much hyped GreenDeal accounting for only 2%.

If the Government was serious about reducing fuel poverty it would be ensuring that homes were better insulated to cut energy bills. But, as Derek Lickorish, chairman of the government’s fuel poverty advisory group, told the Guardian, it is “perverse” that the £50 curb on rising fuel bills was largely achieved by cutting energy efficiency schemes.