Denise: J has gone and put his foot in it again. Or rather through it. The dining room floor. “It’s a bit spongy”, I said. J investigated. With his foot. And his weight. All of it – in one go. Now we can see under the stud partition wall – and under the bath and shower on the other side. There’s not many houses that can boast so useful a feature. So now we can see exactly where and under what circumstances the previous owner’s attempts at DIY renovation expired. And why. Ten years ago. At times like this I do wonder if we did the right thing coming here. Another job on the to do list: gut bathrooom and dining room (and with it part of the hall), rip up floor, new joists (and some insulation too please!), new floor, rewire, replumb, replaster, redecorate … and recuperate. Ah, well – it will just have to wait. Other jobs for J to finish first.
Jonathan: Much as I’d like to bid a final glad farewell to my long and illustrious career (okay, okay, let’s just call it work) as a civil engineer, the fact is it earns good money that right now we really need. It is true that the old familar streams work (roads, trams, waste management) have all but dried up: In theory I’m still employed by a large UK firm of consultants; but that’s on a casual, as-needed basis, and in practice they don’t actually need me now. Or any time soon. If at all. Ever. So it’s fortunate that since coming home last year I’ve found engineering work in my own name, and all of it here in Eilean Siar – the Outer Hebrides, in Harris and Barra as well as Uist. And all of that in new directions: onshore wind energy, land drainage, and most recently the design of a camp site. And I don’t mean a gate into a field and a hole in the ground for emptying the portable loo: this is a site of a quality you’d expect from the Camping & Caravanning Club or the Caravan Club. I’ve not said anything about these new projects in my blogs because of confidentiality, but as of today the planning application was registered, so it is now in the public realm. The developer is our neighbour at Croft 9, Domhnall Iain MacIsaac, and the campsite will be in the field adjacent to the walled garden. Not everyone’s choice for a neighbour, (the campsite that is, not Domhnall Iain!), but we’d do the same, and the flow of visitors is an economic opportunity I’m sure we will exploit!
Jonathan: Looking back over the past year since I arrived home from ‘exile’ in SE England, I certainly wonder where the time has gone: many if not most of the things I’d planned and expected to have done by now are still on the ‘to-do’ list! Even so, Denise and I have covered a great deal of ground, albeit on things that, a year ago, we didn’t even know would need doing. One thing we did plan to do was replace the old garden ‘shop’ – battered by years of storms and by now getting rickety and leaking – with a more permanent and solidly built structure, albeit one still very modest in size and finish. The new Hebridean Woolshed Studio definitely helped boost confidence, and sales this past summer were about 25% up on last year. That was the summit point (well, the limit actually!) of our building aspirations for the forseeable future: after that we envisaged nothing more ambitious than slowly catching up on maintenance and repairs neglected over the past two years whilst I was away from home.
But Fate it seems had quite a different year lined up for us. One item on my long to-do list, and far from being double-asterisked as priority, but rather an apparently simple job, was to lay a few paving flags down the east side of the house which over the years has become an obstacle course of muddy holes and piles of building materials. As may be recalled from a previous blog, this was the start of weeks of filthy and exhausting work underpinning the house walls. When I last wrote about this we thought that the NE corner of the house was where the problems were worst. How wrong we were!
For some years now the west gable, instead of protecting us from the driving wind and rain of winter storms,has instead been soaking up the rain until it becomes so wet that it comes out of the wall in the lean-to utility and weaving room (formerly the garage) below. We’ve always assumed this was was due to cracking of the joints in the blockwork due to the massive wind pressure during the January 2005 hurricane: many other buildings suffered the same damage at that time, and some required substantial rebuilding. We’ve long intended to re-render the west gable, but have put that off repeatedly as there always seemed to be higher priorities, or no money to do it. But when the underpinning investigation and repairs reached the west gable, it became obvious that the problem was more fundamental – literally – than cracked blockwork. The depth of our foundations – such as they are – are extraordinarily variable, from inches to bedrock at one point, and just a few block-lengths away we can be digging for well over a metre and find nothing but soft sand. When we dug a small pilot hole through the old garage floor, we discovered that the west gable was resting on nothing more than rubble thrown into soft peat, the rubble contained by lengths of discarded softwood. That wood has rotted to a soggy crumbling mass, and the rubble has been flowing sideways, leaving no support for the gable wall.
By now it had become apparent that underpinning work requires a building warrant from the local authority, and the agenda was largely beyond our control. Demonstrating how we were going to carry out work to underpin the wall required further investigation, and from this the problem deepened further: cavity wall insulation drawing in moisture and soaking wet; wall ties corroded through, de-bonded or sheared, the roof trusses out of alignment and – in effect – leaning against the gable wall, contributing to its instability. (A gable does not normally carry any of the weight of the roof – it can in theory be demolished and re-built without affecting the rest of the house; but not so here!). The conclusion was that the single-storey former garage was in fact propping up the sagging lower part of the main house, but that the upper gable was unstable from that point up. And if that went, so would the roof. A faint glimmer of hope amidst the gloom: although – in general – appallingly badly built in 1974, the garage was (in some bizarre moment of Hebridean Darna Shealladh – second sight?) built with double-skin blockwork walls, and by good fortune these rested on solid bedrock just inches below the surface. This has proved the answer to our prayers (well, perhaps not the one about winning the lottery – for that we’d probably need to buy a ticket).
So, for the past five or six weeks or so, storm or shine (mostly the former), we’ve been building up over the old garage and extending the roof across: the new structure is heavily braced so as to buttress the existing roof. The old gable wall has now been lowered to ground floor ceiling level, and the remaining part will be left in place, relieved of a lot of weight, as an internal wall only. In theory the upstairs west bedroom is now double its size (it wasn’t very big before); but with no money to do the inside work for some time (perhaps a few years), what this actually means in practice is that we’ve lost the west bedroom entirely for now, and the utility and weaving room too. We’ve pulled back everything into the rest of the house; the tumble dryer is out in the back porch (we have to cover it with plastic when the rain drives in from the NW!), the washing machines and freezers from the utility are stacked up in what was the dining area of our kitchen; the dining room furniture is pushed aside to make space (just!) for the loom; the west bedroom furniture piled up in the east bedroom, and the house is simply choked up with boxes and piles of stuff. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the house is now even draughtier and colder than ever.
How long it will stay like this we don’t know: probably a year or two, but if we don’t finish it off before the building warrant expires, everything – including what we have already done – will have to be re-submitted to the latest and more onerous building standards. We’re not supposed to ‘occupy’ the rebuilt rooms until we have at least a temporary completion certificate, which requires all services and heating to be properly installed and operational! I’m absolutely exhausted, physically and mentally, from this, but there’s no let up, as civil engineering work – such that there is – is now the means to get our finances straightened up, and repay debts. Things can only get better, surely?