Monday 5 December 2011

Ecohouse lesson 2 - toilet maintenance

Apparently the seal on the toilet outlet pipe only lasts a few years. Even the best ones are only guaranteed for ten years! So potentially every time we flush a toilet more than say 8-10 years old we're letting some moisture out into our home (and let's not think about what else...)

So the lesson is, learn to install your own toilet, and then replace the seals every 7or 8 years. Lovely. Thanks.

Sunday 4 December 2011

Ecohouse lesson 1 - Build Tight, Ventilate Right

A while back I borrowed a book called Ecohouse: A Design Guide from my friends at Pennine Camphill Community. I opened it at the beginning of the chapter on ventilation, and read:
The control of ventilation is one of the most subtle and yet the most important concerns of the building designer. How to make air move about the building in a way that satisfies, and even delights, the occupant.
I really liked this idea, and the suggestion that you should let the wind do the ventilating - and design your house around the prevailing wind conditions. I have heard however of things like the German Passivhaus standard where the house is completely sealed and airtight (and they say you can heat a whole house in the cold north for a year for £25 and the indoor air quality is excellent - there's even less dust!). So before I start thinking too carefully about ventilation it seems my first lesson is in an earlier chapter of the book, called 'Pushing the building envelope'.

Sure enough, on p.94 we read 'a sustainable building must be an airtight building'. Further:
It is apparently normal for up to 50% of the heat loss from new buildings in the UK to come from uncontrolled air leakage (Ecohouse p.92 quoting research from 2000) 
air passing through the external envelope - walls, floor and roof - of a building carries moisture with it. This causes significant damage in buildings, particularly to timber, and can substantially shorten the life of a building. 
Infiltration is the technical term ... for the uncontrolled movement of air through buildings. ... Excess air movement through infiltration:
  • Makes heating systems inadequate
  • Gives rise to cold draughts and discomfort
  • Increases fuel bills and CO2 emissions
  • Allows potentially damaging moisture to penetrate our building fabric
  • Reduces the effectiveness of insulation
The biggest pollutant we have to deal with in our dwellings is moisture - plain old H2O. Minimising the build-up of moisture helps prevent condensation and mould growth, and discourages dust mites. ... If we have open-flued appliances, such as wood-burning stoves, we need more ventilation for safety...
Mainstream UK construction has become much more aware of airtightness over the past five years, and the latest revision to the Building Regulations (England & Wales), which came into force in April 2006, will accelerate this trend. ... Anyone interested in sustainable construction should appreciate that the targets for airtightness ... are very lax. [They] set a maximum air permeability target of 10 for all new buildings... [A]ll you have to do to meet this Building Regulations target is to build a dwelling where heated air remains inside for 7 minutes in the hour when a 20mph wind is blowing! this is neither energy-efficient nor sustainable, by a substantial margin. Hence the advanced energy standards set by the Association for Environment Conscious Building, AECB, of an air permeability of 3.0 for their silver standard and 0.75 for their gold standard. The first of these is the lowest air permeability we would recommend for naturally ventilated buildings, whilst the higher gold standard is comparable to the German Passivhaus standard...
There's a lot more in this chapter. There's a lot about insulation (use 500mm in the roof and 300mm in the walls - or 'think of a number, then double it'; insulate the roof, not the top ceiling), about cold bridges and special constructions for avoiding them (window frame designs, nylon wall ties, timber sub-frames around doors and between lintels, etc), and about condensation (ideally install a vapour barrier on the inside wall and a breather membrane on the outside).

Other notes:
  • you need to really closely supervise builders if you want to eliminate air leakage as standard workmanship accounts for lots of problems (even simply dropping excess mortar inside wall cavities)...
  • self-build has advantages here :-)
  • need to carefully construct and seal every point where a cable or pipe goes through a wall or ceiling
  • draughts get in behind dry-lining, so better to apply wet plaster
  • pay particular attention to insulating corners: there are illustrations that show how teperatures drop more rapidly in corners; and additionally it's harder to insulate them because of inaccessibility - need to ensure any insulation properly installed - could think about thickening walls at corners...
  • use thermalite blocks between concrete floors and walls to avoid cold bridging

Sunday 6 November 2011

Weather in OrchardyHaven

Thanks to the Permaculture Association for this link to You can get all sorts of information, but I didn't expect to be able to find weather data so close to Sadowo (it's actually from Grodno airport, 50km away).

Here's a graph showing the average temperatures through the year, in comparison with Wakefield:

A few things jump out. First, I've stupidly cut off the x-axis, but it starts at the beginning of January and ends at the end of December. The Wakefield data is is blue, and the Sadowo data is grey. The thicker horizontal grey line is zero. From the beginning of December to early March the average temperature in Sadowo is below zero, in fact for two months the average high never gets above zero! By contrast in Wakefield the average never gets down to zero. From the beginning of April to the end of September though the average temperature in Sadowo is higher than Wakefield.

There are also graphs of wind (much higher on average all through the year in Wakefield), humidity (higher in Wakefield all through summer, similar in Winter), and cloud (seems much cloudier in Sadowo).

To have a look for yourself, here's a link to the weather data charts for Sadowo.

Lammas Eco-Building Course

Back in September, just before we went to Poland, I went off to Lammas Eco-Village in Pembrokeshire to get some practical experience, meet a few like-minded people, and get more prepared for all the building work ahead of us...

I went on one of the Eco-Building courses run by Nigel & Cassie Lishman at Plas Helyg ('Willow Mansion'). We designed and planned and put together a roundwood timber frame for a barn, and we built part of a cob greenhouse, finishing off the foundations and building up to above window height. Here are a couple of photos (thanks to Jenny for taking much more artistic photos than me!):

It was a great week. I felt really welcomed and all the other people on the course were very friendly. It was great getting my hands in the cob mix and practising roundwood framing. I felt I learned quite a lot, and I came away feeling much more confident about our project.

Tuesday 18 October 2011

Highlights of our first proper visit

We went to visit in late September for three weeks, partly to introduce Maia to her Polish family, and partly to make a start on our new future home. Here are the highlights of our visit:

1. Walking on to the land for the first time:

From the NE, our land starts with the treesAnother new view from the SE 
We did walk around quite a lot when we first looked at the property last Easter, but it was great to know that we're actually going to make it our home. Also, all through the three weeks it seemed like every time we stopped and looked around we got a new perspective, saw something new and beautiful again...

2. Getting the rubbish cleared:

We spent about five days clearing rubbish. It was quite a sad experience: apparently this house was the grandest in the area when it was first built, but it's last owner didn't manage to live up to this legacy and the rubbish everywhere told a story of things being lost and broken all the time and a family life in some chaos...
Here's one of the trailer loads of rubbish ready to go, and it was a huge relief to be able to walk around and find empty spaces and piles of wood instead of plastic.

3. Planting

This happened quite late, and it was too dry and early to plant trees as we'd hoped, but we did plant some walnuts - eight pairs, here with my nephew Adam doing the honours - and we also planted some calendula seeds and some green manure seeds (sunflowers, flax, peas and clover). Fingers crossed for some growth through all the weeds and the hard winter ahead...

4. Wildlife

We saw this pile of sand and went to investigate. I'm peering down a large hole and thinking about badgers...?

We also have an owl living in one of our barns (behind the trailer full of rubbish above) which is fantastic, except we'll be worrying about disturbing her when we start work properly...

Of course there were deer, buzzards flying overhead, frogs and crickets everywhere, loads of varieties of colourful bugs, woodworm and mice and voles and moles. Not a great many birds, but I think that will change once we start working more on the land and create better environments for them.

5. Flora

It was pretty late for most flowers, despite the Autumn sun still keeping me hot at work. As I walked from the SE though I found huge patches of all sorts of flowers that were resisting the thick grass from the rest of the land. Loads of evening primrose, loads of wild strawberries, lots of signs of cultivated strawberries further on, and lots of patches of other things that I can't identify yet, like this picture.

A friend of a friend does expert reports on the ecological value of land, and we're hoping he can come and have a look next summer. It certainly looked to me as if we had an exceptional habitat worth maintaining and supporting, but maybe that's just because we've been using so many chemicals for so long in the UK, and this could be common in Poland...?

6. Trees and woodwork

I always want to do more green woodwork, but it's hard (or expensive) to get the materials and the space to work them in Wakefield. In our orchardy haven there are so many trees we need to cut some of them down and it seems a shame to simple burn them. It was great stripping the bark and creating a frame for our treebog, although we ran out of time in the end. My first job was to build a saw horse from recycled planks from a barn, which was good. I found that nailing through green sycamore was very hard though!

7. Autumn harvest

8. Farm work

This is an 'arfa' or winnowing machine. Unfortunately my brother in law had an accident at work and cut his hand. Fortunately helping him out meant I had to use this thing which I found fascinating. A very simple machine, the electric motor turns a wheel which turns a fan. There's also a simple lever mechanism on the other side that moves a series of four big sieves from side to side. You pour grain into the top, the chaff get's blown out of the back (right of this picture), grit falls down the funnel at the bottom, and the cleaned grains come down the shoot on the left. More pictures here.

The only little thing was he needed 900kg, in eighteen 50kg sacks. In Poland, like in the UK, you're not supposed to lift more than 25kg at a time. Luckily there's a simple work around - just tell farmers to use two people to move the bigger sacks... Needless to say this doesn't happen in practice, and I changed some fat into muscle. I also got to drive tractors and use a chainsaw and do other things that exercised my health and safety instincts :-)

9. Art work

I was asked to help dig a foundation trench for a new shed, and the first thing was to dig out a large stone. What they didn't realise was that only about 5% of the huge boulder was visible above ground, and that I would take on the task as a kind of Goldsworthy-esque art project and dig a nice neat trench all the way round. Someone then came and blew it up with explosives, and still it was a huge struggle involving borrowing stronger tractors and trailers to get the pieces out, but we did manage to get a few pieces delivered to Sadowo where we may do some granite carving in the future...

10. Forest walk

One Sunday we went for a walk, including venturing together into the huge neighbouring forest. I love forests, and this was almost as magical as when I went in April. No elk this time, but mushrooms and flowers and calm and quiet and dappled light and visions of many more visits in the future as Maia gets older...

11. Star gazing

The skies are really clear and there is hardly any light polution. I saw in Wales a discounted little book of the night sky, and I was able on a couple of nights to learn more about what I was looking at, identify a few more constellations, and find the Pleiades.

In Greek mythology, Maia was the eldest daughter of Atlas and Pleione, immortalised in the Pleiades star cluster, or seven sisters. I was very pleased to be able to find this in the sky too, although we could do with some binoculars to see them more clearly.

It was quite a hard trip in many ways, but there was a lot to celebrate and we're looking forward to the future.

Wednesday 7 September 2011

Notes about surveying - house and land

I started the day early today and took the opportunity to do some quick research about surveying this new property. I'm off to see my friend Martin and I'm trying to be prepared for our conversation.

He's already given me some tips: check the foundations mainly, look for damp patches, look for diagonal cracks running from foundations or from window or door lintels, look at the roof, etc. Especially useful - take a long straight piece of wood to check for straight walls... I also found some advice online: for example how to survey old houses for renovation. Finally I hope to take my dad's advice and ask three local builders for their suggestions - with no specifications, what would they do to make it liveable? Could help us identify problems, give ideas, and get a feeling for potential costs. Of course I hope to do a lot of the work myself, and I expect our eco-house will be renovated quite differently from most local properties, but all this should be useful.

Then I got on to land surveying, or more particularly soil analysis. Not so much luck here in my initial searches - I'm surprised that the Soil Association website doesn't have more info. Of course I can do a pH test and hope it comes between 6.5-7, and I can hope for good loamy soil (although I expect it to be more sandy). Happily my conclusion was that my plan so far is ok, and I can dig some pits and do some investigating and all will be good.

Also this morning I came across this old film again of Ruth Stout's garden, which I find quite inspiring. Simple methods, little work, plenty of good food - sounds like a good recipe to me :-)

Then this evening I've ended up watching the documentary Dirt, via the great Permaculture Media Blog (see their Free Documentary Films Archive!) - loads of good stuff on here.

One last unrelated thing before I go to sleep: a friend of a friend apparently found it was so expensive to hire a mini digger for several pieces of work, it was better to buy one second hand for £5000 and sell it a year later for £4500 than pay all the hire charges. No there's a thought, although you need the spare cash...

Monday 15 August 2011

And then there were three

Maia at 1 week, in our garden.
I haven't been writing recently because we've been busy welcoming our newest worker into the world!

Maia was born a week ago. She has a strong grip (with her toes as well as her hands!) and she already seems eager to get out and explore the world around her.

We think she'll feel right at home in Orchardy Haven with us, we're really enjoying her company, and we're looking forward to her future contributions to our family life. Sto lat Maia x

Sunday 31 July 2011

Where are we coming from

I need to write a piece sometime soon about our philosophy, but before I do that I feel like the first step is where we're coming from. Of course in Kasia's case the simple answer is about 3km north of Orchardy Haven, although we met a long way away from there and we've been on interlocking journeys...

Henry at 8 months in front of cabbages
Me first then. I actually grew up in a house in the country surrounded by land that my great aunt bred Guernsey cattle on. When my mother found that she was pregnant her aunt offered her the house, so we moved from London and she went off at the age of 66 to travel around the UK and Ireland in a horse drawn caravan! She rented most of the fields to a local farmer friend, but I did grow up with the descendants of her chicken flock, and my mother kept ducks for the table and each year a couple of larger animals: tamworth pigs were our favourite, but also lambs, calves and goats. Eventually she expanded to try a commercial rabbitry, and I was too young to know the details but it went wrong and that was about the end of our home-reared meat - that and the night a fox got into the chicken coop and slaughtered the rest of the flock...

This isn't the space for my life story, but skipping forward to 1996 I got involved in local community work where I lived in Leeds, established Hyde Park Source in 1998, Rasa Advocacy Project in 2003, Advocacy Action in 2005 and Hungry Snail Food Co-op in 2009. I think that the key link between these enterprises is passion for social action. I gained this from my mother, and I also knew from a very young age about the problems of modern chemical based farming. By 2007 when I met Kasia (she was living next door to my mother at the time!) I had pretty much accepted that mine was to be a city-based life, reacting to the needs of the people around me, although I have always dreamed of being more isolated and self-sufficient.

There's also a lot of philosophy and (self-)education that came in and around these years which I'll doubtless refer to later, but now it's Kasia's turn. Her family have been farmers for generations in rural north east Poland. She grew up in a house her grandfather built, and where he still works at the age of 83 along with Kasia's brother. The family are quite self-sufficient in many things still, keep pigs and chickens and cows, grow vegetables, and grow grains and root crops for the animals. Four generations are still living there together. Kasia was adventurous and studied Occupational Therapy in Łodz, and has always practised traditional crafts including ceramics, basketry, crochet and a variety of home and country crafts learned from her mother and grandmother. Working with people with learning disabilities and mental health problems, as well as young offenders, Kasia got degrees in Special Education and then came to England to learn the language.

It was clear to me before I made my long term commitment which led to our marriage, that living with Kasia would ultimately mean moving to Poland. She has rekindled my interest in the land and what I call hand-work. Our garden and home have been transformed into an oasis of calm and beauty. We have a developing allotment. Kasia has been enjoying working as an art teacher in one of the more challenging local high schools. We've both been volunteering in the Craft Centre at Pennine Camphill Community, and we've been occasionally helping out at other good places like Old Sleningford Farm, Cobden and Edible Cities in Leeds, Middlewood Trust, etc.

We have a lot of skills and ideas to bring towards our future life at Orchardy Haven, and a deep commitment to the planet and people. More about how our philosophy will shape that dream soon...

Saturday 30 July 2011

First work on our land

We've booked tickets to go to Poland in mid September, and although we're thinking about the house and what needs to be done to it, my main thinking is about what we're going to do with the land. We need to build a home that can keep us warm and comfortable in the winter, and hopefully cool and comfortable in the summer, but it is the surrounding land that will play a big part in sustaining us - and take a lot of our time.

Of course we do want to find efficient ways of working the land with minimal effort, and we'll be planning with permaculture principles in mind. The question is now, with three weeks to do some initial work before the winter, what are the priorities? I've made this little plan to help explain our current thinking:

I hope you can see! The house is red, with the brown barns in a square; the existing meadow (blue) and birch plantation (green) and orchard (yellow); I've marked our planned areas for Holzer raised beds in orange, and hedge planting in pink.

We think at the moment that the main priorities are:
  1. Improving the soil by planting green manures, especially around the orchards and the areas we're likely to begin to cultivate first.
  2. Beginning to establish a hedge/barrier particularly on the NW boundary (pink) made with native trees and shrubs, with an emphasis on thick and thorny and fruiting to begin to discourage the numerous deer and other wild animals from the nearby forest while also offering some forage for them and the local birdlife. The prevailing wind is also from the W (60%) so the hedge will calm that.
  3. One of the priorities if we're going to be working on the land for extended periods will be a toilet. No mains sewage, and nobody to complain about the idea of a composting toilet, but which design? I like the one recently built at the Sustainability Centre and described in Living Woods Magazine and Permaculture Magazine. It is raised above a bed of straw bales and surrounded by willow, so no need to separate the urine, you get good willow for weaving, and relatively easy to process compost (if I remember rightly). More on this later I expect...
  4. Finally, I need to do some more surveying. In particular I want to take a better look at the soil in different areas on site, try to record more information about the trees and flowers and herbs on site, and find out more about what's growing locally.
As we continue to think about all this, there are questions about whether to continue to mow the meadow regularly, what to do with the birch plantation (needs thinning out, but when) and what to do with the rest of the land on the bottom of this plan - maybe a mixture of forest garden and pig paddocks, with plenty of fruit trees planted in between the existing generally young conifers...

Tuesday 19 July 2011

Thinking about the house...

Originally we wanted to build a straw-bale house, but since we have a house and no money it seems like the most effective way to insulate it and make it beautiful would be to clad the outside with straw bales. The idea is to construct a sort of 'shelf' attached to the foundation and as wide as the bales, and then build the bale wall on this. We would still need to reconstruct the windows and the door (but they need to be repaired at the very least anyway), and we'd need to extend the roof so that it overhangs the walls to protect them from the elements.

This leads me to thinking about the existing walls... Here are a few photos: the East aspect; detail of NE corner; detail of NW corner; and South aspect. By the way, the external dimensions are about 13m x 8m.
 You can see the slight slope and the relatively new (uninsulated) metal roof. Pointing is fairly random. The two larger windows on the left are a bedroom, the little window a kind of scullery behind the kitchen, the tiny 'window' is opposite the front door, and the last window is into a kind of workshop.
 This photo (above) is a close-up of the wall and the eaves, and below is another close-up showing a patch of cement filling in the foundation, and on the North wall you can just make out an old door that's been blocked up, and some not very straight lines of block work...
 The South aspect is much tidier (below) but really if we're designing an eco-friendly house we'd want as much south-facing space as possible

Any thoughts? Do I need to carry out any particular investigations? Do I need any other photos? Or will I be fairly safe developing my building plan as it is? Please leave comments below... Thanks!

Sunday 17 July 2011

First steps

We've never lived somewhere we're free to build and dig and adapt so much, so this is a really exciting moment for us and we'd really like to move over there and start work as soon as possible. There are a few things that need to be sorted out first though:
  1. We're about to put just a little bit more than all the rest of our savings to secure the property... We've found a run-down property in a beautiful setting, in the right location for us, that we can just afford with the help of our families. We're really happy that we may be mortgage and rent free, but we don't know about the finances of this sort of thing, paid employment in this part of Poland is scarce and not well remunerated and we're going to be reliant on putting our own labour into developing it. We do need to stay in the UK for a while to generate some more working capital (and that's not counting moving costs even).

  2. We need insulation, a new roof, a toilet, maybe indoor running water... The roof space looks dry inside, but I could see that because of the light coming through the gaps... We always dreamed of building a straw bale house, and we were a bit confused when we found this place about how to realise our dream. Considering the state of the interior and the roof we thought about demolishing it down to the foundations and re-building with straw bales, but our friends at Old Sleningford Farm pointed out that the walls are sound, and we should more simply build straw-bale insulation around the outside. That makes it easier and more affordable, but there's still lots of work to do inside and out...

  3. We need to start growing food... The previous owners didn't even have a vegetable patch - rare in this area. The existing small orchard is tired and old. Much of the land is covered with densely planted young birch trees. Much of the rest is covered with grass, nettles, and other scattered small trees. We want to build the soil quality, do creative things with whatever we find on the land (trees, stones, earth, water), and use permaculture and forest gardening based approaches to be at least self-sufficient, and hopefully make some income from the land.
These are going to be the three themes of this website: getting some money together, planning the building, and getting growing on the land. Most of the posts from now on will hopefully focus on one of these aspects.

Thursday 14 July 2011

Where in the world...?

For some reason I always thought Poland was in the cold North of Europe. This prejudice was strengthened when I found out about the weeks or months of -20C in winter. In fact, I was surprised to discover our new smallholding is just over 7km South of where we live now in Wakefield, W Yorks - and 1645km East!

As you can see from this picture, all of Scotland is more Northerly than the most Northern bit of Poland, and the South of Poland is more on a level with Brittany...

Luckily even in the cold winter the sun often shines, and in the summer the continental climate should mean we'll be baking nicely - in fact traditionally most families had outdoor 'summer kitchens' to avoid the heat of cooking warming their houses too much.

Here is a clip from the Google satellite image of the plot itself:

Our house and buildings are in the centre.

Our Eastern and Southern boundaries are easy to spot - the treelines.

Our Western boundary is closer to the buildings - it goes to just before the narrow strip of cultivated land.

The Northern boundary is less distinct and less straight, but it's roughly marked by the big tree or clump of trees just about due north of the buildings. There's a 'wet patch' in amongst these trees to the North, which was a small stream when we were there in April, although probably dry in the summer.

500m West is the start of a big forest (not visible in this image), 1.5km wide at this point and stretching down 24km South (and then linking in to other bigger forests...). On my first walk into the forest I met some Elk, which was an amazing experience!

Monday 11 July 2011

What's in a name? Orchardy Haven...?

We were looking for a name for our future home that would be somehow poetic and evocative of the kind of place we wanted it to become, and also to have a sense of where it is now...

So, it's in a small village called Sadowo. This in itself doesn't mean much, but the root 'sad' means 'orchard' in Polish. If you add the suffix '-owa', this turns is into an adjective, 'orchardy'. So far I must admit the 'orchard' there is a bit old and in need of some tlc - there are about 20 apple trees, and quite a lot of raspberry and blackcurrant growing around. Here's a picture showing part of it: looking towards the house, facing north. It will get more orchardy soon...

Then there is the 'haven'. Of course since the place is in Poland, the Polish name came first, which is Sadowa Przystań. Apparently this meets all my poetic and romantic criteria, and a haven or przystań is a shelter, a safe place, resting place, a place to pause and re-energise.

We hope it will be a pause from the more complicated city life we've been living. We think the pace of life will be slower there in some ways, even though there's lots of work to do. We believe that it will be a place where people will come and eat apples and sit in our garden (after a few hours voluntary labour) and feel inspired and re-energised and relaxed...

Sunday 10 July 2011

Welcome to our new blog

Hello and welcome. This is really exciting - we're going to move to Poland! I've been promising my wife Kasia since before we got engaged, three years ago. Now we've found a piece of land, and we're beginning to think about it all in more definite terms... So, here is the house that needs renovating, and here I am on our future doorstep (pointing South for some reason...)

Although we don't have enough money to move there yet, or to renovate the house and barns, or to transform the land into a working smallholding...

Anyway, this is the website where we'll be sharing our thinking and planning - and our doing and learning. There are all sorts of things we want to share, and we're hoping this site will become a rich resource over the next few years - like our new land - so please do follow us, and even come and visit once we have the guest accommodation sorted (tent anyone?). To whet your appetite, here's another view, from the North East: