humblebee hive – retrofit #6
Uplifting tales about small challenges leading to better outcomes
One of the best courses I went on during my time at Arup was the Design School. I was only a grad + something at the time (yup, it’s been going for over 20 years!), and we had a lot of fun, away on residential for a couple of days with my sponsored student pals and graduate intake peers. But I clearly remember an Aha! moment: the joy experienced, after a moment of downright disappointment, of finding an even better solution than the one you’d spent hours devising up to that point.
The high that can only come after experiencing the low. A religious analogy of the good that comes out of the bad. I don’t remember the task as such, but we’d had quite a bit of fun on the first day designing something as a team, only to be told the next day – a deliberate ploy by the organisers – that the brief had changed and that most of yesterday’s effort was to be binned. To have the resilience to bounce forward is what designers have to dig deep for over and over, and it’s for the eventual highs of that process that we continue to do what we do – not always a guaranteed outcome, which is why professional satisfaction depends on having more highs and better solutions, than disappointments and painful compromises.
I can’t say we’ve had any major problem on this project, but every small bump in the road was an opportunity to reflect and research, and experience some degree of flukiness too. And here are a couple of great outcomes as a result that we’re so excited to share with you.
Timber Cladding and Window Boards
We had given the cladding a little bit of thought and had settled on larch from a sustainable source: a Manchester-based tree processing yard which we understood to be generally supplied with timber from urban tree management. The only thing we needed to decide on was the finish: should we try to retain the natural, first cut yellow-red colour of the timber or treat with a natural ageing accelerant and have a more even silvery finish? (Sounds a bit like me coming out of covid quarantine!)
Then there were the window boards. Something I hadn’t really spent much time agonising over (it turns out there are plenty of decisions to be made about sills, such as oversails, bull nosed or flat edges, returns and architraves). All I knew was I’d preferred them to be solid wood, and we’d envisaged sourcing them from the same place as the cladding.
But we had trouble getting any kind of engagement from the yard itself, who have largely turned themselves into suppliers of fire wood, and standard timber sourced more traditionally for local craftspeople and their own contacts. Because of the deep sills we’ve ended up with – I love this as we have window seats in every room now – we were after non standard sizes, so even sourcing these from more standard FSC/PEFC certified merchants was proving tricky, with a general shortage of timber in the supply chain.
The windows had been installed, and the team were lining the reveals with 6mm ply, and we still hadn’t bought the boards. I took to the internet and fb marketplace to try to find either secondhand or sustainable new. Eventually I found a piece of oak worktop for the kitchen sill from a lovely lady in Stoke and sent M down to collect it. She was keen to know what we were doing with it as she’d become quite attached to it, stood up in her home office while she wondered what she’d turn it into! So once installed, and brushed with Danish Oil, I sent her a pic and she was delighted.
One down, 7 to go! So I contacted our skilled carpenter and close friend Garry to find out if he knew of alternative sources of sustainable timber. He suggested our mutual friend and Transition Wilmslow stalwart Chris Frankland, who I hadn’t spoken to since before the pandemic and thought he only really supplied firewood and woodchip for landscaping from his super-local tree management service.
Imagine our delight when Chris said he’d partnered with someone at his workshop so that they could do high end timber processing (they were in the process of building their own kiln) and to come and visit the workshop.
To cut a rather long story short, Chris and Paul (who does the most beautiful “turning” – we learn something new every day) happened to have a stash and supplied us with beautiful Deodar Cedar planks for the cladding and the window boards which are currently acclimatising in our living room, filling the house with the most heavenly scent. Speaking of which, our largest window bay is the living room which will be the proud exhibitor of a window seat made from “Tree of Heaven”, a hardwood, commonly regarded as an invasive weed, that apparently has a creamy ash appearance when sawn – doesn’t that sound just wonderful? And it’s come straight from someone’s back garden as part of necessary tree maintenance work. Although it’ll take a few months to dry out I’m sure it will be worth the wait.
And because we’re local and the tree would otherwise be low value material, we didn’t even break the bank. Chris is keen to make this the next big thing in our timber supply chain and industry: urban wood for high-end uses, all sourced within a 20 mile radius.
Just before we paused the site for covid (brought back from the office by my husband – thanks LOR!), we’d decided that while the scaffold was up we would take the opportunity to re-roof, as the concrete tiles had come to the end of their useful life after 50 years and become porous. The tell-tale sign should have been the lines of drips we’d noticed in the loft after a thawed snowfall or frost, but we just thought it was our holey membrane (this project makes us feel so ignorant at times).
Not something we’d planned to think about as part of this phase, but it made sense to strip the roof – a messy job – before applying the render so as not to damage it in the process. And the team were willing and able. And so the next question was what to cover it with, as we really didn’t like the idea of an unsustainable and high embodied carbon material like concrete, especially if it doesn’t last.
Richard suggested contacting Cheshire Demolition for reclaimed slates or clay tiles, so I did.
And so here’s another great story about local, sustainable material sourcing: roof slates were due to come off an old mill / factory (in Shaw, Oldham, we believe) the following week. After working out the pitch and rough area to cover, and with help from both Rob at CD and our local roof-layer Andy – who miraculously could fit us in – we were able to order 1200 22″x14″ slates, and 22 Staffordshire Blue clay ridge tiles in time for our build.
Reclaimed slates arriving from Cheshire Demolition… where to put them?
(A view from my covid-isolation pod… sped up)
The reason for the removal of the slates off the factory remains unkown, and was unlikely to be the most noble of causes (luxury apartments, perhaps?), but it still gave me a warm feeling inside that we were reclaiming a material that would have required many hours of toil to extract and cut, and would practically last forever.
What a stroke of luck we had, once again!
(Costs not included as not strictly the energy part of the retrofit, but contact me if you want an idea of what they were.)