It wasn’t planned but the house is to get well over 10 types of plaster finishes /dry lining boards during the refurb.  Much of them are DIY so lots of new skills to learn and tools to buy.

First, I must start with two materials that are a long way from green.  The first is gypsum plasterboard (1), put up quickly by my amazing dad when a new partition was needed at the start, and before being brave enough to think we could do this stuff ourselves.  Annoying material plasterboard – non recyclable and made of mined and mixed virgin material. It is however cheap, easy to put up and a staple of British house building. A gypsum plaster skim (2) will have to cover it as it won’t take much else, will borrow my brother to help with this*.

Clay boards

Clay boards (3)

Clay board (3) is next, a bit of an impulse purchase picked up (from Back to Earth) en route to friends in Devon a year ago.  It’s going in the understairs cubby loo, very good sound proofing apparently.  It’s a bit crumbly but feels like it must be good and looking forward to having a go with it. Clay plaster (4) will cover it, very heavy stuff. Apparently it’s easy to work with and you can mold sculptures as you go, if you’re that way inclined.

Fibre board made from recycled gypsum and paper

Gypsum fibreboard (5)

Gypsum fibreboard (5) (Femacell) is a new find (though around for 40 years+) and introduced to me by Tim, our friendly contractor at Ecovert Solutions. It’s made from “recycled gypsum [waste product from a power station], cellulose fibres from post consumer waste paper and water, no added chemicals. All by-products and off cuts are fed back into the production cycle“. Sadly, the plant is in Holland so getting the bits back for recovery is a little impractical (why is Britain not really into this kind of thing?

The fibreboard goes up

The fibreboard goes up (5)

groan).  It’s a nice material, reassuringly heavy and smooth.  It was interesting balancing it on my head as the bathroom ceiling ever-so slowly took shape.  A home made prop made it a slightly less painful experience.  What a joy to have a ceiling, the pleasures in life. Fine surface treatment (6) will be applied after filling the holes, simply scraped on apparently.  I’m assured that this is a doddle, we shall see.  Interestingly one of the builders tells me this is the approach used typically in France where he comes from, rather than the gypsum plaster here.  I haven’t managed to work out what its eco credentials are yet or if it has any but at least you don’t need much of it.

Hemp & lime putty on lathe

Hemp & lime putty on lathe (8)

Hydraulic lime mortar NHL5 (7) has been used to pointing of the foundation brickwork below the damp proof course. Two gullies  with years of overflow and a leak or two was the cause.  This was a new foray into the world of lime and it was piece of cake. Well, it was less difficult than imagined and I’ve leaned that the higher the NHL number the less breathable, the quicker it sets and the harder it is – NHL5 is good in wetter situations like foundations. Hemp with lime putty (8) came out the blue.  A lime plastering course at Ty Mawr in the beautiful Breccon Beacons led to a ‘let’s pull down the dodgy 80’s stipple, plasterboard and everything else on the kitchen ceiling** and start again’ thought. And we did.  The original lathe (wooden strips), almost perfect bar mice nibbles and missing bits, were left in situ and patched up and covered with this stuff.  Bit of

A first go at lime plastering

A first go at plastering with lime putty (10)

a trial first time around, to prepare,  ‘knock up’, put on (as plasterer’s mate, it was hard enough) and to keep it up there.  It looks pretty darn good (to me). It takes a month to dry apparently and demands a cooler environment and lots of ventilation. Given that there is currently no heating in half the house (removed in a moment of controlled madness) and still gaps the size of the cat around

Knocking up lime putty plaster

Knocking up lime putty plaster (10)

windows, these needs are easily met. Hydraulic lime mortar NHL 3.5 (9) is plugging all the gaps inside, including unused waste pipe holes, between bricks, dips in walls etc.   Tim tells me ‘you can use sand and lime to do pretty much anything‘ so we are and so is he.

So, what’s so good about lime? A summary of +’s from GreenSpec…produced at lower temperatures so needs less energy and therefore generates lower CO2 emissions; lime putty absorbs nearly its own weight in CO2 in the curing process and hydraulic lime around 75%; lime mortar can be re-cycled unlike cement; bricks using lime mortar can be reused/recycled unlike the cement bonded equivalent which can only be used for hardcore; buildings built using lime mortar move and absorb moisture. In comparison with cement mortar which is rigid, lime mortar ‘moves’ with the structure and so prevents masonry from cracking.

Sand with lime putty (coarse)  (10) ready made from Ty Mawr for the base coats of walls in the bathroom has worked better than expected though the plaster seemed to take an age to knock up. This situation was improved somewhat by our contractor providing a little advice

How many folk keep a bell mixer in their kitchen?

How many folk keep a bell mixer in their kitchen?

and his twin handled mixer (much appreciated).  The tool wrenched arms much less than the inferior version attached to the drill, and would certainly make a more accomplished giant cake. It was critical to drench the walls with water beforehand otherwise the red brick would sucks all the moisture out and turn the plaster to dust or so we’re told.  Other walls in the kitchen and elsewhere will also get this treatment.  Sand and lime putty (fine) (11) will provide the final smooth coat although I am somewhat skeptical at our chances of getting a fine glass like and flat finish and will aim lower so as not to be disappointed, overrated anyway.  Clay paint (12) will hide a multitude of sins. Secil’s

Sticking cork to the wall Shaun style

Sticking cork to the wall (13 and 14)

Adherevit ecocork (13) from Mike Wye is hydraulic lime with cork and sticks the 200mm cork boards (14) on the main part of the wall to form the external wall insulation (EWI). Expandable Styropor boards (15), below the damp proof course, and Pavaflex wood fibre board are also in place and along with the cork will be rendered with the ecocork, which also makes up the two principle base coats of the main render. Secil Finishing Render (16) made up of hydraulic lime with calcium and other minerals, provides a breathable skin before Baumit’s Nanopor paint (17) is brushed on.  Apparently it’s self-cleaning and breathable – the manufacturers are almost evangelical about it in their brochure.

There are so many more interesting materials and, as another of the builders tells me as parcels arrive on the doorstep, ‘it’s like Christmas every day ‘, and it is.

What an interesting material

Savolit – What an interesting material

*Just been told that I can use another finish DG27 (18) to prime the board so lime can be applied, great – thanks Franck!

** There will be more ceilings to sort and another tip from Franck is to use the lighter wood wool (19) – I’ve seen a sample and would love to have a go with it! 


During the last 20 months, since buying this neglected old house in South Manchester, I’ve been thinking, researching, and worrying about the choices to green up my home. It’s been exhausting, fascinating, frustrating, time consuming and exciting and I expect more of the same is to follow.

How it came to be

I’ve thought for sometime how great it would be to self build a property to Passiv Haus standards with all the trimmings.  It would be made of the most natural long-lasting, reused / reusable and innocuous materials I could find, and with the future built in.  Well of course this comes at a price, and one beyond my reach.  A chance interest by a friend in the house for sale literally at the end of the street, the one with the inappropriately located but beautiful weeping willow, started a train of thought.  We took a look together and whilst C made a swift unappreciative exit I pondered the potential.  It would be another year before I looked at it again and with a view to buying and retrofitting it as far as I could afford.  It’s not a new build but it’s no less a challenge and it was time for a change. My home at the time, a modest mid terrace of 14 years had, like so many others, attracted capital gains.  If I had wanted to buy it today, I wouldn’t have been able to afford it – how humbling that was.  An irreversible feeling was triggered, I had to move and it had to be to that house, it deserved a comeback.  Acquiring it was fraught and the survey turned up a mess but six months later acquired it I did.

The story so far…

  • A blank canvas, Feb to Jul 2013: The garden was cleared of shopping trolleys, buried bathroom suite,
    Will brown kitchens ever be retro fashion?

    Will brown kitchens ever be retro fashion?

    imposing leylandii (we now have very happy neighbours), asbestos in bits and sheets on the garage and in pits,

    Free bricks in the garden

    Free bricks in the garden

    50 years of dumped carpets and around 30m2 of concrete cover. The house was stripped of wall paper, old carpets and original linoleum, kitchen cabinets and gas fire using more skips than I would have liked. A few hidden treasures were unearthed … lead gnome, coloured bottles, glossy tiles, a huge sandstone block and a large trench of bricks are now awaiting use.

  • Working out what to do next, May 2013 to Oct 2014: It was always going to be difficult balancing a
    Foamed glass

    Foamed glass

    limited budget (inevitably not enough) with a desire to avoid carbon, minimise waste, use materials with low impacts on the environment, and achieve a finish fit for the future. It got even harder when I sought paid-for advice and grew ever more informed. No house is the same as the next and neither is the advice. There are lots of materials to choose from with different properties, impacts and costs. Decisions have been made on some key elements – windows (EcoContract from Green Building Store), EWI (cork & lime render from Mike Wye), solid floor (recycled gravel from Stockport Stone, recycled glass foam insulation Technopor and lime screed), roof repairs (wood fascia and soffets plus aluminium rainwater system Lindab), and I hope to share some of the reasoning as I get chance.   A building contractor – Ecovert Solutions – was appointed in July to do the big stuff (window sizing and fitting, EWI, roof extension, roof repairs,  improvement to utility and solid flooring), though it was difficult to find one to trust.  So far Tim, Frank and the rest of the Ecovert team have been a pleasure to work with.  Planning permission and a Green Deal voucher were issued in July.

  • First crop of apples!

    First crop of apples!

    Putting life back into the garden, May to Dec 2013: The allure of being outside, the incredible summer of 2013 and visiting in-laws led to a mini renaissance in the garden. Undesirable weeds, and diseased roses, were teased and pulled, and posh ones planted (wild geranium, fox & cubs, forget-me-knots, teasel, foxglove, borage, creeping Jenny, globe thistle). A modest hedgerow was dug in (and a century of rubbish dug out) and the huge weeping willow tackled by surgeons. An old apple tree, ravaged with woodworm and unkind cuts, bore 20kg of fruit. The new old greenhouse was reconstructed, a raised bed raised and a buried cast iron bath converted to a pond. Foxes, frogs, toads, robin, gold crests, blackbirds, a million worms, ten million slugs and snails, jays, red admirals, commas and a hedgehog, are all in residence.

  • DIY, May 2013 to date: The first task was to take down a wall and insert a steel. The bathroom was stripped
    Bringing the house down

    Not much chance of a shower

    back to the brick or lime, the drooping ceiling brought down (a very VERY dirty job) and replacement sink and toilet put in… and removed again! The drainage system has been replaced with clay pipes, old clay gully and plastic for the awkward spots, a year long job. The under stairs cupboard has been stripped bare and a kooky water-saving combined toilet and sink installed. Designing the soil stack was more enjoyable than I expected.  It was put in place as drains were switched from old to new – two toilets in the bathroom at once did cause confusion. A last minute decision to put solid flooring in the kitchen led to a wholesale review of heating and plumbing arrangements, all to be done DIY.  The line was drawn at a self rewire and the electrician has all but moved in. The difficulty of sequencing work whilst trying to live normally, acquire skills and cope with dust, meant an opportunity to move out for a while was timely and we all upped sticks to a flat around the corner.

  • Waiting to move...

    Waiting to move…

    What’s next? With no kitchen, bathroom, heating or plumbing, as well as unfinished walls, under floor insulation and ventilation to tackle, and an attic to make warm / airtight, there is a lot of ‘what next’. The builders joined the party last week and the next chapter begins…

Thank yous. It would be all but impossible to undertake such a makeover without input from others and grateful falls far short of how I feel. The party and thank yous proper to follow…

Despite having fixed my mind on wood fibre external wall insulation (EWI) for the last 18 months, I switched to cork just before work was due to start, and I’m exploring it for internal walls and floors too.  200mm of cork with lime render is about to go up on two sides of my house, and is currently occupying the garden!

I decided on cork for lots of reasons – it’s lower cost than woodfibre, it has great low carbon/environmental credentials, it also has a number of social benefits too.  I also trust my contractor (lover of old buildings and passiv haus expert) to install it properly and, well, I just liked the idea of surrounding myself with bark.

Unicorn notice board: Great use of spent corks!

Unicorn notice board: Great use of spent corks!

Cork is a remarkable material, warm with brilliant environmental, social and economic credentials. I’ve known this for a while and already seek out cork stoppered wine (not always easy but I have a grand collection that I’m seeking a use for – a notice board like Unicorn‘s is certainly an option) since evidence and opinion suggests alternatives to be woefully inferior when it comes to all round sustainability. 

200m thick cork about to cover my house

200m thick cork board about to cover my house

This WWF publication explores the industry, its benefits, and it’s demise in recent years, thanks to the screw cap and plastic alternatives and it paints a sad picture.

Unless the commercial value of cork stoppers is maintained, and especially demand 
for cork stoppers, there is a risk that the Western Mediterranean cork oak landscapes 
will face an economic crisis, an increase in poverty, an intensification in forest fires, a 
loss of irreplaceable biodiversity and an accelerated desertification process within 
less than 10 years [from 2006], according to the worst case scenarios.”WWF


Marvelous cork & a chap

The industry in Portugal (see Portuguese Cork Association), and elsewhere I hope, is clearly more enterprising these days, I just hope its future is a whole lot better than the prediction above.

I really can’t wait for my new walls!    

Slowly the garden is being handed back to nature in a semi chaotic/organised way …it has its pluses and minuses.

A relaxed fox

There are the weevils munching there way through the newly planted hedgerow, leading to nightly missions by torchlight whilst the grubs do their damage below.  Think it has to be nematodes  in the Autumn to avoid all out destruction.

There’s the dead blue tit in the pond, and the great tit fledgling plucked from the lawn by a magpie after its doomed first flight and taken onto a nearby roof.  The nest is in the attic next to an uncapped soil stack and I wonder if falling into it would have been a worse way to go, and if some have gone that way already. A little unsettling.

Five teenage squirrels on the wall

The fox is perhaps a little too relaxed, sleeping  under the Christmas tree in the weedy corner at 6pm on a wet Manchester late spring day.

Coming from the fraternity of folk that say leave our urban grey squirrels alone, I am more than happy to see them playing in my garden.  They have their faults, don’t we all, but imho extermination is not for the good of anyone, people or red squirrel.   These five had been in a huddle or more a pile, on the wall before tarzan’ing their way across the gate and back again. Very charming.

Right, back to the building work.

Hatch to the abyss: This one told us the water main needs an overhaul

Hatch to the abyss

Coming into summer has led to a refreshment of demolition activity and yet more holes…for exploration, for upgraded utilities, by accident.

Drains: The last inspection hatch goes in...more to do.

Drains: The last inspection hatch goes in…still a lot to do.

ACCESS: There are now three hatches (with lids!) carefully made in the ground floor.  They will enable access to do the extensive underfloor insulation and airtightness layer planned, and help offset the predicted claustrophobia.  Making the latest one also enabled a check on the water main, which  it turns out is unprotected copper over and underground. Not good and adds another job to the list of a 1000s.

DRAINS:  Filled some in and dug some more, and more to come for the gullies (reusing sole old ones and using new clay ones where necessary). This task goes on but what a learning curve – they’re not so scary after all, other than when you fall in.

Bathroom wall takes a battering oops

Bathroom wall takes a battering oops

CHIMNEYS, CEILINGS and WALLS: Most of the chimneys are remaining in place but a strange and largely unsupported stub remained in the kitchen as part of the old range.  It needed removing prior to getting on with the bathroom above and is now stuffed with bags to keep the soot at bay.

No ceiling!

No ceiling!

Bathroom: It's all a bit drafty and rustic.

Now all a bit drafty and rustic.

Oh, and the bathroom is now one giant hole with ceiling brought down and replaced until further notice with plastic (recycled at least) damp proof membrane and taped/stapled to death.

The Guardian now covers another accident here too. Quite beautiful lathe and lime plaster with horse hair -what a skill now rare to find.  We shall keep all we can and have separated and recycled what was removed.

ODDITIES: A hole in the utility room ceiling

Coving: What on earth was he aiming at?

Coving hole

whistles and oozes goo from time to time (rust and leaves), it’s what’s left of an old boiler.  The exhaust pipe that runs up the side of the house leading from it is destined to be upcycled into a wood burner chimney for the inherited and freezing concrete shed-cum-workshop in the garden.

Oozing hole: It's not good when it rains.

Oozing hole: It’s not good when it rains.

The electrician has missed and drilled an inch hole right through the landing coving…what went on there?

Looking forward to filling some in and making some more – holes that is.

Demolition: The kitchen takes another battering

Demolition: The kitchen takes another battering

The greenhouse has taken an estimated 100 woman hours, around 15 steps and 4 months to reach fruition. The cat took 3 seconds to smash through it.

No idea what spooked Sugar (the cat) but she bounced off two sides in a desperate attempt to escape, and on the third attempt crashed through. This was obviously quite devastating for all but after coaxing her out from under the bed, and inspecting for signs of injury, she has recovered unscathed…huge relief.

Ready to grow

The greenhouse acquisition and construction process has been quite a trial but relatively low cost and impact (not perfect)… Bidding on Ebay and winning said greenhouse (no provenance or instructions), dismantling and removal from misc backyard, transporting home, cleaning, storing, digging big hole and filling with bricks/sandstone excavated from the garden, levelling with recycled sand from Offerton Sand and Gravel (and a bit from B&Q when we ran out), tamping, moving and transporting unwanted old concrete slabs from a friend’s garden (thanks Lisa), unwanted pebbles from another (thank you Jo and Glen, for delivering too) acquiring replacement glass (an attempt at finding a couple of panes on Freecycle nearly led to me being, naively, ripped off!) and clips, laying (and breaking!) slabs, putting up the frame… and finally glazing. During the fitting of the last few panes a couple of goldcrests hopped twittering close by, it was all very Disney.

Just need to build some staging now – Unicorn pallets and  Touch Wood (at Emerge) here we come.  Can’t wait to start growing chillis etc.

I do worry a little about how long the house will take to refurbish… it’s not a race I tell myself.

This week I had an air tightness test done on the house.  That is, someone came over and checked how drafty it is.  It’s quite a palaver setting things up, with lots happening before the kit gets switched on …volume/surface area calcs, blocking off air vents, fitting kit to a suitable door, attaching tubes, pressing buttons etc etc.  The test itself only takes a few minutes.

When the fan was finally switched on, and the pressure began to rise, I had a vision of my kitty being sucked towards it and ending spreadeagled on the protective guard.  The reality was (obviously) devoid of such drama but there was a cold wind whipping around these parts (5degrees outside). Cold air was drawn from under the floor boards, around ill-fitting PVC windows, through light fittings and from all the other zillion gaps you can’t see, towards the whirring. 

So, the results…   10.87m3/(h.m2)

I’m a very long way from expert on these things but building regs require 10m3/(h.m2) for a new build house and I wonder how this 1910 or so semi can be as good (or as bad)?  What does it say about building regs?

Thank you to Manchester based Waxwing Energy (and Chorlton Refurb for introducing me) for carrying out the test and for being professional, informative, meticulous and patient.