The man who fell to Earth

Major Tim Peake and I touched down at exactly the same moment. What happened was  that Tim’s bolts blew allowing his module to separate whilst I was up a ladder trying to attach a purlin to the roof. When I heard those bolts go, the ladder slipped from under me. We both saw the ground rushing toward us, and we both overtook my ladder. Tim landed in Kurdistan, I hit the ground in Somerset with a welt. Tim gave the thumbs up ….I lay groaning, winded. Tim planned ahead and had a comfy seat for his crash, I didn’t even have a parachute. My injuries would have been more severe but by a stroke of luck Linda happened to be under my ladder and broke my fall.

This blog is about building ‘affordable’ housing ….we’re setting out to prove that affordable needn’t mean ‘stingy’.

Like many would-be house owners we haven’t got a great deal of money but don’t want to live in a poorly designed box.

If you’d like to do a similar thing, but wonder if you’re capable – you are. Get in touch …we’ll give you all the help we can.

We began by thinking of all the things we want from a house – designed those in, and left out the things we thought would sound impressive, but which weren’t important to us …like having four bedrooms when we only need two.

There’s a verandah running the length of the house where we’ll be able to store firewood conveniently near the front door; leave wet coats and muddy boots, …and sit outside when it’s pissing down.

We went on to make scale plans for the planning application …then went into much more detail for building control. It was hard work that we were tempted to farm out to an architect, but it forced us to work out how we would actually build the house, and from what materials. I nearly gave up several times because it was so tedious, but doing our own drawings saved £10k. At least.

Now we’re building we have to be our own quantity surveyors …to work out how many of everything we need – so that we don’t get left with loads of wasted materials. That’s not very much fun, either, but in the words of Benjamin Franklin ‘Few people realise what income there is in economy.’

We decided to build a garage/workshop first of all – on our empty site – which would give us somewhere to work, and to store tools. If the house isn’t wind and watertight by this winter we’ll move out of our titchy caravan, clear the workshop, and live in that. The workshop only took five weeks – but I’d already built that on paper, too, so it helped speed things up.

The timber frame for our house is a vanity project. Straw bales don’t need a frame, but I’ve always loved heavy frames.

Framing team: Martin (hoist) Kes, Linda and me, Chris.

Framing team: Martin (hoist) Kes (framer), Linda (foreman), me (camera operator), Chris (boss).

We found some brilliant timber-framers who agreed to take on the heavy parts of the frame (which was most of it) and leave the rest (only slightly lighter) timbers to me. I was planning to do all that myself, but I hadn’t noticed how old I’m getting. I’m 56, you know? You can always tell when you’re past it – you fall into the habit of telling complete strangers how old you are, and then following the information with the words ‘you know?’.

We hadn’t budgeted for the £8,000  labour costs of having the frame built by others, but it was worth it so that we could avoid lengthy stays in hospital. I expect I’ll have to make all the windows to get us back on budget, but at least windows are made from lighter bits of wood, which can be lifted by one person, working alone.

(By the way …stop worrying about Linda – I was only joking about that bit.)

I’ve covered the roof with sarking board – they’re a bit like floor boards for your roof, and they remain ‘on view’. Then I taped on a vapour membrane, then 6×2 rafters, then 120mm foam insulation …and right now I’m putting on the felt-and-batten, ready for slating. It’s amazing how quickly you get used to working at heights.

After that we’ll build a foundation for the straw bales, and then have a fun couple of days stacking them. We’d love you to join us for that – many hands make light work. We’ll do the food. If you can’t make it for that day, but would love to try your hand working with lime render – come then. And if you’d like to have advance notice of the dates that we’ll be doing our community straw baling and lime rendering – drop me an email saying ‘dates please’ to

Other stuff we’ve achieved to date (we started on March 1st 2016):

We’ve installed a ‘Package Treatment Plant’ to deal with our domestic waste water.  That’ll save us money eventually, on ‘sewage’ bills.

We’re capturing spring water on site. It’s piped into an under-ground tank, then pumped and filtered for our domestic supply. It tastes like bottled water (we’ve had it analysed) and it doesn’t have fluoride or chlorine added. Best of all it costs nothing per litre.

We’ve bought enough solar panels to provide 4kw of electricity. (No, that doesn’t mean anything to me either.) We didn’t have ‘mains’ electricity when we lived on our boat and always swore that mains electricity was the one thing we were really looking forward to when we lived in a house again. But because connection costs to the mains grid were so high, when we realised we could go ‘off-grid’ for the same money we set ourselves up with solar panels in the hope that we won’t have to worry about electricity. We’re quite frugal – we don’t use much …you don’t when you’ve lived on a boat. And we’ve bought a generator for the winter days when we’ve all forgotten what the sun looks like. We haven’t bought the other bits yet (batteries, inverter, charge controller).

Crashing onto a Bookstand near you!

Here is our old house… we didn’t have mains electricity because we couldn’t find a cable long enough.

If you’d like to read about our travels on board, by the way, meet the people we met along the way, and dream about the lifestyle – you can find the books I wrote here and here.

We brought seven tons of timber down from Scotland when we ‘moved south’ – mostly it is in long wide planks, and because I paid for it six years ago, it feels like it’s free and saving us a fortuneThey will be used for the floorboards eventually, but are proving to be useful all over the place. I hope there will be enough left.

We’ve bought an Esse wood-fired range recently which we’re very excited about for £5k as an ex-display model …it will be the heart of the home and we can’t wait to fire it up.

I think that sums up our progress to date. We’ve got about £24k left to buy the slate, glazing, straw, lime, bathroom, kitchen, the rest of the off grid electricity equipment (among many other incidental items). If you’ve done this kind of thing before you will realise that the budget is really tight …though we’ll be helped by getting a bit of VAT back on our purchases.

If you’d like more information on any aspect of our build – let me know. I’m being brief with the description here in the hope that I won’t bore those of you who aren’t looking for a manual.

Another similarity between me and Major Tim Peake is that he spent six months in a confined space in the company of people with whom he didn’t share a common language.  Me and Linda have been in our two berth caravan for six months …and she’s from Glasgow.

This is where we are ‘at’ today:

roofing can be fun - but only if you like that kind of thing...

roofing can be fun – if you’re young and like that kind of thing… I’m 56 you know?


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4 Responses to The man who fell to Earth

  1. Pippa says:

    It’s looking ‘treemendously’ impressive!
    Is it my imagination or does the shaping at the front have any resemblance to a Japanese tea house?
    Odd thoughts spring to mind with the planned verandah ~ reminders of The Waltons ~ ‘Night John Boy’! etc
    And I am wondering how I missed the floating log pile travelling down the west coast ~ surely that merited a mention on the shipping forecast?

    • justintyers says:

      Thanks Pippa!
      Any resemblance to a Japanese tea house is accidental and serendipitous. We are just bracing ourselves for the arrival of our straw bales as I speak – though with a wet morning they may have to be left lying in the field for a few days to dry out again before we get them.

      I can’t think how you missed the ‘attention all shipping’ warning of our log pile being floated down south, either. Night Night Pippa girl.

  2. Jon hunkin of NZ says:

    Just catching up after an Australian trip, I really like the progress and note the scaffolding. Recently we’ve seen construction with ‘catchers’ attached to scaffolding along with safety nets similar to a circus to catch wayward roofers, or ladder climbers. I have been using a folding alloy ladder I had to tie on because got stranded when wind took the ladder. Now built a solid ‘stairway to heaven of 6 x 2.

    • justintyers says:

      Hi Jon,
      Scaffolding now gone – which is REAL progress. Straw bales arrive today by tractor, and I hope to make the time to update my blog with new progress soon. Stairway to heaven sounds great. Can you build me one?

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