Work in Progress

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Thanks to help from a selection of devastatingly attractive workers in hard hats (not all shown), things are progressing. Too slowly if you are living in a caravan and have deadlines from croft housing grant scheme people hanging over you. But, looking back over the last few months, we have some things that we didn’t have before…

We have lots of insulation and some plasterboard.


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We have 30,000 litres of water storage. IMG_6077

(One of 3 x 10,000 litre tanks)





We have poo pipes, a septic tank and a Puraflow system, cunningly disguised by trees.

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We have gravel, drainage pipes and a gnome.

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We have internal wall frames and even some wires (devastatingly attractive electrician too shy for photos).

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The kitchen is ordered but it will be sitting in boxes for a while – a lot more has to be in place before it can be fitted. But we’re moving in the right direction.



Now for the hard part


I took this photo one weekend before Christmas when climbing “Heather Hill” with Isaac and Bea. Heather Hill (as named by the children) is a little mound behind a neighbour’s house that gives you stunning views of Burg, Ben More and Loch Scridain in one direction and, in the other, a view of our house. It looks for all the world as if you could almost live in it – what with the glow of light from inside and the fact it has a roof, walls and windows. If you have lived on Mull for long enough, or watched your share of Grand Designs, you will know that, unfortunately, this is not the case.

Welcome to the inside.



The kitchen




The living space wp_20170101_13_14_24_pro






Downstairs bedroom and bathroom




You get the idea. There’s a long list: internal walls, insulation, wiring, plumbing, plasterboard, plastering, floor surfaces, and so on.

There is also so much to do outside. Aside from finishing the cladding on the external walls, we have to dig trenches for electric cables, water pipes, drainage and sewage. There is a septic tank and Puraflo system to dig in; a rainwater collection system (including 3 x 10,000 litre tanks) and a grey water collection system to set up; an air-source heat pump and mechanical heat recovery system to install; there is landscaping to do.

It feels a daunting prospect, especially as there is another deadline, from the Croft House Grants people, of completion (including signing off by building regulations) by the end of June. There is also our impatience. Since November 1st we have had the luxury of living in the holiday cottage next door – proper showers, full-size bath, central heating, no mould and plenty of space. We have expanded to fill that space and it is hard to imagine how we are going to fold and squeeze ourselves back into the caravan at the beginning of April when the holiday letting season begins again. The children, now 11 and 13, keep on growing and I am not even sure that they will still fit.






Friends in high places

We’ve had a few weather hiccups with the wind making roofing difficult or impossible, but now a few days of proper winter weather – the kind we don’t usually get here. There is snow on Ben More and this morning Phil was out scraping a thick frost off the car at 6am before taking Isaac to his Monday morning bus for his week away at school in  Oban. It’s cold but not windy and the sun has been shining – good enough for roofing.

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Even with good weather it all takes a long time. Jim the builder has mainly only managed weekends with us in recent weeks. And there have been complications with tricky roof valleys and awkward Velux windows with obscure instructions. There are days when progress is visible and satisfying – half of one side of the roof finished in one day. Other days when progress is minimal and frustrating. Not unlike the rest of life.


Phil doesn’t want me to go up on the roof with him – he thinks one of us should stay on the ground to avoid what a will advisor once described as a “family calamity”. To be honest I didn’t object too strongly. Luckily we have good friends who don’t mind scrambling around like mountain goats at that height.  And other good friends who have been able to help out from a safer altitude with putting in the huge, heavy windows.

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We missed our end of October deadline but, fortunately, the Croft House Grant people are minded to be supportive and have extended it again. They want the final roof covering on and all the windows in which is, surprisingly, beyond the usual definition of wind-and-watertight. It’s a good deadline to have anyway, with bad weather possible at any time and the tendency of Scottish island rain to travel at any trajectory and find any tiny gap. We’re nearly there.


Huge thanks to Ash, Will, Lizzie, Darragh, Hamish, Guillam, Nick and, always, Jim. We couldn’t have got where we are without you.



Beating the weather

We’ve been blessed with two weeks of dry weather and a bit less wind. It’s been a relief to be able to leave the undercoated fascia boards outside overnight and not have to tie down every loose bit of wood. And finally we have been able to put up the large beam that is going to hold up our vaulted ceiling. The house frame is complete.


While we wait for the valuer and the surveyor to sign this stage off for the next mortgage advance, we’re not waiting for the weather to turn. We have a fixed deadline to be wind and watertight at the end of October for our Croft Housing Grant, not to mention the unknown deadline for when the stormy season comes back.



What happens when children and paint come into contact……



The children are on their two-week October break and have been getting stuck in painting fascia boards and stapling on the foil wrap.

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Phil’s been out until dark every evening climbing on the roof and nailing on sarking boards, joined by our friend Ash-the-Post on his day off.


Despite the pressure there’s still time for playing football as darkness falls, near the spaces where the windows will be, in blissful ignorance that it won’t be allowed for long.


Growing up

For about nine months, in the hiatus between finishing the foundations and starting the walls, I could not envisage how it was possible for two people, without machinery, to build a house up to the roof. I dreamed the finished house, inhabiting its spaces often, but the mechanics of how that could actually happen were beyond my imagining.img_5453

Then the pieces of the jigsaw arrived on the back of a very big lorry.





Step by logical step the house grew upwards. On the ceiling of the main structure, these things of architectural beauty –  posi joists. Both lovely and practical, with spaces for wires and pipes. img_5458

On top of the single storey kitchen these elegant roof trusses.

Next step, more walls on top of the posi-joists, then more roof trusses and we have a second storey on the main section.img_5515

It’s been a poor autumn on Mull and Phil and Jim-the-builder have worked in some awful weather. Blustery winds and lashing rain are not ideal for building the first floor and roof of a house. A few times even they have given up – when ferries are cancelled and storm warnings are in place, it’s probably best to postpone putting up gable ends. We have to be wind and watertight by the end of October to meet the deadline for our croft housing grant. It also makes sense to be at that point before real winter sets in. However, at the moment it’s the wind and water that are slowing us down. As we often joke in that strained gallows humour that strikes sometimes: what this house needs in this weather is a roof.



Ha ha.




To walk into a space that has existed in our minds for so long is an extraordinary feeling, like stepping into a dream. We have imagined this space together, separately, on paper and in lego, for years. And now it’s becoming real.

On a day at the end of May, in glorious sunshine, Jim-the-builder and Phil started knocking together the frames for the walls.

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A few weeks later, towards the end of July, while the children and I were away visiting family and friends, they started to attach the completed frames to the foundations. In two days we had the external structure of the ground floor.


Some parts are exactly as I imagined and some are not, like the windows which are far bigger than they looked on paper; vast spaces with airy sunshine flooding in. Outside and inside are hardly separate. Without the roof the light is beautiful, like walking into a cathedral. It will be a shame to enclose it.



Golden, stolen days.

My beloved Tibetan friend tells me that in her culture it is bad luck to say that you will never do something again. If you do, it will happen that you have to do that thing again and again – seven or nine times, I forget which. Maybe if you are saying never to something it is because you are resisting this thing, instead of trying to learn from it.
IMG_2943After the seven or nine times maybe you will have learned what you need to.  Anyway, the point is that I said that this would be the last winter we would be spending in the caravan. I said that I could only do this last one – I was never going to have to do another.


On the bright side, the foundations are finished!WP_20151007_001

Apart from some exemplary sand-raking I can’t claim any credit for the work of recent months. It’s been Phil and Jim-the-builder. The foundations are impressive and we walk on them knowing that – apart from a layer of tiles – this is our completed floor. Following to the letter the engineer’s guidelines, which seem to be mainly about pouring in more and more concrete, we could probably build a twenty storey block of flats on there and solve Mull’s affordable housing problem.

The environmental consequence of so many tonnes of concrete is painful to contemplate when you are attempting to build something that has a minimal impact; underfloor-heating powered by air-source heat pump, IMG_3743high- value insulation, expensive Nordan double-glazing, Scottish wood cladding and a locally- sourced stone wall. All of these are permitted, some are required, but have to be laid on a foundation that has emitted many tonnes of CO2 in the making, not to mention the environmental costs of extracting more than 50 tonnes of sand, gravel and type-1. And ours is a small house.

Back to Tibetan sayings…Unfortunately we need a mortgage to progress from filling in to going up and we are obliged to wait until the Spring – until we have another year of self-employed accounts – before we can apply. We thought we had sufficient years and this has been a massive disappointment – not the last winter in the caravan after all. 028We feared that we would lose our croft housing grant because we could no longer meet the deadline for being wind-and-watertight. However, the grant people have been great and said that, as long as we keep them informed of our progress, they can extend the deadline and we won’t forfeit the grant. So it could have been worse and we are grateful for that. It means that we have breathing space to finish other, smaller projects – a chicken hut, the greenhouse, the windbreak that was damaged last winter.  There is always plenty to do.

Our most exciting small project is the upgrading of our friends-and-family hut, the one where people stay because there isn’t room in the caravan. We’re g2015-05-24 11.54.22oing to make it self-sufficient – build another structure for a shower and cooking space, so that we can rent it out to people for holidays. As any spare resources we have are directed towards house-building we are going to experiment with crowdfunding. We’ll see how it goes, but if we get the opportunity to develop our hideaway holiday hut, we will be able to feel that the croft is moving forward, even if not the house.

Fortunately winter feels a little waylaidIMG_3903 by the beautiful weather of the past few weeks. Warm sunshine, calm winds, mist lying in valleys on cool, dewy mornings turning roosting, rooftop pigeons into stone, or rolling in as the sun sets.

One morning I watched as mist poured down the burn into the Loch na Lathaich at Bunessan, while all around the air was bright with sunlight. There is a nip in the air at night to remind us that winter is not far away, and it’s pitch dark by 7pm. But still it feels as though we are blessed by these golden, stolen days of summer-autumn – sweet, fat, juicy brambles started to come out a couple of weeks ago – a month later than usual – and we still have tomatoes ripening in the polytunnel.

Perfect weather for putting up a wooden frame for a house, but we’re trying not to dwell on that. We are certainly going to be in the caravan for more winters than we had thought and there have been many nights of waking up sweating, fearing that we may never complete the house. I’m just hoping that if I try really harWP_20151007_004d to learn whatever it is I need to – patience, humility, surrender, release – that I won’t have to do all of the seven, nine or more winters that I may have summoned. Although, I’m pretty sure that hoping for a short cut is not going to go in my favour when it comes to the assessment of my learning.