Putting I Beams In Place For A New Roof


At the end of my last post the builders had taken the old roof off and saved the tiles, which was a straightforward job. This changed the appearance of the house in a very dramatic way. There has been so much discussion leading up to it I thought it would never happen! But as with everything on this build, I would rather they go slowly and get it right than rush it.


The first job was to place two new metal Rolled Steel Joists (RSJs) across the top of the roof horizontally. This will form the basis of the roof, the position of all the Stecio joists will be determined by these RSJs. They do have to be insulated to prevent cold bridging, so are sitting on special insulating pads at either end of the building. I mentioned cold bridging in The Main Start of the Eco Build – Unbuilding and Ripping Down. As you can see, concrete blocks hold these RSJs in place. Each RSJ was bolted to the central metal pole.


The height of the attic floor had to be measured before anything was done, to make sure that the finished attic floor will be just below the base of the central vertical pole, and that the roof will be at the right height. This pole holds up the two middle ends of the RSJs.


We are going to raise the height of the roof by about 240mm to allow for timber Steico I beams. Then insulation will be put in between the I beams, exactly the same process as we will use on the back wall of the living room.


Timber Steico I beams are made up of natural fibreboard, which forms the upright bit of the I, and the oblong ends are made of LVL (laminated veneer lumber). This is formed of multiple layers of thin wood with adhesive in between the layers, it is a very robust material and doesn’t warp, or twist like wood can.


I beams are very eco: they use about a third of the amount of timber than if these beams were made of just ordinary wood. The joists are FSC certified (Forest Stewardship Council.) This organisation was established to promote responsible management of the world’s forests.


The I beams will run up the roof at an angle. Fitting these beams is an art in itself. They meet at all sorts of angles and have to have bits of wood to fill the gaps where they don’t quite meet, so all quite fiddly.

The architect needs to tell the builders exactly where to place each I beam, so that the fixings can be put at the correct intervals. This is important, as the big sheets of fibre board, called Gutex boards, that are going on top of the roof can be vulnerable to suction, when there are strong gusts of wind. So the fixings have to be exactly right so that I don’t lose the roof in strong winds!


As you can tell, quite a lot is going on at the moment, and after all that working out where straight is, in the last post, we now have the main structure of the roof marked out in Steico beams. Now we can get on with the rest of the roof phew!


Unexpected complications when rebuilding an old house


Having done the ripping down and strengthening up of the building by putting in metal beams, we arrived at the stage of taking off the main roof.


Lots happens at once during an eco-renovation

The builders took all the tiles off the main roof, and stored them in the front garden as they will go back onto the new roof. Whilst this was going on there was another team putting in the new joists for the attic bedroom floor, the old ones having been totally removed. You can see in this photo that there is a bit of plastic sheeting poking out over the tops of the walls. This is the start of the airtight layer that will eventually line the whole of the inside of the house. It will be continuous, with the sheets joined by a special tape that makes it completely airtight so no cold can get inside.


Working out what straight is!

One issue that came up was the front wall of the cottage, which isn’t straight at all. Sandy, the architect, had a meeting with the builder to decide where straight is, as far as putting the roof back on goes. They looked at the plan in the photo below and decided where straight would be. This was quite a complicated task because they had to follow the roofline of the neighbouring house and to take into account the line of the back wall. At one point, it looked as if the pitch of the roof might have to be at a different angle at the back from at the front. In the end, they were able to make the straight line though back wall parallel to the straight line at the front and so the pitch is even.


Sandy took a line which is going to be the straight roof line, and where the wall bends in, the eaves of the house will overhang a bit more at one side. There has to be something covering the insulation etc when you look up at the underneath of the overhang, every detail from every angle has to be thought of. But it’s all a bit wonky, it’s an old house after all!


Luckily the back wall is fairly straight. Having said that, it might be straight horizontally but it is uneven vertically, which caused some challenges you can read about in The Main Start of the Eco Build – Unbuilding and Ripping Down.

An old man who used to live in the village told me that he could remember when the house used to be one storey, and the people who owned it took off the original thatched roof and made the walls higher. The walls of the original cottage have two layers – an inner and outer shell. When the new wall was added, it was only one layer thick, and surprisingly it was the inner layer they extended! This creates a shelf on the outside where the two walls meet. The shelf was of mortar and open to the elements. Because mortar is porous, water could seep in.


Between the layers, the original builders put rubble and waste building material, some as fine as dust. Over the years, this settled, but with the porous shelf this settling increased, since rainwater soaked through and washed it down. This meant much of the wall had no insulation and it was no wonder I was so cold during winter. It also meant that when the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) came to check the cottage for damp, they found it – but in an unusual place. It was very damp just below the shelf, so water had seeped in. The dampest place on an old wall is normally close to the ground where water gathers, and this can soak up the wall.


To protect the cottage from further seepage, the simplest solution is to make the shelf watertight, most likely by fully covering it with a sheet of lead. This lead covering is a job for later on in the build, and meanwhile the builders took the old roof off, saved the tiles and started work on creating the new roof. You can read all about that in my next post.

The Main Start of the Eco Build – Unbuilding and Ripping Down


Moving out to Eco up my home

I thought moving out and having to rent was scary, but now people were ripping my house apart, big time! It was strange to see plaster coming off the walls of somewhere you’d once called home, and the whole place stripped down to outside walls.

All non stone walls have been taken out. The floor to the attic is gone and I am left with a large tall space, in the middle of which is a steel post going right up to the roof, and holding up the two horizontal RSJs (rolled steel joists) that have been put just inside the old roof and will eventually hold up the new one.


Issues we hadn’t anticipated

Then there was an issue we hadn’t anticipated: a huge stone was right under the front door, sticking out into the room. We have left this for the time being; it will eventually have to be cut with an angle grinder to give an even shaped wall. If we leave it as it is and put the floor insulation round it, cold from outside the house will be transferred to the inside: this is called cold bridging. Sandy, the architect, had to work out how to prevent cold bridging around the ends of all the steel beams throughout the house. There needed to be something between them and the outside walls of the cottage.


Dealing with the unknown

One of the challenges when dealing with an old building is that you don’t know what alterations were done in the past. You can find all sorts of horrors behind plaster and under floorboards. For example, we can’t tell how far the stone under the door goes under the front wall of the house. So caution will be needed in cutting it out, especially because it is very near to the adjoining neighbour. I don’t want to upset them! We did discuss removing it altogether, but it would be a very big job. 


Talking of horrors, the fireplace had been blocked up when I moved into the house, and was unblocked by the builders. Inside, they found a grizzly pile of dead crows that over the years had fallen down the chimney, not able to get out again. I do remember hearing birds from the fireplace, but thought that it was the echo of them sitting at the top of the chimney. To prevent this happening again, I am considering a couple of options: wire mesh across the chimney pot or a cowl. Both have pros and cons, and my builder will advise me which is most suitable for my cottage.


And another unanticipated issue

Another thing we hadn’t anticipated was the poor quality crumbling stonework around the living room window at the back of the house. The walls are very thick, and have an inner and outer layer. The outer wall was bowing out, which created a problem. Outside the back wall, we are going to build a wooden frame. We will nail plywood to this frame and seal the sides, joining it to the building. In the 250mm depth cavity this creates, we will put Warmcel Blown-in insulation, which is made of recycled newspaper. Because the back wall was bowing out, it would have meant the layer of insulation would be too thin, and not provide enough protection. We had to remove the outer stone face of the wall completely and rebuild it, creating another unexpected expense.


Another Unexpected Expense

The whole of the wall below the window was removed, and it is not necessary to rebuild it so thick because the insulation is so good. The wall will just be there to hold the insulation in place. This gives scope for a recess, where I could have a beautiful window seat to relax and enjoy the sun. So sometimes even when things seem like set-backs and problems, they can turn out to be blessings in disguise.





First Steps of an Eco Renovation

First steps of eco renovation


In the previous post, I looked at essential preparation before embarking on an eco renovation. Once we had a plan, we were ready to start the eco renovation itself. This was exciting and scary! It was a huge undertaking, and it didn’t take long to realise that we needed flexibility in our plans, altering as necessary.

I initially intended to continue living in my house during the renovation, thinking I could just squash into one corner. However, the builder and the architect thought I should move into a rented home for the 6 to 8 months they estimated it would take to do the build.

The builders had to take plaster off some walls, and take a lot of the house apart, to know what was happening behind the scenes before they could finalise the details of the plan. This project was growing, taking on a life of its own. For instance, to accommodate under-floor heating the builders needed to dig up all the lower floors. Squashing in a corner was impossible.

Dug out floor

Budget for unexpected expenses

So now, as well as the build, I needed to budget for rent, removal, and storage of a lot of my belongings. I searched the local papers and online for somewhere to stay, and visited various prospective homes. Ideally, I wanted somewhere in the same village as the cottage. Nothing suitable come up, but an apartment turned up in a nearby town. It’s a bit of a drive to my building site, but I can retreat to peace and quiet when it gets hectic. I stored much of my furniture with my trusty removers, Cotswold Carriers, so that I only needed to rent a small cheap place.


With me out of the way, the builders got to work pulling down bits of my house. One of the first things they needed to do was strengthen the building with rolled steel joists (RSJs.) These beams provide a lot of strength to the first floor of the house and help strengthen the whole building. Putting them in place was a major job in itself. Holes had to be made for two RSJs to go across the house from one side through the middle wall (which was still standing) and into the wall on the opposite side.

The builders told me that they would have to make pads for the RSJs to sit on in the wall. These provide insulation, and without them, cold would come in through the ends of joists from the outside walls. When I heard about these pads, I imagined something soft like a mattress, but they turned out to be made of a special insulating bricks. Not as soft as they sounded!


Once we’d started dismantling the house, we realised that the floor to the attic needed to go. It would also be a good idea to lower the first floor ceilings, to give more height in the attic bedroom.

As there was a couple of inches (5 cm) difference in floor level between the two halves of my cottage, (it used to be two cottages.) The builders were able to even this up, so the whole of the first floor would be one level. They dug out the ground floor by two feet (60 cm), leaving space for the insulation and under floor heating to go in.

At this point some old plaster remained on some of the walls. As we discussed various options of insulation for beneath the under floor heating, Sandy, the architect sketched these out on the walls! It seemed a good use of the plaster and made it easier for me to understand the different levels of the floor.

Writing on wall

Be flexible with your renovation plan

So, as you can see, the process of starting the eco-renovation of an old house requires a plan. However, there is also a need for re-assessing and “thinking on your feet” as you get down to details.

The builders then discovered that there were no lintels or joists across the top of the windows, and they were amazed that the windows hadn’t collapsed. As it was, rotting window frames were all that held them up. Before the builders took out the old windows, they had to prop them up with Acro props (metal props) and put in concrete lintels to hold up the walls. Otherwise, when they took the windows out, the building would have collapsed.

Because the walls were so thick, it took two (and in some cases three) lintels side by side along the depth of the wall to hold the weight of the stonework above.

Lintels over windows

I went into this aware that building work always takes longer and costs more than expected. However I hadn’t anticipated it to become obvious so soon. The building had been renovated in the 1970s, so we had thought that during that builders would have fixed any major structural issues. It turned out we were wrong!

So my advice for you is: with an old building, never take anything for granted. You never know what horrors lie beneath the plaster.

Stop Press – My clever friend Yvonne, who is the Editor (and sometimes Ghost Writer) on Cotswold Eco Build, has won a major blogging award! In 2015, Yvonne started a blogging initiative as a counter to the violence occurring in our world. Her post, 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion has won a BlogHer 2016 Voices of the Year Honorees award in the Impact category.






How to Prepare for an Eco-Renovation

This is the house before any Eco Renovation
My 17th Century Cottage, before any Eco Renovation

Soon after I moved into my seventeenth century Cotswold cottage, I needed to decide what to do, how I wanted to alter the cottage. I threw around various ideas, and spoke with Sandy Hickey, the architect.

A cold and small cottage

The cottage had a living room, dining room, kitchen and four small bedrooms, one of which had a stairway off it. Up this stairway was the room I intended to use as a studio, but that soon proved impossible. As summer changed to autumn, I discovered how poorly insulated and cold that room was. I had to work in a lower room.

How-poorly-insulated and cold the cottage was
My poor cottage in the snow before the Eco Renovation

The cottage’s kitchen wasn’t very big, and before I moved in, I had thought about extending it. When I looked into the costs of what I’d planned, I began to rethink. Besides, now that I was living in the house, I realised that I liked having the patio area just outside the back door. The rest of the garden was on a higher level than the patio, and to get to it you went up some steps. It felt a bit more public, so I liked a tucked away private space near the back door. If I extended the kitchen, I would lose that lovely outdoor space.

A kitchen made of real wood

Before I made a final decision about the kitchen, I met with designers from Pineland Ltd. This kitchen company make their kitchens in real wood, which is better for the environment than the MDF particleboard used for most kitchen furniture. Pineland Ltd surprised me with the imaginative and practical layout suggestions they came up with. By utilizing the space really well, I could get almost everything I wanted into the kitchen, and not having to extend would keep costs down.

Pineland real wood kitchen

I kept hearing from people who have done building projects that it would cost more and take longer than you expect. So I thought the best thing to do is to expect it to, then no nasty surprises.

Sandy and I had several meetings to discuss what we were going to do and how far we wanted to take this – if I wanted to gut the place and start from four walls, or if I wanted to tinker around altering a few things. I decided to take a middle ground, and do quite a lot, but not tear everything out.

Plans for my Eco Home

Sandy drew up plans detailing what type of insulation we would need in which part of the cottage. At this point I realised what a very complicated build I was embarking on. It was almost as if having an existing building was a disadvantage: the cottage has very thick outside walls, and at that stage we didn’t know if these were hollow and not very insulating, or if they were fairly solid. For all we knew, they might even have been a bit of both. There was so much we didn’t know.

Air Source Heat Pump from Ice Energy

Another thing to consider was how airtight and warm the building would be when finished – we needed to work out how much heating the building would need before we started. This is not easy to know with an old building. We decided to go for an air source heat pump to heat the hot water and the radiators. So long as a building is well insulated, this is highly efficient: for every 1kW of electricity it uses it makes 3.2kW of heat output. With the cottage being so highly insulated we would use less energy for heating the house and hot water anyway.

This would be backed up by a small wood-burning stove in the living room. It is possible that when finished, the cottage will never need the wood burning stove. However, it is much easier and cheaper to fit it during the build, than it would be to fit one afterwards if it turned out to be necessary.

Another issue concerned solar panels. There are two kinds of solar panel: thermal (which make hot water) and photo voltaic (which make electricity). Originally I planned to have both sorts, but with the solar thermal panels lots of hot water would be wasted in the summer, when there is more sun shine to produce it and just me having showers.

Photo Voltaic Panels from Ikarus Ltd

It would be much more sensible to have just PV panels. There is a program in the United Kingdom where you can sell excess electricity back to the National Grid. Not only that, I can have my PV panels linked up to the highly insulated large tank of hot water, and I will be able to heat that with my own power. So I can get free hot water anyway!


Preparation Checklist for Eco Renovating Your Home

  • Decide on a budget – and be prepared for it to increase
  • Decide a realistic timescale and prepare to be flexible
  • Consider any additional extensions you may want to do and factor them in
  • Decide which renovations are essential, and which can be dropped or changed if costs or timescale increases beyond your budget
  • Consider types of heating/air conditioning, to find out which would be most suitable for your house and for your particular needs