‘Container Home’ Pilot Project
In 2018 I converted two shipping containers into affordable housing. The project, through to moving the resulting completed homes to a permanent site at Paddington Farm Trust, in Glastonbury, is below.If you want to read the depressing story about housing in general – Start here
If not, this is the container project.
Housing providers all over the country have a problem providing adequate, affordable accommodation, especially for the single.
The use of converted containers is not new, nor is it the only solution to the problem. In the long term it is probably not the best solution either.However, we need a short term solution now.
Containers are structurally sturdy. They are cheap, transportable, and stackable which means they can be delivered economically, and built into small, very flexible complexes in confined spaces ideally suited to the urban landscape. The Container Home Pilot Project was undertaken to explore use of containers as a short term housing solution
The purpose of the pilot scheme is to show that we can deliver an acceptable, replicable, fully costed home for the single or a couple, and that the rental income of no more than the LHA ( Local Housing Allowance for those on housing benefit ) will pay for them. This will enable the capital cost to be recovered in a reasonable period, which makes the provision of homes for the single a practical and viable economic proposition.
Travis Perkins, Bridgwater, has offered to provide a space for the project, and to supply us with services and support at no charge.The pilot scheme will initially involve two containers.One will be 32 x 10 foot and the other a standard40 foot shipping container. The 40 foot will be divided into a small single unit and a tool store and workshop, which can ultimately be used as a work/live unit.If funding allows, a third container will demonstrate the techniques and advantages of being able to stack units as a small housing complex.We are designing them for a life of at least twenty years if they are decently maintained.Because space management is a crucial part of the design, these homes will be furnished to include some kitchen appliances and built in furniture.Whilst this will probably require some special rental conditions it will be a significant benefit to many of those with very little money who are eligible to occupy them.
Funding and costs
The total budget for the project is £50K.For that we are confident we can deliver two homes ready to transport to a permanent site, and ready to be connected to services and occupied immediately. Funding is by means of both interest free loans and grants.If one of the funders decides to purchase the pilot homes, they may deduct their funding from the purchase price. If none of the funders wants to use them they will be sold on the open market. The capital receipt will be used to repay interest free loans first and any balance will be offered to repay grants.We have currently secured £40,000 including The Glastonbury Trust and Sedgemoor District Council, both of whom are interested in scaling it up if the pilot is successful.
A feasibility study or proof of concept project is often “dead ” money and is spread over the cost of a live project or just “written off” if the objectives aren’t achieved.Since in this case we are applying innovative and experienced design to a fairly simple concept we should be minimising the design risk. The ability to incorporate the pilot units in a permanent project, or sell them on the open market if necessary further reduces our financial exposure.
I sent this update to the funders of the project on April 5th 2018:
I have placed the order for the 40 foot container which I hope will be on site close to the end of May, with door and window holes cut, and painted a tasteful, eye catching bright lemon green.
I am very close to finalising the details for the 32 x 10 foot from Newspace, in the Forest of Dean, for delivery shortly afterwards. This will also have window and door frames ready to go, and painted in an equally tasteful bright orange!
I have failed to interest any one of the six UK manufactures of bathroom pods, including the one in Highbridge! This is because I am not able to discuss their minimum order of 50 or 100 units, even as a pilot project or tacked onto an existing order for another customer. It is a little dispiriting to find UK manufactures so reluctant to get off their bottoms to discuss anything that might cause them even minimal inconvenience.
So, I have taken a bit of a flyer by ordering the first two in the UK from a firm in China. They make about 50,000units a year and export 75% to the US. I have discussed every detail by email with Lily, which is almost certainly not her real name, and who may not even be a girl. Nevertheless, Lily has been incredibly helpful, flexible, and efficient. She has reduced the unit height so that I can get them into the container, and moved the “exhaust fan” from the ceiling to the back wall. The pipework is confirmed asUK standard sizes, and the shower mixer replaced by an instant electric one. The doors are exactly where I want them, and they will arrive onSouthampton dock not long after the containers from Gloucestershire! And at around half the price of a bathroom from Highbridge!
I have found a great kitchen pod supplier in Colchester. The quality is extremely high, and very competitive.The cupboard units and doors are enamelled steel in a range of colours and finishes, designed to stand commercial wear.They are imported from their sister company in Germany!
It does make you want to yell “Wake up! GB”
We are using closed cell spray foam insulation. It is expensive, but extremely efficient, and will enable us to achieve a betteru-value insulation performance than Portakabin specify for their sleep units, which is their top insulation spec.
So, we are deliberately trying to achieve the highest standards practical for a container conversion. I am confident that we can deliver a warm, safe, practical and attractive one bedroom home ready to plug in and go for around £25K give or take the VAT which I still don’t quite understand.
If this pilot develops into a follow-on live project I will probably be prepared to project manage the delivery of it.However, in the longer term, I don’t want to be a building contractor or to run a container home manufacturing company.
There is, however, a significant opportunity for a social entrepreneur, who might want to be either or both.If any of you knows such a person or organisation who might bung in say £5K to be part of it and so be in a position to take up a proven model that will already have a market with housing providers, let me know.Of course, if either The Glastonbury Trust or Sedgemoor District Council are interested in this aspect as opposed to just being customers, you might let me know and begin to think about it soon!*
I know this is a bit long, but you deserve to know what I am doing, or planning to do with your money!
Glastonbury Trust are seriously considering setting up a social enterprise to convert and deliver container homes in parallel but separate from the container village complex housing scheme.
After the first full week on site the green 40ft is lifted ready for spray insulating. The result is visible on the base as the container is craned away.
To CLS or Not to CLS?
This is the end of the first full week on site and the green 40ft is virtually ready for spray insulating. I had planned to use 38 mm x 63 mm CLS. (CLS stands for Canadian Lumber Standard which has become the default standard for the building industry to use for stud walls. I think it is a bit weedy for general construction, but space is a priority here, and it will give us the depth we need for the 3″ of insulation which is the best we are going to be able to manage).
However, Martin changed my mind. Martin Silburn is a good friend, and we met up again by chance just before I was going to start this project. He agreed to turn up at some ungodly hour of the morning to help see the first container in and help to set it up level. Getting it level is more important than you might think, because if it isn’t you can’t use a spirit level to build anything in it!
By the time we had got it chocked up Martin had volunteered to help with the project itself. He is a very experienced green oak frame builder, and is used to making very accurate frames in a workshop to very precise drawings before shipping them to site (including Japan) for assembly.Here we have neither a workshop, and not a single drawing, but he liked the idea and wanted to help. He is hoping to give us a couple of days a week which will be great. His technical expertise with woodwork will be invaluable.
My brother in law Tony Duval has worked with me, and been involved in every project I have taken on. He is a trained cabinet maker. They are much better technically than I am, but we each have good things to give.
In fact as a team I think we could build an entire better world than our current one. You may read whatever you like into that.
Anyway, Martin persuaded me to line out the 40 foot using 50mm x 50mm instead.
It is OK but Brian Scriven, who is doing the insulation warned me that it might push out a bit so we are fixing the studs back to stop them being deformed as the foam expands which is a bit of an extra faff. So I am not sure Martin was right. I think we will probably go for CLS on the orange one.
Back to work on Monday.
The picture on the right is the inside of the orange container which is the 32 foot x 10 foot. I need to explain that this is actually a new container manufactured in Lydney in the Forest of Dean.
The major difference between this and a standard shipping container is that is is not certified as seaworthy and is two foot wider!
Our forty foot is an adequate, fairly cheap, second hand, ‘bog standard’ shipping container.If we had bought a better condition one it would have cost about £6200 delivered to site, painted and with all the door and window holes provided.
The new orange one was £8100 delivered to the same spec and we reckon the extra two foot width is worth it. The gross floor area of the two at 320 square feet is exactly the same.
New space would normally supply these containers with a plywood floor but not of the same thickness as the 40 foot. We got them to put a metal floor under the floor joists instead. In this way we can insulate the floor to a good standard from the inside without losing head room.The picture on the right is the 40 foot with its timber stud framework ready for spraying.
Stud work is needed to fix the wall cladding.
Spray Foam Insulation
One of the things you have to be careful about with spray insulation is that, because it gets behind everything, and into every nook and cranny, it tends to “push out” the stud framing as it expands.
We were particularly concerned about this in the forty foot because we used lighter weight studwork, and in the orange container roof because of the additional span.
The “push pressure” is not very great, and once it has gone off it welds the container wall to the stud framing as a solid composite, and nothing will ever move again.
So, using a construction “Gorilla Glue” we glued the studs to the walls to hold everything in place until the insulation had set.
The elements of the spray are fed separately down an umbilicus from the truck to Tony in full space air breathing kit to build up the insulation a layer at a time having masked off the floor with thin polythene sheet, and the faces of all the studs with decorators’ masking tape.
This is because spray insulation is not an exact science and even with great experience the faces of the studs get sprayed as well. Getting the excess insulation off is much more work than we thought, but as you can see in the picture on the right, it comes off easily and cleanly on the masked areas.
In fact, getting the excess insulation off so that it did not “bulge out” beyond the studwork turned out to be really hard, but vital because if it isn’t all flush the walls & ceiling panels won’t go on.
The standard trick is to use an old hand saw which is flexible enough to saw off fairly flat, and has lost its “set off” sharpness which makes it snag against the studs.
Nevertheless it is bloody hard work especially on the ceiling working above your head all the time. We may have made life more difficult for ourselves by getting 3″ of insulation on studwork on average only three and a half inches off the wall.
Next time it may be worth thinking about losing an inch of space all round which would reduce the need to trim by about 90%! This is part of what pilot projects are about.
Windows and Walls
This project is all about a technical feasibility, design and construction process. But it is also about selling an idea. We want it to look good as well, so we are putting in some decking and a pergola at the patio door end of the orange one. We are not just selling the idea to the politicians and decision makers. We want them to look like a good place to live to those who are going to occupy them!However, it is the only bit of the project which is not likely to find a permanent home so we didn’t want to spend any more than we had to!Travis Perkins had sorted out a load of timber which wasn’t up to standard mostly because it had warped or split so we made a sensible contribution to Macmillan Cancer Support which is the charity they support and we got a great deal. It is harder to work with if it is all a bit wonky of course, but that is what old builders are good at.
Fitting the Windows – Tuesday July 31st
Cornwall Glass came yesterday and fitted the doors and windows. It turned out to be easier than they thought it would be which bodes well for future costings! They look great and we are all really pleased.
Wall Cladding – Sunday August 3rd
We are lining the floors, walls and ceilings with 18 mm tongued and grooved flooring chipboard, which comes in 2400 mm x 600 mm sheets. There are lots of very good reasons for doing this.It is strong, stable, relatively cheap and easy to handle. It is also easy to put in for unskilled people.
Firstly, if you were to use plasterboard, the position and accuracy of the studwork which lines the container has to be spot on. Not only do the studs have to be dead vertical but if they are 10 mm out the boards don’t join properly. have to be exactly standard distances apart or you waste a lot of plasterboard, and then the whole thing has to be skimmed or dry lined, both of which are skilled jobs.
In addition they have to be exactly standard distances apart or you waste a lot of plasterboard, and then the whole thing has to be skimmed or dry lined, both of which are skilled jobs.If you use 8 x 4 sheets of chipboard, MDF, or OSB (also called sterling board which is made of wood flakes ) it is much harder to handle, never makes neat joints and again depends on the exact location of studwork and involves inevitable waste.Using T&G chip you can put your studs where it suits you as long as the gap isn’t too great, and it doesn’t matter if the studs are a bit squiff. On a wall, for example, If you get the first sheet in nice and square, all the rest tap together perfectly. When you get to the other end of the wall you use the offcut to start the next row of boards. This reduces waste to a minimum, and “staggers” the joints rather like courses of bricks. When you have finished the whole wall acts as a single sheet; after a bit of filling and sanding it is good enough to decorate, and you then have walls and ceilings that feel good and solid and you can screw anything you like to them anywhere you want including wall cupboards and heavy duty shelves. It is a really good system I have used often before and it works.
By the end of next week the orange container should be fully lined and ready for outfitting.
Decking – 8th August 2108
Construction of decking has commenced.
The actual decking is made with pukka stuff and the whole thing finishes up looking pretty neat, we think. The finish is a Cuprinol anti slip stain in “Urban Slate” and was just like painting with double cream. Since all builders hate decorating, it was almost a pleasure to use!
As you know, we have had an extraordinary run of dry weather this year, during all of which we have been working inside on both containers. As soon as they were insulated we were impressed by how cool they were to work in even in temperatures of over 25 degrees C.The moment I started building the frames for the decking outside we started getting drizzly showers, and as soon as we were ready to paint, the rain descended in buckets.
Anyway it is now done and I must say looks pretty good.
However, decking is transient stuff, and now you aren’t allowed to use good old fashioned creosote any more, has a rather limited life. If decking is to be part of future plans for container villages, I think we would have to consider using “composite” decking. It is currently a lot more expensive but may be worth it. It is also available made out of recycled plastic which may be a benefit.
I am not going to bang on about this but there is an awful lot of bollocks talked about both recycling and upcycling. We would be a lot better off using less plastic than working out ways to do something with it once we have used three layers of it to wrap an avocado or a croissant.To kid ourselves that pronouncing a car or a washing machine to be mostly recyclable is a good thing is also twaddle.
A much more effective plan would be to make them properly in the first place with replaceable or updatable components. In this way they would last much longer. This would make a significantly greater contribution to the planet but would be exactly what mega consumer corp is not interested in. As for dismantling washing machines to “upcycle” them into festival ovens or lampshades, I despair.
Of course the reason that containers are plentiful is because of the balance of trade between us and the far east. They sell loads of stuff to us and we don’t seem to make much that they want to buy from us. It is not economic to send an empty container back to China. Now that China has very sensibly told us to deal with our own plastic waste we can’t even send them back full of useless plastic wrapping! Perhaps that will persuade us to think more seriously about the whole problem.
On Wednesday we had a bit of a surprise visit from Pete Curran who is a housing consultant for Sedgemoor and Harry from Somerset District Council, because Teresa Harvey had asked them to come and have a look at what we were doing prior to the “Royal Visit” next Wednesday.
They were obviously impressed because I had an email from Teresa the following day saying so, but saying that she was struggling to think of something else to call them rather than containers, which I know has always concerned her in trying to convince the politicians to back the scheme. I have been utterly unapologetic about the fact that they are containers, and refused to disguise them as anything else because I think it is silly and a waste of money.So I sent her this email but I don’t know if she is convinced. Of course the irony is that the orange one isn’t really a proper shipping container at all, but if it looks like one, and quacks like one, that’s what everyone will call it.
I am glad that Pete and Harry were impressed. I am getting the right noises from the right places at the moment soI am pleased with how it is going.
I absolutely understand your concern about what you call them……
If I call them Modex Units, for example, everyone will say “come off it, Robin, they are containers”.
In fact if I clad them in cob and thatched them they would say “Yeah, but really they’rejust containers, aren’t they?”
Actually, I would prefer to live in in a self contained warm, dry container I could callhome, than in a bedsit, or a badly converted flat, or a hostel of any kind.
In fact I would prefer to live in my own place that I can afford even if it is a container, rather than lookat £200K places I can’t afford, often described as rabbit hutches!
I am looking forward to seeing you on Wednesday.
I Hate Decorating
Like most builders, I hate decorating and I am not much good at it.
However, over the years, having spent lots of other people’s money having it done properly, I know roughly what needs to be done. I am just not very good at doing it. There is a saying in the building trade that if you can piss you can paint. It is not true and good decorators are worth every penny. I have spent nearly half a century learning how to design things down to my ability to make them, or make what I do look as good as possible, and decorating is no exception. This includes trying to avoid painting large areas or vertical surfaces with gloss paint and anything that could be described as “cutting in”.
As a general principle this has imposed a design discipline on me that has helped me to do some very interesting projects, and more importantly it has enabled me to use relatively unskilled help to get some really good results for both them and the project. Part of the design philosophy of this project is that if we can scale it up we can give good jobs to relatively unskilled people to deliver quality homes to local authorities and other social housing providers as a cooperative social enterprise. I would say that this counts as a good thing. OK. So here is the grumpy old builder’s guide to decorating:
The Grumpy Old Builder’s Guide to Decorating
Technical terms: Miss-coat, bread and scrape, floating on and cutting in. The latter two should be avoided if at all possible. Floating on involves painting large areas with a brush without showing any brush marks, drips, curtaining or snots, all of which are self-explanatory and difficult to avoid if you are a builder. Cutting in involves painting absolutely straight lines with a splodgy brush and is therefore impossible.
Essential Tools: bucket of water, surgical gloves, brushes and rollers not made of any kind of foam or sponge, carrier bags, cling film, a good scraper, damp cloth, finger, and spit.
Materials: absolutely any paint that is water based and dries quickly, which means you can put two coats on in a day and clean brushes and rollers out in water.
Preferably use special grumpy old builder techniques for avoiding washing anything until you can decently throw it away. (Putting brushes carefully in water will keep them going for weeks. Rollers and paint trays can be kept going for days by either serious wrapping in cling film, or a well sealed carrier bag.)
Almost anyone’s version of acrylic painters’ caulk or filler, which comes in a tube with a screw on nozzle and goes in a sealant gun.
Do not be tempted buy anything that even suggests it might have silicon in it unless you want a messy job, or know what you are doing, in which case there are very few silicon sealants worth buying.
In general caulk is used for filling gaps, and filler out of a tub with a good scraper is used for holes. Filler is usually pretty rubbish at filling gaps, like round architrave and skirtings, and caulk is definitely rubbish at filling holes because it shrinks and you can’t sand it.
I reckon that the only filler worth buying is Red Devil lightweight one time filler. It weighs almost nothing and you may have a little welling up of resentment at paying so much money for something that feels like you are buying a tub of air. No matter what it costs, just grit your teeth and buy it.
On no account buy anything that says it is Polyfilla or Polycell, or especially Tetrion, which is even worse. I know they are the ones you are familiar with and they have been making crap DIY products for as long as I can remember. Don’t be tempted even if they insist that they now do the new lightweight no cracking, no shrinking, and easy to sand, not like the old crap ones they used to make, ones. They might do, but they had their chance for over forty years and they blew it, so I don’t believe them.
Get your main decorating done as early in the whole process as you can, because you can make a lot more mess doing it before any flooring goes in, and lots of “cutting in” can be avoided altogether. OK, the orange container is lined out in T&G chipboard which fits quite snuggly but there is quite a lot of filling to do because of all the screw holes.
It is worth countersinking the screws which gives you a nice neat hole to fill using “bread and scrape”. If you don’t know what bread and scrape is you have to ask someone really old who remembers butter rationing. Provided you have not used Tetrion or Polyfilla, a few seconds with an orbital sander and no effort will sand large areas quickly and easily with very little effort.
If you use ordinary filler you have to overfill to allow for shrinkage and then sand back, which will take forever, especially if you have used Tetrion which sets rock hard. In the orange container, on a flat surface we are using Red Devil on the joins using the same bread and scrape technique, because you can’t easily scrape gun sealant flat and it won’t sand. However will be great for the vertical corners using a damp cloth, and if necessary, a final wipe with a finger you spat on for a professional finish! But not until after you have put on a miss coat! In this case the miss coat is also the first watered down primer coat you have to start off with on almost any new surface, including the chipboard and newly skimmed plaster walls.
You can use up to 25% water with a first coat so it really sinks into the new surface and seals it, but being so watery you do have to be careful not to whizz it everywhere with a roller, and it does tend to run up your arm a bit on ceilings, but you have to do it. I had a customer who decided that he could get away with two undiluted coats, and when he tried to roll on the second coat o it just rolled the first one off in big flakes which stuck to the roller………So, the miss coat seals and primes the surface for you and instantly shows you what you missed when you did the filling.
At the end of the day you now have to wash everything up ready for the next day. No, you don’t. If you are using one kind of paint and colour, chuck all the brushes in a bucket of water, flick them out the next day and work the water out on a bit you are going to cover later anyway. This will work for gloss paint as well. If you are using different paints, leave the brushes with paint in, wrap them in cling film, and they will keep for days. Small brushes can be put in a surgical glove with an elastic band. Put a roller tray with the roller in a carrier bag and seal it up with tape to keep the air out. In this way you should be able to do just one clean up at the end of the job. Er.. that’s it!
I Hate Decorating 2 – The Sequel
– and a Duh! moment. – October 4th
We have a decorating quality problem! This is not entirely because I am crap at decorating. In part it is because Martin is fussier than I am, and partly because 18 mm t&g chipboard is not quite the precision material that I thought it was.
The result is that particularly in certain lighting conditions the joins really show! I called in Chris Puddy, a friend from the village who is a professional decorator.
He suggested various things including textured paint, but said it was mainly down to builders not knowing what hard work was! Get a block and some sand paper, he said, and put some bloody effort into sanding it. So I did. And now I reckon it is good enough. My problem was to convince Martin when it occurred to me that the problem was all at the “three way intersections” which is an obtuse way of describing what you can see in the pictures. Since t&g is in 2400 mm lengths and the ceiling height is a bit less we can lay them upright in one and the problem will probably go away. Any join that does show will be less than you get with wallpaper.
I don’t know why it has taken me years to work that out. The stud work needs to rotate, which is no problem, and it will be quicker and easier to put up. The same applies to the ceiling in the green one but not in the orange one because it is 3000 mm wide. However, t&g is very heavy to put on the ceiling, so we might rethink ceilings anyway.
On Wednesday 5th September 2018 we had the first official visit from Sedgemoor District Council.
I had been jokingly referring to it as “the Royal Visit” since, aside from Glastonbury Trust, they are the single most important target of this whole project. Somehow the Sedgemoor Press and Publicity officer had got hold of the idea that a real Royal Visit was about to happen, and that, as usual, she was the last one to know about it. Apparently it took a flurry of emails to work out that it wasn’t true and that it was my fault, so that was a good start!
For those that don’t, you need to know that local government is a sort of mini version of Westminster. It is run by two kinds of people. One sort are local government officers who are the civil servants and are non political and have permanent jobs. In general they are professionally qualified. Their job is to advise the politicians since they are supposed to know about housing or parking, or rubbish collection or whatever it is.
The other sort are the elected politicians, or Councillors, or members. Some of them may be rather like ministers in government and be in charge of things they usually know nothing about at all. This is all part of the wonder of democracy. So, the officers thought our project was worth backing, and now they have come with the elected politicians to see what they think. If the politicians don’t like it we are stuffed, and the officers will get ticked for having given us any money.
I give them my carefully crafted delivery, which goes roughly like this…..
“In Somerset according to your own figures there are 17,000 families deemed by you to be in need of housing.60% of that demand according to your figures is for one bedroom accommodation. It is the one type of housing you are woefully short of and, according to your own research none of the builders have any intention of building.
This is partly because it is relatively expensive so you can’t afford to build it either because the rent from those on housing benefit won’t enable you to get your money back. So, using containers to provide warm, safe, dry, affordable housing is not new, original, and certainly not the best housing solution in the long term. However, we have a serious problem now, and apparently precious few solutions in the short term.
This project is different from most container conversions in three important respects. Firstly, it is designed specifically to persuade local authorities, and other housing providers, that they can be converted to a sufficiently high standard to be “good enough” as a temporary solution to a serious problem we have now.
At £25K for a one bedroom home ready to plug in and go, they are an economic proposition for the provider and affordable for those on housing benefit. Secondly, they are designed to use as little skilled labour as possible. We intend setting up a not for profit social enterprise to convert them locally providing employment and involvement to the least skilled, and as many local businesses as possible.
Thirdly, whilst we can see a role for recycling second hand shipping containers as homes, we can see many advantages in using a non seagoing container manufactured new in the Forest of Dean and currently aimed at utility uses in the construction industry. In its standard form it is two foot wider than a standard shipping container and we think you will find it makes a significant difference to the feel of the unit. So let me show you around.”
Personally, I find this proposal so compelling I think they should immediately order loads of them to be delivered as quickly as possible! Actually, everyone is pretty impressed with the orange one even though it is just an empty shell, albeit lined and painted.
The two young women, front line homelessness officers, would just have some now please! The most important person is worried about what colour they are, is desperate to be able to call them anything other than containers, and is mostly concerned that if they are in the wrong place the neighbours won’t like them!
I tell her that if she wants to order some, I will paint them any colour she likes. I also agree that we will call them anything she likes because the homeless won’t care.
The homeless officers think their clients will think they are cool. Officers are not allowed to be rude to politicians, so I agree with Gill that it probably isn’t a good idea to put them in the wrong place.
However, even in the right place, the better off seldom want to be in close proximity to those that have less, and if we provided really posh houses they would probably object even more.
But basically it was good news. Teresa Harvey, who is Director of Housing got the go ahead to take the scheme forward, which is what she wanted, and it looks like they might want to buy the orange one to use as a show home prior to going ahead with a proper scheme.
I am not sure that we want them to buy it, and it does delay decisions. Delay increases the risk that the whole project will run away into the sand. I don’t want that to happen and I have a few ideas. So we are going to have a big strategy meeting next Friday Sept 14.
I met up with Tom Clark and the two Glastonbury Trust trustees, Mike Jones and Gareth Mills. They are quite happy for Sedgemoor to buy the orange one as a show home.
Tom is really mostly interested in getting something going at the Red Brick in Glastonbury so he might be interested in the green one since it is a work/live unit which is what he wants to see there.
Actually, there doesn’t really seem to be a strategy. I think Glastonbury Trust would like to help stuff happen but I am not sure they actually want to do it. I may have deluded myself into thinking that if I could show them that it could be done, and how to do it, then “they” would take it away and get on with it. That clearly isn’t going to happen. Mike has asked me to put some costings and budget and stuff together as a sort of business plan. I am not really interested in doing that at this stage, because I am pretty immersed in getting the construction as good as possible.
There doesn’t seem to be much strategy going on at Sedgemoor either. Nobody has bothered to contact me about anything since the “royal visit” despite saying they would. In fact quite by chance I find they have organised a big event at the McMillan Theatre in Bridgwater, partly to look at innovative housing solutions. They haven’t told me about it and haven’t invited me, but I am going anyway, because anyone can and it’s free! To be truthful I am a bit hurt and pissed off that none of them has even thought to tell me about it, let alone invite me to come and be part of it.
I have a bit of good news in the form of a new volunteer. James is around twenty one, has been homeless, and has slept rough and is volunteering because he wants to do something that will help the homeless. He is coming one day a week and I am really looking forward to his opinion and ideas on loads of things.
The Bathroom Pod
On the right are a couple of wall panels, which come in standard sizes cut to fit each of the various bases. They recommend that the panels are joined using little self tappers, and then mastic on the joint face afterwards. We reckon it is better to join the panels with nuts and bolts, and then glue a U-Section plastic channel down the back. This is stronger, structurally better, and avoids having to risk an untidy mastic joint on the face of the bathroom wall. Since the whole wall sits inside the base upstand, so that even if water does get through it still runs into the base, I reckon this is much better.
The right hand picture shows all the offcuts of chipboard that we have got left over after lining out the two containers, and behind them the remnants of the plywood packing in which the bathrooms arrived from China
The red plywood inserts in the back of the panels are glued in places where there is a shelf or mirror or something that needs to be screwed on the other side so that it has something to screw into. I want to reinforce the whole panel, and I don’t want to risk damage to the panel by breaking those inserts out so we are packing the back to match with 12 mm ply.
We should use the packing ply but it is full of 2″ wire nails and in the end I couldn’t be bothered so we have bought a couple of sheets of cheap softwood ply. However, we are using the chipboard offcuts, as a second packing layer, and will probably use nearly all of them by the time we have done the two bathrooms so that is good.
The left hand picture shows the detail of the 30 mm plastic angle we have used to join adjacent walls, because they don’t overlap : they join on their corners and I can’t do much about that because that is the way they have been pre-cut to work in the tray. According to the instructions the steel skeleton holds them in place and then you mastic the inside. In fact we haven’t got the steel skeleton and in any case I think the angle does a better job and guarantees no leaks, but we may mastic the inside corners for cosmetic reasons.
The pictures show a few things. The stud wall round the whole thing, fixed to the packed out walls with little “toblerone” corner brackets which you can see rather better in the bigger picture below.
The left hand picture shows the two “conduit pipe ducts” for water and electricity with blue rubber gloves on them, and the square section bathroom fan conduit all going out through the floor.
Once everything was in place I spray foamed everything, because I think it will deaden any hollow sound of the wall, and just help to make it all feel a bit more solid. I had always intended to do this but it turned out to have an added bonus. When we glued the inserts in I used a bargain pack of Unibond instant grab super gloppy glue stuff.
As soon as we carried the wall sections over to put them in, some of them popped off! There was glue on each of the two surfaces so it was obviously the adhesive itself which had failed. I contacted Unibond technical who said they thought they knew what the problem was, and would get back to me, which they haven’t.
However, that still left me with the problem, so rather than start again I think the foam will now hold everything in place. In case it turns out that the Unibond adhesive won’t stand any flexing or vibration, I will switch to Everbuild silicone which I know will work, and flex and stick.
This is the inside of the bathroom with the WC and basin roughly where they will be. On the left you can see the shower waste which will drain the entire room.
Just behind the WC base you can see the soil outlet pipe which will also take the basin waste. Making the holes in the floor of the container for all these services was the most difficult job so far, and we must find a better way to do it. It is because we have a metal sheet underfloor which was a bugger to make a big hole in. This is the inside of the bathroom with the WC and basin roughly where they will be. On the left you can see the shower waste which will drain the entire room.
Just behind the WC base you can see the soil outlet pipe which will also take the basin waste. Making the holes in the floor of the container for all these services was the most difficult job so far, and we must find a better way to do it. It is because we have a metal sheet underfloor which was a bugger to make a big hole in.
A jig saw wasn’t long enough. The reciprocating saw wouldn’t go round corners fast enough to make a decent hole, and I burnt out a hole saw due to my own incompetence and typical builder’s disdain for reading the instructions.
These told me that if I was using a hole cutter to make holes in mild steel I needed to drill very, very, slowly, which I did in the end but it took forever. In future, if we can guarantee where everything is going I can get these holes cut at the manufacture stage by Newspace which will make life a lot easier.
A Second, New Volunteer
Great News! We have another volunteer. Roman is in his early twenties, is from Latvia and is going to come each Wednesday, which will be a real help. In fact, I met him on Tuesday and he agreed to start right away, so he spent Wednesday sanding the filled screw holes in the green one. I want to get that one decorated and floored asap so that I can move everything non essential out of the orange one and start selling!
The Great Chinese Bathroom Disaster!
Most of what isn’t broken is either the wrong thing, doesn’t fit, or is crap quality. I know. Everybody told me and I wouldn’t listen, so it serves me right.
The bathrooms had arrived in early June, but we hadn’t unpacked them because we thought they were less likely to get damaged if we left them in their original packing until needed. On Wednesday James came in specially to help me.
As soon as we began to unpack the first loo we heard that ominous tinkly scrackly sound and we knew we were in trouble. One WC and one basin were bust. There was minor damage to one corner of the smaller floor tray, and a door panel was squash. As we began to unpack in detail, it was clear that most of the plumbing was wrong or wouldn’t work. At first glance the accessories were pretty naff or tacky. It was not a good day.
I took Thursday off to lick wounds and think, and on Friday Martin and Tony both came in to survey the debris with me. They were both really upset, which cheered me up no end!
It is a strange psychological quirk in me that needs to reassure. The more upset they are, the more I want to tell them it will all be fine. No, look, I said. The trays are great, and the walls are pretty good, even though how they go together is a complete mystery.
Fit brackets to chassis and lock, it said. We spent an hour completely failing to understand how the brackets worked or how any two parts would fit together. By the end of the morning we had still failed to do anything useful at all. Tony went home and Martin and I finished the walls and ceiling in the green container which was a really good end to a bloody awful week.
Over the weekend, I sent a couple of plaintive emails to Lily in China, but had already decided to write the whole thing off, and move into rescue mode. By Monday I had got a very gratifying “so sorry, don’t worry, we will sort it all out” email from Lily, and the bones of a plan to make it all work, if not exactly to wrench victory from defeat.
Basically, with a bit of pratting about I have got two very good empty wet rooms. We will dump the chinaware altogether, and sell whatever we don’t want on eBay
Everything will be fine! – Sunday October 14th 2018
Here is a summary of what has happened in the last ten days.
Lily has written assuring us that they will make sure that we are compensated for anything that went wrong and I am sure she will, and it will all be fine, and we will work it out.
Geo Jones, plumbers merchants in Bristol, are supplying us with two sets of everything we need to replace or substitute the Chinese stuff. They are doing it at not far off half the price quoted by Travis Perkins, AND giving us one set free as a contribution to the project!
I have used Geo Jones for nearly fifty years, and am now dealing with the third generation of Jones’s in a world where loyalty is punished by megacorp, who rely on that loyalty to put prices up and hope we won’t notice. Geo jones is still a small family firm, in which loyalty is a valued commodity. They are a beacon of how the business world ought to be, so thank you Mike and Ben Jones.
Fundamentally, Lily’s bathrooms are a good product, and with a few simple modifications, I think we can make them work really well. And….
My car is due for MOT shortly, so just to be on the safe side, I had four new tyres fitted on Thursday at around £350.00. The garage is about ten miles from home.
About four miles from home, my auxiliary fan belt shredded and jammed into the crankshaft casing. This broke the timing belt, which destroyed the engine and wrote off my car.
So, just when it was beginning to look as if we were back on track…….
I am a pretty poor second hand car buyer, so having to get a different one is always a seriously stressy process for me. I do like builders’ Volvo estates, which I have used ever since my big old Peugeot 504 family estate died about thirty years ago. I can have five comfortable seats, get all my normal tools in the back, and put railway sleepers on top, which I have needed to do surprisingly often.
By chance, Martin has got an older Volvo which he has been reluctantly and unsuccessfully trying to sell for some time. He bought it as the most robust and well engineered model he could find with the intention of converting it to an electric car. Martin is not the only person in the world to have grand plans that somehow just seem to run into a mountain of inertia, but he does seem to have more of them than most of us.
Anyway, his mountain of inertia has provided me with an instant replacement, so I now have a car and am back on the road, almost without missing a beat. My old one was a 2.5 diesel turbo, and this one is a 3 litre straight six, petrol, which is much sexier but is going to cost me loads more in fuel. I don’t care. Also, they say that the only people who are sniffy about automatic transmission are people who haven’t had one. I was in exactly that category until I inadvertently got one twenty years ago and was an instant convert. This one happens to be automatic so that is a bonus.
And it has a sunroof which will really please Claire. I can’t remember if I told you that Claire has been on safari in Tanzania and Zanzibar and Kilimanjaro and big game and stuff with her somewhat well off sister. I didn’t go, partly because I wasn’t invited, but since I grew up in Africa and loved it, there are lots of reasons why I don’t want to go back. This has always been a bit of a mystery to Claire, who has occasionally got almost grumpy about it. So the chance to go with Ursula was not to be missed. She and Urk were not great mates when they were young. Urk married an American and has been there for fifty years. More recently, however, and especially since Urk’s husband John died, she and Claire have become increasingly close and are a joy to see and be with!
Claire is back today, having missed all the disasters, and will put a very welcome end to three weeks of suspended animation for me. It’s not that I can’t cope when she is away. I am perfectly competent, and make the bed and cook and everything! It is just that I am not particularly interested in me, so without her I feel a bit pointless, so I do all the right things, probably in the right order, but with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. Anyway, today she is back which is great.
So here are some pictures showing how we are making the bathrooms work.
This is a not very good picture of how the pods ought to look, with a bolt on steel lattice outer frame to stiffen it up, which you can’t see very well, I am afraid. I am not sure how this outer skeleton is supposed to be fixed to the shell it is going in, but these are presumably designed to go into a prefabricated structure specially for them. They also look very bendy and insubstantial to me so I reckon we have to beef them up.
Kitchen – Saturday November 3rd 2018
I can’t believe it is November already.
It has been a busy and productive couple of weeks.
Tony and I spent a happy day installing the kitchen which went fine thanks to thoughtful and efficient German engineering.
The only serious improvement we would like to see is a small upstand detail at the back of the kitchen work surface and I will be bending Elfin’s ear about it.
The kitchen base unit is basically free standing and is meant to be just pushed in against the stainless steel backsplash.
Because it fits under the backsplash it is possible for water to run off the back of the sink and down the wall.
This means that you ought to silicone it which destroys the point of it being freestanding and pull out.
A small upstand would be simple and better.
The left hand picture shows the bathroom extractor fan running out through trunking through the floor, and the two pipes with blue gloves on them so that we can bring water and electricity in through the floor as well. The right hand one shows it walled in and panted but still with a couple of access panels to get at the power and water supplies.
This is the dividing wall in the green container, to create the living space and the workshop in the end with the cargo doors. By the time Harry and his colleagues from Sedgemoor come to visit on Wednesday, we should have all the bits and pieces out of the orange one and in the workshop end of the green one.
Saturday November 17th
Last week started off pretty badly. To be honest I was beginning to feel a bit down and fairly unloved by the people who were supposed to be interested in the project and who are really the whole point of doing it. We are doing everything we said we would do, and for the price we said we could do it. Everybody who comes is really impressed even if they do have reservations about what colour they are, the fact that they are containers, and putting them somewhere that isn’t going to annoy the neighbours! But I seem to have to bludgeon people into coming and I just don’t get the feeling we are getting anywhere.
My worry is that we have to be off the site at the end of March next year and if I can’t get some firm indication of what is to happen to them by the end of January I am going to have to sell them to anyone who will buy them and the whole grand vision will just run away into the sand.
So I decided to ring Duncan Harvey at Sedgemoor, get him to come over, and have a serious discussion about where we were going. He didn’t return my call. I rang again. Nick said he had got my message but he would remind him. By the following morning he still hadn’t called. By now I was convinced that he was avoiding me. I rang again, and got Nick, who said he was really busy. I said no-one was that busy, and as a last resort rang Harry, who had cancelled their last planned visit, and who might put me out of my misery.
Ah, said Harry, I have emailed you this morning to arrange for us to bring all the housing department people from the districts across Somerset to see the project on December 13th. This was great news and exactly what I wanted and needed. And he said he would come in and see how we were getting on Friday.
No sooner had I put the phone down than Duncan rang, with a good excuse and very apologetic and is coming next Tuesday so we can talk.
On Friday morning Harry duly arrived but came with Esther. Esther instantly fills me with confidence that she gets it, that she understands exactly what the project is about, and is surprised that that there is no officer lead assigned to it. She understands the problem of the time limit on the site and, for the first time, indicates how easy it would be to transfer the project to the Sedgemoor depot in Colley Lane. Of course it may be that everyone else knew about Colley Lane but it is the first I have heard of it. She also mentions what sounds like an ideal site in town which Sedgemoor owns and asks Harry to check out its current availability. She asks me how long it would take to deliver, say ten units. So for the first time in the whole project someone is asking all the right questions, and in the right order!
They leave, with Esther telling me not to worry because she is on it, and that she will probably come with Duncan on Tuesday. So a week that had started off as fairly depressing has finished up pretty well.
I had decided to abandon my old friend Chris for the joinery part of the project because he hadn’t shown much enthusiasm about it, and even though I had kept him abreast of what was going on, hadn’t contacted me or been to see us. A friend of Martin runs a joinery shop and in a week Martin and Mike had run off all the skirtings and architraves for both containers and Martin arrived with them on Friday. Mike has also agreed to fit the two doors in the orange one which is great news because Martin and I hate hanging doors and truthfully, I am not very good at it.
So it turned out that the most difficult part of the week was cutting the holes in the floor of the green one for the shower drain, the loo, the extractor fan, and the kitchen sink waste. It wasn’t quite as bad as the orange one, but the floor was tougher. The problem is that there is not a great deal of choice about where the holes go, and in some cases none at all. The floors in both containers are supported by steel joists. You do not want to start drilling holes through those. The green one had a whole steel floor section where the shower tray is, and I didn’t think it would be so thick. It was also reinforced which is what we hit with the sink waste, so it was really hard work.
I have made life difficult for myself by insisting that all service access is from underneath. It seems a good design principle because any holes in the side or the roof are potential weak points for corrosion and leaks. Also, if we build our preferred three dimensional little complexes, I think we can make much tidier job of running services into a common “umbilicus” by running them all between the container tops and bottoms rather than where you can see them on the sides. . This will only be possible if there is enough space between “storeys” to get the falls, but a decent separation is a fundamental part of the design to reduce sound transmission anyway.
Saturday December 1st 2018
One way and another it has been a pretty eventful couple of weeks.
On Monday ( Nov 19th ) I had arranged to pick up Phil Shepherd at the Engine Room and bring him out to see the project. He has been very supportive and introduced me to all sorts of useful people. The Engine Room is a film and media project in Bridgwater. When I picked him up it turned out that he had arranged to meet Dan and a camera at the site which was a nice surprise. They now have some film but we need to find some money to do anything with it.
Duncan Harvey duly arrived on Tuesday ( Nov 20th) morning but with Nick rather than Esther. It looks like Nick has been made lead officer and not Esther, which is only disappointing because I had hoped it would be Esther, rather than my disappointment being any criticism of Nick.
Nevertheless they were very positive and early in December are having a meeting at which I hope they will be agreeing to take the project on
On December 13th Sedgemoor is hosting a Somerset Homelessness Strategy Meeting. This will consist of the senior housing officers of all the Somerset authorities. They are going to bring them all to visit the project during the day so this is a big opportunity for us.
So I have decided to concentrate on getting the orange container looking as good as possible for the visit.
On Wednesday Nov 21st Martin and I drove up to London to the Offsite exhibition at the Excel Centre in east London in the hope of seeing some new and interesting things. It turned out to be an unmitigated disappointment. Firstly, because of traffic and an accident that closed a tunnel, it took us over five hours to get there instead of less than four. The exhibition itself was very much smaller than we had anticipated, and stunningly boring. To be honest I am not quite sure who it was aimed at. There were several stands plugging metal frame designs, a few pushing windows and doors to go in them, several selling variations of composite construction panels, and an embarrassing collection of stands flogging outside claddings consisting of what I call “brick on a roll”. But I am not quite sure who any of them thought they were selling to!
There were no kitchen or bathroom pods which were what we were particularly interested in. I did my best to be fascinated but finished up looking for the stands with the best sweets!
However, it did confirm my pretty jaundiced impression of the whole Offsite, Modular, MMC ( Modern Methods of Construction), Factory Build world.
Firstly, they suffer an almost pathological conviction that the public demands a replica of the faux traditional crap rabbit hutches put up very badly by Slater Walker Nazi Barratt, but put up better and faster.
Secondly this results in a formidable amount of money, design effort, and time being devoted to fake wood and timber cladding, fake brickwork, fake clay tiles, fake leaded windows, some of which are copies of already fake stuff such as half timbering.
In addition, there is a lot of complex technical bollocks trying to marry up, or fix to, or glue incompatible materials and structure, in an attempt to make it look like a conventional rabbit hutch, AND keep the rain out!
It is also glaringly apparent that many of the people designing homes to be built in factories don’t know anything about basic building construction or don’t talk to those who do. Perhaps it is because they don’t talk to architects. Or maybe because they do! According to me, architects are notorious for trying to design their way round a chosen concept which is fundamentally ugly or leaky, or trying to get a material they like to do something it isn’t very good at. ( Good examples of this are Frank Gehry’s design of the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, using titanium panels which don’t fold or sit together properly, and Radic’s pavilion now at Hauser and Wirth in Somerset which manages to use every material it is made of in a way which it is least good at!)
Thirdly, no amount of factory production, mastic, and speed of delivery, are any substitute for the fundamental design principles involved in keeping water out of a home and the heat in it. My observations and discussions make me suspect that if we want to build homes in factories, we need to go back to square one and think about what a home is instead of merely trying to build more of what we have, faster, cheaper, and in the dry.
This, of course is part of the problem I have with this project. The politicians don’t want them to be bright colours because rabbit hutches aren’t. Can we wrap them in something so that we can pretend they are rabbit hutches instead of containers? And can we call them something like “The Devonian” or “The Georgian” and put them in little groups called “Badgers Bottom” rather than make a virtue of their considerable structural ingenuity and accept them for what they are?
Mind you, when it comes to the crunch I am pretty much the hypocrite myself! What have I put outside? A nice bit of decking painted in “on trend” slate grey, with a pergola, and hanging baskets, with sculptural conifers and some spikey leafy things. And inside, a tasteful pale grey decor, conventional skirtings architraves and doors, and generally nothing that would frighten the horses or your mother. And why? Because I don’t want to frighten my two vital customers. The politicians who I need because they will write the cheques, and those in need of housing who, in addition to being warm, dry, and safe, pretty much want to be like normal people in the homes that normal people live in. But I draw the line at brick on a roll!
We had what turned out to be a somewhat bizarre meeting with Newspace who were also at Offsite to see if there was anything interesting going on. Mike Judge proposed that Newspace would be happy to do a CAD ( Computer Aided Design ) presentation of our project to the Somerset visit on December 13th. I said there wasn’t much point since we were all standing in the actual thing, but Martin and everyone else thought it would be good, so I agreed and said I would send a sketch of our layout and details.
Stuart Duerden at Travis Perkins had volunteered the same thing early on in the project, but with the great treat, he said, of a fry fru. Having no idea what a fry fru was, but not wanting to appear ignorant, I said yes please, and did he want the layout details? No, No, he said. He had already talked to his CAD people and they were all over it. Since I knew Stuart had no real idea of what we were doing this was going to be a level of magic graphics that I was looking forward to. When it arrived it was two containers in tasteful grey on top of each other, with the artistic and technical merit of Mrs Ashcroft’s nursery class invited to make a houses out of shoe boxes. The keenly anticipated fry fru emerged as a wasps eye view of an approach through the door and a quick look into a kitchen, loo, and a bedsit all furnished in lego. It was a fly through!
Anyway, on Wednesday, Mike judge rang. His design team was working on the CAD and Mark, the Managing Director was going to come down and do the presentation on the 13th. And by the way, thanks for sending him our layout and details. If the CAD team had time he had asked them to do a little thing for us using our layout! Hang on, I said. You mean you are planning to come down and have your MD give a presentation of what Newspace can provide to our customers as opposed to a CAD representation of our project. Er.. Yes, he said. Isn’t that what we agreed? Look Mike, I said, this is our project. We are buying shells from you, because we think they are great, and we are doing the conversions ourselves, partly because we want to, partly because we think ours are better than yours, and partly because we are telling our customers that we would like to deliver them as a not for profit social enterprise, giving work to unskilled local people. How on earth could you have imagined that we were inviting you down to sell our customers your finished product. He insisted it was just over enthusiasm, and cancelled everything. I am not sure about Mike, but in the end I relented. The CAD and the MD are cancelled. Mike is invited, but minus the cavalry!
I do have to think about the bigger picture here. Newspace are a much bigger fish than us, and have all the facilities to deliver the finished article in numbers. But whilst I have great respect for their expertise as steel fabrication engineers I don’t like much about their fitting out approach or design. However, if I could persuade them to do near enough what works for my customers, there would be a lot of advantages in going down that route. Apart from anything else, it would save us all the considerable effort and capital expense of setting up and running a production organisation.
There are two big disadvantages. One is that we lose the ability to set the whole thing up as a not-for-profit social enterprise. The other is that Martin is very keen to be involved in the future of it. I am afraid that I would be prepared to sacrifice both these elements to make the project work. There may be a way to do this and keep Martin in the project if Sedgemoor want to get more involved. I shall have to think about it.
Martin had brought a friend, Paul Score, to see the project, and it turned out that he now works for Somerset LABC ( local Authority Building Control ) based in Bridgwater in Sedgemoors office. He was very enthusiastic and has subsequently produced a really helpful suggestion of the standards we might aim to achieve. He reckons that the most relevant regulations are those relating to static homes and lodges under BS 3632 : 2015. He has extracted the key points since tie down points to stop them blowing away probably doesn’t apply to a few tons of container home! This is really useful, and he has offered to give us more help if we need it.
The Only Way is Glue
Two interesting things happened on Monday.
I had decided that we would deal with skirtings and architraves by gluing them. If we were going to frame the windows maybe we could prefabricate the “picture frames” to do it using a hot melt glue gun. This was because we were using 12 mm MDF ( medium Density Fibreboard ) which doesn’t take screws or nails very well but is great to glue.
Hot melt glue comes in sticks which you feed into the back of an electric gun which has a heated nozzle. When warmed up, if you pull the trigger you get molten glue out of the nozzle and you have about five seconds to join whatever you are sticking. As a traditional upholsterer, Claire used it for sticking gimp and braid and piping on chairs. It is better than tacks, less visible and remains sufficiently flexible not to crack off. I used it for tacking up bell wire and loads of little instant glue jobs. However, I thought I would need harder set stuff for this, but no one seemed to know anything about it, so I rang Claire’s upholstery suppliers and they told me to contact The Glue People, so I did.
On Monday Andy Sweeney from The Glue People came. He has been selling sticky stuff for over thirty years and knows how to stick everything to anything. By the time he left, he had sold me industrial superglue and activator instead of hot melt glue, certified fungicidal silicone at half the price of the top brand, and HB40, a polymer adhesive I don’t understand for nearly everything else. He is also suggesting that we can frame out and fix the wall cladding and ceiling etc with about 10% of the screws and effort we are currently using, so that was a seriously useful meeting. I have ordered stuff already.
In the afternoon I had a visit which is nothing to do with either glue, or strictly to do with the project, but it was about what we are doing with containers. John pontin, his wife Gill, and one of their sons came because Gill wants to put a container for Colin in her garden and John Savage had suggested they come and look at what we are doing. I have been a fan of John’s for not far off half a century so we had a very warm time reminiscing about a lot of stuff, some of which we have both been involved in.
John had started a design and build partnership with Tim Organ in Bristol in the sixties. They had pioneered the multidisciplines of engineers, architects and builders under one roof. They had done some very innovative developments, including High Kingsdown in the early 70s, a low rise high density development which is still winning prizes today. He paid for the first women’s refuge in Bristol. He bought what is now the Arnolfini gallery and capped it with offices for his JT group in what became a catalytic contribution to the development of the Bristol docks area. His sponsorship of the free school in Bristol was a brave, generous and pioneering contribution to education. So that was a really good afternoon.
The photo on the left shows the door lings in, and the frames for the bedroom wardrobe and not very clearly the narrow storage in the hallway outside the bathroom. If you look carefully you can see the plastic trunking which is going all the way round the ceiling to carry the wiring.
This is the stuff from The Glue People and on the right a “dummy” version of the principle of the window framing we are hoping to do.
Using glue to fix skirtings is fairly standard these days, but this HB40 is better stuff than I have been used to.
For example Gripfill tends to hold the joints apart, skins over very quickly, goes rock hard and brittle, and if you are not careful to knock off the gun pressure, goes on squeezing out over the floor! However, although HB40 has good instant “grab” it takes up to 24 hours to fully cure, so I have used a nail gun to pin the board until it holds. I will decide whether to take the nails out or push them in depending on which is best.
The picture on the right is meant to show the trunking for the electrics and data cables etc round the ceiling and the more or less finished kitchen. I wasn’t exactly sure what to do with the space over the kitchen units, so that is a sort of decorative shelf. It looks a bit odd in the picture but looks OK in real life.
Sunday December 9th 2018
I think we have got on pretty well this week. Unfortunately we have lost James as a volunteer because he is ill, and won’t be back before Christmas. However, Roman came on Wednesday, and Martin was able to come on Monday and Friday which was great.
On Monday Kevin Redpath from Glastonbury Town Council visited, and was really impressed. I have known him since the Red Brick Project, and have kept in touch. He is going back to his council to see if he can get them involved. He is also a professional film maker and has promised to see if he can raise the funds to make a short film for us which would be great. We have got the most amazing enthusiasm and encouragement for the project. We just need to convert it into action.
Martin’s friend Paul Score of Building Control, had suggested we ought to contact Tracy Aarons at Mendip District Council, so I did. I assumed that she was in the housing department but it turned out that she was the Deputy CEO. They had heard about the project and were keen to visit, which was gratifying, but far too busy to make it before the New Year.
Of course almost nobody is actually that busy, but I had forgotten LASI (pronounced lazy). This is Local Authority Seasonal Inertia. We are now in Christmas inertia season, having only just got over Summer Holiday inertia.
This is closely followed by budget planning inertia and then Christmas inertia succeeded by Budget Setting inertia which is closely followed by end of financial year inertia (March 31st), before the start of the new financial year on April 1st before which nothing that had been planned last year can start.
Then, actual starts tend to be delayed until after the Easter Holiday Inertia, just in time to grind to a halt again as the summer holiday inertia season kicks in again.
There is a brief window of feverish activity in March each year to finish spending on projects that had been programmed two years before, or at least to get the invoices in, even if they aren’t quite finished.
This is partly to satisfy the bean counters, but also to make sure that they have actually spent the money, because the rules often preclude carrying budgets over into the following year. This can result in local government politicians of all parties spending the entire year complaining about central governments cuts, and then having a little flurry of activity at the end of the year, desperately spending any spare cash before the end of the financial year.
It is frustrating for those of us who struggle to fund these protracted time scales for making decisions and implementing them.
So, while I am afraid local government does deserve a bit of a kicking in the efficiency and “we can do it now” departments, they have been strangled by funding cuts to a greater or lesser extent by governments of every colour for as long as I can remember. Most local authorities consist of elected councillors and paid council officers, almost all trying to do a decent job on not a lot of money and rather less thanks.
I don’t know whether I have mentioned it in this diary, but I was a local district councillor for an inner city ward in Bristol for twelve years. Twelve years doesn’t sound that much, but when I was elected in 1979 I was 38 and when I retired from the council in 1991, I was 50, and that is a big chunk of anyones life. I was part of the housing committee during the most traumatic housing decade of the twentieth century. The uncontrolled sale of council houses, and the refusal of government to allow the capital receipts to be used to replenish the stock by building social housing for rent, was a fundamentally stupid and disastrous policy, now acknowledged by everyone. It laid the foundations for the current housing crisis which some of us saw coming even then, nearly forty years ago. I do not forgive Mrs Thatcher and her government for that policy driven by muddleheaded political dogma. It is the single most important driver of my concern about housing and pretty much why I am now running this project.
So while I may have a poke at local government, I have huge admiration for all those, both elected and working in it. In general, central government is my real enemy, and arrogant civil servants in particular. My time on the council was the most frustrating, scary, stressful, sad, happy, funny, rewarding, best time of my life.
Just to confuse you. This is the bathroom in the orange one. Since we have got such an important visit on Thursday, I thought I would put the toilet and basin in place even though they are not plumbed in.
Although one on the Chinese basins was broken the other seemed OK and I like the square shape, so I put the brackets in and then found that basin has a little crack in it, so I will have to buy another one anyway.
It is a bit smaller than the other one and in white because we wanted to try it, and it is a bit cheaper, but I think I prefer the coloured one. It still has the same size sink and fridge and the multipurpose oven.
The main insulation is closed cell foam but it made sense to do the window reveals in Rockwool type stuff which I think will work OK.
It may not have been the best idea to have the architraves and skirtings run off in MDF, because sanding and painting them has been very labour intensive, but there was some logic behind it. I just wanted a simple bull nose profile, which Travis didn’t seem to have in preprimed MDF or plastic. Then these mouldings tend to come as “reversibles” with optional profiles which I didn’t want either because I couldn’t use the reverse face, which I needed to do in the window recesses. Also I needed two different widths which they didn’t have anyway. And, finally, it gave me a productive job to give to the volunteers which was also a consideration. Nevertheless I think that in production, plastic is the way we have to go.
This coming week is a really important one, so although I am looking forward to it, I am pretty nervous so I hope it all goes OK.
Saturday December 22nd 2018
So, here it is, Merry Christmas! ( for Slade fans )
On other pages on my website, I have discussed in some detail my lack of moral fibre. I regard moral fibre as an outdated Victorian idea, which seems to involve not doing quite a lot of thoroughly enjoyable things, mainly to do with sex, alcohol, and anything self indulgent. It is a characteristic similar to the grit and determination to stick to ones principles in the face of great adversity, which I am not very good at either.
Monday, December 10th was our wedding anniversary. Claire and I have been married for thirty four years. This is a much longer commitment than either of us has managed to make in any other aspect of our whole lives. And all without having to call on grit and determination, or any moral fibre at all, which is a bit of a let off!
So it was symbolic that old friends Rob and Nicky, who were witnesses at our wedding, came to visit the project on Tuesday. Robert was Chief Environmental Health Officer in Bristol, which is quite a posh job, but since retiring has become a bit of an artist, creating “paintings” out of recycled stuff, which is just the sort of thing a retired EHO ought to do. He is kindly lending me a few to “dress” the orange container, so we chose some and all went for lunch.
I had a breakfast and chat with Tom Clark, which is always fun, if not always relevant. Tom Clark’s (shoes) Family Trust has put £10K into this project so he is an important benefactor. He has backed it because the whole housing issue is something he has been involved with for years. However, Tom has two current concerns. One is the housing of a Syrian refugee family in Street, which has been horrendously bureaucratic thanks to the involvement of the Home Office, and the other is the Red Brick Building, which he has been involved in since the early days and is where I first met him.
Our pilot project may have a spin off at the RBB. Tom has a plan to develop part of building C at the RBB in conjunction with Michael Eavis who is the father of the Glastonbury festival. The rest of it would be demolished, leaving a fairly untidy, industrial building site. I have told Tom that I could create the Glastonbury Souk in that space using containers as homes, workspace, cafes and shops. It would be a great project, but I have told him that I am not prepared to give it another moment’s thought until he can persuade me that he can come up with his bit! If he does I will tell you more about it. It would be great fun.
On Tuesday 11th
I had an email from Harry confirming that Sedgemoor would find us a site to move the project to. This is a great milestone. We haven’t worked out whether they will pay for the move, and really I need them to “buy” the whole thing, so that we can move to the second stage of working up a live project. But it is good news.
Thursday was the important visit. Harry and Duncan and co duly arrived with the other Somerset authorities. I hope they were suitably impressed. I do find it quite hard not to harangue them, but it is difficult to resist when you know they have the problem, you can demonstrate that you have an answer that will work, and we all know they can get the funding to do it.
And the visit threw up two surprises. Firstly, I knew Harry read this diary and I had rather assumed he passed on any important bits and probably “censored” a few details. I now know that he is not the only one who actually reads it, so do I have to watch my Ps and Qs? The other surprise was that one of the group that came was from Homes England, but I didn’t know until after she had gone. This was just as well, since I regard HE ( which is the latest incarnation of this Quango ) as a major part of the problem, and whose top people would be first against the wall come the revolution. The odd thing is that I remember her being particularly enthusiastic about the whole thing, and someone who nodded in all the right places.
Afterwards Duncan told me he had had a bit of a thing with her in the morning because she had said that our project was not eligible for help from HE because our homes, being mobile, were not regarded as permanent homes. He had said that they were only mobile if you chose to move them. If you didn’t, they weren’t. I don’t know, but if she really was impressed, perhaps Duncan will be able to persuade her to think again. After all, I regard these as permanent homes for people to live in for as long as they want to. On the other hand I would argue them to be mobile homes so far as planning law is concerned because they can be moved, and I would classify them as “statics” so far as building regs apply. However, is she going to be very sympathetic if she reads this and finds that come the revolution, her bosses would be among the first against the wall! On second thoughts …….. you never know.
On Monday 17th
Martin and I went up to Bristol to see Jasper Thompson at Help Bristol’s Homeless. This was partly because Martin hasn’t been, and partly because Newspace were delivering their “snoozepod” as a demonstrator to his site in Malago Road. This is a 21 x 9 foot unit with a very small single bed cabin at each end and a shared bathroom and kitchen in between. It is OK. They reckon to deliver it at around £25K. I think Jasper wants to get Bristol City Council to buy them, which they ought to do, but I don’t think Jasper himself will buy any. It is a different thing to what we are doing because it is specifically aimed at the emergency accommodation sector, as opposed to ours which are one bedroom homes.
However, I think Sedgemoor may be interested in this aspect of the problem, so once they find a site for ours, I am sure that Newspace would be happy to bring the “Snoozepod” down for them to see.
So there we are. I have now stopped and I will be back in the pit in the New Year.
Happy Christmas and an exciting New Year to All.
January 17th 2019
It’s your own fault Charlie Brown!
For those of you unfamiliar with Charlie Brown, Lucy often holds the ball so that Charlie can run up and kick it as they do in rugby and American football. She unfailingly removes it at the last moment so that Charlie tumbles A over T. Even if she insists she won’t, she always does. And Charlie never learns. He is the eternal optimist.
Any number of people told me that when it came to the crunch, Sedgemoor would whip the ball away, because they all do. And they did.
But I am the eternal optimist.
On Monday Jan 7th
James Craig from BBC Somerset came with a cameraman to do a little video and an interview about the project.
On Thursday morning
January 10th it was broadcast on Claire Carter’s Radio Somerset breakfast show together with an interview with Duncan Harvey, who is Sedgemoors housing development officer. He explained that they had a serious shortage of one bedroom accommodation, and that projects like ours, that Sedgemoor had invested in, were just the sort of “left field” solution that housing authorities needed to look at. He confirmed that they were looking at finding a site to move the pilot project to so that it could be finished and that he was confident that they could find sites to use the units… etc etc……
On Monday 14th
Sedgemoor held an internal meeting and the following morning Teresa Harvey, Housing Director, rang me to say they were pulling out of the project!
They hadn’t really got anywhere to put it. They hadn’t really researched it properly and worked it through. They hadn’t got any land anyway and it was obviously all too difficult. And anyway they only had one rough sleeper. And Sedgemoor was doing very well as a housing authority!
This, despite Duncan Harvey explaining to quite a lot of Radio Somerset listeners the previous Thursday, that they did have a big problem, that our project was exactly the sort of thing they were looking at, and they were looking at a number of options for siting the pilot project and a live project.
On Wednesday Jan 16th
James Craig returned with Jeremy, his cameraman, to make another short feature for the BBC Politics West show on Sunday without knowing that Sedgemoor had pulled the plug, and by which time I was spitting feathers. He said it explained why they hadn’t wanted to be part of it and refused to let me vent my spleen about it on camera which I was really looking forward to!
We didn’t promise you anything said Teresa Harvey. And she is quite right. And I hadn’t asked her to. But they had “led me to believe” that they would invest the small amount of time and effort and money it needed to see the project through together with us. I had even assured them that if the whole thing came to nothing I could probably sell two nice warm secure homes for them and recover most if not all our money.
The irony is that if they had delayed telling me for a week and been part of the BBC programme they could have had all the kudos and brownie points for being an adventurous and innovative authority actually prepared to face up to the problems they have.
I now have to concentrate on finding a new home for the project. Otherwise I will have to sell them and close it. If that happens, at least two people will have a warm dry home.
“Well, you always said that you had a queue of people who would buy them”, said Teresa Harvey. I probably did, but it was bravado. In any case , I was giving a year or so of my life hoping to make a contribution to a bigger problem rather than building two homes. But I suppose two homes is better than a poke in the eye with a stick.
Wednesday January 23rd
I am still much in wound licking mode, but we have a few irons in the fire which I will tell you about after my mystery visitors have come on Friday. In the meantime, here are a few pictures.
Tuesday February 5th 2019
We are about to be homeless, which is sort of ironic. However, there is potentially good news.
Glastonbury Town Council came on Friday Jan 25th and were very enthusiastic.
They are talking about finding me a temporary parking spot on the Beckery Island Regeneration Trust( BIRT ) site run by Ian Tucker. Even better than that, they are quite keen to build an entire little complex on the bit where I know Ian was planning to put some starter homes. Although that sounds very exciting I have several reservations. I know that Ian’s plan for the starter homes was to sell them and raise some much needed cash to inject into the renovation of the rest of the site. My project would not give him that. Secondly, I am not sure that Glastonbury Town Council has the balls to borrow a million quid to fund such a project. They are not the housing authority so they would get no government help or grants.
Mendip District Council came to visit yesterday. They are the housing authority, but have transferred their stock to a housing association. I had a really sensible meeting with Tracy Aarons and her assistant Sian. It was a pleasure to see them, but realistically nothing is going to happen. The Housing Association wouldn’t touch containers with a bargepole, mainly because they aren’t an appreciating asset, and doing it on their own probably isn’t a priority for Mendip.
Tuesday March 26th
I am afraid the last month or so has been a bit of a blue period.
Moving to Glastonbury didn’t work out, partly because I found a better hole to go to. John Savage is an engineer who works with the University of the West of England ( UWE ) and Bridgwater College in a liaison role with EDF and the Hinckley Point Nuclear Power Project. I forget how we first met, but he has been an enthusiastic supporter of my schemes over the years and he has taken a keen interest in the container project.
He is also part of the Brunstad Church, a Christian Fellowship which bought the Hinckley Point sports and social club in Bridgwater which they now run as a public conference venue and meeting place for the church members. They have very kindly offered us space at the centre called “the canalside”, and we moved down last Monday. Yesterday, Travis Perkins brought down the decking and pergola and stuff and today Claire and I finished bringing down the plants and the gravel to go in the planters, so we now have a kit of parts to rebuild the cosmetic bits of the project.
So here we are at the new place.
Saturday April 6th 2019
I have never relied much on the idea that “something will turn up”, preferring the general principle that the harder I work the luckier I get.
But I found the weeks before we moved very difficult to do much at all, partly because it was bloody freezing but also because of severe lack of oomph. However, when we moved I realised I had to get myself back into gear and I have now fully plumbed both containers. I had been putting it off partly because I wasn’t sure what to do about hot water. The showers are not a problem because they are just electric showers and at 8.5 Kw should be decent if not wonderful.
I had found some instant in line heaters called Dafi on eBay. I think they are German designed but made in Poland. They come in various powers from 3.5Kw to 7.3Kw. They do them up to 11Kw but anything over 7.3Kw needs three phase 400v power. Their great benefits are that they don’t have a reservoir of water that has to be kept hot, they are very simple to install and they are half the price of anything else I could find. So I bought one and bench tested it at home. They are OK. They don’t gush out hot water but for the wash hand basin in the loo they are absolutely fine and the volume you let through the tap controls the temperature. The kitchen sink is a pretty modest thing anyway and you can run enough really hot water in fast enough to wash up. I am not totally convinced about the fittings to connect them up and it was a bit of a palaver finding washers and olives and things but I reckon they are OK. However I won’t know until we connect them up live to the mains.
This is in the orange one. the left hand picture shows the heater under sink, and the right hand one feeds the basin and is in the bedroom wardrobe.
In the green one the kitchen is right next to the loo so just one little heater should do the trick.
So what about this something that turned up?
Mike Jones at The Glastonbury Trust told me they were going to have a trustees meeting to discuss the possibility of buying some land to do a container housing scheme. Last week he wrote to me to say that they weren’t going to do that……BUT they did want to buy up the balance of the project and put them somewhere where they could be affordable homes.
On Wednesday I went to see Mike and he confirmed the plan and said they were considering offering them to Paddington Farm Trust where I had built the pallet classroom!
The deal would be that GT would pay to get them there and hooked up to services. They would “rent” them to PFT at a peppercorn and the condition was that they should be let at an affordable rent. I went straight from Mike up to PFT to tell Tiff and Holly the good news and by Friday Tiff had confirmed that they would love to accept the deal!
This is fantastic news. There are a lot of details to sort out, but it is a massive relief to me.
Now that I know they have somewhere to go I don’t have to worry about selling them and getting them moved before we run out of time at Canalside.
I really did not want to have to sell them on eBay!
We can now devote our time to getting them finished, and marketing them as best we can. I have got North Somerset Council coming next week. Also, John Savage at canalside is keen to develop some schemes to use containers and church volunteers to build them to provide facilities at the centre so we can help with that.
So something did turn up!
Thursday April 25th 2019
North Somerset council emailed me on the day to say that they had decided to cancel their visit.
So that is now a complete set of useless, impotent, gutless, blind, pathetic, Somerset authorities. I have to say that my faith in politicians and civil servants at every level is lower than at any time in the last fifty years of my life, having started with such high hopes.
Martin is in on Monday. I don’t expect to get much work done because I will need to hear a blow by blow of his Extinction Rebellion activities on Waterloo Bridge, being one of a thousand who got arrested and just went back again when he was released!
My report on his trip is on my Blog page somewhere
Monday June 24th 2019
I hadn’t realised just how long my latest little fit of general disillusionment has been. We have been wiring up both containers, and I must take some pictures even though wiring is not very photogenic. In the old days I might have done it all myself, but what with new regulations and it being illegal, I have got help, and it is a bit of a luxury.
Due to the complete incompetence of our current government we were obliged to be part of the Euro – elections and I am afraid I spoiled my paper rather than vote for any of them in what is a complete farce.
We have also had local elections which may open the possibility of better news. This is because the establishment Tories have taken a hammering, and the Lib Dems have been the major beneficiaries. I have little regard for politicians of any party these days, other than the useful fact that if they are going to do anything remotely exciting or useful, it will be while they are very new. This gives you a small window.
The new Lib Dem lot from Taunton Deane are coming in on Wednesday.
Wednesday June 26th
They didn’t come. And what is worse I have offended them by calling them “The Lib Dem Lot”. I sent an abject apology via Brian through whom the visit was organised, and will do it again when they do come. My only excuse is that as leader of my own Lib Dem Lot on Bristol City Council for over a decade I tend to regard all Lib Dems as family, and therefore fair game. I go to quite a lot of effort to avoid insulting anyone by mistake, so I am very sorry to have done it on this occasion.
Bearing in mind the abject failure of the project so far to persuade any of those who need them to take them up, I can’t really afford to alienate anyone who might.
The Land magazine commissioned me, not for money of course, to write an article about how we got a housing crisis, whose fault it is, and how we might set about solving it. This is an article in which quite a lot of people get insulted on purpose. It is in Issue 25 and is one of a few that are free to download, although for anyone interested in all issues about land, you ought to subscribe.
There is a link to it on my Affordable Housing page, which I will get here when I can work out how to do it.
Monday July 22nd 2019
It is the day of the move from Canalside to the containers’ new permanent home at Paddington Farm Trust. Somehow I seem to have missed explaining to you how difficult the last month has been. In fact I am sure I did, but due to general incompetence probably forgot to save it, which means you have been let off!
The wiring is done and all that is needed is for Mark to connect up to the new supply at PFT and sign it off.
KRG picking up from Canalside
……… and dropping off at Paddington Farm
Saturday March 7th 2020
This is not my fault!
In July last year we moved the containers up to their permanent home at Paddington Farm Trust.
Glastonbury Trust paid for the move and for putting in the electrical, water and drain connections which was fantastic, and meant I could write the last chapter of the project.
At the same time my website went squibbly and it has taken this long to sort it out. Don’t even ask!
Of course I have now forgotten loads of boring things I could have told you about and am behind with everything.
Tuesday March 17th 2020
The main thing is that they are now occupied by people working at Paddington Farm Trust.
Both of them have previously been homeless , one living in a truck and the other in a tent in a wood.
Having a warm, dry and safe home is a good thing.