there is no “normal” anymore

Like for many others in this area, there is no “normal” anymore, there’s  “before the fire”

and “after the fire”

for those of you that have followed our story and the one from before moving to Portugal, we have been constantly building since we married (21 years ago)…….

I had a home for a bit in the UK and then we built a new one….

which didn’t really become my home

we then moved to Portugal and rented various hovels!!

We’d been living in our new house for 2 years, but it was a building site most of the time, with no running hot water or bathroom, that was fine

I liked my outdoor bathroom and when the Rayburn was on there was always hot water on the stove top…..

We had almost finished all the very expensive and complicated plumbing which would have given us two sources of hot water

one from the Rayburn in the winter

and one from a solar water panel for the summer……….

we were two days away from filling up the tanks and testing the whole thing……

Having a home was the most wonderful thing, unpacking all our stuff which we hadn’t seen for years

getting it out, finding places for it, mounting pictures, paintings and photographs

actually being comfortable

cooking and eating amazing food from our gardens

harvesting for the winter

I had just finished making 120 litres of grape juice

we had, rather ironically just finished paying for and sorting out all the paperwork for a very expensive olive grove on the other side of the valley in front of the house, which has now exploded too……

having an actual life that wasn’t full of stress, hard labour, long hours……

I was so proud of the house, what we had done, how beautiful it was……ourlifehandmade

sadly that period has ended
that chapter of our lives was abruptly closed on the 15th October, a day and night that will forever be melted onto our hearts

please help us if you can :

this is my story

This is just my story. Two weeks ago we had the second once in a life time fire, to occur here this year. The fire ravaged an area 6,000 hectares, (a fifth of the size of the fires in California) from Fajao, to Sardal, a neighbouring village. It started on that Friday night and was over by the following Monday. Many of us foreigners, fed up of not being able to do anything went to assist in any way we could. Fortunately, during this fire, there was very little wind, and even though there had been a drought for months, the fire in our area was controllable. The fire fighters were able to stop the fire at fire breaks, and it was controlled.

Because of the location of the fire, the forest, on the sides of the mountains, it was almost impossible to access large areas of it. Other than the size of the area effected, and the access issues, there were real logistical problems because of lack of communication, not just for the foreigners, but even the Freguesia (village council) workers who were all trying to fight the fires as well. There’s little phone reception for whole sections of mountainside, and many of us are on pay as you go tariffs and ran out of credit. Only the bombeiro’s (the official fire fighters) had radio or CB type comms.

Access to water, was another huge issue, as there was hardly anywhere for the bombeiro firefighters to replenish supply, it became necessary for them to be supplied by locals carrying water in 1000 litre tanks on the back of 4wd pick ups to get water to the fire on the ground, but it was in this instance the water bombing planes that made the difference. Without them the fire would have done catastrophically more damage.

photo courtesy of Haico & Else

Saturday night was the worst night for that particular fire, as many of us watched helplessly as the fire poured down the mountain, and headed in our direction. Given the speed fire can move at, many people evacuated, we chose to stay. From what I could observe, it is, really only the foreigners who live in the forest, that are and were most at risk, and that’s most of the foreigners who live in this area.

There are a lot of reasons why the authorities here didn’t want help from us. Aside from issues of communication, misunderstanding language being top of it, they cannot be responsible, or accountable for our actions, in the event of injury or worse I’m sure it’d be a minefield.

By Sunday morning the worst of the fire had been quelled. A drive up a section of the mountain in front, and we could observe that above Sardal it was still smouldering. I phoned my friend Marko, who lived near there to check they were ok, and to see if they needed any assistance. They were ok and at that time didn’t need help. The fire hadn’t restarted.

Later that day, things changed, and he phoned for help, as the fire picked up. But by the time I got there the GNR police and and the fire fighters turned us away because of the danger and because they felt able to control the situation without assistance.

This situation repeated itself the following day. Fires reignited in the area, numerous foreigners went to assist, but by the time many of us got there there was little we could do. Either the fires were left to burn, because they were not accessible, or they were extinguished by the local fire brigade, and fire fighting planes.

That afternoon there was a meeting in which a number of foreigners agreed to patrol the areas that had burned,, for the next few days, to spot for reigniting fires.

The following weekend, Saturday night, around about 11.30 I got a phone call to take any diesel fuel I had up to the Ponte de Vigia area, as the freguesia truck, fighting the fires was running out of diesel. When I got there, the wind was whipping up, and fires were rekindling. By 1.30am the fires appeared to be out. Back home for a couple of hours of uneasy sleep.

The following morning, Sunday 15th October, although the patrols had been stopped, I took it upon myself to ride my dirt bike round the area, not convinced the fires would be out. By 12 midday, as I headed up past Enxudro, and out onto the ridge road that ran from Picota to Esculca, I started to see fires reignite. I rode to Ponte de Vigia where I hoped I’d have phone reception. When I got there I could see the truck of the guy who was manning the fire watch tower, I tried shouting to him about the fires, he couldn’t hear me above the sound of the wind (Ophelia had started). The door to the fire watch tower was locked, I turned to see what he was observing, a fire had broken out again in the same area as the night before. I phoned in a report and was told the Freguesia were on their way, and to get back in case they needed assistance.

On the way down, I got a phone call from my wife to meet her in he village, so I could take the truck, and she arranged to get a 1000 litre water container to stick on the back. I picked up the container, went back to the village, and filled it from the pump by the river. A guy I didn’t know, Sebastian, asked if I was going up to Luadas to help. I told him to get in and we headed off.

By the time we got up the mountain, to where I had left the fire, everything had changed, the wind howled, and the fire had spread. I stopped to ask the guys from the ICNF (forestry team) where the Freguesia team was, they had no idea. We headed down a track in the direction of the fire, only to be repelled by fire and smoke, and had to back up ASAP. I got another call from my wife telling me to head back down into the village of Luadas, where they needed us. We headed thru the village and toward Esculca, to be stopped on the road by one of the Freguesia guys, who told us to wait and their truck with the hose and pump would come down from the mountain when they needed more water.

The whole flank of the mountain east of Esculca was ablaze. Shortly after, 2 vehicles from the bombeiro’s arrived and headed into the blaze.

Everything seemed to be occurring so quickly. We were the first non Freguesia people up there other than a couple of guys from the village who had come to help. Within minutes guys from the Freguesia of Moura da Serra arrived, and Alfredo, the village mayor, ordered us all back up the mountain, from where we’d come.

The fire was raging.

The wind was unstoppable. I backed the truck in to support our council’s truck. I helped run the hose for the council, then had to move my truck so the Moura da Serra guys could get their truck in and run their hose out. Sebastian, Paul and Jean (other foreigners living here) were all trying to assist with the hoses to prevent the fire running down across the track, but it was hopeless, the fire towered above us, licked from trees on one side to the tops of trees on the other, a funnel of fire.

The guys from the ICNF were coming down the flank. 3 x 2 inch hoses to fight a leviathan of a fire. Then our council’s water ran out, and they couldn’t get the pump to run to pump from my truck.

Alfredo told me to go with the guys from the ICNF. I ran up the hill, and helped run their hose up the flank, a friend, Jose, was trying to hose the fire, he was in a t shirt, and getting burned by the heat from the fire only a couple of feet over from us. Jose came away, and I took over for a while. The guy from the ICNF started to set counter fires to try and run back into the fire to stop it from spreading, but to no avail. We were getting trapped and he called us out of the track and headed down. Everyone else had gone from that area, it was unstoppable.

This time, lack of water wasn’t the issue, or problems with communication, it was the mercurial nature of the hurricane winds, the shape of the mountains, luck, and nothing like adequate equipment or enough of it.

As I headed down the mountain to find my truck that had fortunately been moved, a new front opened up, beneath Picota, the tallest of the Acor mountain range, in the area of Relva Velha and Monte Frio. It was like it just spontaneously ignited. Then in a row, stretching for miles over the ridge, headed north the same thing appeared to occur, ignition after ignition. And then they joined up, one monsterous long line of fire. I turned to Alfredo and asked where to go now.? He looked out across the mountains and said its fucked, it’s all fucked. He told me to stay with the guys from the ICNF, in case they needed water.

By now it was all looking pretty hopeless. The fires were running unabated in our direction. As the guys from the ICNF tried to light counter fires, we watched as both the villages of Monte Frio and Relva Velha appeared to be engulfed in flames.

My wife, Sarah, phoned to find out what was going on, and whether she needed to evacuate. She had no car and was stranded. I can only imagine her fear. At that moment the fires were no nearer our house than they were the previous week, and although a danger they were still a few kilometres away, and there were some fire breaks where most of the eucalyptus had been clear cut.

My fear was that the fire would run down into the valley and spread westward with the wind, and run around the mountain infront of our house, and join up, trapping our house.

The fire above Luadas was running west, at that time, and had gone beyond Esculca and had got to the outskirts of Coja. We could see a huge smoke cloud rising over the ridge, from Texeira and Castanheira. They were ablaze again. Threatening us with being engulfed with fire from over the ridge, and trapping us.

photo courtesy of Haico & Else

The guys from the ICNF told us to stay put whilst they scouted the area to see what they could do. There was just 4 of us left on that bit of mountain, Hugo his dad, Sebastian, and me. Hugo continued to set counter fires in an effort to prevent the spread backward of the fire.

I realised, that in the fight against fires there is at times quiet, and a fair bit of standing around helpless, and it is an odd juxtaposition with the speed, ferocity and noise of the fire. On a personal level, with no training, or equipment you can do nothing. Against that wind, and in those tinder dry conditions, in retrospect, it was pointless even having been there.

Earlier, I had told Sarah she would have to make her own decisions as I may not be in a position to make them for her, that I may not be able to see her plight, or be able to communicate with her. When I finally got to speak to her on the phone, I told her to get out. She pleaded with me to come away from where we were, but like the fool I am I felt duty bound to stay, at least for as long as possible. It seemed to me that if we were there we could stop the fire from joining up with the one headed west, which would surely engulf our village, Benfeita and Luadas, killing everyone. That was my reasoning.

I asked her to phone someone to get her out. But for some reason she was unable to get thru to anyone else. I phoned our friend Jules and asked her if she would. I knew it was a big ask, as the fire from the Monte Frio range was circling round to join the fire from where I was. Despite the very present and real danger Jules risked her life to go and get Sarah.

I didn’t know Sarah was safe, until she messaged me that they had made it to the town of Tabua, via a place to top my phone up, so I could communicate with her. Some hours later.

We stayed on the mountainside for a while longer, the guys from the ICNF returned, and for a moment the bombeiro’s from coja, who just came to see what was happening where we were, then left. They said to keep light small counter fires, and work our way down the track.

There came a point where it was no longer viable to be on the mountainside, and the ICNF guys said they were going to Luadas, because that’s where they were from, as it looked like we had become surrounded by fire.

In the village of Luadas it was pretty chaotic, and full of people not knowing what to do, or even think. I spoke with a few people about what they were going to do, some planned on staying in Luadas, others going down to Benfeita to go into the church, the biggest building in the village, and probably the only one with some clear ground infront of it.

I thought about the history of the town I was from, how 2000 years ago a warrior queen hell bent on driving the Romans from Britain, set about destroying everything in her path. Colchester, the then Roman capital of Britain, was torched, and the fleeing Romans barricaded themselves in the temple, where the castle now stands, only to be burnt alive. I wasn’t planning on re-enacting that.

Seb asked one of the bombeiro’s what he thought was the best way out, there is no way out, came the reply. I thought differently.. I knew the tracks on the mountain like the back of my hand, mostly from dirt biking them. I thought, there was the smallest of chances to get out across the face of the mountain to the road below Picota.

Sarah pleaded with me by text to get out. I didn’t know if we could. The smoke from behind was closing the gap in the now night sky, and it looked like the fire may already be over the ridge headed our way. The fire that had headed to Coja, was now at the west of Luadas. And had joined up with the fire from Monte Frio, and had swept round the other way to Sardal. We were almost encircled. it was only a matter of minutes before they joined up, and eventually sweep down to Benfeita.

Seb asked me what I wanted to do. I said lets go. As there was nothing we could do there anymore. The situation looked hopeless there, and I thought our only chance was to drive the tracks to the road. I asked him what he wanted to do, he said he was with me. As we headed up the track we ran into a couple who had been observing until they saw the fire above Luadas begin to sweep round to Sardal, closing the circle. They thought us crazy to go that way. I thought them crazy to stay.

I reiterated my warning to Seb, anything goes wrong in the next few minutes it was all over for us. For a guy who didn’t know how risk taking I am he was very trusting.

I emptied out the water that was left in the tank in the back of the truck, nearly a tank full, that was the futility of what we had gone to do, like the charge of light brigade, into the valley of death.

I drove that truck as fast as it would go. The whole time trying to keep away from the fire bearing down on us on 3 sides. By my reckoning it probably took 15 minutes to get to the road, about 15 kms, maybe more. But, the longest drive of my life. We got to within a few meters of the road. A tree down across our way. I stopped the truck. Grabbed my axe, hacked the end off the tree. Not enough, there were posts hidden in the ground, preventing driving past. Had to cut more. Then another vehicle arrived, and helped haul the tree out the way. They asked where we were headed. I said left to Picota, where it’s already burned, he said, better to go to Arganil. I asked Seb where he wanted to go, he said Tabua, where his wife and family were. I said I’d take him, as Sarah was there too. We followed the guy round he mountain toward Arganil, on several occasions headed close by other fires.

When we got to Arganil, we got some water, and headed across to Tabua.

Just as we got into Tabua Seb spotted his car, and found his wife. She was so pleased to see him alive, and so grateful.

I searched all over tabua for Sarah before she spotted me.

We sat in an area of empty car parking behind Lidl and waited. We met some people who had evacuated from near Santa Comba Dao, and said the IP3 road was closed. there were fires almost all around us again, and I wondered at the sense of coming here. it seemed like we were in a frying pan/fire situation.

the fires around seemed to ebb and flow with the dark, but it was really just the wind and smoke that hid their proximity. after a while i asked jules what she thought her husband mick would do, stay and observe, she said. i thought the same, and we stayed until embers started to head our way.

we drove across Tabua to behind the DWR garage, the only wide open place i knew in Tabua. and we sat there thru the uneasy night. i couldn’t sleep, full of adrenalin and knowing this was a time to have your wits about you, as the saying goes.

dawn broke, and the fires had’t got any nearer, Sarah asked a fireman about our village, gone he said, they’re all gone. my heart sank. i feared all the people i knew there dead.

we went to get something to drink in a cafe, where all the other foreigners had gone, Sarah saw a neighbour of ours and asked him of our house. he said it was gone. she collapsed in my arms.

We headed back to Benfeita. everywhere from Pisao on, was a war zone. the closer we got, the more burnt out the area. it seemed the worst hit.

on the last road to the house, where there had been 30 meter trees the day before, were blackened stumps.

our house, which once stood proud, now a burned out wreck, just part of the chimney, and the back wall stood.


what i have understood from this, so far, is that in a situation like this, and its fairly impossible to describe the enormoity of it if you didn’t experience it, is that you really have to be able to trust your own judgement, and not anyone else’s.  in situaions where your life is being constantly endangered you have to have sufficient common sense aswell as the ability to hold it together, and pull out the best questions you can, to give you a chance of finding some good answers, and a chance of survival. sometimes that may mean asking the opinion of others,  if nothing less than to check your reasoning isn’t crazy, but it is down to you, the individual to make the final call. it’s very easy to make a wrong one, and that’s where trusting your good judgement is reliant on having spent your life making judgement calls in difficult situations. if you want to live out here you need to be able to do this. the enormity of that fire disabled the ability to think or act rationally for many people. in that kind of situation you are dependant and others may also be dependant on your ability to think straight and act accordingly.

What it boils down to is ‘presence of mind’, without which nothing is possible, with it, all things………

stone floors

i wanted stone flags for the kitchen, as it was going to be a heavy trafficked area, that we wanted to be able to walk straight in from the farm with muddy boots. there wasn’t any york stone at the farm, however there were a number of large slabs of schist on various roofs of the previous buildings that made up the site. during the demolition process, 6 years ago, i had stacked the stone away with the intention of using it for that purpose.


all that was required was cutting it into flags. i didn’t have a wet bed cutter, or a disc cutter with a water jet, so i had to suffer the dust of cutting it with the disc cutter dry. i won’t bore you with the hazards of that, but you can imagine. breathing difficulties for a while.

abreathing difficulties
i figured on using 5 or 6 sizes of flags to create a random type effect rather than a set pattern. and given the sizes i opted for it meant cutting about 120-130 flags.

astack a stone

i drew an approximation of how i thought i could lay them, and pretty much followed it.


i’d offset the backing osb to give me enough room to bed them in and keep the same level across from the wooden floor that it joined. i uni-bonded the osb and stuck the flags down with tile adhesive, then grouted them

agrouted floor

the flags currently aren’t sealed, not sure there’s any point, it’s fairly water repellent.  thought they look pretty farm house kitchen worthy

afarm kitchen floor

afinished colours

wooden flooring

i cut a fair number of trees for flooring boards

felled trees

enough for 150 square meters of flooring, but, in the end, not all the wooden flooring came from the forest

trees on trailer

some of it came straight from the mill. by the time i’d milled the trees for flooring, and got the boards back, i had to sticker them for a while in the building to dry out. then thickness plane them, before laying them. fortunately, my friend dan, loaned me his record 151 floor clamps that are like the dreadnought battleships of the floor clamp world



they were probably made at the same time as dreadnoughts, or taken from the same kind of design and cast out of rendered down battleship iron. they are huge and more like the windings of lock gates than floor clamps, nothing stands in their way, and there is even a satisfying ratchet sound as you wind them up.

anyway, suffice to say, i cut the boards as full lengths to span the rooms, except for the loft where they would have to exceeded 8 meters

loft floor

not for how they were going to look, but because they were slightly random widths, in the general neighbourhood of 7″ ( 175mm), give or take. and i knew, as they weren’t tongue and groove, just butted up, that it would be easier to get them to marry if they were single lengths rather than multiple lengths.

40 kgs of flooring brads later, and the floors got nailed. then eventually, sanded and finished.

old elm floor boards (i wish)



plastering can be a very zen thing, if you care to apply yourself to it. well that’s how i always saw it, a thing (that required finesse, discipline, judgement, physical dexterity, and eye to hand co-ordination) something you could always
aspire to improve upon, to take as few trowel strokes as possible, to cover as much area as you can, to constantly improve your technique and the finish, in the least amount of time, and with the minimum amount of effort. it can take a long time, for most people it takes a life time to get that good, but some people just have a feeling for it .


plastering is a feeling thing, it has to be gauged, in every aspect, from mixing it, applying it, and gauging how long it takes to go off between trowelling up or polishing and drying. each type of plaster has a different open time, different response to different backgrounds, and cure times, and all of those things have to be gauged.


its probably the most obviously gauged aspect of building, as it involves no tape measures, no level or plumb line, not even a screeding board (unless you are rendering over a wall so out of true, no square, nothing else, just assessing everything by eye and experience. to be zen with it just means you have to be good at gauging, knowing not guessing, and you can only get to that place by experience, a lot of experience.


plastering is there, in essence, to unify, it can transform a building within a very short space of time, for instance it took me about a week of plastering to cover about 250 square meters bringing together the house. there had been a mountain of work to get to that point, including wiring, plumbing, battening to take the plaster board where it ran to braces and posts, and a shed load of insulation, in fact probably several shed loads to fill every possible space, then all the plaster-boarding, before i even got to plaster.


given the kind of building i had, a timber frame, it was important to me to conceal aspects of the frame where it was relevant, and to expose and highlight others. too much wood, in my opinion is overkill, it needs balance, balancing with other material types, and plaster is great at that, balancing and off-setting. the design style of the building is all about keeping things in relation to one another, in the right proportion, without anything dominating, but being held in relation to other things.


what i wanted to achieve with the plastering in the house was a feeling and style more associated to lime plaster than the gypsum plaster i was using. a softer overall feel, and i don’t mean brushed in or sponged, its hard to explain, its not even textural exactly, it qualitative, chalky and slightly gritty, less alabastery. its like the difference between choices of wood. each species of wood has certain qualities that make it different from other species, and even at times from place to place where and how it grew, if you want to be that pencils top pockety about it. and so it is with plaster, different makes, different types, different finishes.

plaster 3

so why not just use lime? because it’s not a board finish plaster.

i had considered hand splitting (riving) chestnut laths from waste wood from the shingle splitting process, but the quantity you need for 250 square meters was beyond a joke (something like 6 or 7 linear kilometres worth). buckets of nails, and in addition it would have required a similar ridiculous quantity of slaked lime, and way more coats of it than was necessary to in essence achieve the same thing. which, for me boiled down to reasoning, if it took substantially more time to manufacture the laths and plaster, and the associated time involved with nailing up the laths and plastering, then it probably wasn’t really worth it, when i knew i could plasterboard out in a relatively short time and plaster the entire building in a few days. and i know from experience that by the time you’ve painted over the plaster most people would have a hard time recognising what you’d used. plasterboard allows you a greater, and more even coverage than lath, and to iron out discrepancies with relative ease, discrepancies that give plastered lath its ‘character’, its lively appearance. but the thing about plastering is, you are trying to remove the discrepancies, and trowel out the liveliness as much as possible; that would be the dichotomy or paradox of it. follow the lines of the building, its form, and not create flaws in the surface of the plaster, ridges or depressions. the better the finish the glassier it appears whatever the type of plaster used, its just down to polishing, as some plasters will come up better than others, you can even polish sand and cement render, if you want.


so all i’m saying is it doesn’t really matter what approach you use if the object of the finish is achieving unification of the building. if its about something else, historical accuracy, or financial management, then maybe it might matter. i wanted each phase of the building process to build upon the quality of the building, to enhance it, to be well made and to relate to all the other aspects within the building, that was my reason for plastering the way i did. as it turned out, with the plaster i used, because of the context, it ended up looking much more like lime finish than i could reasonably have expected.

plaster primary


sometimes, it can take what seems like forever to write something, or do something for that mater, sometimes the words just don’t appear, and then sometimes they do, sometimes out of other people’s mouths, and about things other than what you were thinking about. sometimes they come out of the ether, and sometimes words just fit. and most of the time, kind of like windows, they need to be tailored to the thing they are there to describe the limits of.windas

i had written an essay on why i built the windows for our house, and how, but right now it doesn’t seem that relevant. suffice to say the whole design for them went through numerous changes like other parts of the house, and where i ended up, was wanting to use windows that worked sympathetically with the style and design of the building. i looked at a lot of different designs, and, eventually, either i realised something, or i understood that maybe there are reasons for window style and placement beyond aesthetics or utilitarian function. what i wanted to achieve with the choice of glazing design was the addition of grace and elegance, or the addition of more of it.


the glazing needed, very much, to compliment the building, not detract from it, or undermine its aesthetic. in my opinion, to achieve either grace or elegance, you need to have a sense of form and an understanding of proportion and how they both relate.

looking at the size and shape of windows in the early colonial period of american architectural history, specifically the existing stone ender houses of rhode island (the overall design basis for what i’ve built) one thing becomes very apparent, the original windows were tiny.


(Arnold House, Lincoln, Rhode Island, 1693)

more recent windows in the same and similar buildings are larger as glass became cheaper, and window tax repealed. windows become architectural features, more than portals thru which light and air were relayed. in designing a building i think the scaling and layout of windows is crucial. partly because of the way light plays inside the building as much as how openings shape the rest of the form.


small windows seem to cause  or require a kind of participation in a way that a large sheet of glass doesn’t.  kind of, the difference between looking at a giant landscape painting or a miniature. it requires an effort to look at a view thru a window rather than no effort to be immersed into a landscape that exists only the other side of a huge glass wall.  it is also the difference between a place that is private and one that is public. out of each window in our house is a different view, a different story. its like the difference between living in a snug or living in a public library. whilst this is the land of light, its also the land of hiding away from it in the summer, when it is too bright.

the design i chose was a simple side hung casement with half a dozen lights (that’s pane’s to you), an ultra traditional window style, in keeping with the rhode island stone enders,

full house

that was easy to duplicate in numbers. the one thing i will say about the construction process is how imperative it was to try and maintain sequences of construction that allowed me to manufacture in batches.


“batches? we don’t need no stinkin’ batches!” you may say, but i say repeating things accurately is a process you need to do in sequence, and if you have a lot to do its imperative you try and minimize the risk of error or discrepancy between same items.


you have to be as systematic as you can be, and window construction is a good object lesson for this. stairs similarly. making windows needs to be about replicating a clearly defined idea. you could call it a plan. you could call it anything you like so long as you can reproduce it.

maybe in the future i will make the opportunity to manufacture my own glass panes, and reglaze the windows. what i wanted to achieve was what is known as a ‘lively’ look with the glazing, and not the flat dull and lifeless reflection of sheet rolled glass. in the preindustrial age when glass was blown and spun, and panes were much thinner, there was greater colour in the glass and more imperfections, bubbles and flecks, and as a result of age slumping, as glass is always in a partial liquid state. why i would like it glazed this way isn’t nostalgia, or a wish to recreate a historical piece, but because light refracts differently with blown glass, it creates a very different feeling inside and out the building, it imbues the building with something else. spirit.

frame of reference

in case you were wondering why its been taking me so long over the last year to get on with my own build, its because i’ve been elsewhere half the time, moonlighting on another job.
i’ve hand built a timber frame extension on and into an existing stone building, perched on the mountainside, with stunning views.

from some sketches, i came up with a working set of drawings, and set about building another frame.  a lot was being asked of it, principally how it is going to be enclosed, so it needed to be good.
i started by making over a hundred oak pegs, that were split out of the round, then hewn and finally planed.


the foundations and plinth went in, whilst i made the frame.
this was a frame that was measured a million times, however it was also a frame that was gauged in every aspect, although the parameters of the frame were set by the parameters of the existing stone work, largely, the final dimensions and placement of members within the frame was a felt thing. you can scale off span tables for sizings of timbers to an extent, but having an eye for scale and proportion is important if it’s going to fit within it’s context, it’s frame of reference.

i cut the whole frame by hand, and it was raised by hand as well. the entire frame stood for several months with minimal pegging, and did not move at all, which tried the old adage that you should be able to remove all the pegs from a frame and it still stand, a testament to the framing joinery.
there were some entertaining moments with raising the frame as well as making it. there was a fair amount of awkwardness, no room to move or manoeuvre, and between minimal and no tolerance, everything just had to fit right.

the frame has had to have a great deal of precision and symmetry, as it’s all being glazed. and it had to achieve this with all the milling issues like unparalell timbers, large sections of wane, damaged, twisted, squiffed and out of line pieces. it’s meant using a lot of string lines and a fair amount of figuring.

the cill beams had mortices and tenons offset from the post holes for the stub tenons of the posts.


the girding beams (the supporting members than run at 1st floor height from one side to the other) had offset thru tenons into the posts (offset to avoid the joinery conflict of the girt tenons), and the girts (which ran in this instance from the back to the front posts) had tenons that ran only part way in. (again to avoid conflicting with girding beam tenons). there was even a schedule for the pegging of the girding beams and girts, as the girding beams had to be pegged before the girts went in as the girts hid the exit for the girding beam peg holes.


the braces were sized in relation to their location, as some had to be reduced to avoid conflict with later joinery of glazed sections. all the braces were hewn round.
there were a lot of studs to make and fit that relate to later glazing joinery, doors and fixed lights. and they all had  an assembly schedule.
the floor joists were drop in step housed over a central girt that had to have stepped housings into the lateral girts, to avoid all the conflicts of joinery with the posts that intersected from above and below.


the roof plates, which sat on full width post top tenons,  had to run back into the stone building as far as the valley beams ran, forming the outer limits of the new roof. there were no references to take the roof from since nothing of the existing roof corresponded with any other part of it, everything i did was subsequently gauged. the new roof had to be self referential, yet be able to tie into the exiting roof structures either side of it, which ran at different levels and pitches and from different heights, starting and exiting points. it meant finding common ground where none previously existed.


the tie beams had stepped housings as well as thru dovetails onto the plates. one of the tie beams, like one of the girding beams had a flaw in it typically at the area at which it intersected another member, which required cutting out the bad bits and scarfing in a new section.
the girding beam got a cogged insert, as the timber had dried out on the face to allow for a glued joint, whereas the tie beam had  to have a scarfed and bolted insert as it was assembled during inclement weather.

the principal rafters with queen posts had to be raised and then lowered in order to set out and then cut the housings for the purlins before they could finally be housed, again this had to be carefully sequenced.  (i don’t want to go on about how awkward it was raising the front pair just stood on the frame and minimal scaffold, but it was a long drop down the front).  in order to house the second set of principal rafters with the purlins it needed everything to be tourniqued (sp) in.


housing the purlins into the valley beams was very entertaining given the complexity of the directions everything ran at. they were the start of a lot of compound mortices, all of the rafters running into the valley beams were compound mortices at one end and half lap tenons at the other. even setting out the valley beams, for cutting out their trough was complicated by the vagueness of the existing roof, where there was no defined roof line and it meant gauging it in the end, taking what appeared to be an average angle to set out the valley cut, in the end it ran right more on judgement than measurement.


the rafter material was all bowed, and had to be layed out to avoid crowning the rafters, which subsequently meant trying to pul the bow out laterally where they were fixed over the purlins without opening the half lapped joint at their intersection at the peak.  all the common rafters which had seat cuts with oversailing tails, got double spiked into the plate, bolted into the purlin, and spiked thru the lap joint at the peak. the jack rafters all had step housings to run into at a compound angle where they ran into the valley beams at one end, and either met lapped at the peak or were housed into the stone back wall.


when i finished the frame, it was time too start roofing in

board of the weather

the thing about vernacular architecture is it comes from within, it doesn’t come from a slide rule or a calculator, its a feeling thing, a feeling that only experience can give you, there are no shortcuts. its also building from a set of parameters, or needs that are often outside the kinds of dictates most modern housing is subject to. its the sort of feeling that suggests you’ve done it before. if i built a kind of house called a stone ender in rhode island in 1693,
(as below)


i wish i’d remembered better how i’d done it before, maybe i could have remembered some things that might have eased the way, as i can’t say it was any easier this time, but then maybe it wasn’t supposed to be easy, maybe the very nature of the difficulty of building it (this current home) has imbued the house with something, spirit, something you don’t get from effortlessness.

although it goes against what i would generally advocate in terms of building, sometimes (there are moments, and the more you build the more capable you can become at this) when you have to dispense with your level and tape measure, and trust your instincts. principally here, i’m talking about scale and proportion, and to an extent a sensitivity toward different materials, how they go together, how they relate, as much as join. not everything is measurable, some things have to be gauged, and possibly the better  a builder you are the more you are likely to be able to just gauge things, and gauge them right. what i would consider good building practice is having the good sense to know when that is, when to put down your tools and just look at what you’re doing. long ago, an art teacher of mine recommended walking round the thing you were trying to draw, to see it from other points of view, and not get stuck only looking at it from one fixed position, and when you are making something 3 dimensionally, this advice could not be more useful. sometimes with building you need to walk away from the thing to see it in a broader context, not just how it sits in the landscape, and sometimes i should listen to my own advice.

after finishing framing and roofing, the next stage was to infill between the posts and beams. like always there were not only a bunch of choices, but a bunch of considerations, mostly about availability of materials and time, and generally this boiled down to trying to continue to build in a vernacular way. for me, this whole build has been about using the traditions i have learnt and grown up with and by employing the materials that surrounds us, timber and stone.

construction of weatherboard and dog

vernacular architecture begins out of the need to be somewhere and build a house. often the reason to be in that place is because of an activity like farming which is often place specific, which limits the kind of building and structures you can realistically construct. this area specificity inevitably governs the choices that you will have access to, to an extent how you can use them,  and your knowledge and background influences will decide how able you are to do anything.  vernacular architecture has to begin somewhere, even, i realised, if it begins with me.


after rejecting the initial idea of miles of glazing, i considered hand splitting my own chestnut laths, and rendering over them in lime motar, but, the process of riving them out i found was even more time consuming than splitting shakes, and since i needed to cover something in the region of 200 sq meters worth it was going to amount to a monumental quantity of lath (thousands of linear meters), aside from nailing up (and countless thousands of nails). time, patience and my body all shouted no.

so i chose to clad part of the frame in stone, and part of it in timber weatherboard, in the same manner of vernacular buildings in rhode island, known as stone enders.
(as below)


i’m sure some will wonder why the hell i did it this way when it appears not tp relate to other existing buildings in this area, where was my sensitivity? and i would say it was more to the place and the environment, to the material choices.  those homes in rhode island, were built by men like me, from england, whose knowledge was carpentry and who had the benefit of some natural stone lying around, which required little or no shaping, and whose cost, unlike brick, was minimal.

inside back wall

it was people investing in their knowledge, ability, and tools, and making rather than buying materials, that created in that area at that time a crafted approach to that kind of architecture.  and although this isn’t the answer for everyone, it might be the answer for some.

side and rick2

since the 16th century, weatherboarding became a popular way of cladding the outside of timber-frame buildings, particularly in the south east of england, where there is also little or no natural stone to build with and where brick’s were an expensive commodity.  often on the face of the building most exposed to the worst of the weather, generally those faces south and west, were covered in boards, hence weatherboard. historically, either riven oak or elm boards were used untreated and left to weather grey, but,  by the 18th century and the increase in baltic trade, sawn pine became more widespread, as it was cheaper and easier to produce than riven hardwoods.


i bought sawn pine boards (local, not baltic) and ran one side through the thickness planer, hand planed the leading edge, and nailed them over the breather membrane at 5 1/2″ gauge (allowing a 1 1/2″ head lap out of a 7″ board)

front colour

historically, protective finish varied from pine tar or coal tar, to lime wash with or without ox blood, then lead paint. in the end we elected to use a flax oil stain a blue grey colour as close to naturally weathered boards as we could get.


all of the stone for the cladding came from the pre-existing buildings i demolished. it was re cut by hand (with a brick trowel if you really want to know) and laid in a lime mix. the whole thing went up with only a level, and sometimes a string line, the process was slow enough not to need mixing in the mixer but just in the barrow. the calmness of this approach allows for more care and consideration, however on the other hand if you are paying someone else to do it you would question its economic viability.

chimeny 2

sometimes the answers we are looking for don’t lie waiting for us out there in the miasma of the future but lay in the past, they lay in our own traditions, and understandings, and sometimes we only have to look within to find those answers, and it is all the builders i have ever worked with and whose work i have observed that i have to thank for my understanding and knowledge.


hand made roof

for me, as a carpenter, roofs have always been the most interesting, or even the best part of the construction of a house. they always seemed like the most essential aspect as well as the final part that made sense of the building. I really like hand cutting rafters, it doesn’t matter how simple the roof, there is always something deeply satisfying about getting to and doing that part.

i’d like to say, from a technical point of view, the more involved they are the more rewarding they are, but I never found that strictly true, some of my favorite roofs have been fairly simple, but it was the aspect of them, the pitch, the size, the overall shape they made that gave the reward.

what I liked about this roof is that it falls somewhere between a chapel and saxon manor house, and if you look at roofs from that period there are a lot of similarities. my most favorite roofs i’ve made or had a hand in the making of, are those that are part of ancient buildings or those that hark back to them, or echo the ribs and planking of upturned boats (of which there are many scattered across the shores of essex and suffolk where i’m from).

the technical bit

from a carpentry explanation, for the main part, this is a principal rafter roof that includes 4 pairs of principal rafters, with 4 collar ties and 4 pairs of queen posts coupling 2 clasped purlins with 8 windbraces, and 12 pairs of common rafters.

the principal rafters were set in from the outermost edge of the tie beams to accommodate the build-up on the roof of covering materials.

attached to the outermost principal rafters are ladders that over-sail the verges, that will take the barge boards, facias, and soffits.

there is an additional section to the roof that covers the bathroom, known either as a lean to, or a saltbox (depending on where you’re from). there is also an over-sail on the back section of the roof to cover the back wall, as the front and back walls are to be made of two different materials and thicknesses.

overlaying the rafters is narrow gauge tongue and groove flooring that acts as sarking, (horizontal and diagonal bracing) and visually creates the ceiling on the under-side.

on the outside, overlaying the that are 2×2″ (50x50mm) counter battens, that follow the rafter lines to support the blanket of multifoil insulation, then another layer of counter battens 1/2″  (12.5mm) that allows an air flow.

then overlaying that is the breather membrane which is battened down at a 5″ (125mm) gauge to take the triple lapped shingles (shakes).

the chestnut shakes are 15-16″ long (thats 375-400 mm in new money) and anywhere from 2 1/2 – 9″ wide (57-225mm). the vast majority of them are radially split,

with some bastards, meaning they were cleft from the whole width of timber, often harder to get out (make), hence the name, wider, but with more chance of splitting lengthwise, or twisting, or cupping.

they were nailed on with 20 odd thousand 2″  (50mm) stainless steel ring shank nails to prevent them pulling out and to prevent tannins from both eating the nail (as with bright nails, or galvs) or causing running stains if exposed.

the ridge was covered with several layers of breather membrane over the multifoil, and then a zinc cover nailed down over everything. finally when the courses of shakes ran to the ridge they were covered in walnut and some cherry 1x8x12″ (25x200x300mm)  ridge tiles i made from some of the first trees i felled and milled here 4 years ago.

the flashing down the sides of the chimney and in the section where the two roofs meet at the back was done in hand made zinc soakers. which copy the way the velux windows were flashed. alternating tile an a half on the verges and a starter course on all eaves.

the devising of a roof has many considerations, that include function, aspect and design, and for me its visual appeal is born out of those things as much as how well crafted it is. It’s the coming together of all these things that makes a good roof, or a good anything for that matter. 

for me, here, it was in part about producing something natural with my own hands, something that hadn’t travelled far from the place where the materials had come from (well other than the insulation and windows). to build in the most sustainable, erudite and economic way I can. this doesn’t mean not using 21st century products or materials where I feel they are applicable. that, I would suggest, is the essence of good design. use the most appropriate material or most applicable for the circumstances.

i wanted my finish roof covering to work within the context of the building as a whole. the choice of material (the chestnut shakes) was very much in keeping with my original concept for the house, how would someone have built a house of this kind, 500 years ago or more?

its easy to look at ancient frames or brick work or tiling and say well that’s not very uniform, or it doesn’t fit together perfectly, and forget to allow for the ravages of time, which distort the shape and form from their origin.

it’s easy to imagine that tools were not as sharp or good then, or that craftsmen were not as accurate in how they laid things out or fashioned them, you only have to look at the genius of any of the great cathedrals, churches, or any building of status to see how well made things could be. the fact they are standing still speaks for itself.

until the advent of mechanised transport, principally the railways, most domestic dwellings were built in what you could call a vernacular way, they were essentially products of their environments, since the cost of using materials that were not local precluded their use.

It is with this vernacular architecture not only in mind, but in spirit, that house has been devised and built. build with what you have and in the ways that you know best.

maybe we’ve come full circle? living in a place where the availability of products is limited, fosters creativity born out of necessity, where perhaps the answers to the future, which are the questions of today, lie in the past.

throughout this build, one of the single most determining factors has been to try and achieve the highest build standard I can. coupled with a non-existent budget generally that means hand crafting materials from natural resources that either I have, or have obtained. and so that’s how I ended up making and then using somewhere between 10,000 and 11,000 hand riven shingles (shakes) made exactly how they would have been made a thousand years ago or more, and the same way they are still made all over the world.

hand split from rounds of timber, and dressed with an axe to sit on the roof and overlay each other as comfortably as possible.

do they sit down as perfectly as if they were sawn? no. are there a lot of character ones? yes. did I reject many? yes. did it take way longer than even i feared? yes. like more than twice the time I had estimated. difficult to gauge when you’d never made or laid them before though. some of the material for the shakes I had, in the end probably about 1/4, the rest came from friend’s lands within a couple of miles. the only difference in how I processed the material and how it might have been processed a thousand years ago, was I used a chainsaw to fell the trees and ring it up, and my truck to haul it out.

i’m not looking to build a historically accurate building in the exact way they were built 500-1000 years ago, but to use the knowledge and understanding our forebears had, and use it in the most expedient way possible. to build a home from the place where i wish to live, a place that is of that place in every aspect. a house of the woods, made from the woods. (in old english) hewan fram se holt – hewn from the woods.

what i am trying to preserve, or bring back, is an ethos, a way of doing things, a way of going about, a way of looking at things in the way they were looked at once before, and a re-evaluation of two things in particular. choice of materials, and the way in which they are made and used.

by crafting your own materials and making things yourself, not only does it give you a different kind of autonomy, and a governing of quality, but it gives you something inside. it is a spirit nourishing thing. a thing that not only allows your soul to breathe but to sing.

there is a beauty in hand made, and man made, that no machine can replicate. the naturalness of lines and materials, the way in which things are put together or contrasted. these are the things of life, the flow of life. and not a replica of it.

i don’t want to kid you that its easy, it rarely is, but then nothing worth having ever is. it may take a longer time, and it may not look as rectilinear as store bought products, and those are two big issues when gauging the commercial viability of a building.

there is a point though, where you have to question what you want from a building?  domestic dwellings have only recently, for the vast majority of them, become built or sort after as a financial asset. how they were built previously was more a reflection of a hierarchy of needs, and I truly believe that’s the direction in which domestic dwellings need to be designed and built, where bottom line and units sold aren’t the driving considerations of construction, but where the considerations are primarily about comfort and warmth, homeliness, and security, a place to grow, store, and cook food, a place to make and house your possessions, and possibly most importantly, a place that gives you a sense of belonging, a place that you really can call home.