Tuesday, April 24, 2012

clay and sieving

Mixing a sifted clay earth with water to make a ‘slip’, a smooth mix with a consistency similar to
 apple purée.  Straw is then soaked in the mixture and subsequently wrung out and used
 to fill gaps and holes in walls before the final surface is applied.

Clayey straw being prepared to fill the gaps.  It is then left to dry before the final surface is attached.

Home made ladders that will allow easy access from each bedroom into the loft space above.
The household can then choose how they use their space.

Installing the water pump and pressure balloon so that the recuperated rainwater can be used.
The gutters drain into six underground tanks that are capable of holding
30000 litres of water in total.

Bedroom ceilings nearing completion.  A coat of linseed oil is all that’s needed.

 Smart shelves in the loft space.  Eventually they will be backed with wood, but for the moment 
stapled blankets will suffice to provide visual seclusion.  
(I hope they leave the blankets too, as i think they look rather smart.)

Mealtime for those of you who don’t believe that it is possible to live in a building site!!

Finely cutting straw to go into the final coat of clay plaster, it helps bind the mixture and reduces the quantity of sand needed in the mix.

The strimmer does a great job in super quick time.  A bit dusty at times.

Sieving, you’ve got to love sieving if you’re going to build a house out of straw and clay.
The ingredients of every layer are sieved, thankfully most to a farily large grade, but the final layer is to 2mm.
That amounts  to bins and bins of sieved clay particles, sand and also straw.
I love sieving, really I do.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

more straw

Nearly a week has gone by and I feel completely at home, relaxed, amongst friends and happy that my capability to speak and understand french has returned.

The first couple of days were a bit strange on many counts; the change between hotel living with all the comforts and a building site, getting up at 6 to leave for work at 7 is something I haven’t done for a while either, a raw food diet (yes, here too now) after a winter of chef prepared feasts, speaking a foreign language all the time - it’s getting easier and easier I know and the cold, the weather has changed too, damp and cloudy after weeks of sunshine is shocking.

This morning after a night of rain, the mountains are newly white down to below 1500 metres, something that would have filled me with joy a week ago, now only bodes for a chilly day sieving soil or carpenting inside. Thankfully it’s Saturday so we’re not working, a trip to the market to stock up on food, just the market, no bakery, butchers or supermarket.

Pause......till Wednesday

It’s still cold and has been frosty most nights, but sleeping in a tiny cabin with a wood burning stove that stays alight all night and working in a very well insulated house by day, all is toasty warm. The only challenge is waiting for some sunshine to warm enough water for a shower. The solar panels here work extremely well and there is warm water even with slight cloud cover. A couple of hour of sunshine and it starts to become hot. Half a day and there is enough for everyone to have a swift shower and perhaps even a bit for washing up. When all else fails, a bowl of water heated on the wood burner suffices.

Chez Pierlo and Sandrine, the house that I lodged at last year, things have progressed enough for the family to move in. It’s not complete by any stretch of the imagination, but sufficiently so for a rough and ready existence. Still no hot water there, but it is always lovely and warm. We’re working on finishing the first floor rooms now, the loft area is complete and looks wonderful. Just ceilings, final finish to the walls and a wood floor to go down on the first floor, final fix electricity and then it’s on to the ground floor. Pierlo thinks they will be finished by the end of the year.

Here, at Dominique and Patrick’s, where we built the straw walls last summer, construction has continued at speed. Considering that the team only spends half a week at each site, there are no professional craftsmen and most of the help is voluntary and transient the whole process is amazing. The structure resembles a house, the roof is complete, minus a few finishing touches, the upstairs, chalet bungalow style has first fix electricity throughout, walls and ceiling more than half way finished using a different method than before, wood lined throughout, insulated with bales of straw throughout. It’ll keep the heat in through the winter and out in the summer, from working inside at present I doubt there will be much need for heating on sunny days throughout the year. The straw has spent the better part of a year being compressed by the weight of the roof structure and has stopped descending and is stable enough to take its clay coating, this can start as soon as the weather is warm dry. It might start before I leave, but if not there may well be the opportunity to check out the methods later on in the year.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

to spain and back in a day

Spring has sprung in Bagnere de Luchon

Clare, Mark and Tom refusing to be properly photographed

Odd one, they don't sell alcohol, but we get the drift

smart bandstand

the original bath houses where people came to be cured by waters with special qualities

We hadn’t had any guests for over a week, so life had been a bit different around the chalet, it is slowly being cleaned from top to bottom, more thoroughly that ever before and we take the opportunity to head out together when the chance arises.

Clare needed to visit her accountant before the end of the season so we all went to Bagnere de Luchon, a couple of valleys away for the ride and to see a different town. I had visited a couple of years ago in mid summer so thought it would interesting to see the difference, plus there is a large ski station higher up in the mountains although it was already closed when we arrived through lack of snow.

A classy joint, I would imagine Victorian, though have no idea how french describe that period, without royalty to denote the years. A spa town with tall buildings, wide tree lined streets, smart public buildings and today, a feeling of decaying grandeur. Clare headed straight for her meeting whilst Mark, Tom and I checked out the town. In France plenty of shops remain closed on Mondays, so, being Monday we were out of luck to start with. Additionally it was approaching lunchtime so those that were open closed their doors as we headed down the main street so everyone could go for a leisurely lunch at the same time. Not that it mattered terribly, as no one had need for shopping. We passed the bath houses noting a slight smell of sulfurous air venting the buildings, realising too, for the first time, that spring had arrived, the flower beds full of daffodils, tulips and primroses. It’s easy to miss the changing seasons up in the mountains as winter was still in full swing up there.

The town wasn’t particularly large so we quickly made our tour, through the old area, out along a small river, through a park complete with crazy golf and tennis courts, someone n the past had been an international tennis player and the club house proudly displayed the cups and trophies. An obscure street of closed shops, restaurants and hotels, just too far from the popular tourist area to continue trading through the current lean years.

We lunched in proper French style, perusing the menus of several restaurants before choosing the one with the most attractive “Formule” often three courses with a choice or two of each, offering a set price for three, two or one courses. Pizza was attractive mainly because it was something that wasn’t served at the chalet, everything else resembled somewhat our own menu, nice, but a change is always good. A leisurely two course meal, washed down with plenty of house red and a good, tiny, coffee to finish things off. Clare caught up with us as we finished our meal and we headed off in the direction of Spain to stock up on cheap booze and cigarettes.

The frontier was literally in the next valley and we were there in half an hour or so. A strange town, there previously as a distant outpost from central Spain, now part of the european union with minimal ‘foreign’ offerings for the local populations. Some of the touristy shops were a little more gaudy and of southern european in taste compared to those on the French side, shops packed with cheap tobacco products, supermarkets offering nothing but alcohol, olives and cold meats, shops for handbags and jewelry, shops offering everything to cultivate marijuana successfully in your garden, house or loft, a little research afterwards explained everything and shops of nothing but tat. It is now legal to grow dope for home consumption in Spain and it was obvious that they were expecting their neighbours to try the same.

Shopping complete, mainly replacements for the bar and a few packs of ciggies, bits and pieces for the following few days and we headed back to France. Crossing the border we passed the first signs of any frontier at all. We didn’t pass through, a new road takes a different route but the old guard and customs house was still standing, dirty windows and all covered in dust, perhaps saved for the next stage of Europe’s ever changing history or just coz it hasn’t been found a new use as yet.

The journey back took a couple of hours and we had been gone for the best part of a day. Once back in the chalet if felt, for me at least, as if I had been on holiday for quite some time and it was good to be back.

It snowed a couple of times more before the end of the season, nothing spectacular, just enough to refresh the slopes and give several more mornings of decent skiing. After the whole season it seemed strange to be on the mountain for the last time, the scenery as breath taking as it was the first day I ever saw it, blanketed again in its fresh new covering. I expect it will be melted again by now. Goodbye and thank you once again for a wonderful winter.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

bye bye beauregard

That’s it with my Beauregard purchase. Saved from buying a house that I couldn’t afford to connect to electricity and water supply, and still have enough money left to renovate. Purely by accident, as I wrote about some little time ago.

The estimates for both utilities are now in and I am astounded by the cost of both. I have absolutely no idea how far they would have had to start the instillation from, but, having talked to several people on the phone, discover that there are no alternatives. Solar panels are not allowed in that area and the thought of starting the project completely off grid is not something I feel equipped to try at the moment. I could probably have coped with a well, but not both. Perhaps after another year of helpXing and researching I may feel differently, but for now it’s not on the cards. For the electricity the estimate for enlarging the network to allow me to join it came in at 17,000 euro and the water, a snip, at 11,500 euro. Both prices are before paying a separate bill of about 2,000 euro each for connection.

Hugely disappointed and sporadically furious at the misinformation that the estate agent provided, I am in the process of writing a strongly worded letter. Overall though I am relieved that coincidence and happenstance prevented me from purchasing the property at this time. I have learned plenty and am confident for the future, there will be plenty more opportunities, possibly even in the region that I originally pencilled in, so I continue my journey and start researching once again.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Windy in the mountains

How time flies. The last four months have passed so very fast this year and the season is nearly at an end. Windy, my brother, visited last week and we had a great time. I picked him up from Tarbes airport on Tuesday morning. It was the first time that I had been out of the valley for a while and it was a joy to realist that spring is already here and the countryside was bursting into life again. We visited the straw bale houses on the way back to the chalet, the ones that I spent time at last year, so that he could see first hand what I had spent so long talking about when I visited last year. It was brilliant to spend time and share a part of my life that has been so inaccessible to friends and family, he loved it too. I can hardly wait till the end of the season as I shall be heading back there again for a few weeks to lend a hand and really catch up on progress at the two sites.

We skid almost all the second day of his visit, he soon regained his ski legs although suffered slightly by the end of the day, not surprisingly really with the amount we achieved. We had a few guests at the time but the atmosphere was relaxed enough for us to spend almost all of his visit without me having to work, so the evenings were for chatting, playing cards and relaxing, during his action packed short stay he never did get an early night.

The weather was unseasonally warm so we hit the slopes early every morning to get the best conditions. The pistes were groomed to perfection, as ever, and we made short work of completing almost every route available to us. We even managed to entice Clare out for the morning, which was great, she enjoys it so much but is a master at finding excuses not to go. “Next year will be different” she says. We’ll see. Lunch was at the best snow side restaurant in the resort, La Cabane, a delicious thai soup, on the terrace in the sunshine. Windy had “Tartiflette” a mountain speciality of cheese potatoes and lardons that disappeared in record speed. Whilst there we decided to have a relaxing afternoon and headed back to the chalet.

I didn’t explain where we were going, just that we needed swimming trunks and would be back for dinner. Balnea is in the next valley to Saint Lary, so after dropping down to the village I took the col route, up the winding mountain road through the countryside and got to see first hand the tiny villages that I had looked down on from my walk the other week. Paragliders were enjoying the mild sunny weather and finding thermals enough to keep airborne for a good long time. We passed through a tiny amount of snow at the highest point before descending steeply to the valley floor, round what seemed like hundreds of tiny, tight bends on the narrow road.

It wasn’t swimming, just floating, soaking and relaxing in numerous thermal baths. There were roman style baths in an authentically styled quarry stone zone with arched ceilings, elaborate tiling, plunge pools, a sauna and icy bath. An asian area with palm trees and carved wooden poles, jaccussis, bubble beds, whirlpools, massaging spouts of water and a great view of the snow capped mountains. A pod to lie in that played under water music that could only be heard with your head submerged. Hot tubs, saunas, steam rooms and the newest part, outside, Japanese baths ranging in temperature from warm to just too hot to stay too long, on the side a pile of snow for an icy rub down. It was magical to sit and soak in warm, thermal waters outside in the chilly fresh air in such a setting, what must it be like when it snows?

Thoroughly relaxed, we returned to the chalet for dinner and another enjoyable evening of chat, laughter and cards. Windy wondered how much of the resort we had covered so I got out a piste map and highlighted the runs that we had already visited. Probably two thirds of the runs that were open and accessible. Pretty impressive for a day and a half. We vowed to complete more the following day, his last. on this flying visit to the snow.

Day three arrived soon enough, for me it was like being on holiday, three saved up days off in a row, no work to do in the chalet apart from overseeing breakfast that morning and with six guests, hardly a difficult task. We managed to head off just after 10am for another day in the sunshine. How lucky we were, a week later as I write it has been damp, cloudy and trying to snow for the last four days. The first slope that we went down was so good that we had to enjoy it a coupe of extra times before moving on. Almost deserted and groomed to perfection once again, the mountain was breathtaking as ever. I wonder if I would ever tire of this. We head off, mentally ticking off those missing routes and revisiting favourites of the last couple of days, cruising from one area to the next, Windy almost completely back to the skiing agility that he had when he worked in the Alps a while back. We had great fun speeding down slopes and discussing our respective projects and other topics whilst sitting on the lifts, time together always passes so fast.

Before we knew it I was dropping him back off at the airport, hugging my brother good bye, his whole trip was over in the blink of an eye. His early flight had given me a head start for the day, so I made the most of it by exploring a different area on the way back, checking out the occasional estate agent and having a good look round building supply yards for ideas for the future, hopefully I will be getting going on my next project soon.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012


I knew that I needed to walk barefoot the other day,

Scientists confirm that bacteria is essential to Proper Immunity

Now I know why.

(click on the blue writing to read the article)