07/04/2019
A U-Builder’s Self-Build Diary

Manbey Pod is the latest project to go on site using the U-Build construction system. The project, located in Stratford, East London, has been manufactured as a kit of parts and delivered to site. The Pod is a garden studio designed as a family amenity space, storage area and textile studio. This is the first time we’ve handed over the U-Build construction to the clients, Peter and Joan. We’ve asked them to keep a diary to chart their progress – we’re hoping this can be a valuable resource for future self-builders using the system and can also feed back useful information into the design and instruction pack. Each day we’ll upload their latest post and photo here. Many thanks to the clients for their efforts in putting together the following…
 
 
 
DAY 1: Sunday 14 October
 
After much planning, today is the day we start building. I had planned to mark out the site but it rained heavily all day so I decided to build boxes instead. The U-Build system is essentially made of boxes of different sizes, so there’s a lot to do. It’s dead easy – if you can assemble flat pack furniture you can do this – though thankfully there’s no allen key involved, just a rubber mallet and an electric screwdriver. By the evening I had built all the boxes required to make the floor of our studio. The only problem is where to put them. Most are in our front room but tonight we will also have the pleasure of sharing our bedroom with 7 plywood boxes! Let’s hope the weather improves and we can get out on site soon.

DAY 2: Monday 15 October

 

Rained again so more boxes to make indoors. By the end of today I have made all of the floor and most of the first course of the walls. A simple box can take as little as 10 minutes to assemble, but there’s only so much box making a single man can do and we’re running out of space! Tomorrow help is on hand in the form of my brother and a friend, and Studio Bark are coming round to show us how the construction process works. With better weather forecast I’m hoping that we can really get a move on.

DAY 3: Tuesday 16 October

 

Spent the morning making more boxes. The cavalry arrived around lunchtime, in the shape of my brother Jon and his friend Pete. First job the floor. U-Build simply rests on bricks on a concrete base and a damp proof membrane. It’s very easy to set out and you can make adjustments as you go along, You simply bolt together floor boxes between rafters. Everything went together beautifully, all the bolt holes lined up without any need for a hammer. We had the whole floor down in 1 hour 40 minutes! We then began to construct the walls. By the end of the afternoon we had the first course of boxes and the door frame in place.

 

U-Build is made to such fine tolerances that you mustn’t tighten the boxes too much early on, or they might not fit. The whole building becomes square and very strong later when you tighten it up from the bottom to the top. This seems counter intuitive as you’d think you would want a rigid base before you begin the walls, but once you start to build it all makes sense.

DAY 4: Wednesday 17 October

 

We had hoped to assemble the walls today and begin the roof, instead it rained – all day. We had little choice but to crack on with making boxes and by the end of the day we’d built them all. With a dry day forecast for tomorrow there is a real chance we can have the structure up and tight. Making the roof is more complex than the floor and walls, as it slopes slightly. Given the very tight tolerances that U-Build works to, it’s really important to recognise the small differences between some the pieces.

 

Over the last few days there has been a steady stream of deliveries – paint, wood preservative, electrical equipment – today a pallet of shrink wrapped wool insulation turned up and is now filling our living room.

DAY 5: Thursday 18 October 

 
We have a building! We started just after 9am this morning and completed the walls in 2 hours. By lunch time we had the rafters up and the roof boxes were in by mid-afternoon. Most of the build went very smoothly but we did have a bit of difficulty with the roof. Because U-Build is only tightened at the very end the walls do flex a little which meant that we found ourselves with not enough space for some of the roof boxes. A good push on the walls created the additional centimetre or so we needed and once we had a couple of rows of roof boxes in place the walls stiffened up nicely.

 

Once you have all the boxes in place you then start tightening the bolts from the bottom to the top working in a circular motion. It’s amazing just how stiff the whole structure becomes. At the end we were walking on the roof and it felt very strong indeed. We’re very pleased with the space and the birch ply looks lovely. Next step is insulation and wrapping the whole building in a breathable membrane.

DAY 6: Friday 19 October

 

Yesterday anyone could have seen that we’d made great progress; today you’d be hard pushed to see what has changed. But in fact quite a lot happened. I screwed the floor and roof boxes to the rafters which stiffened the structure even more. I got the electrics inside the building – though I’ll have to get an electrician in to install the consumer unit and sockets and switches. And I began to paint the woodwork, beginning with the end grain of the door, windows and reveals to make sure they don’t split. There’s a lot more of these smaller jobs to do before we’re complete!

DAY 7 & 8: Saturday and Sunday 20-21 October

 

More small jobs this weekend. I put two coats of wood preservative on the door, windows and reveals – having put all this effort into the building I’m keen to make sure that it lasts as long as possible! And I finished most of the jigs that are needed to construct the cladding panels.

 

We also took delivery of the butyl liner for the roof and yet more insulation. One thing we’ve learnt from this build is that it’s really important to get the logistics right – if you haven’t got the right materials on site you can’t do the work. Next week we need to insulate the building and get it watertight. With a bit of luck we should be at that stage in a couple of days.

DAY 9: Monday 22 October

 

The insulation went in today. It’s sheep’s wool and is very easy to fit – you simply press the wool into the boxes. Most of the slabs of wool are already the right size and those that aren’t can be easily cut with a saw.

 

The next stage is to wrap the wool with a breathable membrane which keeps the water out.

 

I also finished painting the door and windows and plan to fit them later this week. A watertight building is now within easy reach.

DAY 10: Tuesday 23 October

 

Today we put the breathable membrane on. It covers the wool insulation, keeps out the rain yet lets everything breathe. You wrap the building twice, starting at the bottom and overlapping by about 200mm. The membrane is fixed to the structure by a combination of staples and tape; the key thing to remember is that wherever you use a staple you must cover it with tape so as to avoid leaving a puncture in the membrane.

 

We’ve never done this before and it took lot a longer than we had estimated. In part that’s because we don’t have much space between the building and our neighbour’s boundary, so there’s very little room to use a ladder. But it’s also because the roll of fabric is heavy and cumbersome and just manipulating it takes time.  By the end of the day we were both exhausted, though that may be more to do with being in our mid 50s!

DAY 11: Wednesday 24 October

 

The insulation for the roof sits on top of the wooden structure. Unlike the walls and floor the roof insulation isn’t sheep’s wool, but is a more conventional rigid thermal insulation board. You cut the boards with a saw and then glue them to the roof. It’s not difficult work but with 100mm thick insulation it does take time.

 

We managed to get all the insulation cut and in place today. Tomorrow we plan to cover the insulation with a butyl liner which will make the roof watertight.

DAY 12: Thursday 25 October

 

Big day today: we are watertight. We have a butyl lining on the roof, three roof lights, a door, two small openable windows and a fantastic large window that looks back down our garden. The butyl lining is particularly clever, it fits around the roof lights and has a built in gutter.

 

The fact that we were able to make such progress today is due to the help of Wilf and Tom from Studio Bark for much of the day, and Nick joined us later to help move the enormous window. If I’m honest today was less self-build and more architect led building! This is not to say that these jobs couldn’t be tackled by a self-builder but they do require more than one hand on deck.

The weekend 27-28 October

 

After the big push of last week, the weekend was spent on smaller tasks: painted the reveals around the door and small windows and put a coat of UV wax on the birch ply that lines the walls to make sure that the sun doesn’t bleach the wood. There’s a host of these sorts of tasks to complete before we’re done, but I’m back to work tomorrow and progress will inevitably be slower. From now on this blog will be more sporadic, with updates as and when we make progress.

 

But before I sign off, what have we learned so far?

 

  • That the U-Build system is easy to understand, intuitive, and any self-builder who felt confident at basic DIY could quickly come to terms with it.

 

  • – That it helps to think of the build in three distinct phases: making boxes, constructing the building, and a whole range of finishing tasks, like painting, cladding and so on. If you have space then you can make most of the boxes before you start and do the construction phase in one or two short intense burst of activity. If you haven’t got the space, then just make the boxes as you go along and construct the building in stages. The finishing tasks are many and various and will take longer than you think.

 

  • – That some of the tasks can be done alone, but others do require help. Box making can be either – you’ll just make speedier progress with others. Constructing the floor and walls requires at least two people, and it helps to have three of you to put up the roof.

 

  • – That logistics matter – for the period of your build your home will become a semi-permanent delivery address. Getting the right materials on site at the right time is essential to progress tasks efficiently.

 

  • – That you will be faced with a large number of decisions on even a small build, on subjects you never realised you had an opinion – colours of woodwork, types of door handles and so on.
  •  

 

And while it is a lot of work, it’s definitely worth it: you will end up with something more bespoke and more beautiful than you’ll find in any catalogue!

The weekend 3-4 November

 

Back to the build after a week at work. Finished the paintwork – Osmo ‘Nordic Red’ if anyone is interested – which nicely complements the Acer as it turns red at this time of year. Fitted wooden battens to the outside of the building – the cladding panels will fix to these in time. Putting the battens on also allowed me to finish the integral gutter which is part of the butyl roof lining. From now on when it rains the water will run off towards the back left hand corner. We are planning to install a water butt to connect to this.

 

More next weekend, weather permitting!

The weekend 17-18 November

 

Managed to get back to the build after last weekend’s bad weather. Spent Saturday fitting the reveal for the large window. It’s made of western red cedar and provides a lovely frame to the window. Most of this is relatively straightforward but the sill is angled to allow water run off easily, which requires accurate cutting of the side pieces. I also decided to hide the screws by countersinking them and covering the head with a wooden plug from the cedar. This is one of the very few details in the whole building which is like traditional carpentry but the finish is worth the effort.

 

I then turned to ensuring that rain water doesn’t collect on top of the windows or the door. You do this by fixing a flap of waterproof membrane above each feature and angling it so that the water runs down easily. This was pretty simple and the whole job was complete in about an hour.

 

Spent the Sunday cutting pieces for the panels that will make the cladding. It’s quite a complex herring bone pattern with hundreds of pieces all told. This will take some time – watch this space!

The weekend 24-25 November

 

Our build is to be clad in Western Red Cedar, in a fairly complex herring bone pattern. It’s easier than it looks but it does require quite a lot of pre-planning. Here’s how we went about it.

 

Step 1 – sand the cedar. Our timber arrived sawn but rough. It was about 25 x 50 mm in 2.5m lengths. To clad a building, even a relatively small one like ours, takes a lot of timber. We decided to sand it all, which was a bigger job than we first thought – we used a fairly standard orbital sheet sander – but well worth it in the end. This was one of those jobs that we did before we began construction and the pile of sanded cedar has been sitting in our garden under a tarpaulin for some weeks.

 

Step 2 – make some jigs. The only way to get a reasonably uniform pattern is to make a jig to fit the cut timber into. This may seem like extra work but it saves time in the long run and leaves you with a much better end result. The pattern on our building requires 13 separate jigs. As the timber isn’t uniform – it varies a little in thickness – the jig design needs to be able to handle that variation. We decided to use a series of pegs fixed into MDF.

 

Step 3 – cut the timber to size. A chop saw is invaluable as it greatly speeds up the job and ensures that you cut any angles consistently.

 

Step 4 – place the cut timber into the jig. You then screw the frame onto the back of the cut timber. When you remove the timber from the jig you have a completed panel. All you need to do is check that it is still square and tighten any screws as necessary.

 

This weekend I made almost all of the panels that will cover the front of the building. Weather permitting, I’ll treat them with a fire retardant next weekend and then screw them in place.

 

The weekend 1-2 December

 

This weekend has been one of those times when the build makes sudden (and very visible) progress.

For some time now I have been making the cladding panels that will cover the outside of our building. By Saturday all of the panels for the front had been finished and we managed to find the time to put three coats of fire retardant on each panel. We used HR Prof which is environmentally friendly and easy to apply.

On Sunday morning we were ready to install the panels. It was surprisingly easy, provided you measure accurately. Each panel has a 10mm shadow gap between them, except for the where the panels abut the window where the gap is 5mm and around the door where the gap is 23mm. We started above the window, making sure that the three panels were accurately centred. Having got that right we could then move out across the top of the whole building. Once we had that row in place, we then moved to the area under the window and repeated the steps. Lastly, we put in the middle panels making sure that the gaps were equal. Each panel is fixed with just four screws, which will be easy to remove if ever we need to.

 

The front of the building is now almost finished and we’re really pleased with the end result. It looks both uniform and handmade, with precise even gaps between the individual pieces of wood being offset by the natural variation in thickness and tone.  I’ve only made a few of the panels for the sides so the next stage will take a while.

 

The weekend 15-16 December

 

Saturday was cold and wet and we spent the day painting the second coat of UV wax on the inside of the pod. The wax stops the birch plywood from changing colour due to sun light. As an added bonus it gives the wood a lovely subtle waxy shine.

 

The weather on Sunday was better (thankfully) and I used the time to cut lengths of western red cedar for the cladding panels on the sides of the studio. This work has taken on some urgency as the friend who lent us the chop saw needs it back for work. There must be hundreds of cuts in our design and I wouldn’t want to even consider doing it without the chop saw – it’s much quicker and more accurate than any hand saw. By the end of a long day I managed to cut about 80% of the timber required to make the cladding panels.

 

The task for the Christmas holiday is to assemble them!

Saturday 19 January

 

I last blogged before Christmas but that doesn’t mean that we haven’t been busy. A big part of the holiday was spent making the red cedar panels to clad the pod. Having fixed all the panels to the front of the pod, we now have to do the two sides and the back.

 

Each side has 15 separate panels and the back has a further 14. The panels are only fixed to the top two-thirds of the pod leaving the breathable membrane visible in the bottom third. This because the fences with our neighbours hide the bottom third and the membrane is more than adequate to keep out the rain.

 

We’ve now made all the panels for the two sides and over half of the panels on the back. This week we fire-proofed the panels on the right-hand side and fixed them to the pod. If the weather holds next week we should be able to do the other side. Each panel is simply fixed with four screws but the tight space between the pod and our boundary fence made this a tricky task, passing panels between us like a game of twister and standing on our neighbours’ shed roof to reach the top of the pod.

The weekend 2-3 February

 

Over the last two weeks we’ve finished all the remaining external tasks. The cladding is now complete, with both sides and the back now up.

 

The front edges of the studio are in place using the same western red cedar as the cladding. And we fixed a plinth to the front and painted in black – this gives a nice crisp edge to the base of the building.

 

The butyl liner on the roof has a gutter and a tube to allow any rainwater to fall off. Today, we fixed a downpipe to allow any rain to collect in a water butt. The overflow is a length of hose which runs down the side of the building to the base of the tree in front of the studio.

 

We’re nearly there now, only the electrics and the floor to go.

Saturday 6 April

 

The pod is finished – almost! Over the last few weeks, we’ve completed a number of tasks, some small, some large.

 

First, we finally managed to get power into the pod. When we moved into the house many years ago we inherited an old shed which luckily had its own electric supply (the cable runs up the garden from the house). We simply drilled into the floor space and threaded the cable into the void in the floor. The cable then goes to a consumer unit, before being threaded under the floor to three double sockets and to a light switch. We used black plastic trunking to protect the cables, which is cheap and easy to cut, and good quality metal sockets which are screwed onto the walls. Once the power was in we were finally able to screw down the floor panels.

 

The lights were simple bare bulbs fitted into ceramic holders and threaded together with braided cable. It’s a fairly cheap and easy solution. Although I can do most woodwork I don’t know much about electrics so it made sense to get a qualified electrician in – Gopal did a great job in just an afternoon.

 

Second, we put some catches on the windows and door. Rather than use ironmongery we decided to make simple catches from wood – some oak offcuts from my brother Jon which have polished up very nicely.

 

And lastly, we put some protective wire mesh on the exposed membrane, which is on the lower half of the sides and back of the building, to protect it from foxes. Like most urban gardens we get our fair share of foxes and they could easily rip the membrane which would cause the wool insulation to rot.

 

So now we just need to finish off repurposing some old Ikea shelving the kids used to have and make a large cutting table and we’re ready to go. This last phase of the build has taken a little longer than we first thought, as some of these small jobs are quite fiddly, but the end result has been worth it. We have a lovely space, which looks great in the garden and has the most wonderful natural light inside to work by.

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