Trials and tribulations

The Foulkes family return from holiday to discover that progress on the Echo House has been frustratingly slow, writes Mark Sampson

If you’ve been following this series of articles – about a couple’s scheme to build low-cost energy-efficient family homes – you’ll be heartened to learn that the Foulkes family enjoyed a relaxing holiday at the end of August.

Did Paul manage to switch off and forget about the exasperating events of silly season’? “Yes, I did!” he enthuses. “I didn’t take my laptop and I didn’t think about work once.”

While he went cycling each day along the flat Mediterranean coast, Jill was back at the campsite, doing yoga by their camper van. “I didn’t half get some strange looks!” she laughs.

Frustrations intensified

They came back refreshed and raring to go again, but it wasn’t long before the frustrations of the construction intensified. Usually chipper and upbeat, Paul wanted to hibernate.

“I was very disheartened by the lack of progress,” he sighs. “People just hadn’t done what they said they would.”

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The saga of the doors and windows continued. “I got back to discover that they’d done nothing. Then I got a call asking me to confirm details I’d signed off before we went away. We began this process in April, so why was I being asked these questions in October?”

Quite apart from fitting the doors and windows in place, he needed the technical information to pass on to a bureau d’�tudes. “They need the avis technique for their energy assessment towards the BBC label.”

“B�timent basse consommation,” he says pre-empting the inevitable question.

Encouragingly, a house-like edifice now stood on the slab that was poured in the summer. Nevertheless, says Jill: “Sometimes it seems like we spend all our time just chasing people up. One particular company expressed an interest in becoming a partner. They’ve had our details for months, and then they suddenly announced, Oh we can’t sell to you direct, we only sell to suppliers’.”

“No-one ever phones you back,”

Paul chips in with feeling. “Sorry, the Germans do.”

The joke goes that the French have no word for entrepreneur. One of the abiding criteria of the Echo House idea is to use small local companies wherever possible. “But I’m sorry, they’re the worst offenders,” Paul laments. “We’re halfway through the build and we still haven’t even had prices for some items. You can’t get them online as often there’s no website.

“I’ve got a chequebook waiting to go but they’re just not interested. It’s as if they don’t want to work or to supply things.”

Knock-on effect

On a positive note, they are gradually weeding out the time-wasters and unearthing the good companies. And Paul has learned to ask suppliers to recommend artisans.

“When you mention that the supplier has given you their name, you seem to get an immediate response,” he says.

But it’s all so time-consuming and demanding. “Think what could happen to the build if you were trying to do all this from a distance,” Paul reminds me. “The trouble is, all these delays have a knock-on effect. You end up getting things at the last minute and having to install them virtually overnight to keep to plan.

You can’t just add a week on for every setback.”

Indeed not. Already, the endgame has shifted from the beginning to the end of January.

New trousers required

Little wonder that Paul has shed seven kilos since September. Jill laughs about his old trousers now looking like those of a clown. In fact, it’s probably more the hard physical work that has done it. “Monomur fatigue,” Jill dubs it.

The Monomur capillary bricks are what Paul has been humping around for the last few weeks, laying one row on top of another in a classic running bond.

The air is trapped inside the honeycomb of capillaries within each brick. The walls form a thick single skin and this trapped air, of course, acts as a wonderful insulator. Like straw bales, the bricks then have to be rendered inside and out with something breathable that allows any moisture within the wall to transpire.

Paul will use a lime and hemp mix inside and lime and sand outside. No cement, no waterproof skin. It doesn’t matter if a wall gets wet, so long as it can breathe naturally. Unlike straw bales, there is no spectre of mould.

Paul is very convinced’. They go up quickly and easily (it has taken him only 12 man-days). “The rep gave me a demo on day one and he came back at the end of the week to check on my progress.

My friend Mike, a conventional builder, came to lend a hand and got bored because it’s so easy. You can cut them easily and there’s no sand-and-cement involved. You use a kind of silica-based tile cement to fix one layer to the next.

It’s just a 3mm coat applied with a special calibrated roller. It goes off quickly, but it’s really not difficult.”

Meeting the neighbours

As the walls have gone up, so people have started to drop by for a gander’. No matter how busy they are, Paul and Jill will find time for a chat. It’s all valuable PR and it has given them a chance to meet their new neighbours.

The next stage is the roof. Once that is on, they can both get inside. For Jill, it’s a chance to learn some new skills – tiling, perhaps. For Paul, it’s a chance to make real progress. “Once the roof goes on, I can do everything apart from the plastering. I’ll be in control. It’s when third parties get involved that everything goes to pot.”

Take the roof trusses, for example. They had organised a delivery date of Monday 11 October. The suppliers would lift the trusses onto the garage that day and come back two weeks later, when everything was ready, to do the same for the house. But the lorry turned up a day late, when Paul was out on a job. The driver was under orders to do everything that day. Jill rang the company to be told that a crane wouldn’t be available. “Fortunately we could prove that we hadn’t booked things for 12 October. Of course, no-one admits to a mistake and there’s never any question of an apology. The worst thing you can do here is admit to an error.” But… they accepted the date change without fuss and reorganised everything for two weeks later.

More lessons learned

The episode typifies the irritations of an otherwise fine autumn. It has taught them that it’s not enough to ask for names and email confirmations. They now stipulate that dates, prices and all things key and critical are recorded by fax. Hard copy equals hard proof.

All this supplementary time has also taught Paul something about their current house. “Nuthatch Cottage has become just a list of jobs to be done. I haven’t even had time to pick the apples this year. It’s wonderful having all the land that goes with it, but it’s just become too much. I want to spend weekends with my family, not on maintenance.”

The original plan was to rent their home while they tested the performance of the new house. “But then I thought about it,’ Paul continues. “Renting could be a nightmare, because everything’s weighted in favour of the tenants. I could be called any time to deal with problems or repairs.” So their home of 16 years is going on the market.

When two dreams clash

Jill had two conflicting dreams. “There’s my Jam and Jerusalem dream of staying here, living off the land, earning just enough to pay all the bills. But Paul has got a calling and now I’m immersing myself in another dream: of clean, modern lines leading to a new frontier. New eco-oriented laws are coming in and we can help people face the future.”

So now they plan to move to the Echo House at the end of January and live there for the near future. By selling Nuthatch Cottage, they can realise the capital to build a second Echo House – a bigger 165 model – on a plot of land they own near Prayssac, west of Cahors. The local mayor has invited them to apply for a permis de construire next March.

First, however, as they might underline on a popular TV programme, they need to finish the prototype.

You can read more about the concept and progress at www.echohouse.eu