Archive for the ‘Building & DIY’ Category


The Study Makeover

November 18, 2012

Do you ever have one of those ideas for a plan, an improvement, a project? Something that seems like such a good idea, a way to better use space and resources and make the most of what you have? And you plan, and design, and cost and then get overwhelmed by the sheer size of the project and then start anyway?

Oh yes, we’re re-fitting the study.

Oh dear god, what have we done?

In short we’re a house of proper books. None of these kindles or ebook readers for us. Oh no, we love real books and my goodness don’t we have a lot of them? In fact, between you and I, since we moved to Cyprus in 2006 we haven’t actually managed to unpack them all. It’s not so much the number, it’s just that we’ve got more than the bookcases will hold.

And what a broad range … from Harry Potter to Understanding Islam to How to Commit the Perfect Murder and Not Get Caught. Over the years we’ve sold some and given away lots and release dozens into the wild via Bookcrossing. But we still have boxes and boxes and boxes sulking in the corner of one of the bedrooms.

On the plus side our little stone cottage does have a lovely study downstairs. And so came about The Plan.

If we fitted custom bookcases to an entire wall, all the way up to the high ceilings, then we might finally make some progress on releasing some from their boxes. Months ago we designed and sourced the shelving. We worked on those little niggles (why is the space available one centimeter less than the shelving we need?) and picked paints. And then life got in the way and the whole project was put on hold. This week we decided that enough was enough and it was time to start.

And so Sunday was spent moving three existing bookcases from the study into their temporary places in the dining room. There will be chaos until this is done, no question. Of course the bookcases couldn’t be moved whilst they were full of books so we had an afternoon of unloading, dusting, transferring to the dining table, moving the empty bookcases and then reloading them in their new spots.

The rest of the study still needs to be emptied and then the joy of minor plastering can happen followed by the mindless boredom of painting the ceiling and three of the four walls a neutral colour.

But the fourth wall? It’s going to be orange. Energetic Orange. And it looks a bit like this …

Isn’t that lovely and subtle? No, it isn’t. There’s a plan, honest. But in the meantime things have been looking a bit like this …


Wish us well, it’s going to be an interesting few weeks.


Tree supports

July 7, 2010

Tree support

We were out and about on yet more village wanderings and came across a gorgeous old tree in a churchyard.  Despite the unforgiving summer heat the area under the tree was blissfully cool and shady and, unlike the rest of the area, had a gentle cooling breeze.

The tree is clearly old and has grown in an inconvenient direction: the low stone wall on the left of the photo marks the boundary of the church land, beyond it is a steep drop.  Rather than cut the tree back it has been allowed to grow at will but essential support has been provide courtesy of a low pillar of Lefkara stone.

This stone, which is found only in a few square miles around the Lefkara villages, is a particularly hard type of limestone.  Our builders needed to use a diamond drill bit to get through some at the house.  In this case it gives a support strong enough to allow the tree to continue flourishing.


The garden, mid-June

June 20, 2010

Ahhh June, the start of summer proper.  Long, hot, sultry days … lazy lunches under the shade of the bougainvillea … moonlit dinners in the cool evening air.

Well, that’s what should be happening.  Instead we have a house full of builders and, honestly, they have more stuff and spread it further than your average teenager.  The garden looks like it has been bombed.  The parts that should be unaffected aren’t because things such as the BBQ, dining tables, chairs and the like have had to be moved to accommodate their stuff.

The original plan was for the dodgy garage (which isn’t a garage, see here for an explanation) to be rebuilt.  Then we discovered that the house roof, which we’d previously believed to be sound, was in need of work.  The roof didn’t need to be done now, but once the winter rains come it could become urgent.  So, the builders are here to do both of those and a couple of other small jobs.  All told the work is expected to take four weeks.  Four weeks!

In amongst all of this the garden is getting on with things.  The lemon tree has a health crop of new lemons, the orange is sulking after we removed two thirds of it.  The pomegranates are growing at a fast enough rate to make the rats happy.

The clementine tree has surprised us some; this year we had a crop of hundreds of fruit.  There were so many we struggled to give them away, there were certainly more than we could ever hope to eat.  It was only last month that we managed to crop the last of the fruit and now, when the tree should be covered in new tiny fruits we have absolutely none.  Is it possible that the tree won’t blossom if the previous year’s fruit hasn’t been completely removed?  If so that behaviour is entirely different to all of the other citrus trees.  But honestly, we’re still getting used to all of this and whilst keen we really have little idea.

The arum lilies have finished for the season.  Now is the time to try and lift the remaining rhizomes from around and under the pithari so they can be relocated.

None of that is particularly photo-worthy so, just this once, we’ll forgoe the plant photos and give a fair indication of the state of the place this month.


The garage pre-builders

The new, improved, garage

Temporary re-homing of the garage contents

Hard to believe but there are a couple of small fruit trees hidden in there somewhere.

Scaffolding on the front of the house

The orange ladder, on the left hand side of the photo, goes up to the scaffolding boards at roof level.  From there the builders climb onto the roof and up and over the apex to access the other side.  This is the route they are using to remove both the existing roof tiles and to get the new tiles in position, ready to be used.  At a rate of four tiles per trip they will be making in excess of 1000 trips up and down, one-handed whilst carrying roof tiles.

Mands has done the trip once.  It’s possible that her nerves may recover some time this month.

View from the bedroom window

All being well we should be back to normal garden photos next month.


Up the stairs to bed

February 5, 2010

Our lack of an internal staircase (and therefore minor obsession with cold weather) continues to confuse folks.  From time to time someone (family, friends, fellow ex-pats in Cyprus, blog followers) will ask;

But why do you have to go outside to go to bed?!

The story is this: this little house in the hills has no internal staircases.  When we bought it from MadAlex it had two external staircases, one at either side of the house.  To be honest that isn’t entirely unusual here.  In our case one was unfinished and, to our way of thinking, surplus to requirements so we had the builders knock it down and allow us to reclaim a portion of garden.

We talked about having a staircase built within the house but decided against it; the house is not large and installing a staircase would take up a huge amount of our living space.  And anyway, it’s not like it gets particularly cold or even rains that often we said.  Clearly those were statements made before the start of this very cold and very wet winter of 09/10.

A friend, who is not particularly known for his tact, was once heard to observe;

You really haven’t put a staircase in the house?  I thought you were joking when you said you were going to have to go outside to go to bed.

So perhaps photos would help to give some context to this.  Both of the photos below were taken from the garden looking towards the house.

The main, or front, door is to the left of the downstairs window in the first photo.

All being well we exit that door, skirt around the edge of the bougainvillea and winter jasmine, avoid slipping on the mutant arum lilies and nip up the stairs. At the top we generally stop and look at the view up or down the valley, or at night check to see if the stars are out, or look across the valley to see if the mist is coming in.

In less than 6 months we’ve become adept at reading the current and future weather patterns from the top of those stairs.  But at the moment it is usually a quick look because the top of the stairs is totally exposed.

The stairs, as seen from the garden

The tall wall that you see to the right of the photo is part of the courtyard wall of our enclosed garden.  It also happens to be the outside wall of the next door neighbour’s big living room.  For the lower two thirds of the stairs it provides superb protection against the elements; for the upper third it is no help in that department at all.

Part-way up the stairs

Those of with a keen eye will have noticed one of the designer features we inherited; the (somewhat tired and inoperable) black sun canopy.  Sadly it was another casualty of the renovation works and is no longer with us.

Those with an eye for Elf & Safety will note the lack of banister on the left hand open side of the staircase.

There isn’t one.  There probably should be.  One day there even might be … but, probably not any time soon.

Sensible folks tend to keep to the right when going to bed, leaning against that stone wall for a little extra balance.  Although, that itself brings some challenges; at the top of the stairs as reach the top of the wall we have a lovely view over the neighbour’s sloping roof.  Ian once ventured out there in an attempt to resolve a hot water issue; little Max, the terrible terrier, went exploring on one of his early visits and fell into their garden.

Anyway, who needs banisters?  Or walls that go all the way to the top of wherever it is?  Did you see what we have?  We’ve got fossils!  We are reliably informed that those large stones are huge fossils, specifically internal molds.

Fossils as banisters

A internal mold is formed when a relatively soft organism dies and is encased in sediment.  Over time the organism dissolves and then later the space is filled with more sediment, taking the shape of the now absent organism.  We are told that our molds are from particularly large clam or molluscs.

An internal mold

In geological terms Cyprus isn’t particularly old; it was created somewhere in the region of 200 million years ago.  These fossils are probably local so they are likely to be somewhat younger than that.

We try and keep that in mind as we head up the open stairs to bed.  We might be cold and tired from, yet more, renovation works but the stones stopping us from falling into the garden have been around for a couple of hundred millions years or so.


House Rule #1

January 19, 2010

It started raining at around 10am; it stopped for a while just after 10pm.

The yuccas ended up swimming.  A dustbin under the garage hole in the roof filled to 18 inches deep with run-off water over 6 hours.  We finally headed for bed, up the external staircase, at a little after 11pm.

All through this winter’s wet weather we have watched carefully for problems with the roof.  It was one of the few areas where we had to do no work at all;  MadAlex had the a new roof fitted as part of his renovations or improvements.

Much of the other work he had done has had to be re-done.  The plumbing has been a particular challenge: the fresh water supply in the kitchen turned out to be routed from the tank rather than supplied by fresh water, the never-tested water heater would have blown up the first time it was ever turned on.  New plaster failed to hold due to issues with how it was bonded to the walls.  Door don’t fit doorframes; windows aren’t level.

But the roof?  Despite our concerns, based in part on other workmanship, the roof has been just fine.  Which, here in Cyprus, is fairly unusual.  Friends with new houses have problems with their roofs; we had numerous leaks in the Aradippou rental house.  But here, the roof has been good so far.

So, we headed to bed late after a long day of watching the torrential rain and making essential forays into the garden to fetch fresh logs and rescue the gate that had come loose in the wind.  We stopped at the top of the stairs to look at the view up and down the valley and see if the stars were out – they weren’t, more rain was due.  And then we made our way wearily to bed …

… only to find a 40ft² (about 4m²) puddle on the bedroom floor.

To be fair it isn’t quite as bad as it sounds; the room is big and the flooded area was mainly tiles.  Our temporary (until we find someone to build bespoke fitted wardrobes) clothes rails were standing in it, as were a few pairs of shoes and a laundry basket or two.  There’s probably no long term damage but finding enough towels to mop up that amount of water at almost midnight is not to be recommended.

And the roof?  Well, it’s just fine; nothing wrong with it that we know of.  It’s the windows.  Under certain conditions, such as torrential rain from the west, it seems they leak.  Copiously.

So, House Rule #1: When it has rained solidly for 12 hours it is wise to wear wellies to bed.


Hunkered down

January 6, 2010

It’s been a quiet start to the New Year here.  We, as is traditional, stayed at home on New Year’s Eve.  A good meal, a bottle of something fizzy and a roaring log fire all continue to be preferable to a long and expensive night out.  Don’t fear though, we make up for it at other times during the year.

Within the village things are peaceful.  The winter trickle of visitors has ground to a halt, although we continue to see healthy quantities of Nordic and Scandinavian visitors when we venture in to town.  Each year they descend on the island in search of winter sun; the cool weather doesn’t bother them in the slightest, they are here in search of daylight.  This morning we were woken by the church bells once more; today is the Epiphany which in this Eastern Orthodox place is not only a religious festival but a public holiday too.

To be honest the quiet is doing us good.  One of us is still under the weather with musculokeletal problem that is proving both persistent and wearing; both of us are feeling the effects of friend’s illness between Christmas and New Year.  The friend had a massive heart attack between the two holidays and in the prognosis immediately post-attack really was not good.  Happily he made it through that very dangerous first twelve hours and has made steady progress since.   Credit must go to Larnaca General who carried out his initial treatment as well as to the mutual friends who recognised the severity of the situation and broke all local speed limits to get him to the hospital.  Whilst the incident itself was unpleasant it’s been heartening to see the ex-pat community rally round to help.

Otherwise things have been quiet; but all of this may change tomorrow.  Some six months after we requested it the local electricity board are due later this week to inspect our new electrics.  Should they deem them competently installed then they may, in due course, approve the installation of a new electricity meter and local RCD.  This would have two benefits, it would prevent our current electrics tripping every time there was a lightening strike within 5 miles and allow us to have the very, very old electrics removed.  In turn that would allow us to repair and then decorate the last remaining wall in the house.

Since the remnants of the old system appear to have been bought, second hand, by Noah when he was building the Ark they are long, long overdue for retirement.

So, on that note we wish you all well on this feast of the Epiphany.


The fire

January 2, 2010

The weather in early December was poor with heavy rain, low cloud and strong whistling winds.  As the evening temperatures dropped considerably it became clear we could avoid the fireplace no longer.

When MadAlex owned the place he used the fire extensively, but it drew badly.  Our builder replaced much of the external chimney but was still unhappy about the construction of the fireplace itself.  The upper horizontal plane is entirely level rather than sloped.  As such there’s a real chance of smoke trickling back into the room.  Having spent a considerable amount of time dealing with the smoke damage from MadAlex’s tenure we were reluctant to cause similar problems.  As evening temperatures dropped we took to putting on another pair of socks, or a sweater, or both to avoid the fireplace conversation.

About a week before Christmas we gave in.  One of the reasons for buying the house was the fireplace; if we were to use it over Christmas then we needed to bite the bullet and test it.  Until that point we simply wouldn’t know if the remedial works had been enough to solve the long standing problems.

While the builders were onsite and busy inside the house we spent a huge amount of time trying to tame the garden.  It had been allowed to grow at will.  Did you know that pruning breaks the spirit of a tree?  No, us neither.  At the risk of having spirit-less trees we set to work with secaturs, loppers and even a gardening saw.

The bougainvillea grows so strongly, and had been left unchecked for so long, that it needed the most work.  One of the two external staircases was blocked by the plant.  As we chopped and cut and sawed we held back some of the larger pieces of wood intending to dry them for use on the fire.  For almost a year they remained, propped neatly in the garage, drying out in preparation for our winter fires.

So, having decided to test the fire Ian was despatched down to the garage to turn the unweildy branches into manageable logs.  That evening he tentatively prepared and lit the fire and we both watched nervously.  It caught and burnt well, with only a tiny amount of smoke dribbling into the room.  Happy that it burning well and that our fears had been foundless we carried on making dinner and the like.

However, within an hour the gentle trickle of smoke had increased and the living room was distinctly smokey.  And the smoke … it had such a pungent smell to it and it was almost possible to taste it.  Horrified at how the first open-fire situation had deteriorated Ian did his best to rake out the fire and we spent the remainder of the evening icy cold with the doors open, trying to disperse the smoke.

The following morning things were no better, in fact the smell seemed worse.  For the entire day the doors and all the windows remained open, despite the chilly weather.  We lit numerous candles, placed bowls of freshly sliced lemons in all the rooms and even resorted to placing a 50% vinegar/water solution in the middle of the fireplace to try and draw the smell out of the room.  None of these made the slightest difference; the smell just hung in the air.  In the end an old fashioned remedy came to the rescue; a pan full of vinegar kept on a low simmer for a couple of hours.  It was almost as pungent as the smoke but was surprisingly effective at leaching the smoke from the air.

It wasn’t until the next day, when we could bear to be back in the house for any length of time, that we were able to do some research.  Just why had the smoke been so pungent?  The answer took a little tracking down; it seems that the sap of the bougainvillea is toxic.  It’s most widely known as a skin irritant that causes dermatitis although there are numerous references online to people who had to seek medical treatment to deal with serious infections from embedded thorns or splinters.  There are plenty of horror stories should you wish to go in search of them.

How bougainvillea behaves when burnt doesn’t seem to merit much discussion online, but we can report that it really, really isn’t a good idea.  Now, perhaps you’ll excuse us so we can head outside and clear the garage of all that (now useless) stored wood.

Happy 2010!


The house, MadAlex style

December 24, 2009

In previous posts there have been assorted references to MadAlex, the previous owner of this house.  During a recent sort through of house photos we realised that although we’d mentioned the interesting state the house was in when we bought it we’d never actually included any documentary evidence.

So, for your amusement and delight, below are images from the very first time we saw the inside of the house.  Think of these as an early holiday gift from us.

Before you peek though, remember, this is the house that MadAlex said would need “a little painting and perhaps some light replastering in one or two places“.

Of course MadAlex is an artist and it is clear that his perception of the world is very different to that of us non-artistic folk.

The living room

Open fires are lovely, especially in the cold weather we have up here in the hills.

Sadly this one didn’t draw properly so there was extensive smoke staining on the front of the fireplace … and the wall above … and the ceiling … and in the dining room … and the study.

The builder replaced the chimney to help the airflow and to prevent it setting fire to next door’s pomegranate tree – again.  That was one of the first of the stories fellow villagers rushed to tell us when we started work.  Apparently it was a talking point around these parts for quite some time.

Returning to soot for a moment.  Did you know, if you paint on walls that are sooty the paint just peels off again?  So, before you can paint, you have to scrub the walls and ceilings with a solution to neutralise the soot.  It is a filthy, tedious, unpleasant and back-breaking job.

Guess how we know?

The kitchen

Fitted kitchens are just so last season, no?  Really who needs more than strong coffee and food cooked in a toaster oven anyway?

On the right of the picture are industrial machine tools for cutting and stamping metal.  In the kitchen.

Once the existing kitchen units were removed the room was re-wired and re-plumbed, re-floored and re-plastered.  One doorway was blocked up and the windows were replaced.  The sink was re-located out to the garden.

And, the hole in the wall through from the kitchen to the bathroom to allow the washing machine to drain into the basin was blocked up.  Really, why bother with expensive plumbers when you could just use a hammer to knock a hole in a convenient spot and route pipework that way?

Speaking of which … behold the downstairs bathroom.  To be clear, at the point at which this photo was taken this was the only working bathroom in the house.

The bathroom

Aren’t those tiles lovely?  Sadly many of them fell off the wall when one of the builders sneezed so they all had to be replaced – such a shame.

The bathroom, just off the kitchen, was eventually split into a utility room and a downstairs cloakroom (a half bath to our north American readers).  The ceiling was replaced, as was the window.  The floor was dug up to allow new pipework to be laid as part of the re-plumbing.  The room was re-wired and re-plastered.

It’s interesting how time tends to dull the memory.


Builders at work

December 13, 2009

Sorting through some photos we came across a series taken by the builders while we disappeared off the island for four weeks during the renovations.

Note to people undertaking similar projects … its best not to wait until the morning before you leave to have vital conversations with workmen about things such as positioning of walls.  In our defence we hadn’t appreciated they’d get to that point in the project until we got back.  In their defence they had thought that they’d be able to call us if they had any essential queries.  We’d met the builders through a friend in a neighbouring village; they’d worked on his property, a lovely old village house, during which point the owner was either in residence or working on contracts in obscure locations.

Their logic was that if they were able to contact him in Angola, with the sound of gunfire in the background as they discussed paint colours, then we would be equally contactable.  What they failed to factor into the equation was that we were due to spend two weeks sailing across the Atlantic on the world’s largest sailing ship and for much of that time would be beyond all normal communication channels.

What, no window?

The misunderstanding, and the positioning of walls and the like, was dealt with quickly.  As a result the builders were able to get on with building out the upper floor and replacing the doors and windows while we were gone.

The photo above shows one of the builder contemplating the work needed to tidy up the window opening before the new window was fitted.  The new front door had recently been fitted.  Looking closely at the top right of the photo you can see some of the smoke damage from the fireplace … more of that later no doubt.


Ructions over measurements

November 28, 2009

As mentioned previously the non-squareness of the walls of this house provided some interesting challenges during the renovations.  Prior to moving in they caused us to re-work plans for the utility room when it became clear that things simply wouldn’t fit due to the allowances that had to be made for the quirky walls.

Upstairs proved just as challenging, but for different reasons.  When we acquired the house the upstairs was essentially an unfinished open space with a bathroom built into one corner.  Around about the centre of the room was a supporting pillar, and half way across a 3 inch step down.  To be able to plan where and how we’d divide the space we needed at least a rough plan of the space.

We spent hours and hours measuring and remeasuring the space … and nearly came to blows.

Now, where should we put the walls?

Hey! A drop in the floor. Shall we put a wall there?

The intention was to confirm the width of the space by measuring it in three different locations;

  • Measurement #1: the inside of the back wall of the house + the depth of the bathroom
  • Measurement #2:  wall to pillar + width of pillar + pillar to other wall
  • Measurement #3:  the inside of the front of the house

All three measurements should have been the same; each was the long end of a rectangle measured at a different point, but there was a massive inconsistency, over half a metre.

We re-measured, and then measured again.  We shouted, we swore, and there may even have been a little throwing of tape measures and the like.

We were totally baffled.  If the shape was a rectangle then those three measurements should be the same.

Eventually the penny dropped.  The house shape is not rectangular, it’s trapezoid.

The front and back walls are (vaguely – let’s not go there right now shall we?) parallel, whilst the side walls extend out.  Essentially the front of the house is a little over half a meter longer than the back of the house.

No, once more, we have no idea why this should be so.

A handy trapezoid diagram
A handy trapezoid diagram

Anyway, our measurement #1 was ‘a’ in the diagram, #2 ‘m’ across the middle of the space and #3 across the front of the house ‘b’.

With hindsight it might be clear how we got to hurling insults before we figured out what was going on.

Note the water tank in danger of collapsing

Note the 1000 litre water tank in danger of collapsing through the bathroom ceiling

Incidentally, a little research for a handy diagram of a trapezoid finds that it’s not a term used in North America.  Who knew?  For any American or Canadian readers the shape in question is an irregular quadrilateral!