Adding a roof

Felt and Battened Roof

Roofing came with a choice to make: To loft space, or not to loft space. More of a debate than it sounds given our open plan living space… Do we sacrifice storage for increased ceiling height? Yes, yes we do.

Flatpacked roof
Flat packed roof

The loft space would have been tiny, costly and hard to access vs. much higher ceilings in all of the upstairs rooms. Lots of visitors have commented upstairs looks small from the outside but is actually a TARDIS. This is largely thanks to CAD’s clever design of our windows. It’s deceptive what’s upstairs and down. Keeping the proportions of the house in keeping with surrounding properties, while giving us enough space for our dream family home.

Highly skilled lifting, neatly avoid power cables
I’ll just lift the timbers up….. What power cables?

Rich opted for Travis Perkins to manufacture and supply the roof timbers flat packed, with his team fitting them. For felt & battening, supplying and fitting tiles he chose Forrester Roofing. Pleased with both choices. The roof came in less than we expected, even with the unplanned for ‘slightly big‘ garage glulam. The tiles look great and match with the surrounding properties well.  Special note that the Forrester Roofing guys worked exceptionally hard and impressed us all. Rich will be using them again, and we’d certainly recommend them. Edit: Shortly after, Forrester Roofing went bust.

Awaiting a glulam for the master bedroom
Awaiting a glulam for the master bedroom

The garage glulam makes a big difference. The garage’s roof is now joist free. Giving a much cleaner airier look, and leaving more space for a ramp. Watching Grand Designs suggests glulam are a pretty vogue thing. Given what they offer us in the garage and bedroom it’s not hard to see why.

Garage Glulam in situ
Garage glulam in situ, sans joists

Getting the roof on was a significant milestone. I’m finding it hard to get excited by individual milestones, and don’t step back enough to take it all in. The pressure of the next thing looms large. As soon as one task is done the next tasks are rapidly upon us. Milestones blur into an amorphous blob of progress, challenges, and slowly but surely our dream house. Credit to Rich for his project managing. Keeping tasks lined up and flowing far faster than I can blog about them. Our non-fixed cost and agile approach hopefully helps. I get the feeling we’re not nightmare customers… Yet :D.

Hang on a minute, none of this sounds very Eco? Where are the Eco features?

As with the block work we’ve gone heavy on insulation: 175mm of Celotex in the roof, and the ceilings are further insulated with Rockwool. In addition to the insulation, the garage roof’s pitch is deliberately 35°, and the roof is south facing. Making it ideal for Photovoltaic Solar power (Solar PV). After getting a few quotes we elected to go with a local firm, Natural Generation. They proposed 12 LG panels with optimisers allowing for the panels to work independently as some could be in the shade at various parts of the day. More on these in a later energy-related blog post. Conveniently, the panels are hidden from view on the back of the garage roof. Natural Generation supplied LG panels In addition to solar PV, I’m eagerly watching the Tesla Powerwall. What a genius idea. Hope they’re as good as they sound.

Block Work, and creating our heat store

Insulated Block
Getting out of the ground was easier than anticipated. A refreshing and novel change to the stress of getting the land, and issues dealing with planning. Four years of nothing but bills and hassle vs. three weeks from ‘waste ground’ to foundations. Karma perhaps, or another reason to be grateful for my great-great-grandfather’s shrewd investment.
The start of our block work
The majority of UK houses are built around the concept of a cavity wall. Two four inch block walls separated by an insulation-filled cavity. Timber framed houses are also gathering momentum thanks to their speed to build, and lower cost of development. Combining a heatpump and living in Cornwall’s, slightly less extreme temperatures, we are gambling there is a more energy efficient way to construct our house. Building single six-inch block walls externally clad in insulation, creating a cave-like effect. In summer months the insulation reflects higher outside temperatures, helping the block stay cool. In winter months the heatpump and underfloor’s heat soak into the block. The external insulation then helps retain the heat and protects from the outside elements. Creating our very own heat store.
Block work coming on
Six inch block goes up quickly
 The upsides
  • Low-intensity heat required to maintain core temperature, ideal conditions for a heatpump and underfloor heating.
  • The six-inch block provides a larger thermal mass to store heat.
  • Insulating the outside, not being limited for space by a cavity or framework, allows for significantly more insulation.
The downsides
  • Twice as expensive to build.
  • Complex to build, especially where we’ve used stone cladding.
  • Slow to finish.
  • Even slower to initially heat (or change temperature).
Ground floor nearly done
Easy joists and internal load bearing wall

In our case, where we are not building for profit, the upsides far outweigh the down. The concept of the heat store and easier to maintain temperature should require a lot less energy to keep the house warm. As long as we avoid completely losing the core temperature in the house. Getting heat into the floor and block is no small task, and can take over 24 hours to heat.

Floor 1 going up
Floor one going up
In theory (hopefully to be proven in practice) by heating the block work and floor of our house, using it as a heat store with extra insulation on the outside, means for less energy we’re warm in winter, and cooler in summer.
Vertically battened 50mm insulation
Vertically battened 50mm insulation
Credit goes to our structural engineer, and my Father-in-law, for pioneering the approach in our current house.
9mm ply lining the insulation
The timber clad block building
Initially, our heat store approach is far quicker to build. Thanks to only building single six-inch block walls. The extra cost and complexity creep into the latter stages of the build. Two layers of 50mm insulation are battened horizontally and vertically to the exterior of the block. This is then clad in 9mm marine ply, a damp proofing layer, mesh, and finished with render.
Horizontally and Vertically battened 50mm insulation
Horizontally and vertically battened 50mm insulation
Complicating things nicely, where we are using stone to finish the house doesn’t work with our chosen construction technique. To get around this we’ve attached 75mm of insulation to the outside of the block work and combined it with Surecav damp proofing. The stone has ended up costing us fourteen inches of interior space, a fair bit of head scratching and a few headaches. Here’s hoping it looks good when done. Local Cornish stone at least.
Stonework’s different set-up

Getting out of the ground

Cornwall’s rich mining heritage is one of the reasons we have our land. It is also a cause for concern when it comes to what’s hiding underneath. Fears of contaminated soil, mining features, mining spoil, undocumented offshoots of known/unknown mine shafts, and more.

Ground work
What lies beneath?

All of the above could negatively impact the chances of getting a mortgage, and easily cost tens of thousands to fix. To better face and prepare for potential issues we arranged a full mining survey from Wheal Jane Consultancy. Our planning application included an environmental search that suggested the land was contaminant free. However, the search was merely a desktop search: ‘Computer says No’. The full mining survey included digging inspection pits horizontally and vertically through where the footings will go. Offering our first insight into how easy or hard it would be to get out of the ground.

The inspection trenches revealed no nasty surprises and good quality ground:  “Ideal for building”. With planning permission granted the groundwork finally began. We’d been warned earth expands when taken out of the ground, and were fortunate in not needing to dig too far to find suitable ground for the footings. Even with this good fortune, a small 300 tonnes of top soil had to be removed from the site.

Maen Karne

300 tonnes! The trucks kept coming. We hope they didn’t disrupt our neighbours and the village too much. Maen Karne provided a very professional service, with friendly drivers. Their highly skilled drivers, mostly on turn around, managed to negotiate the drive and tight space on site with ease.

Trenches for footings

The footings/foundations are a standard affair:

  • 600-800mm deep trenches: mostly 600mm, and 750mm+ for our stone fronted walls
  • 225mm of concrete
  • 5 courses of tench block
  • Filled with hardcore: recycled 4 inch clean
  • 803 hardcore
  • Blinding sand in the garage with Damp Proof Membrane (DPM) before slab.
  • House is slab on top of 803. Then the DPM. Easier to do this way round and possible because of underfloor heating, and needing to have a 150mm difference between the finished floor height of the house and garage for building regs (potential fluid spills).

Only the drains caused Rich a minor headache. Tolerance for the drop from the furthest drain was tight, down to the last millimetres. Thankfully easily sorted by Rich.

Pretty standard foundations
Digging out lead to lots of discoveries: random pottery, medicine bottles and even a leather tap dancing shoe! Relics of generations passed. Nan is convinced the tap dancing shoe belonged to mother when she was a child. Digging the final tench Sam discovered a further ‘gift’ from the old bus depot, an inspection pit.
Old Bus Depot Inspection Pit
We’re enjoying the continuation of the inspection pit forming part of our garage’s foundations. We’d hoped to be able to use the pit but closer inspection revealed it to be poorly built. Scary to think people worked under heavy busses in it! £400 worth of additional concrete appeased the building inspector. The only additional cost suffered in getting out of the ground.
Once out of the ground we all breathed a sigh of relief. Each completed phase reduces our risks and stress levels: Land ownership > planning approval > mortgage approval > out of the ground >… Greatly looking forward to the roof being on and windows in.

Planning, fun and games

This is draft number 101, and long. My longest blog post to date! It’s taken a lot of revisions and thoughts to convey my points in anything other than a very negative manner. Our experience with Cornwall Council’s Planning department can be summarised as: stressful, miserable and unprofessional. In this post, I hope to salvage something positive by sharing tips that helped us. I fear many people endure a similar experience with Cornwall Planning. They’re then so relieved to be granted planning permission, or so busy altering plans, their stories don’t get shared.

If anyone else would like to blog or share their story (positive or negative) please comment below and I’ll gladly link to your experiences. This lack of feedback allows planning to brush terrible practices and poor quality of service under the carpet. In our case, it cost our architects and us considerable time and money. We simply don’t have the capacity to file an official complaint. It’s ludicrous that to officially complain you run the risk of incurring significant costs. But that is a minor point in a failing system.

Planning notice

Pre-Planning Application

Our planning journey started when our architect, Jeremy Bradley from CAD, submitted the first draft (featured here) of our plans as a pre-planning application. We concluded this was wise to get the plans in front of planning as early as possible. In theory, establishes if they’d have any objections in principle, however, we made two mistakes:

Mistake 1: Not having a cheque book we submitted our pre-app and elected to pay by credit card. An option offered by planning. After 3 weeks of hearing nothing, a bill arrived in the post. Poorly worded and claiming we owed £60. Planning wouldn’t process our application until we’d paid what we owed. A three-week delay before we’ve even begun and our first interaction is a poorly worded letter demanding money for a service not yet started. I’m considering adopting this practice too. I reckon I will go far doing nothing for three weeks then demanding money owed for not actually starting the work I’ve been asked to do…

Mistake 2: We bothered with pre-planning. After the three week delay we then suffered a further two-week delay, and repeatedly had to chase for our pre-planning feedback. At one point Jeremy suggested ‘Could we just submit our full application?’. To be told ‘No, the pre-planning feedback is a valuable part of the process and we should wait’. After a further wait, we received a document stating we’d paid for a desktop search. A desktop search that suggested no issues. Great!


Tip 1: Submit everything by email and follow up all interactions. Post adds a higher risk and further delays. When submitting anything, call and chase it! Be proactive and ensure anything that needs paying is paid at the earliest opportunity. Planning are ‘busy’, and we speculated delaying sending out bills is a great stall tactic providing an additional buffer for their workflow. Chasing also confirms planning have you on their system, and your application’s dates will reflect this. Thus avoiding a three week delay like we suffered.

Tip 2: Be aware that planning officially have ten working days to respond to email, and two days to return an answerphone message. This doesn’t mean they do. It just means they should, and that they have ten days worth of email and two days worth of answerphone messages in a backlog. I imagine this isn’t relaxing or productive. It is no wonder they can sound stressed and claim to be too busy. Log everything and, as with Tip 1’s chase everything, use this log to backup when you sent things and when you are due an answer. Our experience shows if you don’t do this planning are quite prepared to ignore you and forget you’d like to build a house this decade.

Submitted Elevations
Submitted Elevations

Planning

The Pre-planning (lack of) feedback meant Jeremy submitted our plans largely unchanged, and we crossed our fingers. Learning from pre-planning, the minute we received an email with we rang and used the application number to pay our fees. This meant our application was registered on the 30th May with a decision date of the 18th July.

As part of the planning process applications are sent to local Parish Councils. Each applicant is given two minutes to introduce their plans before the Parish Council discuss and vote to support, or not, the application. Both Jeremy (Architect) and Richard (Builder) offered to represent our case. However, Sarah and I elected to attend and represent ourselves with Sarah speaking. Sarah did a great job and gained unanimous approval and support on Tuesday 8th July.

Submitted Plans
Submitted Plans

About now you might be considering a five-week delay isn’t much of an issue, and it all seems to be going well. Even the public feedback period yielded no complaints. We thought the same. Then our planning officer (herein referred to as the planner) started ‘thinking’… Walking through the village I’m stopped by a Parish Councillor who said he’s sorry to hear our application is being rejected, and that he, our ex-Parish Councillor neighbour, and other Parish Councillors have written an appeal to the rejection. All suggesting the reasons are ludicrous.

When challenged by the Parish Councillors for our Architect’s feedback the planner said “we hadn’t provided any”. Probably because this is the first we had heard of it being rejected!!! The planner neglected to feed this relatively important point back to us…

Before rejecting plans planners provide the Parish Council with their reasons and see if the Parish will support the rejection. Thankfully, the Parish said no. Jinny Clark championed our case. Without Jinny, the support of our neighbours, and the parish our plans simply would have been rejected. We owe them all a lot of thanks!

In lieu of anything professional to call the planners ‘reasoning’ and ‘feedback’, we’ll refer to them as ‘thoughts’…

The wall

Thought 1: The wall is historically significant

Despite the fact, the Council’s heritage expert is on long term sick leave our planner, and her equally unqualified colleagues, thought the falling down wall (pictured above) was of historical significance. Therefore it needed to be saved. Even though it’s not historic, had nearly fallen down, and there is no mention of it in the World Heritage’s survey of historic walls in St.Agnes.

Out of respect for planning, we didn’t pull the wall down straight away. Despite being well within our rights. Instead, Jeremy hired a World Heritage Consultant who researched the wall and documented the conclusion it wasn’t of significance. With the expert’s opinion and a digger on site, we needed to have a mining survey undertaken. This involved digging a trench under the wall. On examining the wall the mining expert suggested it needed to come down, now! Before it fell on someone. Several taps of the digger bucket later and the wall was no more. I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t a satisfying moment. In amongst the wall’s rubble we found several ‘historic’ breeze blocks and a captain crunch cereal packet from, the very historically significant, late 70’s.

I make light of the wall as it was falling down, dangerous and not historically significant. However, we’re very keen to preserve the history of the plot. Most of the stone we’ve dug up and reclaimed from the wall will be re-used.

Thought 2: The design needs some alterations

The pre-application terms and conditions state you may be assigned a different planner for your detailed application. They don’t inform you planning is subjective. So while the planner who processes your pre-planning application might be reasonable, capable of performing their role, and in agreement with your plans, there is no continuation. Sadly, it just as likely you’ll be assigned a different planner who could have any number of personal issue with your plans. They may even try to redesign your house into a two-bed-bungalow with no garage, hipped roof, and a stupidly huge stacked chimney… Who wouldn’t want that after spending months with an architect designing a three-bed eco family home, with double garage! Especially as this was first suggested in the last two weeks of July. Two weeks before our approval was due and we hoped to start building. Sixteen weeks into the process, having previously only been told it’s all fine.

Thanks to Jeremy, Parish Councillor Jinny Clark and our next door neighbours we fought on. Eventually, we managed to persuade our planner’s team leader to visit the site. After being on site and submitting our plans through a ‘quality circle’ it was decided our plans ‘didn’t work‘. Not because of planning law, or article X,Y,Z… Nope, the reasons were…

“We approved 84% of plans!” a defensive start…

“If a random passer-by walks into your neighbour’s garden, looks at your property and says ‘that’s too big’ then we have a problem…..”

I challenged this with “You’re seriously saying we can’t build our house because a random person could walk into our Neighbours’ enclosed garden and think our house is too big. Despite having a letter from the neighbours calling your feedback ludicrous and offering their full support”

“…… Yes……. and it’s my professional opinion too…”


Tip 3: Be prepared to fight. With Jinny, the Parish, neighbours, and Jeremy all in support we weren’t prepared to let our house go without a fight. Our planner’s team lead asked if we were willing to compromise, and I flatly said no. This is our one chance to build here and they’d given me no reason other than an opinion as to why we couldn’t. An opinion no one else agreed with. Looking back this was a pivotal point. Had we agreed to changes planning would have continued to push, or rejected our plans and we’d of had to go to appeal.


After the planners’ site visit on Wednesday 3rd September, things came to a head the following Friday. We received an email from Jeremy informing us planning were going to reject our application and we would have to go to appeal. This is where we enter a whole new tier of costs, and our case goes in front of local councillors to be determined.

Planning can say what they like during these meetings, and if there isn’t enough time we might not have been able to state our case. However, the email also CC’d Jinny Clark. Jinny rang our local councillor and explained the situation. He then rang planning, and we received an email stating we’d been granted delegated approval. This is when a local councillor tells planning it’s approved! We should expect this to be written up and with us Monday 8th September!!!!

Great Success

Certificate B and the triangle

Monday comes and goes, you can imagine I’m frequently checking my email! Tuesday comes and goes… Still nothing! Wednesday lunchtime I’ve had enough, and try to ring our planner to find out what’s going on.


Tip 4: Redial! If you need to speak to planning just keep dialling. The planner only ever once answered the phone on my first attempt to call. It usually took 2-3 presses of redial, minimum. I’m aware this makes me an annoying customer but I was driven to it by their unprofessional nature:

  • Not doing things they committed to.
  • Not replying to emails and calls within their allotted time.
  • Sending emails completely out of the blue containing major updates and issues without enough information to be able to understand what’s going on.
  • Not following or adhering to their own processes.
  • Not updating their calendars to reflect their movements. If you ring the Council’s very helpful call centre they can look up an individual’s calendar and let you know if they are on vacation, on a site visit, or in meetings etc. While this makes me akin to a stalker, you try being patient after two days of being ignored when someone is ruining your house build.

If you need to speak to someone who’s trying to derail your house build with their opinion the least they could do is answer the phone, reply to emails, or correctly use their answerphone & calendar.


Paraphrasing, it went something along the lines of……

Me: “Hi XXXXX, it’s Olly. I’m just ringing about our delegated approval that was due on Monday?”

Planner: “Ah, well… In light of all the support, we’ve changed our minds and decided to approve the application ourselves [remember that 84% approval statistic….]. However, a Mr.XXXXXXXX (my delightful uncle) has raised an ownership complaint on Monday and I’ve given him until Friday to present his case”

Me: “Errrrrrr… and you didn’t think this was worth mentioning to us on Monday…………….”

Over the summer planning informed Jeremy my uncle had raised a complaint. However, planning wasn’t allowed to tell us what the complaint entailed. Our planner’s team lead suggested we could fix the problem by confirming ownership of the land to be built on. We did this and thought no more of it. Unfortunately, on the 10th of September with planning approved but not in writing, we discovered Nan hadn’t been served notice. An oversight on our part. While we own all of the land we intend to build on, we only have right of way over the drive. Because the access is considered part of the build, and the drive is owned by my Nan, we needed to serve her notice. Twenty-one days of notice from re-submitting our Certificate B form, and serving Nan. Three more ‘joyful’ weeks of will-it-won’t-it!

Finally, on the third of October, our approval arrived! Predictably after I had to ring our planner and chase it. Our potted timeline:

  1. 2nd April – Submitted Pre-app
  2. 20th May – Receive Pre-app feedback
  3. 30th May – Submitted full plans, date acknowledged by planning
  4. 8th July – Unanimous support from St.Agnes Parish Council
  5. 18th July – Decision due date
  6. 3rd September – Site visit with planner and her team lead
  7. 5th September – Email to say it’s being rejected
  8. 5th September – Email to say we’re getting delegated approval
  9. 8th September – Issue with no certificate B
  10. 10th September – Serve Nan notice and submit our amended Certificate B form
  11. 3rd October – Finally granted planning

Only 11 weeks late……


Tip 5: Don’t plan on planning. All being well our application would have been approved on the 18th of July, and we’d of starting building on the 25th. Sadly, that wasn’t to be. We were fortunate our Builder is very understanding!

Tip 6: If in doubt request another planner. We were too late and gambled it would be ok. Planning is subjective. Whether it should or shouldn’t be is another topic, it is! We’ve heard lots of horror stories relating to some planners, and good feedback on others. In theory, if everyone did the research and pushed for a good planner it would free up the time of the others to improve and force the planning team leaders to address the imbalances in the quality of service offered.

Tip 7 – The most important: Have a good team. Without Rich’s patience & advise, Jeremy and Sally from CADs hard work & efforts, the support of the Parish Council, and the lengths Jinny Clark went to we wouldn’t be building now.


Why the Old Bus Depot?

West Kitty Cottage circa 1920

The forge, fire station, and coach house

In the late 19th century my Great Great Grandfather returned from a cross-Atlantic-adventure. An explosives engineer and miner, he and his brother went to seek their fortunes.  The demand and rewards working across the Atlantic were high. He struck gold and returned to Cornwall a wealthy man.

Inside the ole forge

On returning to Cornwall, he (in the middle above) purchased parts of West Kitty mine when it ceased mining. The investment came with a number of properties, including a forge and the mine’s account house. The forge was used to service and repair mining tools and equipment.

West Kitty Cottage and Nan

The above picture shows my Nan sat outside of the former account house, with a lean-to and the corner of the forge’s roof just visible. My Nan’s father (my Great Grandfather) used the lean-to as his workshop and the forge to found the local bus company: Harper & Kellow. Hence ‘the old bus depot’. Technically it was a coach house as my Great Grandfather ran coaches (including the coach below). However, most people associated horses with coaches, and a coach house is a different concept again. So ‘The Old Bus Depot’ it is…

One of the original Harper and Kellow coaches awaiting restoration....
One of the original Harper & Kellow coaches awaiting restoration

The Old Bus Depot enjoyed a varied life and even became the local fire station during the second world war. Not ideal given it housed several coaches and turning up the drive required a lot of skill! My Grandfather eventually sold Harper & Kellow, and in 1970 the forge was demolished.

The land

Ground works beginning

Our Agile house build: the Old Bus Depot

The Old Bus Depot 3D Render

Intro

Who hasn’t sat and watched Grand Designs and considered what they’d do differently. How you’d manage a budget differently, or not have put the wall there in the first place. How silly the people were to think it would only cost £XXXXXX to build, and how laugh out loud funny it is when they say they’ll be in by Christmas. The sheer glee on Kevin McCloud’s face when they utter the words “I’m going to project manage the build myself”…

Well, this our turn. The time has finally come to build. After what can only be described as a test of our tenacity, and a long journey. Massive thanks to friends and family for their support. Last week work finally began and we’re building our new home!

The plan is to chronicle the journey from ‘waste ground’ to home. Sharing the highs and lows of building, some of our rational / lack of rational, and hopefully offer an insight into building from the perspective of none-builders.

The brief

Build an Eco family home to meet our current and future needs, featuring:

  • Open plan living space (big enough to host a joint family Christmas)
  • 3 Bedrooms
  • 3 Bathrooms (including a downstairs wet-room)
  • Family friendly, young and old
  • Dog and surf friendly
  • Ground source heat pump, solar PV, and underfloor heating
  • Office space (I work from home)
  • Double garage with space to work on cars

Taking everything learnt from over 14 years in IT, and watching Grand designs… I’m going to manage the build myself… Kidding, but IT has gifted us two carry-overs so far:

1. Hire the best / most experienced project manager (PM)

In my experience a good PM is worth their weight in gold. By good I mean: experienced, proven, someone you get on with, and an individual aligned to your values. To this end we’ve hired local builder and project manager Richard Llewellyn, of Llewellyn Design and Build Ltd. We’re fully entrusting the build to Rich. This doesn’t mean turn key. Decisions will still be ours to make while Rich project manages, and chases us for them.

2. Agile

In work we put our faith in the Agile Manifesto and its natural alignment with the way life works on IT projects. Lots of people practise Agile outside of IT. The build presents an opportunity to try applying it / Agile aspects (more on this to come :D). How does this apply to our build so far?

  • We’re not running with a fixed cost. We’ve estimates for the various stages of the build and these will be adapted making decisions as we go. A lot of articles and self build guides insist on going to tender and fixed price. I dislike fixed price in IT. It would be hypocritical to enforce it building our house. With fixed price the final finish and last stages are in direct competition with the profitability of the project. This is not to say we want to economise on the building / structural work. We’re hoping by adopting an agile non-fixed price approach to do the best we can with the funds (and time) available. Delivering the most value and best fit for our needs.
  • Using SCRUM principles. Accepting not all problems can be fully understood or defined, focusing instead on maximising our builders’ ability to make decisions, build and respond to the trials and tribulations building brings. For example: being on site daily to keep in contact with what’s going on, share requirements & ideas (and understanding of requirements), remove blockers, and priorities. Keeping other meetings to a minimum.
  • Embracing feedback and learning from the good and bad aspects each build phase delivers. As first time builders there is a lot to learn. Agile’s iterative and incremental development breaks the build into manageable chunks of learning and development points.

Should be a fun experiment balanced with a reasonable amount of pressure to get it right…

The plan

Elevations

Rich recommended Jeremy Bradley from CAD Architects and our current rented home was also designed by one of their founding partners. They’ve an excellent reputation and some lovely examples on their website. After our first meeting onsite Jeremy went away to draw up our fee proposal and quote.  I spent a further few hours summarising all of our requirements, thoughts, and drawings in an email. Breaking things down by room, and offering context and whys behind our thoughts.

Lower Floor Plans

When Jeremy sent the plans through I was gutted. I’d drawn an L-shaped building and been mentally living in its layout for 3 years. Jeremy proposed a T-shape with a very different layout upstairs and down. My initial reaction was “find a new Architect”. Predictably, Sarah loved it and told me, in no uncertain terms, “you’re not an Architect”. It took three days for me to come round. Lots of going over, and over, the plans. Discussing it with friends and family. Imaging living in the house and using its various flows: Coming in with wet dogs or wetsuit, working in my office relative to the rest of the house, and guests being able to use the wetroom as an ensuite(ish). Jeremy’s attention to detail and skills met our requirements far better than my humble drawings. Further proving Sarah’s point.

First floor plans

A further couple of emails were exchanged and we had a final meeting in CAD’s Truro office before submitting our pre-app plans. Exciting times!!!!!!!!! Massive thanks to Jeremy and Sally from CAD for all of their help and support. More on the thanks and nightmare that is dealing with Cornwall Planning coming soon…

For now we’re trying to source energy and powder coated aluminium windows suppliers. All recommendations and suggestions appreciated.

My Agile On The Beach 2014

Last year Agile On The Beach 2013 was approached with an excited anticipation of the unknown, and relatively newly having joined the Agile party. With lessons learned and applied from 2013 I was keen to capitalise on Agile On The Beach 2014, and bring new ideas and things to try back to my team.

This year is the first Agile On The Beach to be sponsored by IBM. I looked forward to meeting up with the other IBMers and getting their views on our Cornish Agile Conference. Nice to meet you all, learn more about Rational Collaboration Lifecycle Manager, and see Jon Tilt’s presentation: ‘An Agile Journey – Making The Elephant Dance’. The phone controlled car demo was a great plug for Bluemix… I didn’t spend hours driving it and chewing Rational’s Glen Mitchell’s ear off about cars, the Nürburgring, and anything with an engine… It was also great to overhear two delegates discussing how they didn’t know of Bluemix’s existence before the conference and that Amazon had better watch out.

IBM Blue Mix Phone controlled car

My top 5 (OK… 6, I wanted flow to feature too) take aways:

  1. Value People
  2. Validated learning, to actually learn
  3. Learn to coach
  4. Feedback, feedback, feedback
  5. Forecast, don’t estimate
  6. Flow

 1. Value People

Meeting lots of people is one of the best aspects of attending a conference. Agile On The Beach attracts a diverse crowd, and is all the better for it. There were a lot of reminders to value people especially team members. People are key to everything! Take the Agile Manifesto:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools – The first point, value people over process.
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation – People (for the moment, robots will get us eventually) write software.
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation – People are customers, customers are people too. Collaborating is a people skill.
  • Responding to change over following a plan – People change, part of successfully adopting Agile is to make changing for the better as easy as possible. This means supporting people, and creating an environment they can thrive. Bringing out their best work as a result.

Toby Parkins nicely summarised the event with this tweet:

Meri Williams talk ‘Awesome People Management with Agile’ had lots of awesome points I keep coming back to:

  • Cultivate inclusion, every team member should be able to answer ‘Can I excel here?’ with YES
  • Agile is the team, not an individual achievement
  • Don’t get lost in a process and forget about the people
  • A career is more than just a series of jobs

Treasuring evangelists (people :D) was a running theme in many of the sessions. To learn, to teach, to affect a change, evangelists are key players. Hoping to build on this and get Jon Tilt in to present to my team.

Jon Tilt of IBM presenting 'Making the Elephant Dance'

2. Validated learning, to actually learn

Marcin Floryan’s #NoLearning talk was different to what I expected. Last year his talk the Art of Feedback was a highlight. This year he didn’t disappoint with the premise to learn anything you have to deliberately practise, validate and test under pressure. Challenging yourself with “What have you changed?” as a result of learning. Marcin took this a stage further by introducing Kolb and lots of great examples from History not learning.

“It’s not enough to have the skills. It’s not enough to have the theory. You have to go through a cycle….”

David Kolb

Two other points resonated:

  • The value of certification because it validates learning
  • Expect to get worse before you get better. Marcin posted the diagram below showing learning / deliberate practice’s effect on productivity over time. An important point in setting expectations and planning projects.

Productivity drops when learning, to begin with!

After learning, what have you changed?

3. Learn to coach

Another common theme among the team orientated sessions: “Share more of yourself and your skills”. Coaching and sharing knowledge are a performance improving means to demonstrate value to team members. Investing your time helping develop their skills and careers. Too often I find myself thinking “I’ll do that as only I can”. This is the wrong attitude for creating an environment in which everyone can excel and thrive. The closed doors, single point of failure, approach stints the growth of a team, increases risks on projects and even limits your career. By contrast coaching provides an opportunity to validate learning, share skills, and see things from other people’s perspectives. Helping to explore topics further, reduce risk, evenly distribute work, and grow your team.

Coaching skills, like most skills, can be learnt and improved. I need to look into coaching course, (deliberately) practise and seek feedback from team members. To validate my learning and ensure I’m improving. More time, more sharing of skills and myself with the team.

4. Feedback, feedback, feedback (and Kaizen)

Feedback to people, on processes, on everything. Feedback is key to growth, successfully changing for the better and a nod to Kaizen. The continual improvement philosophy. Ginni Rometty said: “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good”. Good enough is a key part of an Agile project: Minimum Viable Products (MVP – Same TLA as Most Valued Player 😀) unlock interaction with stakeholders, and therefore feedback, far earlier. Early feedback enables requirement, priority, and focus changes that result in shipping a better product sooner. Delivering value faster. It sounds obvious but, like with ‘Forecast, don’t estimate’, if you only review things at the end how do you make the right choices during?

As a team I feel we don’t feedback enough, positively and negatively. It’s all too easy to skip a retrospective, or be ‘too busy’ to revisit issues and achievements after they’ve passed. A few of the sessions mentioned scheduling more time for feedback and meetings. We need to do this. Meri Williams specifically mentioned 1:1s as a key tool for managing an Agile team. Not a status update! Ask the tricky questions and get team members to think (and feedback):

  • How challenged do you feel?
  • Career Aspirations?
  • Plans for growth?
  • Satisfaction in the work you’re doing?
  • What went well / What didn’t?
  • Any issues?
  • What would you like to change?

Asking for, listening to, giving, and making changes based on feedback demonstrate value to team members and stakeholders. Again obvious but… People feel valued if they are listened to and can see their ideas having an impact. Feedback therefore key to cultivating inclusion, and a team where everyone can thrive.

Pia-Maria Thoren, in her talk ‘Agile HR and Agile leadership in a nutshell‘, said “You can’t make a seed grow. You can only nurture it”. This applies at all levels: self, team members, team and product. Feedback is a key way to nurture.

Pia raised two other concepts that stuck with me:

  • Line of sight motivation. Pia shared a slide with two men breaking up rocks and their thoughts. One man looked bored thinking about breaking up rocks. The other was motivated thinking about building a cathedral. Building on the ‘context & why’ lessons learned from 2013’s AOTB.
  • The Burrito Leadership model – Leadership is the bread, just enough to deliver as much filling as possible. The filling is the team’s good work.

Feedback, coaching, context, and leadership are all essential parts of nurturing and creating a successful agile team, and building great products.

Line of site motivation

5. Forecast, don’t estimate

Friday’s Business Keynote from Bjarte Bogsnes: ‘Beyond Budgeting – an agile management model for new business and people realities’ suggested budgeting is broken and needed business to adopt an Agile approach to fix it. Breaking budgets down and converting them into a series of smaller questions. Instead of “Do we have the budget for this?” use “Do we need this, how much value does it create, could it be good enough already?”.

Beyond Budgeting Mindset

This ties in with feedback, and an Agile approach. Don’t wait a quarter or year to find out if you’re on budget and delivering. Keep questioning, smaller iterations. Bjarte mentioned the quote below, and attributed it to Einstein…

“Not everything that counts can be counted. Not everything that can be counted counts.”

Upon a little digging / Googling it appears it is more likely from William Bruce Cameron instead of Einstein.

It would be nice if all of the data which sociologists require could be enumerated because then we could run them through IBM machines and draw charts as the economists do. However, not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.

Thanks to QuoteInvestigator.com

Whoever said it the point is valid especially in the contexts of budgeting, estimating, and planning. An agile approach provides more visibility, flexibility, and automation that lead to higher levels of creativity and productivity. Change and quickly reacting to change become opportunities to build a better product if the budget also becomes agile and constantly focusing on what delivers the most value (as that changes with the business’ need).

Sean Moir’s session ‘The String Game’ further built on this by claiming: ‘forecast don’t estimate’. Demonstrated with a clever game of ‘guess the string length’. Combined with a calculation heavy Google Spreadsheet model. Sean suggested deriving a model for a team’s performance: Analysing previous estimates and actuals, calculating ranges, and predicting confidence. Using the model to forecast rather than estimate.

The string length game showed how the model lets you gauge confidence and scenario plan. It could forecast with varying confidence if the next strings were going to be longer or shorter. The question ‘Is it going to take longer than X,Y,Z?‘  is a lot easier to answer than ‘how long will this take?‘ especially if you can backup your answer with the model.

As an optimist planning is a stressful point. This higher / lower approach to confidence using previous tasks vs. the tasks in question is certainly something we’ll look into. Using actuals data from our CLM reports to create and refine a model, and track our progress.

6. Flow

Many of the sessions mentioned the Flow Channel & Flow State. Where performance and productivity are optimal. Many athletes claim being in this state causes time to slow down, and draw a lot of parallels with meditation. Living in the single present moment. I’m keen to delve deeper into this topic especially to improve my swimming, surfing, driving, coaching, and overall well-being.

The Flow Channel

The concept keeps cropping up e.g.

Guy Martin’s Autobiography

* Kaz: Pushing the Virtual Divide (right at the start)

* Davis Phinney mentions flow in relation to Parkinsons, and emotionally draws a parallel between everything slowing down when in the flow state and living with Parkingsons.

See you at Agile On The Beach 2015?

Massive thanks to all who presented and the excellent organising team, rollon 2015! Register your interest here, and see all of 2014’s sessions here. As an added bonus the IBM Rational team were giving away copies of Agile for Dummies, download your free copy here.

Mac Mini Hard Disk Upgrade with Clonezilla

My Dad’s aging Mac Mini has done him a great service. A late 2009 A1283 model we’ve already upgraded the RAM to 8GB but didn’t take the opportunity to address the 160gig hard drive. Sadly for Dad this meant, while processing photos, he ran out of space at the weekend. No problem…
Case off Mac Mini AA1283
And so it begins…… Thanks to iFixit for the tear down guide
Lots of 2.5inch replacement options: SSD, capacity, green credentials and performance. Realistically the Mac Mini is 5 years old and we’re into bonus ownership and usage time. For £47 from Overclockers a Western Digital 7200rpm Black Scorpio seemed the best compromise. It would offer Dad another 500+gig and slightly more performance over the original 160gig 5400rpm drive. Slightly concerned by the additional heat 7200rpm might bring but lots of blog posts and Google results showed nothing but positive reviews and successful upgrades.
Drive Bay for the DVD and HDD
Removed the drive bay for the DVD and HDD
Using iFixit and having already been through the process the removal of the drive was relatively simple. The Mac Mini really is the hobbyist’s Mac. Truer to Apple’s hobby builder origins. Try upgrading the hdd on an iMac… RAM no problem, hdd not so much…. Because Dad’s Mac Mini was running well, apart from the lack of hdd space, I elected to clone the drive rather than backup and rebuild it with a new OS install and Time Machine restore.
The HDD to be swapped
The full 160gig original
Clonezilla is a fully featured open source option for cloning drives. It’s also the cloning tool I’m most familiar with. Cloning the drive with Clonezilla has only one limitation: the destination must be the same size or larger than the source. There are a few ways to hack around this but thankfully in this case, going from 160gig to 750gig, is easy. Once cloned I’d need to re-size the main partition to use the additional space. Cloning this way saved a lot of time. For a few button presses and several hours sat in the background we have a backup image of Dad’s drive and no need to sit through installs and lengthy file transfers. Had Dad been suffering other issues with his Mac Mini, or had it been a Windows machine, I’d of been tempted to use this as an opportunity to fully rebuild.
Cloning the physical drive with Clonezilla
Cloning the physical drive with Clonezilla
If you’ve not used Clonezilla before this guide may be of help: http://www.techrepublic.com/blog/windows-and-office/how-do-i-clone-a-hard-drive-with-clonezilla/ -Clonezilla has options to directly clone a drive on the fly. However, for the sake of an extra hour I used the opportunity to take a backup image of the original drive. Writing the whole drive image to an external hdd and then from there to the new drive. Although Dad has his own backup routine it’s reassuring to have an offsite copy. Especially one that can be cloned to any disk (160gig, or larger) in an hour, should the worst happen. When cloning a drive in this instance it’s much better to clone the entire drive / device rather than try to clone and recreate individual partitions. Creating individual partitions requires more effort and can cause complications when being written back. While the Mac Mini was apart I used the opportunity to clean and inspect it. Taking care not to do any damage while cleaning, paying particular attention to the heatsinks and cooling fans.
It's back, now to resize the main partition
It’s back, now to resize the main partition
Mac Mini re-assembled(ish). I’m superstitious and always test a machine before fully putting the case back together / adding the last screws. The curse of the fitted case and final screws invariably means when you test it you’ve forgotten something and have to take it apart again. Leaving it this way you don’t forget and it all works fine! Resizing the partition is easy using ‘Disk Utilities‘. However, during the resizing an error was thrown: “Partition failed: Couldn’t modify partition map because file system verification failed.”. This is odd because the drive was verified with no issues. A quick Google revealed a solution but no answer. If anyone could shed any light on this it would be appreciated. To be doubly sure I rebooted the Mac Mini into recovery mode (CMD + R during booting) and used Disk Utilities to run a full verify and repair. Rebooted, resized the main partition and then, for good measure, performed a full permissions repair.
Tested, partition resize and ready for the case to be re-assembled.
Tested, partition resize and ready for the case to be re-assembled.

With the the basics checked and everything working I put the case back on and returned the Mac Mini to Dad. Once back at home on his desk we ran through similar basic checks:

  • DVD drive worked
  • Sound worked
  • Network and Wifi worked
  • External devices worked: Mouse, keyboard, printer and USB drive
  • NEW: Fans worked
  • MS Office worked(ish): 2011 picked up on the HDD ID change and demanded its purchase key again. Thankfully Dad had this to hand.
Success, happy Mac Mini and a happy Dad.
—UPDATE—
Not so success…. Dad rang to say the Mac Mini had shutdown as a result of overheating. My first thought was the 7200rpm drive was too hot, having feared this might be the case when I researched and ordered it. However, it’s a new drive and Dad wasn’t overly using the HDD when the Mac Mini crashed. So I changed tactics and installed Temperature Gauge to see what was overheating, and how the single fan in the Mac Mini was performing. This revealed the fan wasn’t spinning.
Re soldered Fan Controller and Temperature Gauge app showing the fan maxed at 5500rpm
All fixed 😀
Taking the case off again revealed the fan controller was coming off its tracks and therefore not calling the fan. The controller for the fan sits on the front of the Mac Mini’s drive enclosure. Thankfully easy access with a soldering iron. 1 blob of solder and 3 tracks reheated later resulted in a much happier Mac Mini. Dad’ will keep an extra eye on the HDD and overall temperatures this weekend. Removing layers of dust, cleaning the fan and the new drive should be fine, cooler than before even! Another lesson learnt and thing to check for before putting the case back on…

Similar Shopper Advertising thanks to Defer Chrome Extension

Recently similar items boxes started appearing on websites. Often, like in the example below, there is no item to purchase and the ‘similar’ items are unrelated and annoying. Firstly noted on my home Mac, I was more worried when the boxes also started appearing on my work laptop….

Similar Shopper alternative Items powered by Superfish
Similar Shopper alternative Items powered by Superfish

Affecting Chrome only and on two separate machines meant it had to be an update to an existing extension, or I’d foolishly added a new extension! A quick check of extensions ‘Settings >> Extensions’ revealed no nasty surprises and only 3 enabled extensions.

Defer Chrome Extension
Defer Chrome Extension

Systematically going through each I found a curious option under the Defer Extension for Instapaper (formerly Instrachrome)…

Defer Options

Ads, with a tick box to disable. Ticking the box on both machines seems to have worked nicely. No more similar items boxes so far!

Disable ads
Yes please……

Agile On The Beach #AGILEOTB #ATOB 2013 and 2014

Last year I had the pleasure of attending Agile On The Beach 2013. My first Agile Conference and first Tech Conference in Cornwall. As a relatively new team to Agile it was a great launch pad, with lots of great ideas and takeaways to try with my team:

  • Agile should always focus on removing barriers from productivity
  • Iterative Improvement – continually look to improve
  • Automate – Automate as much as you can to free up as much productive time in a sprint as possible
  • Context is key – Everything works better if context is established upfront and people know WHY

The event was a real credit to the organisers. All of the talks were thought provoking and to a very high standard. It was also a great opportunity to network with other attendees. Attendees from a diverse variety of companies, everything from huge (IBM huge) to one person outfits, spanning lots of industries and from worldwide locations.

Dan North's excellent Key Note

Naturally I am biased and view Cornwall as THE place to hold anything but it appears I wasn’t alone in this thought. Many attendees were visiting Cornwall for the first time. Drawn by the world class speakers and then impressed by the location. Lots were suggesting coming back with family and friends for holidays. Answering ‘Where are you from?’ became my favourite activity at break times. Usually responded to by ‘You live here!’ and then a series of questions to understand how that was possible: Agile, Superfast Broadband, Lotus Connections, Geographically Diverse Teams, Video Conferencing, Rational Tools, lots of planning, hard work, a supportive manager and a sprinkling of luck.

Last year I made the mistake of taking too many notes. Furiously scribbling my particular brand of chicken scrawl, look like a 10 year old wrote it symbols, on lined A4 paper. Largely the notes sat gathering dust thanks to the talks being replayable online. This year I plan to only write ideas and actionable todos. Those were the real value for my team from last year, not the pages and pages of notes.

Lots of notes… Not such a good idea

AOTB 2013’s talks – http://agileonthebeach.com/2013-programme/2013-videos-and-presentations/

My favourites:

Dan North @tastapod – Software Craftmanship KEYNOTE: Jackstones – Journey To Mastery – 2 parts, see the above link

Sarah Fairbairn, Sullivan Cuff Software – Playing Games – http://youtu.be/yBOXJX6HdDw

Wouter Lagerweij & Ciarán O’Neill  The “Just Do It” approach to Change Management – http://youtu.be/OYdalj0kvss

Marcin Floryan – The Art of Feedback – http://youtu.be/ukNnceHf4uw

Agile On the Beach 2014 is next week and I’m excited. My business case was in the minute I got back from 2013 and with eager anticipation I awaited the first batch of Early Bird tickets. The final schedule was recently published here: http://agileonthebeach.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/2014-CONFERENCE-SCHEDULE-FINAL.pdf and I’m trying to work out how to get the most out of the two days. This year my focus will be on the team element. This helps navigate both days. Knowing the talks will be uploaded and replayable is a great backup and takes some of the pressure off choosing when talks clash.

This year is doubly exciting because IBM has chosen to be a sponsor of the event! IBM’s Jon Tilt will be presenting – An Agile Journey – Making the Elephant Dance. A team of IBMers will be manning a display throughout the two days, promoting BlueMixRational Tooling and the Jazz community.

2014’s AOTB is already sold out but the talks will be available online and I expect the #AOTB tag to start generating a lot of discussion on twitter. If you’d like to come to the 2015 event be mindful to book early. You can register your interest here: http://agileonthebeach.us5.list-manage2.com/subscribe?u=df92726ddfd2ad327f4fd0c99&id=76f054ec4a