The side of the house is completely invisible from inside, but it is a total sun-trap, what with it facing more-or-less southwards. It therefore deserves a lot of attention. The plan was to make it into an area that we can actually use, rather than just hurriedly walking through on the way to the garage.
The back of the house is the most important area to get looking nice. The back of the garage is invisible, and the parge area to the side of the house can only be seen when you’re there. The back of the house can be seen from the windows, and in particular there’s a large French window in the lounge which looks right out onto the garden. It was therefore quite important to get a decent design and to make it look nice.
The old patio had a long narrow path outside the kitchen and then expanded to a somewhat deeper patio in front of the lounge. We didn’t really want to do a major redesign except that we decided we’d like to make the wide area a bit smaller. We also decided we wanted to raise and level the lawn behind it, which meant either digging out the whole lawn area, or building a small wall and raising the front edge of the lawn. We decided on the latter.
We did toy with the idea of laying a decorative circular pattern in the slabs outside the window, but the complexity of trying to lay it put me off the idea fairly quickly.
It’s a big enough area to have to be done in stages, and I needed to lay the square outside the lounge window quickly so that I could build the rest of the retaining walls. There was too much risk in building the wall first, so I decided it was better to lay the patio and then build the wall around it. We’re only talking about estimating accuracy of a couple of centimetres, but I wanted to avoid either having a massive joint at the edge or having to trim a bit off all the slabs. So I planned to lay a square of slabs and then join up the walls afterwards.
The first part of the job was to dig out the area and prepare the base. When the original patio was laid this was the area where the original contractor decided he’d taken on too big a job. I suspect the reason was that he’d just dug out oo much soil, and as a result he only had half the hardcore he needed. Anyway, 20 years ago, that individual just didn’t turn up after the second day. I didn’t pay him. What this meant was that there is a lot of hardcore under this area and also a lot of sand. When having the pointing redone earlier in the year we cleared to about 3 courses of bricks down and were still hitting the hardcore. As you can see from the first photo on this page, once I’d removed the slabs I was faced with a bit of a beach. I’d always anticipated that there would be useable sand beneath the slabs, but wasn’t sure how much, so I have a couple of tonne bags to hand. But just from this 9m2 area of patio I managed to reclaim 2.5 tonne bags full. There was enough to mean I didn’t use any of the purchased sand at all, despite having to mix enough mortar for a solid 50mm depth mortar bed. All I did was to buy a garden sifter (aka a riddle) from Amazon and sift all the stones out, filling one wheelbarrow with sand that was perfect for mixing the mortar, and another wheelbarrow with small stones that could just be chucked into the sacks of hardcore for later use.
So I dug it out, moved a few bits around and refilled a couple of holes so that I had a flat base sloping slightly away from the house
I found the easiest way to get the mortar bed right was to build a frame using wooden battens of the correct depth, and to level the mortar across this frame with a bit of old gravel board. As I could only get 3m battens into the car, this limited how big and area I could set out in one go, but as it happens the way Kas had drawn the slab-laying plan for the 3m square could be rearranged slightly into four 1.5m squares, so that’s how I did it.
It took me a couple of days to lay the square, after which I set the concrete bed around the edge ready for the little wall. There was a day of disappointment (putting it mildly) at the end of a week off where I laid the bricks for that bit of wall and then watched it rain so hard for the rest of the day that the mortar was getting washed out. I decided that the best idea was to run out into the rain and lift the bricks again, as they weren’t going to be properly solid or nice looking after that rain. So that bit had to wait until the following weekend.
At the end of August my folks came down to visit – the good news being that the lockdown had been relaxed enough and my mum was confident enough that they were happy to travel down. My dad offered to give me a hand and it was most welcome. Mixing all that mortar is strenuous and time consuming. While he was here we managed to remove the old slabs from the back of the kitchen and then prep the base and lay all the slabs there. As with the “big square”, the amount of sand we removed was about the same as the amount used to mix the mortar. We also managed to remove most of the changes of height on the old patio, leaving a more-or-less flat plane sloping slightly away from the house. We’d also left a 150mm gap between path and house, as you’re supposed to, which allows any water that does reach the house to simply run into the sub-base rather than sitting against the bricks like it used to.
I rested on my laurels for a while (or went to work somewhere else for a weekend). This allowed all the mortar to harden properly. I also took the time to tidy the edges up before then attacking the final job of filling all the joints. I found I was using quite a lot more of the joint filler than the packets said, so I order a couple more packs to see me through the next few weeks, and progressed quickly through. At the time of writing the first draft of this post, I have completed just over half of the hydrochloric acid and water sealant activity. So I’ll shortly be finished with slabs in this area and will be looking to sign it off completely by finishing the coping stones before the winter sets in. I bought more cutting discs too.
I am looking forward to being able to say that this important strategic area at the back of the house is finished. Apart from the path to the deck, and relaying the lawn and replanting the beds and…. It never ends.
Back at the plot, and away from the hopeless dreaming that the job would get done somehow without me having to do any work, the last weekend of September saw me make a big push towards getting the back of the house completed. On Saturday morning I finished cleaning the slabs and sealing them. It went so quickly that I was able to put the decorative stones into the channel too. This meant that by Saturday night the whole area was looking good enough to have a go with the firepit. It was a bit cold and windy, but I did promise the girls I’d get enough done to have at least one more firepit night this year. Tick. On the Sunday I decided it would have to be time to attack all the coping stones. I’m making my own by cutting paving slabs, as I couldn’t find any I liked to buy. This means that making coping stones has become the ultimate messy, noisey and generally unpleasant part of the process, and because of that I’ve been a bit reticent about doing it. Sunday morning though, the neighbours were out and so was Kas. So it took me about 3 hours to cut enough coping to cover the whole of the back, and it then took me about another 3 hours to put them onto the walls. It does look a lot better with the coping on and the amount I did on Sunday was about a half of the total I’ll ever have to do, so that sets the scene quite nicely. So the main part remaining to complete this initial “back of the house” activity is to fill the joints on the coping and then clean and seal them. That’ll be about 2 hours work.
We came up with a bit of a grand plan to rework the garden during the course of 2019. The original patio was quite badly laid and slabs generally looked shabby and in need of being reset. The old retaining wall was rotten and the lawn was very uneven, as well as being mainly composed of moss.
As 2020 started, I got fed up and started planning in a bit more detail, finding reasonable products, and so on, but still with no anticipation of actually doing anything about it for at least another year.
And then there was a global pandemic. All of a sudden it was apparent that we wouldn’t be going away anywhere on holiday, but I’d have to take the time off somehow. And also, we wouldn’t be spending any money on going away anywhere.
There was a period of time after the COVID lockdowns started when I dd a lot of mental planning but was unable to do anything, as a result of not being able to get hold of any materials. By the middle of May that eased a little. I’d managed to get some deliveries of bulk materials like sand, walling blocks and hardcore, and DIY stores had started reopening, meaning that those “extra little bits” that a job always needs were now available again.
So enough of the potted history. Let’s talk about the plans. They were quite significant plans, reflecting the anticipation of a lot of time at home. The plans also reflected my total inability to estimate how long it takes me to get things done, especially when they are big, heavy things. But anyway, a summary of jobs we decided to attack:
- Raise the level of the standing space behind the garage – When I first had the patio done we left a step down between the patio at the side of the house and the back of the garage. The lands falls away to this side of the house. I decided to try to bring it all to the same level.
- Replace the old retaining wall of railway sleepers – 20 years of weathering had turned them into an interesting habitat for insect life that had little structural integrity.
- Remove some old planting beds that contained either no plants, or plants that were far too large.
- Remove the old pergola, which was being used to support a rather over-sized jasmine plant and which made the walk from back to side of the house feel rather claustrophobic.
- Build some raised planting beds – We’re a bit rubbish at keeping potted plants alive but we used to have some raised, brick-built beds that kept plants alive for years. More of those please.
- Improve the step into the garage – the old one was too small/ and low and the paving slabs had detached from the base
- Replace the fence between the house and the garage – a short length of fence that was the only piece I didn’t replace in the great fence-building programme of 2018.
- Replace all of the paving slabs – The old ones were cheap concrete jobs. A lot of them were damaged and they were all badly strained, plus some were not laid very well (not by me, I might add). They sloped the wrong way, resulting in water pooling against the side of the house.
- Build a path from the back of the house to the deck, so the deck can be accessed without having to cross soft, wet grass.
- Raise and flatten the lawn to remove all the bumps and unevenness.
- Split the back garden into separated areas of lawn and gravelled planting, like we used to have – using the new path from deck to act as a divider.
- Reshape the transition from the back of the house to the side, extending the planting area and replacing a step down with a gradual slope
Anyway, all of that amounts to a pretty significant amount of effort. More than enough to keep me busy during a year of no holidays, no weekends away, not much caching, no parkruns, and a distinct lack of other normal things to spend time on. And now it’s September as I’m writing this, so we’re getting to the point where there isn’t enough light in the evenings to be working outside, and as a result I’m inside typing.
So what products did I decide to use ? – Roughly as follows:
- All of the decorative bricks used in the walling are Marshalite Rustic in 300x100x65 buff – They give a pleasingly rough look and are ideal for someone who’s bricklaying skills are questionable. It proved easiest to order these directly from the manufacturer.
- For the paving slabs, I went for Natural Paving’s Classicstone in the Harvest colour(s) – It’s an Indian sandstone that comes in project packs of various sizes and colours. I ordered these through an online retailer, pavingsuperstore.co.uk.
- I couldn’t find any coping stones I liked that were the correct width, so I’ve ended up buying a few more slabs and a lot of discs for the stone cutter, and I’m making my own. The sandstone is plenty tough enough for the purpose and I found I’ve got a few offcuts available anyway from areas where whole slabs didn’t fit.
- I got all my bulk materials from BuildBase – There was no particular brand preference here – it was just a matter of them being the first people who could supply the materials once the lockdown started easing. They won the business and have continued to do so ever since. They’ve provided breeze blocks, cement, building sand, sharp sand, concrete ballast, pea gravel and hardcore.
- And then there were some random products I hadn’t thought about or realised that you needed. Paving slurry helps bond the non-absorbent slabs to the mortar. A hydrochloric acid solution removes cement dust from the surface of the slabs, and an “invisible” sealant keeps water out of the surface of the slabs (and helps keep them clean). The joints between slabs are filled with a brush-in joint filler. For the joint filler, slurry and sealant I used Natural Paving’s “Pavetuf” brand and ordered them from the same online retailer. The hydrochloric acid is available on Amazon (as are long rubber gloves, face masks and goggles – stay safe).
- For the little bit of fence that needed to be done, I used the same products from Wickes as I used two years ago. I wanted to make sure it was identical to the other fencing, and I needed so little that I could get it all in my car in a single go. I paint it with a Cuprinol One-Coat Sprayable colour called “Forest Green”
- And finally, the work generated a lot of waste, especially at the start when I was digging out old railway sleepers and smashing up random heaps of concrete. So I rented a 6 cu.yd. skip from a local supplier that I believe separates the concrete and crushes it for re-use as building aggregate. Better than sending it to landfill. The 6 cu.yd. skip did the first wave of cack, but another will be needed before long.