The back of the house is the most important area to get looking nice. Behind the garage is invisible, and the large area to the side of the house is only visible when you’re there. But the back of the house is visible through the windows. 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 narrow path outside the kitchen and then a deeper patio in front of the lounge. We didn’t really want to do a major redesign except that we wanted to make the wide area somewhat smaller. Also, we decided to raise and level the lawn behind it. This meant either digging out the whole lawn, or building a small wall to raise the front edge. We decided on the latter. Since we decided that, Kas has decided she’d prefer a planting bed on the edge. Good job I didn’t have time to do the lawn in 2020.
I thought about 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. Once I began trying to lay patterns of rectangular slabs, I was glad I’d decided against the circular kit. I’ve done a decent job, but getting the gaps even is difficult, especially when laying the big slabs.
It’s a big enough area to have to be done in stages. I needed to lay the square outside the lounge quickly so I could plan the rest of the walls. There was too much risk in building the wall first. 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 build the walls afterwards.
The first part of the job was to dig out the area and prepare the base. The original contractor that laid the patio messed this bit up. I think he just dug out too much soil, and as a result he only had half the hardcore he needed. He was too timid discuss it with me, so he just didn’t turn up after the second day. I didn’t pay him. I got someone else to finish it. This meant there is a lot of hardcore under this area and also a lot of sand. I dug the edge out in the spring so I could do the joints. The hardcore went down at least four courses of bricks. Look at the first photo on this page. You can see I uncovered a half-decent beach.
I’d always anticipated that there would be useable sand beneath the slabs, but wasn’t sure how much. I bought a couple of tonne bags but I didn’t need them. Just from this 9m2 area of patio I managed to reclaim 2.5 tonne bags full. I didn’t use any of the sand I bought, despite mixing enough mortar for a solid 50mm mortar bed. All I did was to buy a garden sifter (aka a riddle) from Amazon and sift all the stones out. I filled one wheelbarrow with sand that was perfect for mixing the mortar. I filled the other with small stones that I could chuck straight 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. As it happens though, I could rearrange the slab-laying plan for the 3m square into four 1.5m squares, so that’s how I did it.
I laid the square in a couple of days, 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. I redid it the following weekend.
At the end of August my folks came down to visit. The good news was that lockdown had been relaxed enough that my mum was confident enough 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 they were here, we removed the old slabs from the back of the kitchen and then prepped the base and laid all the slabs there. As with the “big square”, the amount of sand we dug out was similar to the amount used to mix mortar. We also flattened most of the changes of height on the old patio, leaving a more-or-less flat plane sloping slightly away from the house. You’re supposed to leave a 150mm gap between slabs and wall, so we added this. It means that rainwater drains into the sub-base instead of sitting against the wall.
After this, 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 attacking the final job of filling all the joints. I used quite a lot more of the joint filler than the packets said, so I order a couple more packs. Progress was quick, though. At the time of writing the first draft of this post, I had completed just over half of the hydrochloric acid and water sealant activity.
So, skip forward a few weeks since the first draft of this post, and….
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. One 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. So 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 to buy that I liked. Making them is the ultimate messy, noisy and unpleasant part of the process. Because of that I’ve been a bit slow to do it. Sunday morning though, the neighbours were out and so was Kas.
I spent 3 hours cutting enough to cover the whole of the back, and then another 3 hours to put them onto the walls. It does look a lot better with the coping on. The amount I did on Sunday is about a half of the total I’ll ever have to do. Once on the walls, all that remained was to to fill the joints and then clean and seal them. That’ll be about 2 hours work.
Skip another week or so forward and I finished the job. We planted up the bed that’s around the back, and conducted the final acceptance test. The area is now in business-as-usual operations. Just don’t stray around either side of the house.
So when I “shut down” DIY work for the winter the area was complete apart from plants. I am looking forward having this important strategic area fully finished. I looked at some old photos the other day from before we had kids. The back garden was full of quite mature plants. We need to return to that state, beginning in 2021.