The back of the house is the most important area to get looking nice. The back of the garage is invisible, and the large 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. Once I began trying to lay patterns of rectangular slabs, I was happy that I’d decided against trying a circular kit.
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 too 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.
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. 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 to buy that I liked. This means that making coping stones has become the ultimate messy, noisy 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. It took me about 3 hours to cut enough 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. 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.
Skip another week or so forward and I managed to the job finished. We even managed to plant up the bed that’s around the back, meaning that the paving part of the back can be put through the final acceptance test, signed off, and brought into business-as-usual operations, so long as your usual business doesn’t involve straying around either side of the house.