What it’s like renovating a timber house from the 1800s……during a pandemic…….and on a shoestring budget (in Northern Sweden)?

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So it all began back in summer 2019 when we decided to sell our current home & start to renovation our then “Summerhouse”, Corona was known only as a light Mexican beer, masks & social distancing an unknown thing for most of the World & recession & unemployment mainly a thing we heard about on the news, a blissful time by all accounts compared to now!

When Corona started to hit hard in Sweden in March 2020 we didn’t really expect it to get where it got especially with the Swedish Government playing it’s pandemic-potential down significantly, but the rest is history and for us doing this renovation it certainly made things harder.

First thing was for me as a business owner & web contractor I lost my main work contract almost instantly as companies I worked with got nervy & got rid of contractors & stopped hiring. I’ve been a contractor for over 15 years so you are always ready for a downturn to happen but in short I wasn’t expecting the web to be hit so quickly.
When I lost the contract we had to put the renovation on hold completely while we worked out what we could do & so I could see what was happening in the job market. Fortunately for me having “been around the block” for over 15 years I managed to reach out to some old contacts & pick up a new main contract within a few days which meant we could tentatively move forward with the renovation work on a smaller scale. This was both a relief & a stress at the same time. I’d lost a bit of confidence in the job market & like the rest of the World I didn’t know what the future held workwise.
As in turned out, I ended up with more work than ever during 2020 but we still had to tread careful so we didn’t overcommit our budget.

We scaled back on ideas & plans and to use a business term we had to define what our “minimum viable product” (MVP) was for the renovation. ie. what state of the renovation would get us living there.
We’d already decided to aim to just move in downstairs during early 2021 but we had to scale back more so we soon decided to skip the geo-thermal heating (Bergvarmen in Swedish) for now as it’s a good £50k saved in our already tight budget. It also pushed us to do more work ourselves (which was helped by having a carpenter do an awful job in the kitchen, making us realise “professionals” aren’t always so professional!!).

We have been incredibly lucky in Sweden that lower schools & daycare have stayed open the whole time & the kids have not really been so effected by Corona & the pandemic. With family back in the UK I understand how hard it’s been for children in the rest of the World to not be able to go to school or daycare so we’re thankful for Sweden’s “lighter” lockdown restrictions from a truly selfish perspective.

Outside of school & daycare however our childcare system (AKA grandparents) shut down! With my parents locked down in England and Elin’s parents both 70+ (sure they won’t mind me saying so) we’ve had basically no childcare options at all! Having lived 7-8 years in Gothenburg away from both sets of grandparents we are used to it but with the renovation we needed the help more than ever!
This meant a very clear divide in our household while we got to work on the renovation: me = working at the renovation, Elin = running our home & looking after the kids and that’s how it’s been for the last 8-9 months!

I still see the kids every day & spend time with them but I’ve not had any quality time with them for months and it sounds strange to say when I see them every day but I miss them so much & in that regard I cannot wait for this renovation to be over so I can have weekends, evenings & quality time with my family again!!
The kids are my guiding light in this renovation, when times are tough I think of them & my famiy & what we are creating for them. That gives me energy again (even though the energy dried up months ago!).

Renovating a house from the 1800s

Enough about the damm virus & more about the house. This house is old, really really old!! When we bought the house the estate agents brochure stated it was from 1880s but we’ve since found “evidence” in the house of some parts being from the 1700s!!!

Old floor construction
Old floor construction which shows use of axe carved timbers (they probably didn’t have saws then), dried soil, clay & sawdust as a form of floor structure & insulation. Experts have told us this could be from the 1700s.

Some renovation work was done in the 1950/60s (we believe), with the kitchen, playroom, lounge & a small part of the upstairs being insulated & panelled but apart from that the rest of the house was the original structure. Early in the renovation we decide we wanted to keep all original floorboards, ceilings & re-insulated everywhere. This meant most of the demo work was done on the renovation work done in the 1950s.

Timber structure

Aside from that there were a number of timbers in the structure that needed replacing due to rot which was primarily caused by the additional of gold fiber insulation (AKA the crap of the earth) which soaks up moistures & acts like a sponge against timber. Gold fiber is really horrible stuff both in terms of the structural damage it can cause & the health impact on humans, avoid it if you can!!! More on the type of insulation we’ve used in a future post!

Most of the rotten structure was along the backside of the house where the ground had built up against the house, so one of the ongoing jobs we did/are doing is clearing behind the house & adding in drainage. It’s not perfect yet but thanks to the permission of our lovely neighbours, David & Mona who own part of the land at the back we’ve been able to improve things significantly.

Our first attempts at digging drainage with a hired mini-digger. It didn’t end too well when I managed to get the digger stuck down the side of the house & broke a window. Luckily our amazing neighbours, helped pull the digger out, thanks!!

We hired a timberman, William who has repairs the structure using real timber from his own forest so we now hope the structure can last another 200 years!!

New timbers for structural repair
New timbers for structural repair

“Climbing” soil

Another issue on the back half of the house under the floors was over time the soil had “climb up” meaning the gaps between the underfloor & soil were near zero in places (ideally you want at least 30cm) so another big piece of work we’ve done with the help of friends has been to dig out the excess soil from under the house. Probably 1000s of wheelbarrow loads have been taken out from under the house but now we have a good 30-40cm airspace below the floors.

Team of diggers
Our amazing team of diggers!

The house sits on a hill so the frontside of the house was already in good shape & just needed all organic material cleaning out. Organic material on the ground under the house combined with moisture can lead to damp & mould problems. We still have some question marks about the back corner room because the soil there can get very damp but we’ve done what we can under the floor & the rest of the work will now need to be done improving the outside drainage so moisture doesn’t get in under the house in the first place!

Straight & level edges

Picture of our house from the 1800s
Picture of our house from the 1800s, you can see from the outside the “whockyness” of the windows & panels

The other theme of a house this old is that you’ll rarely find a straight or level edge anywhere!! For a first time DIYer this has been a bit tricky, trying to get floors, walls, ceilings etc level or straight when there isn’t a straight edge in sight is hard. I’d highly recommend a laser level for anyone undertaking a similar renovation for floor & ceiling structures it’s a huge timesaver!! I’ll be doing a post about working with a laser level later on so join our newsletter to stay up to date!

Water, sewage & where to put a bathroom

The house has never had a real water supply or sewage system, we have a small electric pump at the bottom of the garden which pumps water from a small well to a tape outside & despite my dads great efforts trying to get water running into the kitchen from same source it was never reliable due to pressure problems. Waste water from the kitchen sink just soaked into the ground & the house has never had a toilet or bathroom apart from an “utedass” (which we converted into a shed outside)!

The "old utedass"
The old “toilet” converted nicely into a mini shed!

This meant we’ve had to drill for water & add our own sewage system which have been significant costs.

Outside of those things knowing where to place bathrooms in a house which has never had them has been surprisingly hard!! We had a small room with a sink within the kitchen which initially seemed like a good place for a bathroom but in the end we decided we wanted a huge light family-sized kitchen instead! So instead we devided up the back corner room to create a small bathroom (in progress) & will create a larger bathroom above later on.

Photo of small "bathroom" within kitchen
Photo of small “bathroom” within kitchen

Potentially dangerous materials

Asbestos removal
Asbestos removal from kitchen tiles

We’ve all done it, ripped up a floor mat or wall without any protective gear or mask only to wonder later on if it was such a good idea!

Before we got deep into our demo work we decided to take things a bit more seriously & look out for dangerous materials, primarily in the renovation work done in the 1950s. We bought masks & got a number of suspect materials tested for asbestos.

As it turned out the only place that had asbestos was the one place we had least expected it, behind the kitchen tiles! We tested a tonne of places we thought certain would be asbestos (black stains on floorboards & old plastic mats) but it was actually only the tile paste which tested positive. We had it removed and it certainly made us more cautious when doing demo work going forward.

Asbestos is mainly dangerous when broken up into dust but if in doubt it’s always better to play it safe & get it tested!

Materials & techniques: Replacing like for like

Before we started this project we didn’t know anything about houses let alone ones this old!

Along the way we’ve learnt that timber houses are basically “alive” & like anything alive it doesn’t want to be sealed & covered in plastic or sealant like with modern building techniques tend to do. Wood houses want air & to breathe & this way of thinking has massively influenced our material choices making us choose materials as close to those used when the house was built as possible: like for like!

My first ever clay mix
My first ever clay mix

There’ll be plenty more posts on materials later on but in summary we’re use natural & more traditional materials & techniques ahead of modern options where possible (but yes we are using powers tools, screws etc as I want to finish this renovation some day!!). This means tree fiber insulation, clay for sealing gaps, flex linen (lindrev in Swedish) & breathable materials so the house can breathe & thrive (we hope).

Right now for example, we currently building our downstairs bathroom with clay!! More on that in a future post!

How much does it cost to renovate a house

As I mentioned in our Hello Renovation World intro we don’t have a huge budget for the renovation and it is and has been a real juggle financially to get things to work. We’ve used a mix of savings, inheritance (thank you Grandma & Grandpa, we know you’d love this place like we do!!!), “parental support”, wages/business profits & selling our current house in order to finance the renovation. With not all the money being available at the same that’s where it’s been a fine balance to not overcommit to too much work in one go. As it turned out, we’ve done a huge amount of the work ourselves so that made the balance easier!

I often watch renovation programs where ordinary people have insanely large budgets of hundreds of thousands of pounds and while I’d loved to have had all our budget available in one go I do think it must be “boring” to work with an endless budget (ask me that again in a few months time, maybe i’ll have changed my mind!) and in our view, the lower the budget the more creative you have to get!! For example, our whole kitchen will be secondhand or recycled furniture minus a new fridge & freezer!!

Location, location, location

The house is located in northern Sweden so the climate varies a lot throughout the year which presents both challenges & even some advantages!

One of the biggest challenges we’ve had from the start was reliable year round access to the house which sits on top of a hill. The house was part of a much large property but in the 1970s the plot was divided up into 2 properties & an agreement written allow us to use part of the neighbouring properties garden to reach the house. The access is/was basically a grass track, very uneven, slippy with the slightest amount of rain and pretty narrow. This was fine when we just used the house as a summerhouse but for a year round home in all seasons it simply wouldn’t cut it so we had to solve this problem first so that workers & machinery could access the house.

The initial plan was to improve the existing “road” by adding gravel which our neighbour initially said was ok but then swiftly changed his mind (a whole other saga I’m not going into!!) so we went to plan B, building a new road up to the house!!
This was a massive thing to do, I don’t think we really understood how massive a thing building a new road would be but with the help of various people & the kindness of the landowners around the house we got a new agreement in place & were allowed to build a new road connecting the house to an existing road which leads to other neighbouring properties!! It was a huge unexpected cost but without this proper access I actually don’t think the renovation would have gone forward.

Massive thank you to the neighbours & landowners nearby for letting us use their road & land to access the house!!!!

The house in winter
The house in winter

And back to the climate which I know is doing funny things everywhere at the moment but here in a normal year we can have anything from 30 degrees in summer to -20 degrees in winter and this effects the house & timber.
As I already mentioned a timber house is basically “alive” and will expand & contract with the climate so it’s important to account & understand that.
Also at ground level we’ve seen how the ground moisture varies throughout the year & the massive amount of water that comes when the snow starts to melt!!

The main advantage of real seasonal changes in weather is that the ground under the house can have damp periods but during the drier winter months when it’s cold it will dry out in contrast to dumper climates when it’s rarely cold when it won’t.

So that wraps up this rather long post on what it’s like & been like to renovate a house from the 1800s (at least) during a pandemic. It’s not been & still isn’t easy but we’re making it work although we a few compromises here and there!

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