Drywall/Plasterboard and Insulation Installation help needed!
July 14, 2012 2:00 AM   Subscribe

We live in a 160 year old stone house in Scotland that is really cold in winter. Please help me make it warmer? I've been told it's easy to take down the drywall/plasterboard, install insulation, and put more drywall/plasterboard up again. But is it?

I'm not great with home improvement projects and my partner is even worse. We just really lack experience. So before I start tearing down anything I won't be able to put back up again, please either reassure me or talk me down.

Will we save a fortune over hiring a professional? Or will we just make a big mess and end up needing to pay more to be "bailed out." How hard is it compared to, say, hanging up wallpaper which I can do somewhat but am not great at.

Also, will we save a lot on our heating bills? We pay over £1100 per year to heat our house which is just a small two-bedroom cottage, and that's with us being out all day, wearing extra clothes inside, long underwear, etc and using an electric blanket at night instead of running the heat. It seems like a fortune. Would we be able to significantly reduce this and stay warmer?

Is this the easiest way to insulate? There is tons of insulation in the attic, it's just the walls that need help, I think. When it's windy outside it's even colder in the house which makes me think the wind is just blowing straight through the gaps in the stone and onto the plasterboard/drywall. Please help if you can - thank you!
posted by hazyjane to Home & Garden (23 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
the stuff on youtube may not be designed for exactly your conditions. Have a poke around here and ask for help. You may be able to get someone to come look at it and give advice for free of tell you which type of professional to pay for. THEY then tell you how much an amateur can do and what a professional can do, they';re a charity so they won';t try to scam you into buying expensive services.
you definitely need to ensure that you have adequate seals in place. My house is only 10 years old and they never sealed the kitchen before fitting it so there is a distinct draft in the winter. If wind can get in (in Scotland!!!) it will abolutley make a big difference to your heating bills.
posted by Wilder at 2:07 AM on July 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

The energy companies have an obligation to subsidize energy efficiency improvements (in England, at least. I'd be very surprised if Scotland were more laissez-faire, though), so see if there's a scheme to subsidize any improvements in your area which might get you professional help with this.
posted by ambrosen at 2:48 AM on July 14, 2012

You're looking at solid wall insulation? The energy saving trust suggest that this should only be done by professionals, or experienced DIY-ers. They also reckon it would cost between £5500 and £8500 to get professionals in to do the whole job. And that it could save £445 on your heating bills (assuming you have gas central heating, and an average sized semi).

You might be able to do bits yourselves. Aside from removing the plaster, installing insulation boards and replastering, there's also removing and reinstalling pipework, radiators and electrical fittings, plus redecorating. With my personal (low) level of DIY skill, I would certainly do all the redecorating, and probably quite a lot of the plaster removal. I would pay for replastering, electricals and replumbing if it were needed.
posted by plonkee at 3:14 AM on July 14, 2012

What renovations have been done on your 160 year old cottage? Is it even drywall or is it lath and plaster? Wikipedia suggests that's much less common in your part of the world, but still...

Any risk of asbestos? Would you know it if you see it? What about other improvements you might have to make? I don't know what the building codes over there are like, but I think in the US if you tear off the wall and find something outdated (say, knob and tube wiring) you'd have to replace it.
posted by sbutler at 3:49 AM on July 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Advice line and information on free or discounted insulation for homes in Scotland.
posted by penguin pie at 3:49 AM on July 14, 2012

Response by poster: Sbutlet, the walls are already drywall/plasterboard. I'm not sure they were put up that well to start with because they "give" a lot when you press on them. You wouldn't really want a large adult to lean up against them. Is that normal?

The cottage has been renovated extensively on the inside for better or for worse (often worse by the DIY'ers that came before us!).

Thanks to all who've commented so far, it's been very helpful. I'm almost (but not quite) convinced to get a professional in.
posted by hazyjane at 3:58 AM on July 14, 2012

Best answer: If you aren't skint, get someone in. Even a shit professional would likely do a better and faster job than you'd do the first time around.

If you plan to live the rest of your lives in that cottage, the construction costs will be negligible over time and you'll have lower heating bills that will save you the construction costs and more.

If you don't plan to live the rest of your lives in that cottage, you want the job to be something that you can sell at a decent price, not something slapped together like I would do if I did your walls. People pay for how things look and feel.
posted by pracowity at 4:43 AM on July 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It is not normal for walls to have that much give. If they're plaster, there should be lathe (or lath) behind them. This is thin wood material that is mounted in-between the wall studs that holds the dry plaster and makes it easier to smooth.

If there is that much give, the studs may be placed to far apart or there is not enough lathe slats either left or installed in the first place. While they generally will not provide for a strong supporting wall, they should withstand an adult leaning on them.

The most affordable option would be to mount drywall/insulation board directly on-top of the plaster walls. You lose a little square footage, but it is much faster and cleaner to install. With those structural issues, I would advise against this plan without getting a professional assessment first.

My recommendation is to hire a professional. A lot of them will do on-site assessments and quotes for a small fee or even free. If you can find one in your area with experience with similar houses, that would even be better.
posted by purephase at 5:12 AM on July 14, 2012

We live an almost 300 year old house and dear God it's cold, top tips (we are renters and can't change much, we always fall for these ridiculous properties).

1) we have a big thick ikea woollen rug under the bed. Even if it doesn't do much, it's good to step onto in the mornings.
2) suck it up and buy the most expensive duvet you can afford, we bought a £150 feather multi season duvet. When combined with flannel sheets (and an under duvet sheet) it is very snuggly. Good luck getting out in the mornings!
3) mirror Foil behind radiators on external walls, if you can change your radiators, get longer ones, the one in our bed
posted by Augenblick at 5:32 AM on July 14, 2012

Best answer: It's not normal for your walls to have that much wiggle -- something wasn't done right, but there's no way to know for sure what corners were cut without taking a look.

I've taught myself how to put up drywall, but I've also watched professionals do it and they are far better. Drywall is something that isn't particularly complicated to do adequately, but is surprisingly tricky to make everything look neat, even, and perfect at the end, and even more so when you are trying to match old work to new. After my last drywall project I vowed to never DIY it again; there's not much savings and my work will never be as good as that of someone who does it all day. So based on my experience, unless the savings will be large I'd say bring in a professional for the drywall installation. (Tearing out the old stuff is easy, though, and there's no reason you can't do that, though again it might not save you a lot of money.)

Can you get an energy audit of some sort? You want someone with a thermal camera and a blower door (where they pressurize your house with a big fan and see how leaky it is), not just a guy who stands there and makes some guesses. You are probably right that it is your walls -- but it would be a lot better to be sure before spending that kind of money.
posted by Forktine at 6:00 AM on July 14, 2012

Best answer: I will say that in terms of the insulation you will want to use, it should probably be a closed foam spray insulation. You will need a professional to do this. It requires a lot of fancy and expensive spray equipment and you need to know what you are doing. It would basically involve stripping all of the exterior walls down to the studs and having a professional come in and spray and trim the dried foam to fit. You would probably want to do the whole cottage at once, but a room by room approach might be easier to do for your sanity. The liquid they spray on the walls expands to fill all of the crevices and provides an excellent vapor barrier. Since it fills all of the crevices, it also is excellent at sealing out cracks and the like. Check with the installer about getting the highest R-value possible. The higher the value, the better the insulation is, the less money it costs to heat and cool over time.

Once you have the walls open and before you have they spray the insulation, you should replace all the wires, water pipes, place more studs in the wall, and anything else you need to do before filling the walls with insulation. This will be exponentially much harder once the insulation is there. I do not know what the standard is in the rest of the world, but in the US studs are generally 16 inches/40cm centered on the wall. When I have worked on older houses in the US, between 160 - 250 years old, this has not always been the case. Some studs have been slanted, horizontal, and generally in all sorts of weird angles. YMMV.

Hanging drywall can be very easy to do. You basically start at the bottom of the wall and work your way up with the sheets. The sheets are hung with the wide side horizontal. Please use drywall screws, they are much less likely to pop out later. Cutting the drywall sheets is as easy as scoring them with a utility knife, then snapping them. If you can follow directions to cook fancy cakes and the like, then you can follow the directions to hang drywall. It is not hard, just labor intensive.

The hard part about having drywall walls is taping the seams and patching the screw heads. This takes practice and patience to do well. Patching over the holes is just a matter of mounding the drywall compound over the holes, letting it dry, adding some more coats of drywall compound, letting those dry, then sanding smooth and painting/wallpapering. Seams require a coat of compound, tape being pressed into the wet compound, then more coats of compound over the tape until you have a mound, letting that dry, adding more compound as needed, then sanding smooth and painting. Please do not sand smooth until you expose the tape, you will need to add more compound then.

If you want to search youtube for videos, they will give you an excellent overview of the process. Sites like This Old House and DIY Network will have videos of the process. If either the drywall hanging or patching/taping ideas scare you, then you need to get a professional to do it, which will be a more expensive. The other option, is getting a handy friend, who knows what they are doing, to help you. Trust me, they are probably used to it and they may even like doing the work. Look at their house to see if they are any good. Either way, you will save money in the long run due to lower heating costs.
posted by Nackt at 6:00 AM on July 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A couple of other keep warm thoughts: get yourself a desiccant dehumidifier like this, and it won't make your house lose less heat, but it will almost certainly make it more comfortable at a lower temperature, and of course any running costs are recouped as heat, albeit a little more expensively than with heating oil. If you're heating with electricity and it's your house, consider installing a ground source heat pump or oil fired central heating. I suspect the costs are similar.

I was going to demur on pracowity's suggestion of any professional being better than what you could do, but then I saw where you live. I suspect that any professional in Sutherland will be fine and competent. If you live somewhere a little more urban, there's a fair likelihood that a cheap professional would sell you something pretty suboptimal.
posted by ambrosen at 6:10 AM on July 14, 2012

We live in a house built in 1890 about half mile from Lake Michigan in Chicago. The exterior walls are multi-layered. There is exterior masonry, more than a foot thick, then a dead space, then a brick wall, then the drywall. Ceilings are quite tall. Idiots replaced the boilers/radiators in the 1970's and you simply cannot heat the place above 66 degrees in the winter. So we had foam insulation blown into the drywall. The impact has been negligible in terms of our heating costs and ability to warm the place above the mid-60's. I would much rather we had spent the money and construction time on installing radiant heat flooring.
posted by crush-onastick at 6:28 AM on July 14, 2012

Best answer: I'm almost (but not quite) convinced to get a professional in.

Please get a home energy assessment before you contract for insulation work. As a bonus, the Energy Saving Trust can subsidise or grant your cost of insulation! The energy assessment is worth it so you don't invest money in the wrong upgrade to the house. I mean, I live in a stone house in Ireland that 125 years old and wall insulation has never been the issue here - we've had to cap other heat escapes instead.

And for what it's worth, hiring people has never been cheaper, thanks to the recession. I have a lovely and talented carpenter making a racket in my house right now; he asked for €15 an hour. During the boom, I was paying €45.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:32 AM on July 14, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks again. I'll give the Energy Saving Trust a ring to see if they can do an assessment. Normally where we are we suffer from being too remote to get people to come out from that sort of place, though. We did look into grants at one point but unfortunately didn't qualify based on our location being too remote and based on not having a cavity wall.

I went to the hardware store just now and saw something called "Nomatap" that I think you can put up right over the plasterboard/drywall, and then just put wallpaper on top. I've also googled and sound something called Sempatap. I guess it's like insulating wallpaper. Has anyone had experience with something like that?
posted by hazyjane at 6:41 AM on July 14, 2012

Best answer: Sempatap is "recommended" by the Energy Saving Trust so I would trust that. I wouldn't just go putting it up willynilly though; I think you need a real plan. If places like EST won't come out to you, call your council. They may have a team who will come out to you (there are teams for the unlikeliest things lurking in councils...). If they cannot come out, order a thermal leak detector and do your own inventory.

If it turns out the walls are the real issue and you don't know what to do, pull off a panel of drywall and video what's back there. You need to know how your walls are constructed, if they are insulated, how, with what and to what thickeness. Then ask local people for local references and get some workmen in to give you quotes on what they think you need. Then go research all of the options. The post your video to MeFi if you're still not clear on what choice to make.

A lot of this will be limited by what you can afford. Remember that if you ever want to sell this house, it's going to need an Energy Efficiency cert, and you can probably recoup some of the present cost in a later sale with a more efficient rating. If you want to wait until October, the Green Deal kicks in and you may be able to fund the best insulating improvement available to you over time, though with the Green Deal you will not be able to DIY.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:42 AM on July 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yes, get a professional assessment and a professional to do the work. Does not sound like a project that you will get done effectively on your own. Another idea for warm and cozy (but expensive) is to pour a concrete floor and put heating in the floor.
posted by snaparapans at 8:57 AM on July 14, 2012

My experience in this realm is from the US, but some of it might apply. Insulation is always a good thing to look at, but one thing to evaluate is how you're actually heating the home. Are you guys on heating oil, natural gas or electric? Switching up what you're actually using can make some big savings. If your electric rates are decent, I'd look into Heat Pumps, they work fantastically, and they've come a long way in terms of quality over the past decade.

Sometimes home equity loans can be used for projects like this, sometimes the Gas company will actually loan you the money to do an oil to gas conversion at a very low rate.

If your house is on heating oil, and the hot water is also hooked up to the oil boiler, getting a Heat Pump Water Heater can really reduce the load, and save you a couple hundo a year.
posted by furnace.heart at 9:45 AM on July 14, 2012

The money spent on thermal imaging would be worth the expense. You need to know exactly where to put your insulation money. There may be tons of insulation in your attic, but is it effective? The walls having that much give sounds like a real problem. I'd be tempted to pull a bit of the drywall off in a back corner and see what's under there. It might be very much worth getting several estimates and discussing what and WHY the experts would do what they propose to do. I would think you'd want to make sure all moisture considerations were handled along with the insulation issue--you could wind up with some serious mold problems otherwise. Sometimes the experts agree on how to handle different problems, sometimes there's a wide variance as to what they think the problem is, as well as in the solutions proposed (and fix-it price.) Find out what your're up against, and then you can think about different ways of going about things as well as how much of the project, if any, that you want to do yourself. Again, with a report of thermal imaging, you will know whether the experts are BSing you and trying to sell you on something that isn't necessary or if they know their stuff.
posted by BlueHorse at 10:12 AM on July 14, 2012

Have you checked more obvious sources of draughts - badly fitting doors and windows. Old fashioned sausage draught excluders on doors and heavy curtains, on doors and windows, can make a big difference. Do you have double glazing?
And there's lots of useful information on the Money Saving Expert Forums.
posted by sianifach at 10:18 AM on July 14, 2012

If possible, get a professional who doesn't mind you watching over his shoulder and asking questions and generally learning how to go about it yourself in case smaller jobs crop up. You'll learn what you're in for, what kind of tools you'd need, etc, and can make a more informed decision next time.

Consider taking the opportunity while the walls are down to install more power/light/network/aerial sockets, or wire upgrade if the wiring is ancient.
posted by -harlequin- at 2:18 PM on July 14, 2012

Disclosure - I work on the government project that I'm about to recommend (I helped do the website). You need to give the Home Energy Scotland Hotline a ring. They will be able to help you work out what the best option is for insulating your home and let you know if you're eligible for any assistance. It's a service provided by the Energy Saving Trust for the Scottish Government.
posted by Happy Dave at 3:50 PM on July 14, 2012

Probably echoing comments above, but absolutely get a professional. Find a company that can do a proper energy audit, describe the steps they intend to take and why, and give you a firm (or tight range) cost for the work.

There are a lot of potential issues with these sorts of energy improvement projects. Energy flows from warmth to cold and moisture follows the energy. In many cases the durability of older structures is in part because of the constant flow of energy controlling moisture and the like. A poorly conceived project can trap moisture in bad locations where it might freeze or rot things, among other concerns. Careful and precise detailing of key conditions is also required. These are all factors that point against DIY work.

Things you can DIY include demolition and potentially rehanging drywall, trim and paint. But, all of this is better done in the context of coordination with an energy contractor.

Finally, the project cost should include a parallel energy audit (such as blower door test with infrared camera) at the end to verify the integrity of the work.
posted by meinvt at 7:28 PM on July 14, 2012

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