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From Micro Obsy to Dual Pier Observatory - via Hard Work, RSI, Back Ache & Melting Credit Card!


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Back in early 2016, I started building a micro observatory, adjoining my daughter's play house ( The build thread can be seen here - https://stargazerslounge.com/topic/259939-observatory-planningbuild-seeking-my-6-year-olds-planning-permission/ ). It served me well, but in the middle of the covid lockdown, we decided to move house and in February 2021, we left Washington, a Bortle 8 sky and my micro observatory behind. We moved to a village on the outskirts of Durham and the house had a large garden, a good Southern view and a Bortle 5 sky!

There's been a lot of stuff to do in the house, such as building my new workshop, my wife's office, loft insulation and flooring, decorating a number of other rooms, plus sorting the garage for my small fleet of military vehicles. As a result, our first year in the house has mainly been focused indoors. Having to set up on the patio again has limited the number of times I've been out with the scope since moving. However, one of the first things we did last year was some garden clearing in preparation for my new observatory and future landscaping. As you can see from the first picture, it was a little more than a spot of weeding!

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Yes, we had a woodland to clear! However, with this gone, the bottom of the garden actually saw sunlight for the first time in a long time and the patch of land would be perfect for a new large observatory. The camera is looking South and would have a pretty good view all around, but especially South. At my old house, the house roof was to the South of the observatory and blocked everything below 25 degrees above the horizon. So with plenty of space to work with, I started doodling ideas. I mainly do planetary, lunar and solar imaging, because it was always a pain to swap scopes and all the associated wiring involved with deepsky. However, the new space would allow a bigger observatory with dual piers. One could stay set up for deepsky and the other for planetary.

So here's the plan, a 12 x 8 ft modified garden shed with a sloping roll off roof like my old observatory. This drops the roof down out of the way so it doesn't obstruct the view. With much of the work in the house now done, we started the observatory ground works during the week before Easter.

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The trees were cut down in April 2021 and since then, we didn't do much, other than a little strimming last Summer. By April this year, various green things had taken over from the trees ( you can tell I'm a keen gardener! ). Thankfully, most of the area is covered by a weed barrier, so the weeds are living on around two to three inches of earth on top. The first job was to clear the area back to the weed barrier as I don't want weeds growing around there and also to uncover some of the tree stumps from the felled trees. I'd need to work around the stumps for the piers and observatory supports.

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The clearing was hard work. Because of the weed barrier, the root systems had spread sideways, rather than down, binding all the weeds and earth together in a thick mat. There were also patches of grass which managed to put roots down through the barrier! So far, we've filled seven half ton dumpy bags with weeds and root laden earth.

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Once I started to see the membrane and tree stumps, I roughly plotted out the corners of the observatory and the positions of the piers to see where they fell and what might be in the way. Since there was so many trees in there ( I think we felled around a dozen ), I knew there was going to be roots that would probably need cutting out, but wanted to minimise that as much as possible. I couldn't move too far down the garden, as the neighbour has a tall conifer on the corner of his plot that would restrict my South Western view if I moved too far. We also want to add another lawn and garden feature over the remaining area that was the woodland.

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Today, with more weed barrier exposed, I re-plotted the observatory more accurately, but moved about 6 inches further down the garden. This would move the two piers a little further away from two stumps. In addition to the observatory base, I marked out the supports for the roof runners, making sure I had enough space between the supports and hawthorn hedge. We'll be doing a little levelling of the area behind the observatory and then adding a second weed barrier over the top. That will be covered by broken slate which has shown itself to help to keep the weeds down elsewhere in the garden.

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Once I was happy with the position of the corners, I then staked out the first four pads for the foundations. I'll be adding ten vertical timber supports, bolted to concrete pads and they will have a rectangle frame and supporting joists attached, onto which the shed/observatory will sit and attach. This will provide a level base for the shed and suspend the floor away from the ground and pier foundations.

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Later this afternoon, I began digging out the first footing, discovering some of the past history of the site. There used to be a Victorian school on the site which was still there during World War 2. As a result, there were two air raid shelters built for the children, one for girls and one for boys. They were demolished many years ago and woodland planted over the remains. During the garden clearing last year, I found an incredibly tough wall burried along side a conifer hedge. It needed removing to grind out the conifer stumps. This must have been the blast wall in front of the doorway. Today, a few feet from the original wall, I found a second, which I'm guessing was the end wall of the shelter. I don't know what clay the bricks are made from, but they are red on the outside and blue grey inside and almost bullet proof! A very heavy steel mallet and mini pick axe fought hard to break it up, along with a concrete foundation. My arm is still tingling now!

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That's all the progress so far and brings the story so far up to date. After packing away for the day and coming back indoors, I ordered the shed. I wanted the floor panels before building the timber frame support, so I'd know exactly the size to position the uprights on the concrete pads.

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Posted (edited)

It is quite a big build, but still small compared to all the other projects that have been going on in the house and a still to do rework of the garage, to raise and widen the doors.

I was back out in the garden today for more digging. I decided to get all four footings across the front of the observatory done first. Digging has been painful, as I have lateral epicondylitis if you're medically minded ( or tennis elbow for the rest of us ). It began last year while chiseling off lining paper from one of the bedrooms. It was then aggravated when I chiselled off the top layers of paint from my World War 2 Dodge truck, during a restore/repaint last September/October. It limits how much I can do before I need to stop and let it rest. These are the two front right foundations.

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I managed one more hole, completing the front four footings, before I called it a day. It had been a cool start to the day but had got out quite hot by the time I packed up and a bit too warm for hard work. I could hear the kettle calling my name and retreated to the sofa with a coffee; surviving to dig again another day!

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Edited by ArmyAirForce
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So we have tree's, Victorian engineering bricks and tennis elbow a great mix 🤣 still, we do like a challenge. All the best and it will be great to see how you get on 👌

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I sympathise with the subterranean demolition work- had to do similar when installing my pier.

A nice project. I look forward to following your progress.

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After dropping my daughter off at a friend's house and a quick B&Q trip, I came home and started digging again. The two rear corner foundations were dug out and then I used some string to line up the two middle rear pads.

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In the hole on the right, there was a big chunk of concrete embedded in the corner. I decided to leave it and concrete over it. Shown in red dotted lines, is another 8 inch concrete slab is burried close to the hole, with just the corner sticking out. I'd started digging this out a few days ago while clearing the area, until I realised how big, heavy and deep it was. I suspected the concrete in the hole was another large piece of the air raid shelter floor and it was best off left in place.

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I dug the middle two holes, discovering another large piece of concrete in one of them that I'll just work around. There was also a void in the bottom of this hole which was filled with broken brick hammered into the hole until filled and solid.

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Eight of the twelve footings are dug out now. There's two more in the middle at the ends to dig and then two at the ends of the roof runners. I'll probably leave those two until I have at least the support frame fitted to aid in the positioning of the holes which are twelve feet away. The bottom of the holes was filled with broken brick, hammered into the earth until the base of the holes were solid. Two dense concrete blocks will be bedded on and surrounded by concrete. Metal brackets will bolt to these pads to support the wooden support legs.

While at B&Q, I bought a couple of concrete blocks and three bags of concrete. I want to lay one pad to see how much concrete it takes. I'll then get a bulk delivery of timber, blocks and concrete. Arriving in the post yesterday, I also got two 12 inch diameter by 39 inch long, thick cardboard postal tubes. These will be the formers for the concrete piers.

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2 hours ago, ArmyAirForce said:

two 12 inch diameter by 39 inch long, thick cardboard postal tubes

Novel idea, concrete has some weight to it, do you think they will be enough to support the weight or will you be taping them up in some way?

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1 minute ago, M40 said:

....do you think they will be enough to support the weight....

They are thick wall tubes and are advertised for use making concrete footings, so I don't think the card will distort. I will be making a temporary wooden support to hold them upright and still while I pour and they set.

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Another long day of digging holes and breaking rocks! But first, I painted dilute waterproof PVA glue, on the inside and outside of the two postal tubes. This would help to waterproof the card when I pour the concrete. It's a good job I've got long arms to reach inside!

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Once outdoors, I concreted in the first two high density blocks into the first footing hole. That gave me an indication of how much concrete I needed to buy for each hole. The slope of the ground was really messing with my mind, trying to get them level. Even with the spirit level on them, they looked wrong!

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With that drying, I marked out the last two building footings at the ends and started digging. Digging the holes, shifting the soil down the garden and smashing up old broken bricks for the base of the holes took most of the rest of the day, bar a break for painting the card tubes again. There was quite a stiff wind today, but even so, the sun was out and it was hot work.

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The tubes were plonked in place within the building footprint and will probably be cast the full height of the tube. Lots of digging their foundations before then and some double checking of their position too.

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Before the day was out, we had a two car trip to B&Q. There we picked up some more blocks and concrete so I can get on tomorrow, while waiting for the rest of the bulk order to be delivered. I'm quite pleased with the progress so far, but my body isn't quite so impressed!!

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Superb 👌 The only problem I have with your build is that you are making me feel extremely lazy. I have made the pier base for my little project and I am dragging out the cement drying time for as long as I can 🤦‍♂️ According to the info, the cement should be left for at least seven days.......but I keep losing count, I think I am on day 3 🤣

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13 minutes ago, M40 said:

.....The only problem I have with your build is that you are making me feel extremely lazy......

Believe me, this morning I really feel like being lazy!! All my aches and pains have aches and pains!!! I'm only throwing myself at this right now because we have a spell of pleasant dry weather, so I want to get as much done while it's nice out there! My body isn't as keen on this project as I am.

From what I've read, concrete will be set in around two days, but doesn't reach its full strength until around 4 weeks.

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5 minutes ago, ArmyAirForce said:

From what I've read, concrete will be set in around two days, but doesn't reach its full strength until around 4 weeks.

I have other excuses...... 🤣 

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23 hours ago, ArmyAirForce said:

The tubes were plonked in place within the building footprint and will probably be cast the full height of the tube. Lots of digging their foundations before then and some double checking of their position too.

obsy019.jpg

Before the day was out, we had a two car trip to B&Q. There we picked up some more blocks and concrete so I can get on tomorrow, while waiting for the rest of the bulk order to be delivered. I'm quite pleased with the progress so far, but my body isn't quite so impressed!!

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A great job your doing there. just keep telling yourself its all worth the effort. which it will be, no messing about with setting up tripods ect. Its the best thing i ever did.

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Posted (edited)
2 minutes ago, andy fearn said:

....Its the best thing i ever did.

I remember the difference my micro obsy made. I'm really looking forwards to this one. Had another hard day concreting today.

Edited by ArmyAirForce
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This morning started out aching lots; but there was work to do. I began with a string layout to plot the floor level in order to work out the quantity of timber for the legs. While the floor would be pretty much touching the ground at the rear left, it would be over two feet above the lawn at the right. I decided to lower the rear left foundation to help the situation, but that hole had a very large piece of concrete air raid shelter floor embedded in it.

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There was no way it was going to dig out easily, so I ended up with the angle grinder, making cuts in the concrete and slowly breaking out 10mm strips. I dropped the level of the concrete by at least 6 inches and still didn't find the end of it. The footing can now be a bit lower and once it is all set, I'll drop the surrounding ground level to allow the floor joists to sit lower.

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The rest of the day was spent mixing and pouring concrete, then setting in the two high density blocks for the footings. So each hole has around 50Kg of concrete in there! The observatory might blow away in a storm, but the legs will remain!! So by the end of the day, all four front footings were done and three at the back and then I ran out of materials. I bought the whole of Durham B&Q's supply of concrete blocks yesterday - all eleven of them. I miss having the Washington B&Q superstore on my doorstep, as I could almost always get the stuff I wanted.

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Three more footings to do and then the pier foundations and piers themselves. That's going to be a lot of mixing, so we also ended the day with a second hand cement mixer. The shed and further building materials are due to be delivered on Tuesday, so I'm going to have a busy day of lifting and carrying. From the front of the drive to the build site is a 200 feet walk along a gravel driveway. I think I'll be loading the car to take it all to the back garden. There's no way I'll survive carrying that lot!

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Posted (edited)

Bad start to the morning, all which began before this morning! B&Q deleted a load of timber from my order the day after the order was placed, because it wasn't in stock. The email cancellation notice didn't even explain why it was removed. That took a phone call to customer support! Not sure why I was able to add it to the basket in the first place. So yesterday I had to find another supplier and collect the timber myself. Actually, the one product that worked out cheaper from another supplier.

B&Q bulk delivery truck arrived soon after 9am this morning and unloaded a pallet of about 475Kg of blocks, fenceposts and sand, which was dumped on the drive. I waited for the driver to unload the second pallet with the concrete, but he retracted the truck stabilising legs and parked the crane. I asked him where the rest of the order was - not on his truck apparently, despite the delivery note!

With everything needed in the back garden, 180 feet away, I had no plans to carry everything there!! The gravel driveway wasn't conducive to wheelbarrow use, so I loaded several blocks into the car and drove to the back garden to unload and repeat!

By 10am, the posts were indoors, the blocks were stacked up near the observatory site and the driver had said he'd phone in about the missing pallet.

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That was only part one of today's deliveries. I was also waiting for my obsy-shed to arrive on another pallet from a different company. About 10:15, the shed company phoned after receiving a call from their courier. The pallet with the shed on had been damaged, but they weren't sure if the shed was also damaged. If it was, I needed to get some photos to send them and they would send replacements if needed.

It's never simple, is it?

Around 14:40 hrs, the B&Q bulk delivery truck turned up again, with my pallet of concrete. Woo Hoo!

Hang on, don't celebrate so fast Stephen! Out of the 32 bags delivered, 7 were split and spilling their contents or had already started to set inside the bags. Why was a bag with a 7 inch long rip across the top, loaded onto the pallet in the first place? More hassles to chase up and deal with.

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At 16:30 hrs, the shed company emailed to say their office closed at 16:30, but the courier should contact me directly to give me a delivery time, before 18:00 hours. Well, that time came and went and still no shed!

Face-palm and deep sigh.

Tomorrow's another day. Let's hope it will be a bit better.

Edited by ArmyAirForce
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