A picture of you

Start with the mid-tones and work darker and lighter – affordable expensive and cheap. But if we call highlights cheap we’re most definitely wrong, in artistic terms anyway. The high notes give a thing an extra zing.

Take for example the twinkle in an eye. If your parents hadn’t had a twinkle, you might never have been born.  A twinkle is cheeky, a soprano can break a glass with a high note and a guitar solo by Nils Lofgren can leave your ears ringing for hours.

A mid-tone is a springboard. Without diving into the dark you wouldn’t experience the light on the surface. Without the Yin and the Yang you wouldn’t find balance. Like us, flowers turn their faces to the light, it’s nature’s way. But after a hectic day, when you turn off the bedside lamp and bathe in the dark, it may be like a glass of water to the soul.

As we know there are fifty shades of grey, some more appropriate than others; some from Primark some from Farrow and Ball. But how many shades of green can you see in a field? As the scenery recedes into the distance it turns bluer and less distinct. Some memories are as sharp as the day they were made, but some are hazy and others stay over the hills and far away.

Don’t forget to put in the highlights; you don’t have to leave them right until the end. It’s an interesting fact that they are not always white; a highlight can be the lightest hue of any colour. Make it ping, make it sing, make it three dimensional – remember that contrast is the key and the brightest point will be where you put your focus.

You are not mere reflection wobbling on the water, although your reflection shows you exist. Nor are you only shadows; long in the winter, short in the summer, behind or in front. Your shadow shows that you are basking in the light. If you turn around and face your shadow, there is nothing to be scared of, it’s only you … and you can always choose to turn towards the light. But wear shades, it looks cool.

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My friend Frank builds his solstice house

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I found Frank scuttering around in his digger churning up the sticky clay-laden mud. Picking my way through the furrows on my way to the site office, I had to swiftly dart for cover along with his hens and three cockerels as apparently he stops for no man, woman or chicken. I was dressed in a military-style jacket and beret, and looked very much like I had parachuted down into occupied France to inspect the trenches leaving my parachute dangling from a nearby tree. I didn’t actually parachute in but I was indeed there to inspect his trenches and was probably camouflaged on this grey day threatening even more rain.

Rain was not something Frank needed now. Three weeks ago he started digging having demolished his house. The trenches for the footings of his new house are almost finished and he has excavated a cavernous area which will serve as his basement. The rain is his enemy. Swathes of blue plastic weighted down with flints cover the site but he tells me that as soon as he has finished his beautifully dug trench, the water caves it in again. I would be pulling my hair out, Frank is still smiling.

He is going to build the house himself. The whole thing. He has the architect’s plans and the structural engineer’s drawings as well as two excellent labourers. I would be worried if anyone else was taking on a project like this, but Frank is someone who can do anything if he puts his inventive mind to it and I’m looking forward to seeing his house emerge from this Somme-like squelchiness.

It being winter, as more rain is forecast to fall this evening and the light will soon fade, I am loathe to take him away from his shoring up duties. But luckily for me there is a tea break on the horizon and a window of opportunity to ask him some questions.

The site office is a deluxe model; modified by Frank himself from a building that looks like a very small version of one I did maths lessons in at school – a terrapin as it was called in those days. It has a microwave, tea making facilities and what looks like an Ikea billy bookcase with its shelves festooned with sweets and chocolates. He also has a flat screen TV for those days when the weather defeats him. Next door is a toilet with an ingenious waste system that mashes whatever needs mashing and flows down a pipe to the existing drain.

As the chaps drink their tea they proudly show me the microwave operation functions which include the facility to cook a whole chicken. They are weighing up whether to have a go. ‘Well’, I say ‘there are plenty outside’, (do the cockerels first I say to myself).

As the labourers go off to the trenches I ask Frank…

When did you start the build?

We started digging the foundations about three weeks ago.

And when is your estimated finish date?

It will be as and when because I want to do things right and don’t want to bodge it.

Frank draws me a diagram of the structure of the half metre thick walls he is building, which will be covered with flint held in place with metal ties. He reckons he could affix 1 square metre of flint-work per day, and there are 62 square metres to be done. Definitely a job for some nice sunny days. He has taken his inspiration for the look of his house from Bradfield College in Berkshire (how very posh).

Are you doing everything yourself even the electrics?

Yeah, why not – it’s easy.

How will that work with certificates, building regulations and suchlike?

I don’t know yet but I will find out. Also, because it’s an eco-build, we have to do things in a certain way and log everything down as we are doing it. I’m not sure how that works yet either, but I have been told that at the end we have to get an eco sign-off.

There is a points system. We have hot and cold running water in the cabin and a light sensor, which gives us two points apparently – I have no idea who is collecting the points, but I just go on collecting them.

Frank tells me that it is really nice for him to sit down for a few minutes. I can imagine this doesn’t happen very often and I can see he is still poised to get out of his plastic chair at any moment. I don’t want to take up too much of his time as the clouds are darkening, but ask him…

Who designed your house?

Me – but I had an architect who turned it into a nice looking house. He did the drawings and took care of the paperwork and bureaucracy. We also had a planning agent recommended by the architect to get us through the red tape. We wanted an increase in height and volume, the house is in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), has heritage overlay (HO), is in ancient woodland and is also in an area of historical interest. (I hope he finds an ancient hoard of gold!).

Was it expensive to get a planning agent?

No, she only charged us about £300 in total – it was most definitely worth it to get our planning application through.

So really the only difficulty now is the weather isn’t it?

At first I didn’t understand why a lot of people I spoke to about the build said that I was brave starting it in the autumn – now I do!

That is your very own digger outside isn’t it?

Yes, it was a good investment; I use it all the time to move things around the site and for lifting. I can’t recommend it enough – it’s paying for itself.

Tell me about the wheelbarrow contraption I saw in your trench.

Well, we have no crane onsite and we have a 3 metre deep hole in the ground. The contraption is a wheelbarrow strapped to a wooden lever, which is then strapped to the arm of the digger to lift heavy things up out of the trench – it can take about 200kg in weight. (See photo).

What effect has this build had on your family?

(A cockerel crows loudly outside).

Life just goes on as normal really. People are saying that I’m too enthusiastic about everything – like when I find a new clump of mud for instance. They say ‘you’re getting excited about more mud!’ And I say ‘well, I’m just thinking about where I can put it or what I can use it for’. They just think it’s a load of mud but I see it as something I can fill a hole with.

Do they muck in and help out?

No, they just let me get on with it – just another one of Frank’s projects. When it comes to the finishing and decorating I can guarantee they will help because I will be out of my depth. I can build a room, I can give them bare plaster and skirting boards but I have no idea how to finish it.

I told Frank how happy Mr Clark was when he managed to get hold of a nail gun to put our skirting boards on. Frank’s said ‘if there are any tools that will save you time – buy them’. Poor Mr Clark had to make do with borrowing the carpenter’s one. I wouldn’t have been in the budget you see, however much he wanted one of his own.

The tools I buy are saving me money in the long-run as I don’t have labour costs to consider, and I can always sell them again at the end of the build.

Time is money. I don’t have any income at the moment, and as I have shut my business down we’re living off savings, so my labourers are on a day rate and luckily they are very flexible. I want to get on with it – the only things that hold me back are when I’m waiting for a contractor to come along to do a job, or a there is a delay with a materials delivery or bad weather.

We need 100 cubic metres of concrete for the footings which will cost about £10,000. When the trenches are full of concrete we have to put the blocks in exactly the right spot and, (he says laughing) I haven’t figured how to do that yet. He has a laser level but reckons string and tape measures and more string are the answer. (I have every faith that he is right).

Frank’s house has been designed to track the azimuth of the sun from solstice to solstice. This means that the building will get equal amounts of sunlight all year round – this also means some of his walls won’t actually be square and parallel, they will be at an angle of 102 degrees which makes the building of it even trickier.

At this point Frank is needed by his labourers and I follow him onto the site. At an interval in proceedings I manage to squeeze in one more question…

What sort of heating are you having?

Ground source heating – I’ll be putting the coils in the outer walls of the trenches all the way around. The trenches are deep, but that is because I wanted to build on solid clay. I’ve got 500 metres of coils to put in.

Frank then climbed down into his cavernous clay basement, and I thought this would be the moment to leave him and his labourers to it. ‘I’ll be back’ I said waving and stomping my way off through the mud. And so I will (with a spare ball of string in my pocket).

Watch out for the next instalment. Hopefully the rain will stop and Frank will have had his big concrete pour. I hope he will still be smiling.

Thank you Mr D, see you soon!

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Frank 2 small        Frank 3 small

 

 

Do you want an oak framed garage too?

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Sunday 22nd November 2015

The Planet Rock Hairy Rock Show on the radio, racing through the winter landscape in a muddy Skoda Yeti, Mr and Mrs Clark made their way to the Bath & West Showground to the Somerset Homebuilding and Renovating Show. They sang My Woman from Tokyo by Deep Purple at full blast as they passed Stonehenge on the A303, take that you pagans! They shouted and sang When I was a Boy by ELO, harmonising very nicely indeed. This was going to be a grand day out.

The breakfast cuppa had filtered through and elevenses were needed, which meant a stop at Stourhead House. Mr Clark flashed his National Trust staff pass in the café and they got a discount on their purchases, it was a just a shame it was a bit too early for cake. Fortified by cappuccinos and bacon sandwiches they headed off for the show.

The HBR Show in Shepton Mallet isn’t that big and as it was a cold day Mr and Mrs Clark were glad there wasn’t a long walk to the showground. Even so Mrs Clark was dressed for arctic winds just in case. Once in the showground, memories of past shows came flooding back. It had been eight years since they had last ventured into this wonderful world of building delights – it was familiar but this time there was no pressure and no big list of people they had to see. They have no real plans to build another house just yet, just a pie in the sky idea about a garage with a room above for Mrs Clark’s art studio and another one behind to house a new wood pellet boiler.

Mrs Clark made a beeline for the Westwind Handcrafted Oak Buildings stand where she was warmly greeted by a very nice lady who explained who they were and what they did. Mr and Mrs Clark had already seen one of their award winning builds (in Cornwall) on the internet and would very much like to have a beautiful oak framed building of their own. When Mrs Clark has sold the first million copies of her book ‘Mud & Marriage – A Housebuilding Adventure’ she will get some plans to them ASAP. Mrs Clark likes to talk and embarrasses Mr Clark quite a lot – he’s used to her now and knows she is the type of wife who talks to people at bus stops, but also the kind one should not mess with if in mid-flow. She had a lovely chat with another lady manning (or womanning) the stand who was on crutches – it was due to a trampolining accident apparently.

Mr Clark finds heating technology fascinating and frankly a bit sexy and was very pleased to find that Mr Williams at the Windhager stand was just as enthusiastic. They had some excellent wood pellet boilers on show. Mrs Clark was very impressed at the pull-out ash box and told Mr Williams all about the way they had been palmed off with an unreliable wood pellet boiler/stove with no pull-out ash box when they built their house. Pellet boiler technology has come on leaps and bounds in the last few years; Mr and Mrs Clark left the stand with boiler envy, their paper bag full of Windhager information and a good idea of what they will do when their Olivieri boiler/stove finally breaks down. As they were leaving the stand Mr Williams, obviously seeing their plight kindly said that they could visit to the Windhager showroom near Bristol and fire one up anytime they wanted. They thought that was a fabulous idea for another fun day out. It is amazing what floats some people’s boats – but there you go.

On their tour of the show they took in the familiar sights. There were the folding patio door people dutifully opening and closing the doors to show potential customers the mechanism. Mrs Clark marvelled at their patience as she thought it must be very boring to be doing that all day for two days in a row. Mr Clark would like folding doors on the next build but didn’t have a go as he had done the folding door thing several times before. Mrs Clark felt sorry for the architects standing by themselves looking a bit forlorn at their tiny bland stands. She wanted to stop and have a chat to see how their day was going but Mr Clark was walking fast and she had to keep up.

At the Homebuilding & Renovating Show you can use the Advice Centre and ask the experts if you have queries about your build. You have to book in to talk to one of the building gurus but it’s free.

Mrs Clark spied Michael Holmes – Editor in Chief of Homebuilding and Renovating magazine and property expert, sitting on his own looking at his phone at the Advice Centre stand and pointed this out to Mr Clark. Hmm she thought. Mr Clark knew exactly what she was thinking and raised an eyebrow. In the blink of an eye she had whipped a copy of Mud & Marriage out of the rucksack on Mr Clark’s back. Bravely she strode up to Mr Holmes and introduced herself. As luck would have it, his 1 o’clock appointment hadn’t turned up and he said he had a few minutes spare to talk. She sat herself down in the chair opposite and they had a good chat – he was surprisingly welcoming even though she had landed on him with no warning. Mr Holmes knew of Mrs Clark’s book as apparently he had a copy on his desk – which meant he obviously knew what she had written about him, and I quote ‘I caught a glimpse of Michael Holmes from H&R magazine. He is very tall and handsome, so I tried not to stare’. At this point having not taken off her arctic gear Mrs Clark got very hot but managed to foist another copy of her book on him, signed in wobbly excited writing. Mr Clark then returned from his foray up the aisle, shook Mr Holmes’ hand and took his now steaming wife off to the café so she could divest herself of her artic-wear and calm down with a cup of tea.

Mrs Clark collects embarrassing moments so she can look back on her life and hope they will teach her valuable lessons (or at least make people laugh). Mr Holmes had kindly put a picture of them both with the book on Twitter. Adoration is the word I would use for the expression on Mrs Clark’s upturned face.

The Carpenter Oak stand was the next stop for Mr and Mrs Clark. They were told that it is much cheaper to buy a kit for a garage/over garage room elsewhere. It was very good of them to be so honest, but in an ideal world where there is no budget, a bespoke oak frame would be the best solution. Mrs Clark thinks that a new build with an oak frame is the stuff of dreams.

In Mr and Mrs Clark’s eyes Nu-Heat Underfloor Heating and Renewables are a top company and they were glad to see their stand at the show. The underfloor heating system in their self-build was supplied by Nu-Heat but the water pipes were unfortunately laid in a laissez-faire fashion by a rogue plumber and there are cold spots where they may have sprung out from their clip-track. Nu-Heat now have a new system for housing the pipework so it can’t be dislodged. They told Mr and Mrs Clark that even though the pipes hadn’t been fitted by Nu Heat they were concerned and would look into it if needed. Good chaps.

At the BSRIA stand (the people who help you with your airtightness compliance among many other things) Mr McGrath was watching the people walking past his heat testing camera and looking at the thermal images of themselves on the monitor. Mrs Clark noticed how blue everyone’s noses were and made Mr Clark pose for a picture. Take note building companies, it is fantastic to have something to draw people to your stand – something to partake in, fiddle with or sit down on. It makes for a memorable show for visitors too.

Outside the showground on the way back to the car Mr Clark spotted Oxford Renewables (biomass and solar thermal) who had a chilly stand outside. He knew of them already as they had been to service their boiler when it was playing up. They had some rather lovely Solarfocus pellet boilers on show, which Mr Clark caressed lovingly. Mr Carter from Oxford Renewables didn’t mind as he fully understood Mr Clark’s love for them, and invited him to pop in to their showroom at any time. He might just do that as they are local – he might even get to fire one up.

Walking back to the car, Mr Clark, pasty in one hand and Windhager paper bag in the other, said he was pleased that they had been to the show. Mr and Mrs Clark always have such a lovely time on their days out together, but they both agreed that this one was truly a grand day out.

 

When I met The Girl in the Hard Hat

Shirley barnI have been following The Girl in the Hard Hat Shirley Alexander on Twitter for a while now, and reading her blog about an astounding barn renovation that she took on near Blairgowrie about 80 miles north of Edinburgh. I was so impressed with the scale of the project and the fact that she has done the vast majority of the work herself, I really wanted to meet her.

She very kindly accepted my request for a rendezvous and we met in a café in London near to where she works as an accountant. I didn’t know Shirley at all, but from the picture on her blog with tool belt and a slight scowl I had an image of a tall and slightly scary Amazonian woman. My image, as it turned out, was completely wrong – in walked a small, pretty, smiling lady – she must have immensely strong core muscles I thought to myself.

Sitting on a seat made from an old church pew with odd and very old press cuttings  stuck to the wall next to me (strangely of old Coronation Street characters  such as  Ena Sharples and Hilda Ogden), and wiping the hot chocolate moustache and croissant crumbs off my chops I asked her:

You bought the barn in 2001, is it finished now?

Not quite, I’ve still got to put the main kitchen in. It’s the last thing to be done and then I can declare the build finished. The kitchen floor is probably a job for me to do this weekend.

How did you find the barn?

I came into housebuilding completely by accident when I came across a Homebuilding & Renovating Magazine at an airport one day, and that was it – I got hooked. There was a feature called the Plotfinder Challenge by David Snell, I sent him a note saying that I’d found a big old mill in Scotland  but hadn’t been able to secure it when it went to sealed bids, so was looking for somewhere else to build. He came up to Scotland and we drove around looking for suitable plot. I bought the barn exactly fourteen years and two weeks ago and I’m featured in a Homebuilding & Renovating Magazine article from August 2001.

Your barn is pretty much in the middle of nowhere, how far away is your biggest town?

The nearest pint of milk, pub and bus stop is five miles away. The nearest town of any decent size is about twelve miles away. I love it up there but quite like it here in the city as well.

Is your plan to eventually work less and spend more time in Scotland?

Absolutely, or find contract work up in Edinburgh and live there on a permanent basis. I’ve lived in Scotland before and have done a lot of moving around with work, which is part of the reason the build has taken so long. I lived overseas for seven years in Germany and India. When I lived in Germany I would come back to the barn every weekend, sleep in the back of the car and spend all weekend putting the slates on the roof.

What sort of permission did you need for your renovation?

The barn already had planning permission but I wanted to change the design. I reapplied for planning permission which took about eighteen months. I wanted the architect to incorporate a lot of the existing building into the design; I gave him a list of six essential requirements and then let him do what he wanted to do. The drawings he came back with are the ones I’m still using – I haven’t had to change a single thing.

How did you find your architect?

I found him through my boss at work. Not knowing anyone up in Scotland has been one of the hardest things for me – finding decent contractors has been difficult, which is why I started doing some of the building myself.

How many square metres of floor space do you have in your house?

About 450 square metres and the ceilings are five metres high.

I know that part of the building fell down in the first stage of your project, have you had to do a lot of remedial work?

Yes, that was down to an incompetent builder who had no experience of that kind of building.

Is it true that you found him in the Yellow Pages?

It is true that I contacted half a dozen builders through the Yellow Pages, but the reason I went with him was that he was the only one who spent a bit of time talking to me and going through the plans. He seemed reasonably confident but it turned out that he wasn’t.

How did you find your next builder?

I didn’t have one after that. He had to repair what he had done and I kept him on to do the roof. I had the engineer and architect work alongside at the time because it is a particularly complex roof.

Have you employed any subcontractors at all?

I had a subcontractor for the rough work plumbing and an electrician.

About three years ago, when I was doing all the building myself, I had a problem with the roof (a legacy of the incompetent builder). It had leaked on and off for ten years and I just couldn’t get it fixed. Somebody was recommended to me, he gave me a quote and told me it would take ten days, he did it in eight days and the roof hasn’t leaked since. He has been so good and I was bored witless with plasterboarding, so I employed him to help me with it. I still do an enormous amount myself, I’ve got so used to building now; it’s what I do every weekend, but given that I now know and trust him it’s sometimes easier to ask him to do some of the work – I get him to do more structural tasks.

How important was it for you to build an energy efficient house?

Incorporating energy efficiency in to the building is something that I really wanted to do, but it is difficult when you are working with an existing old stone building which is cold and full of draughts. I have put in a lot of insulation, and as there wasn’t the opportunity to have gas I have a ground source heat pump for the underfloor heating and the hot water. I could have gone for oil but at the time it was very expensive. The only bill I have is for electricity – eventually I would like to have solar power.

I also put in a rainwater recycling unit (not that I’m ever going to run out of water in Scotland)! I can’t get mains water either so I had to have a borehole drilled.

The installation of the ground source heating had its problems. I find renewable energy companies are very hit and miss and have had a horror story with one of them because of added charges. I was in India when the ground source heating system was put in the barn and by the time I got back, the mice had moved in and chewed it to pieces, so it had to be repaired. I also found out that the company had only installed half the pipework in the ground and had quadrupled their bill. There is a big difference between a quote and an estimate, I may not be a builder but I do understand contract law. They had given me a quote which meant they had to stick to it. It has been a learning experience.

The house is nice and warm now. Having spent nights in a frozen caravan there were times when I never feel that sort of warmth again! It can get down to minus 15 – 20 degrees in Scotland in the winter. It is the oldest tattiest caravan in history but after sleeping in the back of a Corsa it felt like heaven.

What have been the biggest challenges for you during the renovation?

I think it has mainly been the financial pressure. I impulse bought the barn and I didn’t have a clue as to what I was getting into. I was made redundant and it was the toss of a coin that decided whether I would build a house or go travelling around the world. I packed all my things in the back of a mini and travelled up the M1. I had no job and no house to stay in – six months later I had a barn in Scotland.

There have been times when I have wondered where the money would come from and also moments when I felt like giving up. (The bank of Mum and Dad still comes in very useful). I didn’t take a conventional approach, I had no budget. My architect gave me an estimated build cost and I thought … whatever … it’ll be fine … I can just borrow some money. His estimate was half a million and the actual build cost has turned out to be £300K.

Another big challenge was that not being able to be on site all the time to oversee the work, I couldn’t make sure that it was done properly.

How have you found being a woman in the world of building?

It’s hard to be taken seriously. Where I notice it most is at homebuilding shows in the build trade section. Being a woman on my own the companies will talk to anyone but me, that is until I get my plans out on the table and am able to talk it through – then I get a lot of compliments about having taken on the project. But I have found I was condescended to on occasions. I still go to shows but now it’s more the interiors side of the build I go there for, and as a female I get more attention. There’s still that divide. It’s not just at shows; at the builders’ merchants I don’t think I get as good a deal as a man.

What effect has building had on you and the people close to you?

For me personally it is the confidence I now have to do anything I put my hand to. My parents have been very supportive; I’ve had them up on the roof doing the tiling!

If you have a look at Shirley’s blog, you will see pictures of her beautiful intricately designed bathroom tiling which she made up herself from tiny black and white squares. I asked her how she had managed such a task.

The tiling was done in two stages. I made the pattern up in squares at my flat in London in the evenings, and then took them up with me to the barn in my suitcase at the weekend. I made up some of it on an enormous roll which I drove up – it took weeks and weeks.

Shirley has even made her own stairs. I am in awe. She says she would like to make the whole kitchen – the spirit is willing but her face says otherwise. Although I can bet you that she’ll make some of it herself.

As our conversation comes to a close I ask her if she has any top tips for people who are thinking of taking on their own project. Here are her three top tips:

  • Make sure you plan your finances. I should have been more organised about how much the build would cost me and where the money was going to come from. I didn’t think about it at all and I wish I had. Don’t underestimate how much stress it will put you through.
  • Make sure that the builders you take on can do the job. Take references. If you do find someone good – hang on to them. Sometimes you may have to wait for them if they’re busy, but they will be worth the wait.
  • Don’t give up!

To my mind a lesser mortal would have been terrified if they had bought a crumbling old barn on a whim. It may have taken fourteen years to renovate but Shirley now has a beautiful five bedroom home – one that she would never have been able to afford to buy in London.

Having worked in India Shirley was able to commission furniture there and get it shipped to Scotland. It makes me marvel at the delivery, as sometimes we have trouble getting our wood pellets for our boiler delivered to our lane in West Berkshire. She tells me that she’s not quite ready to give up her London life quite yet. She goes to work on a boat up the Thames and flies up to Scotland at the weekends. It’s Friday afternoon and ahead of her she has a one and a half hour flight and then another one and a half hour drive up to her house. If it snows she has to abandon her car and walk five miles up the lane to her house. Thank goodness it’s October and there’s no snow forecast yet.

I thank Shirley very much for taking the time to meet me and for sharing the story of her build – most definitely food for thought for anyone thinking of taking on a challenging renovation such as hers.

To see how Shirley is doing you can follow her blog:  thegirlinthehardhat.com

Shirley barn

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Shirley interior barn

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Shirley lights

Shirley bathroom

Shirley ceiling

Do builders use moisturiser?

The other day I was talking to a builder who was working on our new village hall, it was lunch time and he was tucking into a Ryvita. It looked like a sesame one to me.  I must have looked a bit perturbed as he asked me what the matter was. ‘You’re eating a Ryvita’ I said (it didn’t even have any butter on it). He looked defiant and said that he was a new breed of builder and was looking after himself.

I’m all for people looking after themselves but as Mr Clark rightly points out, Ryvitas taste of cardboard. Nowadays I only eat them if the cheesy oatcakes have run out.

It got me thinking about breeds of builders because to my mind there is actually some truth to it. I used to work on building sites all the time when I was a mural painter, back in the old days before I built a house and had a creaky body. I worked for Fullers Brewery painting murals, mostly in London for their pub and hotel refits, you should have seen me swing from the scaffolding like a paint covered monkey.

When I first got to the site, the plasterers and plumbers would have already gone, and the chippies would be working away alongside the electricians and painters. They would eye me up suspiciously, being wary of arty types – especially designers and thought I would be snooty and demanding.  They would tell each other off for swearing  as there was a lady present; so the first ‘f’ word that accidentally slipped out, I would shout ‘don’t’  ****ing swear!’ and laugh my socks off at their shocked faces. It broke the ice anyway and then I’d make everyone a cup of tea. We’d all get along famously after that … and sometimes they would even make me a cup of tea. If I carried on swearing they would label me a ‘potty mouth’ and tell me off as it wasn’t ladylike.

The chippies could almost always sing and whistle in tune. They were normally the best looking too, but you weren’t to let them know – that would be foolish. The electricians were very quiet and shy on the whole; really decent people and not sweary at all. Painters would be funny and crack silly jokes, they’d  come up to me and say ‘ you missed a bit’ just to get their own back on everyone who did it to them I suppose.

Most of the builders were from up north so were staying in digs in London in the week and going home at weekends. They would turn up in the morning a bit the worse for wear for a few pints in the pub the night before, but being young meant that they could cope with a hangover. Most of them had made sandwiches which I thought was amazingly organised. Not a Ryvita in sight though. This was the nineties however, I don’t really know when men started describing themselves as ‘new men’ and began using moisturiser. I’m still reeling at the shock of seeing Hugh Laurie advertising men’s skin products.

When Mr Clark and I built our house I knew about these breeds of builders, but was involved in dealing with them as their site manager – a completely different scenario. There wasn’t the ‘us’ and ‘them’ camaraderie as I was the ‘them’ but also had to be one of the ‘us’ at the same time – a tricky line to tread. There was always Mr Clark to be the ‘them’, and I’m afraid to say I would use him as the fall guy.

Always blame the one who isn’t there at the time, that’s what I say.

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So tell me, how is your build going?

Since building my own house I am still very much interested in what other self-builders Blog small
are up to. I sometimes mourn the fact that Mr Clark and I probably won’t be taking on another build in the near future, so I reckon the next best thing would be to poke my snoot into other people’s business.

As luck would have it I know some people who are building their own homes at the moment. They have kindly accepted my request for an interview, and happily enough are more than pleased to be able pass on their essential top tips to other aspiring housebuilding adventurers.

This week I had the great fortune to talk to a friend who is just starting out on his build after many months of preparation. We will mysteriously call him Mr X. Why? I hear you ask. Well I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you, let’s leave it there.

 

I met Mr X at a café near his build, and as I slurped my latte and he drank tea and ate a chocolate brownie I asked him:

What type of build are you taking on?

We completely demolished an existing house, so everything is being done from scratch. The groundworks have just been finished using a raft construction, and the timber frame, which is being manufactured off-site, will be put together on-site. We already had the utility connections but had to reroute electric and telephone connections to the next door neighbour’s house, which cost a fair bit of money. We have a contingency budget for those kinds of things.

What gave you the idea to build your own home?

We’ve got a big family and have been looking for a house with enough space to grow into. There was nothing affordable in the area so we started looking for alternatives and the most obvious path was to build our own house. We wanted our four children to be able to have their own space do their homework and music practice in peace and quiet, and also have a garden big enough for a game of football. We looked at build websites and magazines and could see potentially how much it would cost to build a place – we did our sums and thought … maybe we could do that. We found a plot locally that could contain a house big enough.

Are you using a main contractor or using subcontractors?

Subcontractors and a professional project manager.

What was your reason for making this choice?

Money. Also the project manager is working for us and a main contractor would have his loyalties split between his workforce, his own network of subcontractors and us.

I know that you have renovated houses before, are you planning to do any of the work yourselves?

We would rather have professionals do it. The opportunity for us to earn the money to pay the project manager and subcontractors is bigger than the savings we would make by doing the work ourselves.

Did you have some input into the design of your house along with the architect?

Yes, basically we did some back-of-envelope drawings for the architect as well as providing him with a wish list of things that we wanted, and he combined both to come up with a design. He is very much a champion of an environmentally friendly ‘fabric first’ approach to building. (Mr X is lucky enough to have Charlie Luxton as his architect).

We tried not to scrimp and save on essentials like insulation. To save money we might potentially leave some parts of the build unfinished, because you can’t redo insulation but you can always go back and finish things off. We didn’t go for an air source or ground source heat pump or any of those fancy ways to fuel a house, we are going for a gas boiler because the technology is efficient and the energy usage is going to be small. The point is to use as little energy as possible. We made it clear in our planning application that it is a very high performing house in regards to energy saving.

How easy was it for you to get planning permission?

Initially we applied for outline planning permission and the planners rejected it – they said the house looked too imposing and not quite in keeping with the rest of the street. We adapted the design and also hired a planning consultant to help the architect to submit new plans – he came up with some really good ideas and we got permission. I believe that most planning offices have planning portals so that neighbours and members of the community can use them to type in comments. Generally these things are put in place so people can make objections. There were four comments submitted from neighbours, three of which were in support of the application.

What difficulties, if any, have you encountered so far?

The most recent difficulty has been that the part of the foundations which will be supporting the brick skin will have to come up. When the concrete was poured, it wasn’t tamped down properly so there are air pockets in the concrete. This means that if there is water ingress and the steels rust it could expand to several times its current volume, which will obviously cause problems for the brickwork. We consulted the structural engineer and he wasn’t happy with leaving it, so it will have to be relaid.

What effect has your building project had on you and your family?

We haven’t had a holiday, we don’t buy stuff and it has taken a long time. You have got to get it right – it is very important with a timber frame; you have to get the details nailed down before you start the build. There have been delays, there are the sacrifices we made because of finances and it has taken up a lot of my time. Every part of it so far has had delays and difficulties, but stress-wise – I haven’t found it stressful yet.

What keeps you awake at night concerning your build?

Money really, because at the moment we haven’t got enough money to finish it. Everyone says that building can be a strain on everything including your relationships, but I am prepared for that. I also think it is important to have a high level of trust in the people who are working on the project – you’ve got to get really good people who will sort things out.

What is your estimated build cost?

Not including architect’s fees, the cost of the land, or management fees it is £348K.

What is your estimated build time?

The demolition started in August 2015 and the house will be finished in April 2016 (but there was a big run up to the start of the build). You have to think ahead and make all your decisions up-front – everything, even the position of the taps because you have to put the utility pipes in the foundations.

Do you have any tips for aspiring builders?

  • Get people who are really knowledgeable and who you really trust, and are also completely loyal to you professionally – people who are prepared to be adaptable and are able to question their own knowledge and expertise; because things develop and technologies change.
  • Question everything, absolutely everything from the smallest detail.
  • It’s your house. It’s not like buying something from a shop, you can get whatever you want, that’s the exciting part, and because of that the costs can escalate. You need to keep a spreadsheet and a really tight account of every decision you make, as well as the to-do list. Eventually you’ll be looking at costs that are only a small percentage of the total build cost, but if you stop to think about it, they could all add up, so don’t let flights of fancy get away with you.
  • Get a really good idea of costs. We got two estimates from quantity surveyors but they were massively high and weren’t really realistic. Our project manager reviewed them with a dose of realism. We made a Gantt chart for the stages of the build. At first it was very difficult to get an outline of realistic costs and time scales, but when we got these we had some sort of grounding on which to make decisions.

Mr X cycled off into the afternoon sunshine, but before he went he agreed to be interviewed again further into his build. During the interview he had drawn a sketch in my notepad of what his house will  look like (plan and elevations) and I, wanting to see the site, went off in my car to have a look (obviously). I drove down a leafy road and sure enough, there was the site in a fantastic location. The sight of Heras fencing made my heart skip a nostalgic beat. I will probably sneak a peek every now and again to see how they are getting on. I expect the builders will wonder who the small blonde middle-aged prowler is, but I reckon there are worse hobbies than build-spotting.

I’d like to say a huge thank you to Mr X for taking the time to talk to me. I’m very much looking forward to hearing all about how his build is progressing in our next interview. Here are some pictures of his build so far…

 

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Banana anyone?

An elephant’s trunk feels like tree bark. Who knew?

I met two elephants the other day, a pregnant lady elephant and a small boy elephant. I was in awe of meeting them but I don’t think they were that excited to meet me. The lady elephant I was introduced to first didn’t mind much though, as I along with five others, had brought along a snack bucket full of bananas.

The lovely Mr Clark had bought me a ‘meet the elephants experience’ at Whipsnade Zoo as a tenth wedding anniversary present. I was very pleased indeed. I’m not that happy about wild animals being kept in enclosures and cages, but at Whipsnade they are doing a good job with their conservation work and some of it raises funds help humans and elephants get along together in Thailand.

I’ve always wanted to meet an elephant trunk to trunk so to speak. It wasn’t the deepest of encounters but now I know how to tell if an elephant is in a good mood or not – it’s all in the eyes apparently, and who wouldn’t be in a good mood with bananas on offer instead of boring old hay and twigs – a bit like Mr Clark when a party bucket of KFC is wafted under his nose when under the threat of having to eat green beans. (He protests that he might get vegetable poisoning if he has too many greens).

Elephants communicate via low rumblings which are inaudible to human ears. Mr Clark communicates with rumblings but they are most definitely audible and are mostly heard either when he is hungry, disgruntled about noisy cockerels, listening to the cricket, lying down or has just lost a game of Bananagrams.

As I eat my banana now I think back to the elephants, it was only last Sunday but seems so long ago. I suppose it’s like Mr Clark says,’ time flies like an arrow but fruit flies like a banana’. (And so do elephants it seems).

Mandy Clark’s tips for working with builders

In an ideal world:

Getting quotes: Get three quotes for each trade if you are employing subcontractors – the same applies if you are employing a general builder.

Recommendations: Use people who have been recommended to you and if possible go and see their work.

Contracts: Get a price for the job and a schedule of works from each trade – as well as a signed contract. Make sure they have covered everything in their quote so there are no nasty surprises.

Communication: Make sure you communicate well with your subcontractors.

In real life:

Getting quotes: Some people won’t bother to get back to you at all, even if you do leave them a few messages (trying very hard not to hassle them) so it may be quite difficult to get three quotes. If your start date is looming and your wipeable wall calendar has its schedule mapped out, you may have to be extremely flexible with start dates – keep your wiping cloth handy. Some subcontractors are very professional however – you can tell by the state of their van.

Recommendations: Even if people have been recommended to you and you have seen their work it can still go wrong, (see Communication). If you employ fabulous and helpful subcontractors you can then happily give their details to other people.

Contracts: Some subcontractors may be slippery customers who say they will sign document to seal the deal, but in fact they will put it off for as long as possible or perhaps never sign it. They might then tell you that they haven’t accounted for this … and for that. Don’t be taken in by it. If they demand expensive fixings, stick up for yourself and get them to use cheaper ones. (Isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing)?

Communication: It is handy if your subcontractors speak the same language as you. Then you won’t get annoyed while you undo all the work they have done that day – and then have to pay someone else to put it right.

Make sure you are on site for any major decisions otherwise they may be made for you in your absence. Mark out exactly where things should go, and say if you want to keep a particular tree (put red and white barrier tape around it as a reminder).

Remembering how many sugars a subcontractor has in their tea will give you lots of brownie points. Providing their favourite biscuits will help too.

Never interfere with a subcontractor’s lunch break, but do ask them politely not to put foreign items on your rubble pile.

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This is a picture of one of our excellent ground-workers – highly recommended!

You can read more handy tips in my book Mud & Marriage – A Housebuilding Adventure. Available from this website or from Amazon.co.uk 

Would my pants explode?

Mr Clark came home from work this evening and this is how the conversation went:

Me: I’ve been teaching my friend how to draw George Clooney today.

Mr C: Oh yes? (Holding up the picture of George up to cover his own face

Me: Yes and it’s quite an odd thing but we discovered that we both don’t actually fancy George Clooney that much – in fact I think that you are much more handsome than George Clooney.

Mr C: Phh … I bet if George Clooney walked in now your pants would explode.

I am always thinking of Mr Clark’s stomach and what to put in it for his tea. This evening I had planned lamb kebabs in pitta bread with a salad and tzatziki – I was a bit flabbergasted and I told him where his lamb kebabs might end up for saying such a thing.

Now if Huw Edwards walked into my house that might be a different matter. I have never met George Clooney (or Huw Edwards actually) so who knows – they might, but as I pointed out to Mr Clark my pants are not that combustible.

Where did the lamb kebabs end up? It’s my job to know and for you to find out.

If you would like to read more about Mr Clark you can buy Mud & Marriage – A Housebuilding Adventure from this website or from Amazon.co.uk in paperback or on Kindle.

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How to build a house

If we hadn’t built our own house where would we be, who knows? The Queen herself advocated that local authorities create a register of people interested in building their own homes and that they make provision for innovative self-build projects. Perhaps she’ll put some plans in for a new castle – she’ll have to put her name down on the list though.

http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2014-15/selfbuildandcustomhousebuilding.html

A house built by a property developer can’t possibly provide the level of detail pertinent to your tastes; they don’t know your mind and which taps you would like. Every decision made when we built our house formed our home. To have the freedom to choose what you want is rare – we are bound by limitations, there is no question about that, but allowing for these and with the help of a good architect you can build a beautiful home. In a neighbouring village there are some castellated big modern houses in the middle of a picturesque village, I often wonder how they got past the planning police and who actually bought them with their postage stamp sized gardens. (Maybe it was Her Maj the Queen having a go at affordable housing).

We built our house to fit in with the local vernacular, but if we’d had free reign would we have done anything different? Probably not, we wouldn’t want to stick out like a sore thumb in a small village- well not on the outside anyway. Imagine the comments.

I have some friends just about to embark on a build. I congratulate them for getting their planning permission – not an easy task, but worth the effort in the long run. Having built a house and knowing what is involved I can imagine the road ahead for them, but every build is different; every subcontractor has a different number of sugars in their tea and every district council has their own planning officer, some who wear high heels and don’t give you any hassle, and some who don’t and who mess with your choice of bricks.

Good luck all you self-builders out there. If I can be of any help let me know.

If you’d like to read about my journey over the rubble pile and back again, you can buy Mud & Marriage – A Housebuilding Adventure from this website or from Amazon.co.uk in paperback or on Kindle. It is packed with top tips and genuine insights into life on the building site.

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