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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.
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Do you want an oak framed garage too?

WP_20151122_14_35_06_ProSunday 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. Read more

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…

Read the full article ‘When I met The Girl in the Hard Hat’

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.

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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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How to become a ‘big cheese’

I haven’t been invited to a cheese and wine do for years. Is it because I have become unpopular, or are these sorts of functions put on just to get you to sign up to a committee and I am avoiding responsibility? It might just be that the canapé has usurped the cheese, I’m not sure. Thankfully the one thing that can never be taken from us is the wine.

I have been reading self-help books recently (yes – really), and I think I can analogise the gist of what they are saying well with the aid of comestibles.

Let’s take the concept of ‘the big cheese’ vs the little cheese.

Basically if you think of yourself as a small triangle of Dairylea cheese, you will be a small triangle of Dairylea cheese, forever to be wedged in with all the other little cheeses in a box with a lid, dying to get out of your restricted foiled world. If however you picture yourself as a mighty round of smelly blue and delicious Stilton, that is what you will become, but you must keep that picture in your mind at all times. Never picture yourself as a Dairylea wedge as that would be counterproductive. Don’t even think of yourself as a Babybel because as you know, you will be caught in a net, have your wax ripped off and then wolfed down in one go.

I would like to be savoured and eaten with wine which will complement my aroma and flavour – not eaten in a packed lunch by a five year old and washed down with a carton of apple juice (no disrespect to any five year old readers). I would like to be lovingly placed on a cheeseboard with other distinctive cheeses and raise a gasp when I’m put on the table. Apparently all I have to do is to affirm that I am a ‘big cheese’ as often as I can and it will happen.

Mr Clark would like to sell up and set up a cheese farm out west somewhere. A silly idea you may think, but if he really wants to make cheese, he should be allowed to make cheese. Perhaps he could make wine as well. Do you know that there are 432 commercial vineyards in England and Wales, and 124 wineries? Amazing when you consider the weather. www.englishwineproducers.co.uk And according to The British Cheese Board there are over 700 British cheeses produced in the UK www.specialistcheesemakers.co.uk

I am a ‘big cheese’… I am a ‘big cheese’…

 

 

 

Why should you keep a diary?

I have recently been leafing through my old diaries from the nineties. There are things that I really don’t remember at all, which is a worry. I was full of hope for the future; it’s an odd feeling looking back, I feel quite protective of the young lady I was then, knowing what I know now. My mum says that I’m like a cartoon character – I keep getting squashed by a boulder but always somehow manage to ping back to life again. There goes that old song in my head ‘Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again’.

The whole saga is chronicled in my mum’s diaries too. Oddly enough, as she was looking through them to help me remember events during the house build for my book – as well as providing me information about what the weather was doing at the time, she realised that her 2010 diary was missing, we hunted high and low but it had gone. No, it wasn’t me – I didn’t do anything particularly dastardly that year, so you can stop pointing the finger. Now we will never know now what the weather was doing in 2010, unless we Google it of course. We discussed what would happen to her diaries when she departs from this earthly life. She said to burn them, but I think not. Since writing Mud & Marriage I have now got into the habit of keeping a diary, not every day, but I know that looking back on them one day will give me a great sense of amusement.  I wonder why we only remember the highs and lows. It’s a puzzle how only a few strange details filter through.  I suppose we file many things away in the pleats of our mind, and there they will stay I expect. (Or until you become friends with someone on Facebook who you knew when you were fifteen and it all the embarrassing moments come flooding back).

I have written notes in my diaries for people to read on my departure to the heavenly realms. I’ll be glad to give people who might read them some food for thought. Wagging an advisory finger from a different dimension is safer I think. I’d better hide them until then eh.

We had some visitors today who have read Mud & Marriage – I was very pleased indeed to show them round the house. Mr Clark and I showed them the photo book  we made of the house build from start to finish and they said that it must have been a huge task.  Looking back, yes it was, but while you are living it, you just live it and get on with it. Keeping a diary is a great thing – It shows you how far you’ve come and that things usually turn out alright in the end.  I’d do it all again – it’s an adventure, and even though unpredictable events may be daunting at the time, they make for an interesting story.

 

You can buy Mud & Marriage – A Housebuilding Adventure from Amazon.co.uk  or from this website.