Category Archives: Homebuilding Shows

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

Shirley interior 1

Shirley interior barn 2

Shirley lights

Shirley bathroom

Shirley ceiling

Building show tips and a total eclipse.

How many of you woke up this morning in Britain singing that Bonnie Tyler song? Mr Clark was treated to a rendition on my awakening. He wasn’t impressed.

I opened the shutters wide and what did I see? A completely grey sky staring back at me. Then the sun came out about an hour later – oh well. According to my horoscope in the Telegraph magazine, the solar eclipse is auspicious. I am still waiting for that ‘unexpected conversation this week that will help me branch out and break new ground’.

I had a long chat with a lovely young lady from Homebuilding and Renovating Magazine  yesterday. It wasn’t ground-breaking but a very good chat nonetheless. We talked about the Homebuilding and Renovating shows, as Mr Clark and I went to quite a few of them before and during our self-build. It was at one of the shows that we met a couple who were by then on their third house build, and they, along with Mark Brinkley and David Snell (the house building gurus), inspired us to go ahead and project manage our own build.

For us the shows were a vital part of gathering information for essential items, from roof tiles and ground- source heating, to sewage treatment systems and flooring, we always came away with bulging carrier bags full of brochures. If you are planning to go to a show, take your list of stands you want to visit, wear comfy shoes and also take a flask and sandwiches – gather as many free pens and sweets from the stands as you can, and have a lovely time eyeing up all those things you would love to have but you probably can’t afford (luxury mobile homes or caravans for living on site being one of them), they might not let you eat your sandwiches as you try out the comfy seats but you could have a go and see what happens!

You can read more about our Homebuilding and Renovating Show visits in my book Mud & Marriage – A Housebuilding Adventure, available from Amazon.co.uk  or from this website.