Category Archives: subcontractors

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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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…

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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.

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