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.

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!

Frank 1 small

Frank 2 small        Frank 3 small

 

 

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

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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