Category Archives: builders

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

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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