Tag 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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

Image1

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.

6

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