Tag Archives: Homebuilding shows

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.

 

You can ‘self’ do it too!

From self-building to self-publishing, I say all a person needs is a bit of grit and determination and probably a deep need to be in control. You may be on the cusp of a ’self ‘project and I am here to say that it isn’t as scary as you think it is – help is at hand.

I wouldn’t describe myself as a control freak (others might). Mr Clark says that I am fussy – I say that I am just a bit particular, but we both agree that if you want something done properly –do it yourself and for those things you can’t, pay someone else to do them (or if it is your sister, just ask nicely).

You may not know anything about ground source heat pumps or where to put your punctuation after a bracket, but there will be someone who does. I think the best way to learn about something is from talking to an actual human being – as well as Googling of course. The internet does have its place in gathering essential information – how else would I know how to cook Jamie Oliver’s sticky ribs recipe or even how to recognise a sociopath?

Homebuilding shows are brilliant for self-builders, not only for gleaning information from suppliers but from random conversations you may strike up with other self-builders as you eat your sandwiches. One such conversation gave me and Mr Clark the confidence to do it ourselves. (We also managed to get quite a good supply of free pens and sweets from the stands).

This week we went to Bath Literature Festival and I went to seminar given by the lovely Flic Everett on ‘how to promote your self-published book’ (while Mr Clark went to see his e-bike friend and ate his way around the city). Not only did I come away with some extremely valuable nuggets of information but I met some really lovely people too, all like me on the quest to do it themselves.

Mr Clark and I also visited the aptly named Topping and Co booksellers where I had the great fortune to meet and chat with a fabulous young lady who works in the shop and who gave me some very sound advice.

I’m not under any illusion that a ‘self’ project is easy – I’ve built a house – but it was a worth all the hard work and I still have a great sense of satisfaction, especially when I look back at the photos I’m submitting for magazine articles which document the build from start to finish. I’m still on my upward self-publishing trajectory – who knew what was involved without a publisher! As I get to grips with it, I must remember when I am checking my blog ‘stats’ (yet again) that getting out into the world and talking with people is paramount in enjoying the journey – and that is after all, in my eyes, what it is all about.

If you would like to know how you can build your own house there are some handy hints in my book Mud & Marriage – A Housebuilding Adventure, available from Amazon.co.uk (now available on Kindle) or from this website.

After

The Bath Literature Festival:  http://bathfestivals.org.uk/literature/

Book cover design: www.katenorthover.co.uk

Art blogger L.E Wright https://lewright.wordpress.com

Homebuilding shows:

http://www.homebuildingshow.co.uk/

http://www.granddesignslive.com/

http://www.buildshow.co.uk/

http://www.nsbrc.co.uk/