Tag Archives: top tips

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…

Read the full article ‘When I met The Girl in the Hard Hat’

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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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.

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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 

How to build a house

If we hadn’t built our own house where would we be, who knows? The Queen herself advocated that local authorities create a register of people interested in building their own homes and that they make provision for innovative self-build projects. Perhaps she’ll put some plans in for a new castle – she’ll have to put her name down on the list though.

http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2014-15/selfbuildandcustomhousebuilding.html

A house built by a property developer can’t possibly provide the level of detail pertinent to your tastes; they don’t know your mind and which taps you would like. Every decision made when we built our house formed our home. To have the freedom to choose what you want is rare – we are bound by limitations, there is no question about that, but allowing for these and with the help of a good architect you can build a beautiful home. In a neighbouring village there are some castellated big modern houses in the middle of a picturesque village, I often wonder how they got past the planning police and who actually bought them with their postage stamp sized gardens. (Maybe it was Her Maj the Queen having a go at affordable housing).

We built our house to fit in with the local vernacular, but if we’d had free reign would we have done anything different? Probably not, we wouldn’t want to stick out like a sore thumb in a small village- well not on the outside anyway. Imagine the comments.

I have some friends just about to embark on a build. I congratulate them for getting their planning permission – not an easy task, but worth the effort in the long run. Having built a house and knowing what is involved I can imagine the road ahead for them, but every build is different; every subcontractor has a different number of sugars in their tea and every district council has their own planning officer, some who wear high heels and don’t give you any hassle, and some who don’t and who mess with your choice of bricks.

Good luck all you self-builders out there. If I can be of any help let me know.

If you’d like to read about my journey over the rubble pile and back again, you can buy Mud & Marriage – A Housebuilding Adventure from this website or from Amazon.co.uk in paperback or on Kindle. It is packed with top tips and genuine insights into life on the building site.

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