And it all came tumbling down….

At last, the bureaucrats in the planning office are happy, the building warrant has been approved – building can commence. Hallelujah!

Well that was the plan anyway…

However you describe what happened next, it certainly wasn’t ‘building’ as I understand it. Quite the opposite in fact.

To start with my architect and engineer turned into human moles and became obsessed with digging little holes everywhere.  They would fill the hole with water, sit there until all the water had drained away, and then go and dig another one two feet away. (How many years do you have to study to be an engineer to learn how to use a bucket and spade??) Eventually, at the end of about 3 days impersonating moles, the fiat went forth: the whole building needed to be underpinned.

Really? I mean, there are parts of that building that are probably about 200 years old. Stuck up on the side of a hill exposed to the raw forces of the Scottish weather, the building has survived pretty well. I’ve witnessed 80mph gales and temperatures down to -20°, so surely if the walls have been standing that long, they must be pretty solid – why disturb them now? Who knows, but I suppose if you’re going to pay umpteen thousand pounds to an engineer to assess your site, even one with a fetish for digging holes, probably worth taking his advice. Foundations all round it is then!

So the whole stack of plans and elevation drawings and measurements and engineering calculations were handed over to the builder. Everything he needed so building could begin. Hahaha…

What would you do if you came home one day and discovered your builder had failed to mention there’d been a bit of a minor mishap….OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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Did I mention, in one of my previous posts, something about the incompetence of the builder? Hmmm, on an epic scale as it turned out…

In truth, when faced with something like this, there are only 2 options: Laugh or Cry. I laughed. Hysterically. For quite a long time.

It appears that my Yellow Pages builder ‘lacked experience with old buildings’. (Really? I would never have guessed.) So instead of digging out and underpinning the walls a metre at a time, so as not to undermine the rest of the building, he decided it would save time to dig out to foundation level along the entire 100ft length of wall in one go. With no stable ground left to hold it up, the wall collapsed.

And it gets better! Not content with demolishing the outside of the building, he also decided to scrape out the ground inside the building, ready to pour the concrete. But again he took out too much ground and in doing so destabilised all the internal walls – to such an extent that the engineer decided that all of the interior of the building would now have to be underpinned as well.

At this point it felt like the entire building was mostly held up by Acrow props…

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And the occasional half a brick…

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 (Actually I think it was largely held up by my constant litany of prayer – Please don’t let it fall down any more, please don’t let it fall down any more, please don’t let it fall down any more…)

At this point I should probably have found myself another builder. But I really couldn’t face that yellow pages palaver again, so I generously decided to put it down to his inexperience, rather than challenge his ineptitude. But let’s be honest – by now, the divorce was definitely on the cards.

Still, at least when he moved on to the front of the building, he had figured out the right way to do it…….

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A bit at a time….

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My only saving grace was that since it was the incompetence of the builder that caused the damage, he had to pick up the cost of rebuilding. But it delayed the completion of the foundations by several months.

Moral of the story? Find an experienced builder – before you start!!

Bats, bells and crystal balls…

In the course of a ‘normal’ self-build, if I’m following the well-established route for getting a house built, there’s a logical order of progress:

  • Buy a plot of land. Tick.
  • Find an architect. Tick.
  • Find an engineer. Tick
  • Get planning permission and building warrant. Er….

This is the point at which the madness began. I was told I had to have a bat survey.

Yes, you did read that correctly! I actually paid somebody a not inconsiderable sum to spend three nights camping on my site to spy on bats. In a wet and windy week in March, in my derelict old barn with no windows or doors, dossing down amongst the mountains of cow dung and pigeon guano – well call me a wimp if you like, but personally I can think of better ways to earn a living!

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Bats in the belfry anyone?

The conclusion? A wasted effort. The bat poo in the barn was over year old; the bats had moved on. Big sigh of relief – I mean I’m all for protecting our wildlife, but the idea of building little access points and bat houses in the rafters sounded expensive!

The next moment of madness? Fire bells. In their infinite wisdom, the planners decided that my home should be treated as a commercial building and a full scale fire alarm system should be installed.

Now I’m all for putting in safety precautions. Smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors – they do save lives. But in all my time reading home building magazines and watching build programmes, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody asked to install break glass fire alarm boxes in a domestic house. Not even in some of those humongous mansions that get built on Grand Designs! But try as he might my architect could not persuade the planners that they were perhaps being a bit OTT, and in order to get the plans passed, we had to give in. Little red fire alarm boxes it is.

So here’s the deal. When I’m on my own in the house, (which is most of the time), if I see a fire, I need to run to one end of the house or the other so I can break the glass in the box and press the button so the fire bell rings. Well how else will I know I need to evacuate the building….

Having finally got all the plans and warrants in place, I could go ahead and start some real work. Time to get the borehole installed.

  • Find a drilling company. Tick.
  • Get a geological survey. Tick.
  • Find a water diviner. Eh??

Yep. You read that one correctly too. At the request of the drilling company I paid a wodge of cash to somebody who claimed to be able to find the water sources on my land. Apparently there are people who make a living as water diviners! But for the sceptical amongst you, I happen to know it works. Somebody once demonstrated it for me. Try getting a couple of wire coat hangers, bend them into hooks, go into your garden and walk over the mains water feed into your house. The coat hangers will go crazy. Honestly.

But the lovely lady who was going to be divining for my water also wanted me to send a site plan. I assumed that the kind of topographical and geographical information on a proper site plan would help determine what kind of land formation I had and hence where the water would most likely be found. You know – proper science stuff. Unfortunately my ‘site plan’ looks like something I might have drawn in primary school!

image About as detailed as that and I can’t see how that’s going to be of any use to anyone!

Somewhat embarrassed I explained that I only had a very crudely drawn plan. “No worries,” came the response, “the crystals will still work.” The what??? The crystals…… in an office 30 miles away, waving bits of crystal on a string over a drawing of my site that a 2-year old would probably disown, would apparently reveal the hidden sources of water on my land!

I can guess what you’re thinking here; I’m only a few months into my mammoth project and already I’m happily handing out cash to complete basket-cases.

Well, you can laugh all you like, But when the drilling rig was set up in the magic crystal spot identified, 60 metres down, we struck water! Coincidence, maybe, but who am I to scoff? (Perhaps I should have asked what the next lottery numbers were going to be…)

Anyway, now I’ve got the bats, bells and crystal gazing out of the way, can I start building please??

I wish they’d invented the internet back then…

With the building warrant applied for, and an architect sorted, time to find a builder. And how hard can that be? You just google it right? Ratedpeople.com…Builders in Perthshire. Check out the reviews and number of stars they get. Sorted! Get their credit history. Trawl through the web to see who’s posted any complaints. In fact find out everything, not just their company status and latest build projects, but also their Saturday night antics at the pub – after all, it’s always useful to know if you’ll never see your builder on a Monday morning because he’s still recovering from his weekend hangover… What would life be without YouTube, FB, Google and Twitter?

Well it might come as a bit of a shock to anyone under the age of 30, but actually, technology at the beginning of this century wasn’t what it is today. I mean I’ll admit to being a bit of a luddite back then, but honestly, using the web meant heading into town to find a dingy internet cafe down a dodgy back alley. And to most builders, a website would have meant that nasty dark corner of the rafters where the gigantic spiders hang out. Broadband in your own home – what kind of science-fiction world are you living in?

So how else do you find a builder you trust?

Anybody remember this???    image

Yep – in the absence of all that wonderful technology, let your fingers do the walking – fall back on the good old yellow pages. Only one problem – they didn’t have ‘Like’ buttons in the ads. Where are the reviews? Where are the star ratings? How could I work out whether these builders were reliable??

Clearly in this situation a methodical and scientific approach is needed. So, some foolproof criteria for appraising the ads:

  1. How big is the advert – Well size always matters, doesn’t it?
  2. Have they got any accreditation logos? – Unfortunately I couldn’t google them to find out what they meant, but they had to be worth something, didn’t they?

And that’s it – there’s not much else you can look at in a Yellow Pages advert. About as useful as mudguards on a tortoise in fact. In truth, closing my eyes and just jabbing a pencil on the page would have produced much the same result. Still, I had to start somewhere.

I think the approved process at this point is to go out to tender. Invite your chosen shortlist of builders up to the site individually to view the plans and discuss the project in sufficient detail to allow them to submit a quote. When you have all the submissions back you are able to make an informed and rational decision on who to employ, ensuring your large amounts hard-earned cash are being given to someone who will reliably turn your dilapidated old barn full of cow-dung into the castle of your dreams. Yeah, right! Personally I think that process is entirely mythical. From my initial, randomly-generated shortlist of six builders, my tender process went as follows:

Builder #1: Didn’t answer his phone for a week. Builder #1

Builder #2: Twice arranged meetings, twice he didn’t turn up. Builder #2

Builder #3: Turned up at site, spent about 10 minutes looking round. Disappeared, never to be heard from again. (Not sure whether it was me or the project that scared him off.) Builder #3

Builder #4: Turned up at site, spent about an hour going through plans and proposal. And then sent me a very polite letter, on company headed paper, a couple of days later, stating that “whilst he appreciated me giving him the opportunity to take on a project like this, unfortunately at that time his work commitments were such that he wouldn’t be able to start the job for 18 months.” Excuse me, but didn’t you know what your workload was before you came to see me?  Scared off by the scale of the project methinks. Builder #4

Builder #5: No show. Builder #5

Builder #6: Turned up in obligatory white van, hellhound in the front next to him, copy of The Sun open at page 3 on the dashboard, dog-end of a rollup in his mouth … you get the picture. A 10-second glance at the plans and a 10-minute walk around the building apparently gave him all the info he needed. He phoned me two days later. “Yeah, I can take the job on. I’ve just spoken to a mate who can get a load of concrete on the cheap. When do you want it delivered?” Well call me fussy if you like, but novice builder girl that I was, even I’d worked out that there was a bit more required than just a load of knocked-off concrete poured into the building. Builder #6

And so it went on. Back to the random pencil-jabbing in the yellow pages………… Trust me, finding a builder is a soul-destroying process. Until finally somebody who:

  • Turned up on site, on time
  • Spent about 2 hours looking at the plans and the site
  • Submitted a written quote a few days later

AND Was available to start immediately. That’s what should have set the alarm bells ringing. But hell, what did I know about builders. On the basis he was the only person who appeared to be willing to submit a quote, he got the job.

We parted company long before he finished the job, and 13 years later I’m still fixing some of his incompetence, but that’s a whole new blog……

Grand Designs: The one that got away…

“You should’ve been on that telly programme” is one of the most common reactions I get whenever anyone sees pictures of the barn for the first time. Well the thing is, I very nearly was. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Looking back on it, I’m not entirely sure why I contacted Channel 4. Shell-shock maybe? I’d just become the proud owner of a barn full of cow dung. Time to get Kevin McCloud up to help me personally draft a project plan or something.

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Unfortunately that’s not quite how it works. But enticed by some pictures of a wreck of a barn, that even by Grand Designs standards was pretty impressive, a Channel 4 team came up, complete with camera, microphone and list of difficult questions, and filmed an interview. Presumably to take away, review and compare with all the other delusional self-builders hoping for their 15 minutes of fame.

GD: “And what’s your build route? How involved do you plan to be? Project managing yourself or handing it all over to a professional?” Me: “Um, don’t know really. I mean I think I’ve found an architect but I”m not really sure what I’m supposed to be asking him to do.”

GD: “OK. So what sort of look/feel/finish are you aiming for?”   Me: “Er, well, I haven’t really thought about it really. I suppose a sort of modern sort of traditional kind of barn sort of thing. If you know what I mean. Sort of.”

GD: “And what about budget? How much are you planning to spend on the conversion?”   Me: “Um, well, I don’t know really. I haven’t given it much thought yet.”

GD: “So when are you hoping to be moving in?”   Me, with great confidence: “Oh it will be done by Christmas” (Well they  didn’t ask  which year…)

Riveting TV I don’t think. If they’d gone ahead and tried to make a programme out of it, putting me in front of the camera would have come under the header “Cruelty to dumb animals”!

I can imagine the team discussion in the bar at the airport on the way back to the safe haven of the C4 studio. A total stunned silence until someone finally cracks: “She was clueless, totally ******** clueless! What a bloody waste of our time. She’ll be ripped of by every tradesman on the planet. She has no idea what she’s let herself in for. She’s completely insane. She’s never, in a million years, going to get that finished.”

Right – right – probably right – mostly right – right – totally right – Absolutely dead wrong!

In the early years of the programme I don’t remember there being ‘Revisited’ programmes. Back in the good old days, people seemed to be able to finish building their entire house within the year’s filming schedule. (FFS – How? Will somebody share the secret?) But just imagine if they had started filming me in 2001. It would have been the ultimate in repeats. Grand Designs – Revisited – revisited – revisited – revisited – revisited – revisited – revisited – revisited – revisited – revisited – revisited – revisited – revisited – revisited 

And so I was relegated to the cutting room floor.

Hey ho! Maybe it’s just as well. Think of poor old KMcC – My total lack of planning, head-in-sand approach to budget, and complete inability to do things in any kind of logical order would probably have driven him to the nearest loony bin. I am the very best showcase of how not to do it. I think this one might just have rendered him speechless. 🙂

The funny thing is, if they’d come back 5 years later and asked the same questions, I still don’t think I’d have been able to answer them. But it hasn’t stopped me. So for anyone in the middle of a self-build project who thinks they’ve lost their way

Don’t despair. You too can go from this

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(Eventually….)

In the beginning….

I’m often asked how I ended up in Scotland and the answer is, basically, “By chance”….

I’d always wanted to build my own home but when an opportunity arose, when I was given a redundancy package from my job, I couldn’t initially decide whether to go travelling or build a house. In the face of such indecision, with such a monumental life-changing choice to make, only one thing to be be done; I tossed a coin. Heads – go travelling. Tails – go build a house. Tails it was!

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So packing everything up in the back of my Mini (a real Mini, not one of those BMWs with aspirations) and driving up the M1, I arrived in Scotland in December 2000, with no job, nowhere to live, and no idea what next!

I found a job a week or so later and in the new year began the search for a plot of land. In the words of that irritating meerkat – “Simple”!

I wrote to Homebuilding & Renovating magazine who ran a monthly feature called Plotfinder Challenge. To my astonishment they got in touch, and a couple of months later me, my mini and their freelance journalist spent a weekend exploring all the “For Sale” derelict buildings we could find. From the south of the Borders to the edge of the Highlands. Barns, mills, churches, all in varying states of dereliction and decay.

For me, it was the first real opportunity I’d had to explore the stunning beauty of Scotland and to appreciate how different the landscape can be. We went South: a very gothic church near Kelso, a couple of very old stone walls (apparently all that was left of a mill) in a field near Oxton, an isolated cottage in the depths of the Tweed Valley. And then we headed North: a mill on a working farm, not far from Edinburgh, a remote barn in the Cairngorms.

And finally, a farm steading on the border of Angus and Perthshire. The minute I walked in through the 17ft high cart doors I knew I’d found my future home.

    DSCN2082I didn’t seem to notice the heaps of cow dung or mountains of pigeon poo…

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Or the broken rafters and gaping holes in the roof…

Or the collapsing stonework and rotting wood…….

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I simply fell in love.

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I know that I am totally capable of impulse buying a pair of shoes on a daily basis, but is it really possible to impulse buy a bundle of barns? I guess so!