Yes. I’m a girl. And your point is…..?

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of a set of plans must be out of her depth.”

Don’t you agree? If not, you may be in the minority in the construction industry.

OK. I’ll admit it. My Aga is purple, my walk-in wardrobe is 22ft long, and I’ve designed a custom-built storage for 50 pairs of shoes:

And I don’t particularly subscribe to the über feminist view that men and woman are absolutely equal in all things. I’m fully prepared to accept that I am not as physically strong as most men in the industry, and that can be a bit problematic when you’ve got to get a tonne of lead up a ladder.

But none of that makes me brainless. In the design, planning, purchasing and project managing of my build I am perfectly competent. Just because I like girly colours and I’ve got a fetish for shoes, that doesn’t mean I’m not capable of running a build project.

So why, in this enlightened age of equality, in the brave new world of #heforshe, why am I so often still greeted with either disbelief, derision, or most annoyingly, condescension?

On one truly memorable occasion, when I turned up at a certain plumbing store in Dundee to get a particular pipe fitting I was asked “Did your husband tell you what size to get?” He was just being funny – just a bit of banter, right? At least, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, I think it was. But I must have had a sense of humour failure that day; I wasn’t amused. There are so many answers I could have given – “No, but my girlfriend did…” Or “Yes, but like most men, he always says things are bigger than they really are…” But I kept my dignity, took my goods and left. And I guess I get the last laugh because I’ve never used that store again!

Well that was a number of years ago and I’d like to think that it was a one-off. To be fair, if I have tradesmen come to the site I usually get a very positive reaction. In fact, I’ve had a number of men tell me that they wouldn’t have dared take on a project like mine, which I’ll admit is gratifying.

But if I’m not on site, ie. if the evidence isn’t right in front of them, a lot of men seem to have difficulty comprehending that I can hold a serious conversation about a building project. Over the course of my build I have installed the external drainage and soakaway, slated the roof, plumbed in bathrooms, built all the internal walls, constructed staircases, tiled, painted, wired…. I’ve attempted most things. (I even tried my hand at plastering but am happy to admit it was a disaster. That is one skill that eludes me!)

So why am I not taken seriously?

The worst offenders are the exhibitors at the Self-build shows. I went to one of these shows with my parents once, and almost without exception all of the exhibitors I stopped to talk to insisted on talking, initially at least, to my dad. Now whilst my dad has frequently donned his overalls to help me out on site, he is actually a firm believer that DIY stands for Don’t Involve Yourself, and he certainly hadn’t mugged up on home automation or green energy, or any of the other things I’ve considered for my project.

It’s even worse if I go to an exhibition on my own. As I stand politely waiting for someone to become available to talk to me, I find myself ignored in favour of couples who wander up after me. A woman on her own? She must be lost. “The knitting exhibition’s next door, love.” Ha ha, very funny.

Actually it’s incredibly frustrating. But think on this boys. My barn is a fair size. It has consumed more than 10,000 roof slates, over 2,000 floor slates, about 400 sheets of plasterboard and I don’t know how many miles of wood for framing, battening and stud walls. Not to mention 6 sets of French doors and 30 windows. I’ve installed a 6,000 litre rainwater collection tank, and a GSHP large enough to heat the whole place and provide all the hot water for four bathrooms. Then there’s the underfloor heating system to go with the GSHP and the fixtures, fittings, tiles, and pipework for said bathrooms. And I’m about to install enough solar panels on the roof to boil an ocean… Hey, I’m a girl remember – so I do love a good shopping list!

The point is, as a consumer, with a fair amount to buy, I have a choice. And it amounts to a fair whack of cash that I’m spending. So in a world of increasing competition and diminishing margins, can you really afford to be so condescending to a single girl in possession of a set of plans? To quote a very relevant line from a very girly film “Big mistake. Huge. I have to go shopping now….”

I would love to hear from any other female self-builders and whether they have had similar experiences, or is it just something about me that screams GULLIBLE DUMB BLONDE on the loose?! (Though in truth, I’m more mucky mouse than blonde).

Trashing the JCB…

Personally I think it’s something every girl should be able to put on her CV – how to trash a JCB and survive the experience…

Putting the roof on wasn’t actually my first hands-on effort on site. Whilst the builder had been busy demolishing the place, and the engineer and architect had been busy spending my hard-earned cash, I hadn’t just been sitting around admiring the view. My first foray into hands on getting down and dirty on site was in fact getting down and dirty literally, installing the soak away and all the external drainage.

Easy-peasy you might think. Dig a trench, put a pipe in, cover it over – jobs a good’un. Yeah well, spoiler alert for all you would be self-builders, it ain’t that simple…

Nowadays you can just go into YouTube a watch a video entitled “How to install a drainage pipe” (though quite why anybody would want to spend their spare time videoing that, I don’t know!) But back in the good old days before YouTube had been invented, the big book of Building Regulations had to be read.

Section 24 will answer all your questions, covering everything: how much space there needs to be around a toilet; how many toilets required per person per square metre; how much gravel is required in your trenches, how steep the pipe run should be….. the list is endless. Awesome bedtime reading I don’t think.

It even includes lovely paragraphs like this:

  1. The floor area of a sub-surface drainage trench required to disperse effluent from septic tanks may be calculated from –

    A = p x Vp x 0.25

    where A is the area of the sub-surface drainage trench, in m2;
    p is the number of persons served by the tank; and
    Vp is the percolation value obtained, as described above, in seconds/mm.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t ever recall any of my maths teachers explaining to me how important it was to pay attention to simultaneous equations and trigonometry lessons because I would one day need Pythagoras to help me bed down my poo pipes.

Undaunted (I did pay some attention in my maths lessons) I got out my calculator, worked it all out, and then went out and hired a mini-digger. And had a whole heap of fun with it, right up to the point I managed to turn it over. Oops! Fortunately I wasn’t wearing the seatbelt provided, so I managed to free myself as the digger came crashing down. I ended up standing upright in the cab with the digger on its side all around me.

At this point I have to give all credit to my local community. From my neighbour rushing out to make sure I was still in one piece, to the local farmers bringing up a tractor to help get the digger back up on its tracks, I don’t know what I would have done without them.

Unfortunately, once we’d righted the digger I discovered that where it had previously swung a full 360° on its axle, after falling over it would only swing about 120° before making a horrible clunking noise. It was at this point I read the small print on the hire docket: “Hirer is responsible for arranging insurance.” Damn! I knew there was something I’d forgotten to do – How much does it cost to replace a JCB??

So I parked it up by my gate, with all its buckets and bits, and left it to be collected by the Hire company. Surprisingly I never got a call demanding reparation, so I assume it whatever damage I’d done was an easy fix.

Even more surprisingly, the following weekend the farmer who’d been part of the original rescue party pitched up with this big beastie for me to play with:

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How’s that for trust?!

Becoming a roofer….

Having scaled back the roof designs to something vaguely affordable and with the structural elements of the building completed, time to let the engineer and architect go. Lovely chaps but definitely not compatible with my bank balance.

Unfortunately, that left me faced with a recalcitrant builder who couldn’t seem to grasp the concept that water doesn’t flow uphill, and who seemed determined to build some kind of unplanned stagnant water feature in the valley of the roof. So I decided to sack him too. Which left me in charge……clueless, but confident in the theory that if I can read it in a book, of course I can do it in practise!

And with that in mind, I took on the job of covering the roof myself. With hindsight, possibly not the most sensible decision I’ve ever made, but nothing ventured and all that. So I read up on the theory of how to slate a roof. After all “how hard can it be?”

From armchair expert to real roofer – I ordered several miles of wood battens, a dozen or so rolls of roofing membrane, and just over 10,000 slates. (As I might have mentioned before, it’s not a small building, and not a small roof!)

And so the first slate goes on…..

IMG_0076              (Only 10,699 to go…)

The additional challenge, (because clearly I never like to make anything easy for myself) was that at the time I was living and working in Germany. My life turned into something quite surreal:

Monday to Friday, suited and booted in the office, stuck at a computer all day; every Friday night in various airports, because sods law there’s no direct flight from Düsseldorf to Edinburgh; all weekend on site on the roof and sleeping in the back of a car; and flying back to Germany on Sunday evening ready for another week at work.

Over the course of a year I spent practically every weekend on the roof….in all weathers.

Some observations from my experiences that year:

  1. If you’re going to build a house, give up on your social life
  2. If you going to spend more than one night sleeping in a car, invest in an Estate – the back of a Corsa every weekend for about a year really isn’t the best idea in the world.
  3. If you have to get from one end of Schipol airport to the other for a connecting flight, 20 minutes isn’t enough!

Still at the end of it all, I can sit here with pride and say that the roof I put on is still going strong. And given the 80mph gales we’ve had up there, that’s no mean feat! Experienced roofer – something else to add to the CV…..

Raising the roof!

With the builder working on rebuilding most of the walls that he’d demolished, the engineer and architect decided it was time to start on the roof. They had decided fairly early on that some of the roof was going to have to be replaced, and given the state of it, I’ll concede that wasn’t unreasonable. But put an engineer and an architect in a room together for any length of time and it is inevitably expensive. For some reason they’d got it into their heads that just because I’d bought a ridiculously large barn in a 2-acre field, I had access to a bottomless pit of money so no expense should be spared. So the roof conversation went something like this:

Arch: A barn conversion. It needs something impressive. I’m thinking vaulted ceilings with oak beams. If we centre it above the music room, we’ll create some amazing angles as all the different roofs come together.

Me: Ker-ching!

Eng: Sounds good. But with the weight that will create, we’ll have to double up the size of the oak beams to take the load, and probably put in steel girders as well. It will all need to be tied together somehow, but we can do that with some custom made steel ties.

Me: Ker-ching! Ker-ching!

Arch: Great. Let’s use stainless steel. It will look amazing. And we can then continue the vaulted roof theme along both wings of the house.

Me: £££££££££££££££££££££££££££££

Eng: We’ll also need to design something to raise the roof level over the fireplace so there’s enough headroom to walk through to the gallery.

Arch: Why don’t we put a glass roof in there?

Me: Damn there must be some more credit card application forms around here somewhere…..

Well hey, why put in something serviceable and straight-forward, when you can go for something impossibly complicated and very expensive?? (Reminds me of the project meetings with the IT department of a certain bank I used to work for…) The engineer produced a lovely set of glossy design drawings to illustrate what it would look like, and I have to admit, it was impressive. He gave me the prints to keep, but forgot to mention the £250 ‘extra’ that would be added to his next invoice as a result. He then built a little plywood scale model with removable roof to show all the individual fancy rafters inside. He tried to give that to me too, but I politely declined – on the basis that if it costs £250 for two A3 colour prints, I’d probable need a small mortgage for a custom-built scale model. Mr Incompetent Builder, who had managed to destroy most of the back of the house, rubbed his hands together with glee when he saw the design and promptly produced an eye-watering quote to ‘interpret’ the architect’s vision and the engineer’s caution. (I have a suspicion it also included a ‘margin’ large enough to recoup most of the costs he’d incurred in rebuilding the walls.) Whatever – it was way beyond my budget. So, either the fancy beams and steel wires were going to have to go or I was going to have to be a whole lot more ‘hands on’ than I’d ever planned to be. No contest really. I went out and bought a book called ‘Practical Housebuilding’ (being a firm believer in the ‘if I’ve read the theory of course I can do it’ school of thought), climbed up on the roof, and started stripping off all the slates myself. How hard could it be?OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Those five little words have caused me more grief than I care to imagine over the last 13 years. As I was soon to learn on this project, it would always take longer and be harder than I planned for. In this case it was largely because the old roof was rotten enough to fall through, and inaccessible enough to fall off. Fortunately I did neither, but not for want of trying… My ‘barn’ is actually a collection of buildings that started as a single storey, single room bothy about 250 years ago, but that then expanded in various directions as the farm grew. It morphed into a building with about 4000 ft² of floor area and  effectively has 5 different roofs that join together in a very complex way. So it was never going to be straightforward – even without an uber-design-crazy architect on board. But as a result of the design he came up with, it wasn’t just a case of removing a few of the dodgier rotten rafters and splicing new ones back in. Nope, we had to take off about two-thirds of the entire roof, leaving only the shell of the (newly rebuilt!) walls standing:

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGiven the builder had (unintentionally) demolished a lot of the walls, and now the architect had (intentionally) had most of the roof removed, you may well wonder why I didn’t just buy a plot of land and build from scratch – it would have saved a whole heap of time, money and hassle!!