I love watching Grand Designs when people start talking about the hardships of self-building. People who have sold their existing home to free up some cash, and find themselves moving out of their much loved familiar space and into a dreary rented flat half the size of what they’re used to. Or squidging themselves into a spare bedroom with the in-laws or friends. Or horror of horrors, set themselves up in a static caravan on site…
Now I do feel a slight twinge of sympathy when these guys start looking stressed by the lack of space/privacy/creature comforts. The last thing anyone wants when they are struggling with the hassles of building a house is having to come home to a cramped, uncomfortable living space. And let’s face it, living with the in-laws for a prolonged period is probably one of the quickest routes to divorce known to mankind.
But I have to admit, my sympathy is usually short-lived. After all, given all the magazines, TV programmes and blogs on the subject, anyone going into a self-build project should be forewarned that it isn’t a particularly easy ride. And apart from one or two rare exceptions, in all the programmes I have seen, the harassed self-builders did still have all the basic necessities of life: A roof over their head, running water, heating, hot water, a toilet. There were many occasions I would have given my right arm to be able to say the same about my living arrangements during the build…
When I first took possession of the barn, I was living just outside Edinburgh in a gorgeous apartment in a C19th listed house overlooking the firth of Forth and the bridges, and the 65-mile drive North every Saturday and Sunday was actually quite pleasant on the (relatively) traffic-free country roads of Scotland. But as time went on, it became increasingly difficult to juggle the finances of paying rent whilst trying to fund such a huge build project.
Everything changed when my job took me to Germany for a 3-year assignment. There was absolutely no way I could afford to run an empty flat in Edinburgh just as somewhere to stay at the weekend. So I let it go. Which meant I no longer had anywhere to stay when coming back to visit the site. Needs must – I slept in the back of the car. Unfortunately the car I owned at the time was a Corsa. Life becomes a bit surreal at this point. I spent the working week living in an awesome apartment in a converted 1000-year old castle, complete with moat, drawbridge and gatehouse..
And I spent the weekends living in a Corsa…
A few months later the lease on the Corsa ended so I gave it back. My weekend living was then entirely dependent on the car hire companies. Fortunately one lovely chap working at Avis in Edinburgh discovered I was sleeping in the cars I rented, and thereafter made it his mission to give me an unofficial upgrade to the largest car he could find on the system. Sleeping in the back of a people carrier is marginally more bearable than a Corsa!
After spending couple of years living like this, I arrived up at site one day to a lovely surprise. A guy who was doing some building work for my neighbour, heard I was sleeping in the car, and so took it upon himself to source a redundant old caravan and set it up on site for me. You can’t imagine how heavenly it felt to be able to stretch out full length for a nights sleep. The caravan was plugged in to the electricity supply – so suddenly I had heat and light in the evenings. Bottled gas supplied a hob. There was even a TV ariel, so I went out and bought a little 19″ TV with integral DVD player. And felt like my weekends up at the barn had turned into a life of luxury.
But living like that at the weekends is fine, when you have somewhere to escape to and recover for the rest of the week. After nearly 3 years in Germany in my castle, followed by almost a year in an incredible C17th house in the heart of Amsterdam, my international assignments came to an end and my job returned full-time to Edinburgh.
Suddenly the caravan became my permanent home, seven days a week. And it coincided with one of the worst winters we’d had for years. Temperatures plummeted as low as -21 degrees and I was living in a caravan that felt like it was made out of cardboard and tinfoil. One night my portable heater blew up. I went to bed fully dressed, wearing my winter coat, a woolly hat, 3 pairs of socks, in a sleeping bag and under a duvet. When I woke up in the morning there was ice on the inside of all the walls and windows. I used to leave at five in the morning to get down to the office in time to use the showers and that morning I discovered even my shampoo had frozen.
And of course there was the ‘other’ issue of having no running water on site. The squeamish amongst you might want to skip over the next paragraph. But when I sacked the builder, he stomped off in a huff, taking his portaloo with him. Which leaves – well have you ever been bush camping? My local Tesco, about 12 miles away, closed at 10pm and I used to nip down last thing at night to use the facilities. But that’s not always enough. Suffice to say, a shovel is occasionally required…. And in the middle of the night when it’s -20 degrees and there’s 2ft of snow outside, believe me that is not a fun way to live.
The plans for the barn included a self-contained 1 bedroom cottage and I now threw all my efforts into getting that habitable. Desperate to get out of the caravan I set up a bed in a bedroom with bare concrete floors and unfinished plasterboard walls. And focused on getting a bathroom working. There can be no sweeter sound to somebody who has been camping in the concrete shell of a house for months, than the sound of a flushing toilet. I phoned my parents who were off enjoying a luxury holiday somewhere. And I flushed the loo down the phone at them. It had to be shared. I had returned to civilisation!!