Bending the walls….

You would think that in the face of wonky walls and uneven floors, I would crave some straight lines in the barn – just to make things like tiling easier.

But if I can make a thing more difficult than it needs to be, evidently I will.

As I think I’ve mentioned, in my lovely ME space upstairs, I have a fair amount of space in the bathroom. So I decided to install a sauna. And since it sits right at the entrance to the room, I thought that curving the walls would be a cool thing to do – without giving any thought to how, (or £how much!)

Curved walls in the bathroom – one of those things that seem like a really good idea at the time – when you’re sitting dreaming up trendy schemes for your interiors – without any kind of reality check on budgets, practicality or do-ability. Or when you’ve indulged in posh magazine overload and think you can emulate the look of the squillion pound homes in their glossy photos….

There are 3 possible outcomes to this kind of dreaming:

1. You have oodles of cash that you hand over in large wodges to an interior designer and let them deliver the dream.

2. You realise that you simply can’t afford the extra mortgage to pay for the interior designer, so you stick to bog-standard straight lines and ‘soften the look’ with a few cushions or something.

3. You know you don’t have the squillion pounds to spend but are too stubborn to give up on your super-trendy dream ideas, and therefore decide to do it anyway (also known as the ‘DIY hell or high water’ approach).

Guess which option I took. Curved walls in a bathroom – well how hard can it be? Surely all you have to do is just build a frame and wrap some bendy wall stuff round it. Right?

Building the frames was relatively simple.

All I needed to do now was wrap some ‘bendy stuff’ round the outside. I had a vague memory from primary school  days, that when making  ‘Blue Peter’ type craft projects we were taught that if you ‘scored’ your bit of cardboard with a sharp knife, it became bendy enough to create curves. In my infinite wisdom I decided the same logic could be applied to plasterboard. So I scored the length of a piece of plasterboard multiple times and then tried to wrap it round my curved wall. Total disaster! Plasterboard, apparently, is not like cardboard – absolutely zero flexibility! I just ended up with lots of broken bits of unusable plasterboard!

On to Plan B. Do what any sensible person would have done in the first place. Google it. And the all-knowing internet came back with lots of websites selling ‘Curved wallboard’. Well that should do the trick!

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(In defence of my mad attempt to DIY a curved board, I will point out here that this stuff is just some form of board, deeply scored. So my theory was perfectly sound. It just so happens that this stuff is a lot more flexible than plasterboard…)

So all I needed to to do was attach my ‘bendy stuff’ to the frame…

Actually dead easy to work with. And not that expensive either.

So after that, bendy wall board was too much fun to resist: Curved cupboard, curved steps, curved seat in the shower. There is no limit to things you can curve………

Of course, the next questions is how do you tile a curved wall? But that’s a whole new challenge……

Tiling the Leaning Tower…..

There is no respite when building (or converting) a house. With all the various traumas associated with the plumbing, including the unplanned, unwanted internal water features, it would have been nice to take a bit of time off. But everything seems to be interlinked – you have to finish (or at least get a good way through) one job, before you can get on with another.

So whilst I could put all the first fix pipework in for the plumbing, I couldn’t really fit all the taps and things until I’d decided how I was going to finish the walls.

I decided to tile everything – hides a multitude of sins, and it’s one of those things that’s flogged as a DIY job – so how hard could it be?

Well with with four bathrooms to get done, I can safely say I’ve now had plenty of practise! And one thing I’ve learnt is that the quickest and cleanest way to lay tiles is to make sure you’ve got the biggest slabs you can get your hand on. Stands to reason: great big tiles + small floor area = less work and less mess.

Well that’s the theory anyway. The obvious flaw to this approach is great big tiles require walls to be square and floors to be flat.

Sadly, there is nothing square or flat about my barn. As anyone who’s read the blog about slating the floors may recall, the concrete screed in the barn in places has a passing resemblance to a mountain range. And my door-hanging exploits will have exposed the fact that there isn’t a straight wall in the place.

Still, I’m an optimist. So I ignored my little unevenness problem and went and bought some giant 60 x60cm slabs of quartz for the floor of bathroom number 1.

At 7m² it’s the smallest bathroom in the main house – (yes I am showing off, I know, that’s still nearly twice as big as the national average). But when you take into account the space covered by the shower enclosure it meant I only needed 16 tiles. Ha – can get that done in a day, no problem!

And for once, it more or less went to plan. Yes the concrete slab was uneven – but an extra thick layer of cement will solve that, right? Hmm. I only just got away with that logic. It was fine, all apart from one tile, that started to sink into the cement like it was quicksand. And much like quicksand, once it started to sink, the suction power meant it was impossible to lift out. Fortunately it’s right in the corner of the room – no-one will ever know…..

The walls got the same treatment. Nice big 30cm x 60cm tiles. So they went on relatively quickly too. But obviously nothing in the barn can ever be entirely straight forward. Remember I mentioned the walls not being square…..

So what happens when you get to the corners of the room? It becomes blatantly obvious when the the tiles that were in perfect alignment together at the bottom of the wall start to diverge the higher up the wall they go. By the time you get to the ceiling it looks like you’ve been tiling the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

So do you try to match the corners up the wall – which will then create an angle to the floor and/or the ceiling. Or do you line up to the floor, which then creates a problem in the corners?? Only one answer to the impossible conundrum – I deferred to the wisdom of the spirit level. The walls may not be square; the floors and ceilings may slope; but believe me, the tiles are perfectly level!

A few simple tricks, and in fact the problem’s quite hard to spot:

  1. Big white tiles, bright white grout. Makes the gaps disappear like magic….
  2. Cunning ploy – I tiled one wall with mosaics – they’re slightly easier to ‘manipulate’ a little bit, stretch them out a little bit to hide the gaps
  3. Strategically placed furniture – two of the corners are mostly hidden by furniture – so unless you plan to spend your time in the shower ogling at the ceiling, you probably wont see the wonkiness anyway.
  4. Give them something else to ogle at. My posh glass radiator makes a better talking point than wonky walls….. IMG_0749

Now for bathroom number 2……..

Delivery to the Dark Side

As anyone who has ever built their own house will know, particularly if they’ve taken a fairly hands on approach to the project, you will spend a disproportionately large amount of time ordering things, and then a greater part of your time stressing about the delivery…….worrying about whether they’ll arrive in time, will they be the right size/colour/quantity, will they be what builder/plumber/carpenter specified….?

For my barn, I can add a couple of extra stress points – Will they be able to find me? Will they make it up to the track? Or will they just point blank refuse to deliver????

I think I might have mentioned that my barn is in quite a remote area of Scotland. You know the kind of thing – if you zoom in on Google maps you just get masses of blank space; the names on the signposts aren’t villages, they’re farms or individual houses; the roads are, theoretically, supposed to be wide enough for two cars to pass – as long as you tuck in your wing mirrors and don’t mind driving along the verge or in the hedgerows; and the strength of your mobile phone signal depends on which way the wind is blowing and how cloudy it is.

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But, and this is quite a key point, I DO live in the UK, and more precisely, I do live on the UK mainland. So why is it then that I am always so royally shafted when it comes to getting things delivered?

I get enticed into websites by promises of “Free UK delivery if you spend more than £xxx”. Excellent. Sounds like a deal. And then you notice the sneaky little * at the end of the sentence. Scroll down to the bottom of the page and you’ll find it in size 2 font – *Except the Highlands & Islands of Scotland.

Well that’s OK, I don’t live in the Highlands & Islands. I live in Perthshire (or Angus – depends which road you drive up to get to me). On the border between the two – either way, it’s not the Highlands & Islands. But by the time I get to the checkout, and put in my postcode, apparently the delivery companies have reinvented the geography of the United Kingdom and decided that the borders of Perthshire and Angus do constitute a part of the Highlands and Islands. So not only will my delivery not be free as promised, but it will be far more than the normal standard rates. In fact, it will be extortionately inflated.

One memorable and outrageous example, I was looking at ordering a couple of glass balustrades for the galleries upstairs. Since nothing in my barn is on a small scale, these balustrades needed to be over 4m metres in length. The delivery charge was quoted as £350. Out of curiosity, I put the same order in but with a London postcode. The delivery charge was only £50. The warehouse was in Manchester – so it’s not like mileage was the issue. I decided to look elsewhere.

What is it about Scotland that scares delivery companies? There must be people living on narrow roads in rural England…..

There was an interesting point raised during the recent(ish) Scottish Indy referendum, when a bunch of high street names started predicting doom and gloom for Scotland’s internet shoppers in an independent nation because prices would have to rise to accommodate the logistical demands of operating in a largely rural environment.

“Scaremongering” bellowed the Ayes. “Reality” yelled the Nae’s.

Well I’m not about to get all political on this blog, but you try ordering anything North of the border and you’ll soon find out that the discrimination is already happening, so Independence wouldn’t have made a jot of difference. There are already a frightening number of companies who clearly believe that Scotland is on another planet.

But cost is not the only delivery issue. Assuming I’m willing to pay through the nose to get my goods, I then spend all my time wondering whether they will actually find me.

Satnav is not an option, though it is getting better. It used to dump people in a field about 5 miles away. Nowadays it at least gets you onto the right road – though it still tends to come to a confused stop at a cottage about a mile away. So as a precaution I have taken the trouble of measuring the route so I can direct people in from the nearest main road. Which would be great apart from the minor issue of erratic mobile phone reception. I tend to spend delivery days walking up the hill every 15 minutes or so, to the 4th fence post up the field where you get the best phone reception….

Still, assuming I can get my phone working, and Mr Lorry Driver can get his phone working, I can at least give precise instructions on how to find me. Which means it’s all good – until they get to the bottom of The Track…..

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It always worries me when the small print of the T&C’s that come with your order state ‘Kerbside delivery only’, because technically my kerbside is half a mile away, at the bottom of the track. Fortunately, to date, nobody has ever actually been quite that pedantic.

But it is at this point that I usually get the most cursing. Turning on to the track is so tight it’s practically a U-turn. Drivers of large lorries have to keep driving until they can find somewhere to turn around so they can come at it from the other direction. The more adventurous try to reverse all the way up – they usually regret trying that…

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And then of course there’s the state of the track itself. In the recent torrential rain we had, the track turned into a river and dumped all the surface scree at the bottom, completely cutting off access from the road. My neighbours and the local farmer helpfully shovelled it all back again, but it has left a very precarious road surface to negotiate.

In the snow, said track turns into a ski slope with hazards – a burn on one side, a dry stone wall on the other, and a few inconveniently placed telegraph poles ready to stop you when your car (or delivery van) starts sliding out of control. A builders merchant did once, somewhat unwisely, attempt to deliver to me after a snow storm. Three farmhands, two tractors and a Landrover were needed to get him out of the ditch.

I’ve stopped ordering things in Winter….

A little bit of ME space…..and other important things.

It wouldn’t surprise me if anyone who has been following the blog is thoroughly confused by the layout of the building. (My Dad still needs a map when he visits!) When I’m making reference to the kitchen and the other kitchen, the bothy, the cottage……it might sound like an enormous building. Well yes, it is a fair size.

It started as a tiny shepherds bothy, built a couple of hundred years ago. Clearly aspirational shepherds, they decided they wanted a step up the property ladder and added a two-storey building to the back of the bothy. And then added a barn to one side. Then somebody decided it would make sense to fill in the L-shape with another barn. Then a milking shed on the higher ground. Then another milking shed to fill in the gap………… Resulting in a rambling 4000+ ft² old building that sits over six different floor levels.

How do you turn a space like that into a habitable dwelling? As far as I’m concerned, the only answer to that is to hire a decent architect. And be clear on what you want.

Well I got the first bit right – I had a decent architect recommended to me. But as to being clear about what I wanted. Hmmm – I think it’s fair to say that my brief to the architect for the design of the house was of the briefest kind:

  1. A self-contained granny-annexe
  2. As much natural light as possible
  3. A room big enough for a baby grand piano
  4. A library
  5. A little bit of ME space

Clearly I don’t really do detail. So there you go Mr Architect. Go configure that lot in the 4000-odd square foot of space you have to play with.

I have to hand it to him. The design he came back with was perfect. His original drawings are the plans are still in use today. I didn’t need to change a thing!

1. The granny-annexe:

Actually not many brownie points to him for this bit. There was only one logical part of the existing structure that could be turned into a self-contained space. AKA the cottage – the space that was hastily made habitable just so I could move out of the dreaded caravan. At some point I will need to go back and renovate it properly but it has certainly served its purpose so far.

2. As much natural light as possible:

I was fortunate that the building I bought had a lot of natural openings in it – so there was no need to change the original infrastructure of the building.

According to the plans there are now 30 windows in the building, including 5 sets of French doors, a room with a glass roof and a 17-foot high wall of window in the music room. Can’t argue with that as ‘Brief fulfilled’.

3. A room big enough for a baby grand piano.

This one, it has to be said, was a bit aspirational at the time, given that I didn’t actually own a baby grand piano at the time. In fact, I didn’t actually own any kind of piano at all after I’d had to sell my last one when I moved to Germany for a couple of years.

But then a random conversation with some lovely people one evening resulted in me becoming the proud owner of a beautiful Broadwood boudoir grand.  (Boudoir – bigger than a baby, smaller than a full-size). Donated to me as ‘a good home’, with the caveat being that I take it off their hands sooner rather than later. So a professional removal team were hired to bring said piano from the wilds of South-West England to the frozen North.

Unfortunately the only part of the building that was wind and watertight, and even vaguely warm at that time was the self-contained cottage. The door into the cottage is smaller than average, being height restricted by the roof line and immediately inside the doorway there is a large step up to room level. I wasn’t there when the piano was delivered so I have no idea how they got it in the house.  (But according to the person who let them in, quite a lot of cursing was involved.)

In any case, the next time I arrived, there it was, in all its glory, taking up most of the space in the cottage.

But that wasn’t its final resting place. The architect had envisaged a music room with a wall of windows and a huge vaulted roof space, overlooked by two galleries – definitely a home fit for a posh piano.

I thought its second removal, into the music room, would be relatively straight-forward given there’s a double door directly into the room. Unfortunately Scottish weather got in the way. Endless rain in the preceding weeks had turned the grounds at the back into some kind of wilderness marshland. Not a great idea to have my beautiful 1840 rosewood grand sinking into a bog in the garden. Plan B was to bring it in through the front of the house and along the corridor. I watched it as far as the entrance to the room. At that point it had to be manoeuvred round a corner and down some steps, with metre thick stone walls on either side. I couldn’t bear to watch that bit.

But all credit to the chaps involved – they got it there safely. So if you’re planning to move a piano – get in the professionals!

4. A library:

From the very first pie-in-the-sky dreams about building my own house, one thing has been constant. I’ve changed my mind on location, style, size, building method…… but one thing has always been there. The house had to have a library.

And OK, I admit it. I’m a luddite – I don’t do Kindle. A book has to be a real tangible, tactile thing. A book can never be thrown away. I am an avid reader. Put that lot together and it might explain why, when all my stuff was finally moved into the house when I came back from India, of the 196 ‘boxes’ in the shipment, 80 of them were boxes of books. Obviously they had to go somewhere…

5. A little bit of ME space:

Let’s face it, a house this size is a party house. But if I’m honest, I’m not always a party person. So my final instruction to the architect was to create a little bit of ME space. A place that I can escape to when the invading hordes arrive.

And I have to say, this, as far as I’m concerned, is where my architect really earned his fee. The whole of the upstairs space has been designated as a master bedroom suite, complete with a bedroom and bathroom that combined are probably bigger than the poky little flat I rent in London, a tiny glass-roofed ‘snug’ overlooking the living room and, what every girl deserves, a 22ft walk-in dressing room.

Sorry, invading hordes, I do love you really, but if I go missing while you’re here, you know where to look. I’ll be up in my ME space – probably with a good book…..

What do you mean, ‘Where’s the plughole?’

I am insanely jealous of these self-build smugs on the TV who run their building sites like a military training exercise, with endless checklists, projects plans, meetings and milestones. And who seem to know the precise position of every cable, socket, light switch and tap.

Of course, my theory is that naturally it’s easier to plan the precise layout and location of everything when it’s a new-build project and you’re starting with a blank piece of paper. Whereas when you’re working within the existing framework of an old barn, retrofitting pipes and cables alongside, through and around old stone walls, obviously things are a bit more problematic.

Well that’s my excuse anyway. I suspect, in truth, it’s probably got as much to do with my colossal lack of organisation skills as it has to do with the fact that it’s an old building. That, and the fact that I didn’t really have a clue what I was doing, having sacked all the expertise (the architect, the engineer, and even Mr Incompetent Builder), and was consequently making it up as I went along – in no logical order.

But be fair, if you were in that situation, when your building was still at the mud floors and bare stud walls stage, would worrying about plughole positions be top of your to-do list? I mean, why’s that even important when the walls are falling down around you?

Blame it on free-standing bath I’d bought, which needed an equally free-standing waste pipe to stick up through the floor in the appropriate place. The lovely chaps pouring the floor screed needed to know where that ‘appropriate place’ was.

At this point I think it’s probably fair to acknowledge that anyone who was more organised than me (which probably covers about 99% of the world’s population) would have checked the whereabouts of the plughole in the bath BEFORE telling the contractors where to bury the waste pipe in the concrete screed.

In my defence, I was at work when they phoned to ask. In the middle of a budget meeting to finalise a £400million IT budget, trying to have a surreptitious discussion about plugholes was not easy. “Yes, I have bought a bath already. What do you mean, ‘Where’s the plughole?’ Where do you think it is? On the bottom of course. Duh! Gotta go….”

Actually, I didn’t have a clue which end the plug was, so I guessed and said it was in the middle. Now before you all roll your eyes or laugh hysterically, it wasn’t entirely random coin-tossing guesswork; there was some method in my reasoning. It’s a big bath, roomy enough for two, and nobody likes sitting on the plughole – so of course it will have been designed with plughole in the middle to avoid that. Perfectly logical don’t you think?

Perfectly logical, but totally incorrect.

But so convinced was I by my logical reasoning that I went ahead and tiled the floor around the sticking up pipe – still without checking.

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It wasn’t until I actually unpacked the bath that my ‘logical’ theory fell apart and I discovered the plughole was at one end of the bath, whereas I now had a waste pipe  in the middle of the floor.

Oops!

It wasn’t even as if my new bath were an old fashioned rolltop on legs. At least then I could have fashioned a fancy stainless steel waste contraption and pretended it was all part of the design. And it would have been easy to get to.

Nope. Mine is a modern free-standing slipper bath that sits flush to the floor. So I had it precariously tilted on a couple of blocks of wood, giving me about 3 inches of accessible space as I tried to connect the waste trap at one end of the bath to the waste pipe in the middle of the floor…

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Cue the bruises and lots of swearing…..

And unfortunately the plughole sagas didn’t stop with the bath. The phone rang again, right in the middle of a heated debate with the Head of IT over his megalomaniac plans to bankrupt the company. “Yeah sorry love, it’s Bob the Builder again. What about the plughole in the shower?”

At least I knew the answer to that one. “It’s in the corner. Sorry, bit busy. Can’t talk now.”

Perhaps I should have been a little bit more specific. I got back up to the house to find the waste pipe for the shower in the corner. Right in the corner. So close that by the time the walls were boarded, there was only about 1cm gap between pipe and wall – compared with the 8 inch gap between plughole and edge of shower tray. To make matters worse, I’d deliberately bought a low-level shower tray, aiming for that ‘it’s almost a wetroom’ look.

My DIY-loving dad spent a whole weekend drilling and chiselling the concrete trying to create enough space and depth to fit the shower trap and waste pipe. In the end, the position of the waste stack meant it just wasn’t possible.

Plan B required. “Dad, can you just build a 2 inch frame to raise the shower tray…?”

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My cunning plan? Create a tiled plinth – nobody will ever know that’s not what was originally planned….

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It all worked out in the end, but it would have been a whole lot easier if I’d worked out what I wanted in advance. Hindsight is a wonderful thing……