Ugh – my conservatory is ginger…

My barn is collection of spaces that evolved over time, starting from the original bothy (about 200 years old) to which an aspiring shepherd/farmer/property developer added a bit, added a bit more, stuck a bit out to the side, put another roof over the space in the middle, etc….

All of which has created a pretty awesome living space, but which wasn’t without its share of architectural challenges. There was a small doorway from the bothy to the tractor shed. There was a garden fence in what is now the living room. The hayloft, which is now my dressing room, could only be accessed by a ladder. Ditto the kitchen.

My architect was some kind of creative genius to join everything together without losing the integrity of the original building. But a few changes were needed – so, to accommodate my (fairly modest) wish list of rooms and features, he decided to block up the original doorway from the bothy to the rest of the building and add a conservatory/walkway that would lead from the main house to the bothy bedrooms. This conservatory was to be the grand entrance to the house, described in the plans as a glass and oak structure that would enhance the existing stone structure. Grand Designs – here I come.

The conservatory was the final construction required to make the house wind and watertight, so after all the years of rain, wind, snow and all the best of the Scottish weather flooding through the house, when it was finally installed towards the end of 2009, it was definitely a mile-stone to celebrate.

At the time, I had just relocated to India, so I was project-managing from 5,000 miles away. But hey, I’d seen the plans, the contractor I’d sorted to put the thing up had confirmed the design with me. It was to be made out of meranti, as I couldn’t afford oak, but would be stained to match the rest of the windows. What could possibly go wrong? So when I got the email telling me my house was now fully watertight it was Tiger beers all round (well have you ever tasted Indian ‘champagne’). It had only taken 8 years to get my barn to wind and watertight!!

I should have known better.

I didn’t get to see the conservatory in all its real glory until a couple of months later. I was in for a bit of a shock.

Imagine going to the hairdressers to get your roots done, and when they take the towel off you discover you’re a full-on redhead.

Yep, that kind of shock! My conservatory was ginger.

It blended in with the rest of the house like a zebra at a Pride march.

Unfortunately there was nothing I could do about it. I hadn’t seen a sample of the paint in advance – logistically that had seemed like too much of a challenge from 5,000 miles away and anyway, how hard is it to match a paint to the existing windows???

Clearly this contractor was colour blind.

So I have been living with a ginger conservatory for 8 years, and have never really liked it from the moment it was installed.

To be fair when it was all finished inside it didn’t look too bad.

But it has never really fitted with the outside of the house. So when it came to building the other conservatory – the one that creates the entrance to the cottage, I made quite clear that I wanted to see the finished colour of the wood before any building work started.

Unfortunately there was a bit of an issue with getting conservatory #2 installed. My contractor had overstretched himself on the jobs front, and having taken a hefty deposit from me, spent the next 8 months coming up with all sorts of excuses for why he couldn’t get the job done. Fortunately he’s a fairly decent chap as contractors go, so when he did eventually get started, by way of apology he said he would build a green oak structure rather than the original meranti structure we had agreed, for the same price. Not bad as upgrades go.

But not entirely altruistic as it turns out. Ha! He’s not daft my contractor chappie – he specialises in green oak. And he knew full well that once I’d seen the finish of this conservatory, I wouldn’t be happy until I’d upgraded my ginger monstrosity at the front of the house.

Well it’s taken a while, but last year I finally decided to go ahead and upgrade the ginger stuff with a green oak frame.

However, this project needed careful planning on the timing front. I think I mentioned that the conservatory links the bedrooms in the original bothy and the main house. So taking it down leaves two gaping great holes in the sides of the house. There was absolutely no scope for an 8 month delay this time – or indeed any kind of delay; this was a very weather-dependent project. To take down the old conservatory, put up the new structure, glaze it and slate the roof, would take 2-3 days. So we needed at least 2 clear days of warm dry weather. In Scotland. Right – no challenge there then!

The frame was all built at the workshop and turned up on the driveway looking like a giant IKEA flatpack – all suitably numbered and minus any instructions.

The plan was for the team to come up as soon as we had a weather forecast giving 3 dry days. (In Scotland – only slightly better odds than winning the lottery.) They would take down the old structure, put up the new frame and board it up on day 1, and come back on day 2 to put the glazing and roof slates on.

For once the weather played ball. 3 dry days forecast so the boys turned up to do their stuff.

Part one of the plan worked pretty well. Though of course, the minute the old frame had been taken down, the skies started to cloud over and it looked like we were in for some proper Scottish weather.

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Fortunately rain held off long enough to get the new frame up and boarded. And by the end of day three I had a brand new conservatory – one that actually looked like it belonged to the house!

Stairs within stairs….

One of the (many) jobs on my infinite to-do list was ‘Finish the stairs’. It’s a job that had been on that list for quite a while because, as with so many things in the barn, it was never going to be a straightforward job, so as a professional procrastinator, I’ve been putting it off.

My original plan had been to carpet the stairs so I’d asked the builders just to put in a cheap softwood staircase. After all, no need for anything fancy if I’m just going to cover it with carpet.

So that’s what they did. A bog-standard straight flight of stairs. Can’t go far wrong with that can you?

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Well clearly that depends on your builder. Mine, as I might have mentioned once or twice, wasn’t the best in the business. Spot the problem…..

Yep – it doesn’t line up. Obviously he had a wonky tape measure. Or he didn’t take into account the additional height of the finished floor upstairs. Or maybe he just should have gone to Specsavers.  Whatever – it looks like the perfect trip hazard to me.

The top of the staircase touched just below the steel lintel. By the time you add the thickness of the wood floor and the underlay there was more than 3cm difference in height. Enough to give any conscientious health and safety officer nightmares.

I did briefly consider getting one of those ‘reducing thresholds’ that are specifically designed to cover the join between wood or tiles and carpet. An inch or so T-bar strip of wood, higher on one side, angled to accommodate the height differential. But they’re meant for between rooms and under doorways where you’re not likely to trip over them. I’m not sure I like the idea of a sloped bit of wood like that right at the top of the stairs – feels like an accident waiting to happen.

So I thought instead about just putting an extra bit of wood on the top stair just to level it. Then cover it in carpet so it was all nice and level with the wood flooring. Simples?

Maybe, but that then creates another problem – the top step would be a higher than all the others. Now I haven’t read the Building Regs on staircases in any detail, but I’m fairly sure that alongside the lengthy paragraphs about minimum treads, maximum risers and level steps there’s probably quite a bit on the need for even heights. Apparently our brains are wired for rhythm and uniformity. Having one step at a different height to all the rest makes us stumble.

(Put ’36th St station NY tripping staircase’ into YouTube and you’ll see what I mean. Lots of unsuspecting commuters falling over because one step in the subway staircase was a fraction of an inch higher than the rest – after that video went viral the powers that be in NYC sent in the repairmen.)

What I really needed was to find a way to raise the whole staircase by 3cm, preferably without all the mess, hassle and expense of taking the whole thing out and starting again. I tried my faithful fall back – Google it. However, if you type in ‘How to improve an uneven staircase’, all you’ll get back is a million decoration ideas for staircases, from the weird and the wacky to the elegant and the refined, but nothing that actually solves the fundamental problem – the difference in height.

Then I had an Archimedes-in-his-bath moment. Why not just build a staircase on top of the existing one? Inspired by a website selling stair treads and risers I figured that if I buy a load of decent oak stair parts I could just cover the existing one adding the necessary height at the same time. Posh oak stairs, no carpet, right height. Honestly – it’s not as mad as it sounds. So I ordered thirteen oak treads and matching risers.

One minor issue, even ordering the thickest treads possible, I still needed another 1cm to get the height exactly right on that problematic top step. But in true Blue Peter style, I just happened to have a whole lot of 1cm offcuts that came out of some balustrades parts I’d ordered. What could be simpler – stick a load of offcuts on the existing stairs and put the new treads on top of those.

Unfortunately – because nothing can ever be that easy in the barn – the risers that I’d ordered were still slightly too high to fit under the treads and would need to be cut down to size. For somebody who hates sawing wood, and who cannot saw in a straight line, the thought of sawing half inch off the long side of thirteen metre-long bits of oak was enough to relegate the ‘Finish the staircase’ task right back down to the bottom of the infamous Infinite List. In fact I nearly gave it all up as a bad job and had almost resorted to a tin of paint with a bit of that yellow and black tape to stick across the top step as a warning to would-be trippers.

Then I had another Eureka moment. (Must be something in the Scottish bath water.) Why not just rout a groove in the underside of the tread. Then the risers would just slot in to the treads, perfect height, no need for any sawing and with the added bonus that it would hold the whole thing together. Genius!

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Sorted. So now all I had to do was get out the glue, rout the other 12 treads and stick down a few offcuts of wood.

All it needs now is a bit of finishing off. Time to call in the man with the can – aka my Dad, the King of all things varnishable. An afternoon with a can of Danish oil and a lint-free cloth and there you have it – a beautiful oak stair case with no trip hazard!

One more thing crossed off the Infinite List…….

Gin and Jungle

Sticking with the outdoor theme this week, I’m picking up from where I left the last blog way back in August 2016, when I’d been working on the decking at the front of the house.

IMG_0493I finished that blog as follows:

“So no, it isn’t finished. But it is three-quarters done. The rest will just have to wait until the next time I’m home!”

Ha! Famous last words. That decking stood proud and tall – and distinctly unfinished – for another eight months. Not my fault of course. I had a couple of extended work trips in India, and it’s a bit far to commute from Chennai for the weekend just to finish a bit of decking – for some reason my boss didn’t see that as a justifiable expense.

And by the time I did finally make it home it was Winter. Nobody in their right minds works in the garden during the winter months in the frozen North. By the time my commuting had reduced to just the weekly red-eye to London and the North unfroze enough to venture outside, I’d turned my attentions to the long list of things that needed finishing indoors and didn’t really have any time for the garden.

Now you can say what you like about the Scottish weather, but the copious quantities of rainfall do mean that the minute temperatures event hint at better things, everything starts growing with a vengeance – particularly the weeds.

So with a relatively mild Winter (by our standards) in 2016, and a temperate Spring’17, as soon as we headed back into double-digit temperatures the garden did what uncared-for gardens normally do under these circumstances and went completely wild. So much so that as I parked up at the front one day I realised that from the relatively low vantage point sitting in the car I actually couldn’t see anything of the house apart from the roof. It was hidden by a jungle. I also realised that a couple of weeks later I was hosting a house-party that included a highly active 3-year-old who loves playing hide-and-seek. With the current state of the jungle, if she went to hide we could be seeking for days!

Time for some drastic action:

  1. Build a proper pathway
  2. Buy a strimmer

And picturing current state of the decking with its cliff-edge drop to the ground combined with aforementioned energetic 3-year-old:

3.  Finish decking

I considered DIY’ing the path and driveway. But knowing how hard my land is to dig, coupled with the fact I was still working away from home quite a lot, it seemed like a better plan to call in the cavalry. Fortunately my helpful contractor chappie had a few days free between jobs, so he brought up a digger and ordered in the gravel.

While the lads worked on the pathway I worked on the decking. Not actually too major a job since it had all been planned out and all materials bought eight months previously. It was just a case of getting out the hammer and chisel again to ‘dig’ a few more post holes.

Fortunately, with a bit of decent weather for a change, we managed to get all construction finished before the house party arrived. Path dug, decking built. Just needed to get the grass strimmed and the approach to the barn would actually look quite civilised for a change.

The measure of any good garden deck area is whether it’s an enjoyable place to sit and sip your G&T. Clearly I now had a pretty decent G&T standard deck at the front of the house. But it does have one major flaw – it only really gets the sun through to about 3pm.

Now I can drink G&T at any time of the day. Admittedly I don’t usually put it on my cornflakes, but only because I consider that a waste of good gin. I do, however, live by the philosophy that the sun is always over the yard arm somewhere in the world, so I can legitimately sit out on the front deck at midday with my glass of G,T,ice’n’a’slice. But I’m not a big fan of sitting outside shivering whilst knocking back the clear stuff. And in Scotland, when the sun disappears, the temperatures plummet –  none of those long balmy mediterranean nights up in the frozen North. We may have the light, but we don’t have the heat. Clearly I need an alternative Gin Deck that gets the evening sun.

The perfect solution is the area outside the kitchen & cottage, which already had an ‘almost finished’ decking. It was another one of those jobs that was rained off at 90% complete, and I never quite got back to it.

The answer? Well when you have a house-party, make sure you invite somebody who’s handy with a hammer and has a perfectionist’s eye. Not only did he finish off some of the gaps, he also took up some of the warped and wonky boards I’d put down and forced them back into straighter lines. Thank you Mr Handyman – you can come again.

Inspired by all this deck improvement activity, I decided to carry on the good work after the visitors had gone. Grand plans included creating a number of individual raised beds for planting my own kitchen garden. A touch of the good life – sitting on the deck late into a summer’s evening with the scent of home-grown herbs wafting around. You get the picture…..

So I now have outdoor Gin drinking space from early morning (just in case I do ever want to douse my cornflakes) right through to the late evening summer sun. All I need now is a solution for the midges…….

Clearing out the builders yard…

It’s that time of year again – Happy Easter!

It was this time of year, two years ago that the invaders from the South came to visit for the first time, and as I recall I was madly rushing about trying desperately to get the house habitable before they arrived.

This time, when half the pack came back for another visit, I had big plans to keep them occupied – let’s explore the garden…….

A long time ago, back in the dark days of building this place, I was shocked by an estimate from the builder that included an eye-waveringly high cost for removing rubbish from site. I challenged it, but he refused to budge saying that high costs of landfill needed to be covered. So in a misguided attempt to keep the costs down, I suggested to the builder that anything that was dug out of the barn during the build could be dumped on site. With a couple of acres of land available, there was plenty of room to lose the scrapings off the barn floor without impacting the landscape too much.

Unfortunately this was in the days of Mr Incompetent Builder. Rather than spread the floor scrapings out across a wide area, he dumped it by the digger load in the field next to the house. When the snow fell that Winter, it looked like I had an Olympic Standard ski jump in my garden!

Nor was that the worst of it. Mr I-B had also developed selective hearing when we discussed this. He decided that I’d agreed that all the building waste could be dumped or burned on site. In fact, using his initiative, he decided to turn my land into his own private landfill, bringing up the rubbish from other sites he was working on. I finally caught him out when I visited the site one day to find a fire smouldering with the detritus and packaging from a Worcester gas boiler, which I was fairly confident had nothing to do with my build. a) Because at the time my barn had no floors, doors, windows or much in the way of a roof so it seemed a bit premature to have installed a boiler, and b) because the barn is too remote to be able to get a gas supply!!

It turned into one of the many arguments I had with that particular builder and he eventually agreed to remove aforementioned rubbish. But did so rather unenthusiastically, and, as it turned out, rather inefficiently.

But now I had a willing team of helpers – even if they didn’t know what they were letting themselves in for….!

Inevitably as we wanted to work outside the temperatures plummeted and there were flurries of snow. Winter is refusing to give up this year. But hey, this is Scotland – if you let the weather get in the way of your plans, you’d never get anything done. So we braved the elements and got to work, clearing up the ‘builders yard’.

Starting out in the forest, where many years ago when the forest was first planted, the saplings had been cased in plastic and staked, presumably to keep them growing straight and to protect them from deer.

Forestry management hasn’t been top of my list of priorities in building the barn, so nothing has been done out there since I bought the place. The trees have grown (as they have a habit of doing) breaking out of their wrappers and leaving lots of broken plastic lying around on the forest floor.

Though I hadn’t actually realised quite how many there were.

The plan was to take everything down to the gate at the front of the property, and pile it up ready for dumping in a skip at some point.

But it’s a fair old trek down to that gate, and with all the tree casings piling up it would have taken us a whole day to carry them all down there. Fortunately my genius baby brother came up with a cunning plan for transportation.

Take one old security fence, pile on as many bits of plastic as possible, put another old steel security fence on top to keep them in place. A plastic sandwich.

Three trips. Job done!

Of course having transported them all to the gate we needed a way of keeping them there. These things are so lightweight that one puff of wind would scatter them all over the grounds again – which would kind of defeat the object.

Well a couple of bits of old rope solved that one.

Meanwhile outside the forest, the lack of enthusiasm in Mr Incompetent Builder’s tidying up soon became apparent.

Fencing wire, barbed wire, temporary site fencing panels, broken wheelbarrows, bricks, blocks, heat pump pipe, underground drainage pipe, aluminium sheeting, roofing lead, downpipes, gutters, you name it, we found it.

So there it is – two and a half acres and 16 years of builders on site……

Time to order that skip!