Shiny shoes in the wardrobe

Thanks to my architect’s brilliant concept of the ME space, I ended up with a walk-in wardrobe to die for. A whole room in fact. 22ft x 14ft of space entirely dedicated to my shoes, clothes and handbags. Every girl should have one.

So how do I make best use of it all? Because yes, it’s a lovely big space, but unfortunately, when it comes to putting in the furniture, it’s a bit of an awkward shape. Right under the eaves, the ceiling slopes down on either side so much that the walls on either side of the room are less than a metre high. Which doesn’t allow for a huge amount of full-length hanging space.

I played around with a few ideas, drawing up a few different layouts for where I could place the furniture, but hadn’t really come up with a plan when I went to the Grand Designs Live show.

As I’ve blogged before, at the show I was largely ignored by anybody on the ‘serious’ building side of the show, because clearly girls don’t know anything about renewable energy or bricks. But it was a very different matter on the other side of the show; I was besieged by people wanting to sell me interiors stuff.

One particularly persistent representative from one of those bespoke bedroom furniture companies managed to trap me in the crowd.

“Are you looking for some new bedroom furniture?”

“Well yes, I am actually, but I don’t think you can help. I need a design for a whole room, not just a run of wardrobes along one wall and a few drawers to the side. My space is a lot larger than that so I want something more creative.”

“That’s exactly why you need our help. We can design very creative bedrooms for every kind of space.”

She got my ‘sceptical’ look.

“And if you book an appointment now, we guarantee an extra-special show price. 70% off!!”

She got my extra-special ‘sceptical’ look – the one I reserve for people I believe are talking complete and utter B***S***

I mean, l I love a bargain as much as anyone, but I’ve discovered before that those ‘exclusive’ show prices aren’t so exclusive after all – you’ll find the same ‘discount’ on the company’s website. And these bedroom furniture companies are particularly bad – because nowhere, on any brochure or website, will they show you the pre-sale, undiscounted price. How do you know whether you’ve really got 70% off if they never give you an original price to compare to??

I’m firmly convinced that their discounts are based solely on how much they think they can screw out of the prospective client.

Still, at the time I didn’t really have any alternative bright ideas on how to turn the space into my very own walk-in wardrobe. So having a designer come up and have a bash at producing something creative couldn’t do any harm. And you never know – if I liked the design and the price really was as spectacular as promised, then maybe this would be one job that I just handed over to the ‘professionals’.

An appointment was duly made for the regional designer to visit me on site. (He was based in the North of England – apparently Scotland doesn’t order enough bespoke bedrooms to warrant their own regional designer!)

On the appointed day, he turned up – in his smart suit, shiny shoes and even shinier BMW convertible. And minced his way reluctantly across my ‘building-site-excuse-for-a-garden’.

It was the couple of cigars sticking out of the breast pocket of his blazer that really finished the image. I could just imagine him at the end of the visit, lighting up his victory cigar as he drove off with the roof down, smug in the thought of yet another sucker who fell for the sales pitch.

First impression didn’t improve much once he got inside and launched into his sales spiel. “I know you were referred through the GD Live show, and I’m sure they promised you a show discount. Well just ignore everything they said because I will be able to give you a much better offer.”

“Really. Well they offered a 70% discount. So what are you offering?”

“Oh, we don’t need to talk numbers now. Trust me. I’m a salesman.”

“Yeah, well I’m a beancounter so I am going to talk numbers. They said 70% off, you’re telling me you’ll better that. So you’ve got to be offering at least 71% off – or am I missing something. Your margins must be phenomenal if you can still make any kind of profit on that.”

But it was like trying to reason with the BT voice automated response system – very frustrating and entirely pointless. So I gave up, took him to the dressing room and then left him to get on with his drawing.

After an hour or so sitting at my dining room table, Mr Shiny Shoes declared he had finished and triumphantly showed me his design. Entirely as predicted, and demonstrating about as much imagination as a piece of mouldy cheese, it was full height cupboards along the back and a row of drawers along one wall. Right. Great. What do I do with the 18m² of floor space you completely failed to make use of?

Then he told me how much it would cost.

“Er, haven’t you forgotten to add the discount into that?”

“No. Trust me this is a bargain offer. You wont get such a bespoke, unique, creative, high quality design for this price anywhere else. And this is the best price I can give you. I’m not going to be phoning you in a few days with a better price. I don’t like playing that kind of game with people.”

Yeah, well. You’re kitting out my dressing room, not the bedrooms of Buckingham Palace. So thanks very much; I’ll be in touch. Not.

No wonder he’s driving around in a BMW convertible.

And surprise surprise, after a few days of my wall of silence, the inevitable phone call came. “I don’t normally do this, but this is such a unique project, I’ve managed to persuade Head Office to let me give you an extra discount……”

That’ll be another DIY job still on the list then….

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…..

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!!