Sunday, April 07, 2013

Building works

We bought a house a year ago, and have gutted it inside, knocked a couple of walls down, and are in the process of putting it back together again. So these days all my free time (and there isn't much of it to begin with), is used looking at taps, shower enclosures, toilets, doors, door handles, paint swatches, spindles (the wooden bits that staircases are made up of), stair lights, paint swatches, wall paper, tiles, and and and - the list is endless. At the beginning of the process the architect told us we could be as involved or uninvolved in the project as we liked. I have not found this to be the case, because ultimately, unless you say to someone, and mean it: 'You choose everything' - there are going to be choices to make and this involves you pouring through brochures and browsing the internet. Now I love shopping, I won't deny it, but this wore me down. And being a pro choice sort of person, I never thought I'd say this, but after this experience, I think there can be such a thing as too much choice. It can be overwhelming and contribute to that already residual sense that one could always do better than the choice one has already spent 50 odd hours making. Google is sometimes not your friend - it is the equivalent of the Jones's.

Ask anyone who has renovated or refurbished a house what the experience was like and they will almost certainly share a widely different set of stories and opinions on the matter, but I bet you a dollar that almost all of them will say the following:
1. Whatever you had budgeted to spend, double it
2. Whatever time you had planned on the process taking, double it

One of the most important things in the process is that you have a team of people that you trust. This means and includes the architect and the building contractor. Because what invariably happens is that you start out with a plan, stuff goes wrong or crops up, and you incur a lot of extra time and money to fix it. Even with the most honest man on the job unexpected things occur. In our case we were going to strip the walls only as far as the wall linings, and once they started doing that they discovered the plaster behind was crumbling, so we made the decision to take the whole house back to the brick and re-plaster from scratch. And in some places wooden support beams were sagging with age and damp and had to be removed and replaced with steel. And it turns out the existing water supply is insufficient so we have to pay Thames Water to dig out something in the road and replace it, which means putting up parking and traffic restrictions in place, and getting their team to replace water pipes, for a price, naturally. Then there's the roof, or parts of it, that need replacing, the guttering etc etc etc.

And while you're at it, you may as well fix the higgledy piggledy 1920's ceilings, insulate the whole house, and if you do that, then probably a good idea to double glaze the windows otherwise you are going to lose heat and triple your heating bill. Oh and that ugly 1970's fireplace probably should be changed because it don't work with the style of the house, but you have to get a chimney sweep (yes they actually exist outside of Dickens novels)in to see if it is clear, and see if the gas connection is sufficient, etcetera. You see where I'm going with this right? 

Ahh and what about changing your mind? The more you do this, the more money and time you spend. But to be fair to the moderate mind changers of the word, of which I count myself one, it is impossible to work from a set of drawings only. For example: We had decided on a separate TV room to our kitchen, but once the builders took down the existing wall and were about to put up a new one in a different place, we found that actually we liked the space to be left completely open plan. Then there was a space where a door was going to go, and when you were walking around it didn't feel right in that position, so we moved it. 

I once worked with someone who told me never to settle with something unless I was 100% happy with it. This was in a work context, but it's stood me in good stead with many other things since. This cropped up with the opening to the conservatory from the kitchen, which was off centre, and needed opening to the left by approx half a meter. I kept walking into the room and wanting to shove the wall over to the left - probably the designer in me that likes things to be aligned and equidistant. Our first builder said he wasn't sure it was possible and ummed and ahhed and made it sound like I was requesting a complex feat of engineering. The architect talked about added cost, and the two of them genuinely tried to talk me out of it. Our second (and final builder - which is another story) came along and said he didn't think it was a problem provided the structural engineer took a look. Long story short, it was possible, it wasn't a huge cost, and everyone agrees it looks infinitely better. Sometimes you have to stick to your guns. I have this theory that if something bothers you,  go home and sleep on it. If you are still bothered by it in the morning, chances are you need to make a change.

We have also put electric plug sockets in every conceivable location.  So much so that I wouldn't be surprised if our house doesn't visibly glow in the night from all the energy. But until we have lived in the house and know how we are going to use it, use the rooms, we needed to have the flexibility. Also because my doctor, who has himself renovated his house recently, mournfully advised: "You can never have enough outlets, and getting them done after the fact is a huge pain and expense."

Then there were our friends who told us that the sunken spot lights in our kitchen should line up exactly with where our kitchen cabinet doors open, so we should hold off on putting in the ceiling until the kitchen was fitted. And to have two fridges instead of one of those large expensive American ones which are all about door space and not much fridge space. That saved us a few quid.

Or the friend who warned us regarding the position of plug sockets or light switches so that they don't conflict with where one wants to put art.

Lots and lots of opinions and bits of advice from everyone. There are people out there who make up their minds about something and don't really care for or want anyone else's opinion - but I am the opposite. It's not that I am insecure, indecisive or easily swayed, quite the opposite actually. But I genuinely believe, especially when you are doing something for the first time, that information is priceless. Learning from other people's experiences and mistakes has been very beneficial to us. Now I'm certain there will be things that once we are in we will say, "If we were to do this over, we would do x, y or z differently..." There are already a few electric socket positions in the kids rooms I am not too happy with and probably should have checked, but once the furniture is in I doubt that the fact that they are not precisely centred with where a (potential) double bed in the future would go to house bedside lamps, is going to bother me hugely.

I do however think that if you have a generous budget, getting an interior decorator in is helpful. Our budget was not that generous. These people spend their time pouring through catalogues and brochures on your behalf, and probably have a lot of stuff at the tip of their tongues, once they know your taste, and can save you the hours of having to choose things yourself and the second guessing. And it really is hours and hours and hours. And knowing which taps to choose, and which shower hose, and that you don't just need the shower hose, you need a cradle, and an end piece, and which basins to get with waste or without etcetera
  A lot of it started out as being Greek to me, but we are fortunate to have a very intelligent and helpful contractor who has assisted me through the laborious and confusing process and has suffered a thousand and one probably rather idiotic (at least to him) sounding questions via email.

Timings are another tricky bit. We are currently renting, and it goes without saying having a mortgage and a rental is a financial stress. But we also know that it is cheaper than a divorce, which is what a lot of couples risk when they live in a house while building work is going on. I also think it's very tough when you have small children, school runs, the usual havoc of life with a young family, and tons of dust. I don't think I have it in me. And I'm praying that I won't have to test that theory because our landlord has droves of estate agents showing our rental every week. One couple who appeared to like the house asked me when we were moving out. I could see the estate agent behind them trying to signal me, the veins bulging in her neck and her eyes widening as I said: "Well, hopefully at the beginning of July, if our builders are finished." I am praying it won't be a situation where they find someone, give us a month's notice (our current agreement), and we have to find a place for a few weeks before the works are completed.  *Area just below left eye twitching as I ponder this possibility.*

Everyone says to me: "How exciting you will get your house exactly as you want it." At first I genuinely didn't think this, I felt overwhelmed at how much I would have to choose and how many ways I could get it wrong. But I've found that you figure it out as you go along, guided by budget, advice from the architect, builder, and friends, and it slowly starts to fit together. Also, I am blessed with a husband who has a very relaxed attitude about things and he constantly reminds me: "Honey, if we hate it, we can always change it." Which I suppose is true, after sleeping on it of course.

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