Building a new home
Setting the scene
I'd pretty much given up on owning my own home again. Emerging from my depression and divorce I lacked the savings, income, career history or projected working life that would have made getting a mortgage a realistic prospect. Added to this I'd moved from northern Scotland to the south of England, exchanging tall mountains for towering house prices. It felt like renting was to be my future and to be honest it wasn't a problem, I've never been much of a homebuilder or DIY enthusiast and with so much uncertainty about where my life might be leading it gave me some useful flexibility. And so I moved from tenancy to tenancy, enjoying the variety and not really considering that there might be an alternative.
I'm not sure when things started to change. My return to the conventional work world had gone remarkably smoothly and after a year in my first 'regular' job - the only one that would have me after years out of the workplace - I'd moved on to something that was both professionally superior and much better paid. The new job came with another new town but whereas Maidstone had felt like a stepping stone almost from the outset I found myself settling into Bradford-on-Avon as somewhere that might develop into a hometown. On a deeper level I had a sense of some form of emotional stability starting to establish itself within me after what felt like many, many years of transitional and transformational turbulence. Ironically this was topped off by the ending of my relationship which put me into the position of only having myself to think about - a more selfish outlook but one that pushed me into isolating and examining my own impulses a bit more closely. All in all I was finding that my physical and emotional states were settling into something a bit more solid and from this new perspective I could maybe look again at how I fitted into the world.
Not, I hasten to add, that this was happening on a conscious level. Back in my twenties I'd read Operators & Things by Barbara O'Brien, the account of a woman who had developed schizophrenia, spontaneously recovered, and retained her memories of being in that altered state (recommended reading for anyone interested in the workings of the mind). One of the themes from the book is that our unconscious mind can have a wider and deeper 'understanding' than our conscious ego and will often steer us in directions that we don't realise are for our benefit at the time. A sort of inner Guardian Angel if you like. This idea resonated with me almost immediately and has stayed with me as an increasingly plausible explanation for many of my actions. Certainly it was the only way I could explain walking into an estate agent on the way home from work and asking whether I'd be able to get a mortgage.
To my amazement it appeared that I could! In this new financial age (my previous mortgage had been taken out in the late 1980's) my current savings and income were all that were needed to get the promise of loan money for a new house. No need for years of verifiable employment or multiple character references from pillars of society, even the fact that I'd still be paying it off in my seventies was no deterrent to the cornucopia of the banking system. With monthly repayments not much more than I was currently paying in rent I could afford a modest place in Bradford without pushing myself into penury so I signed up with a couple of estate agents, set up some internet searches and waited to see what was available.
As I started to look at places they quickly established themselves into two camps. My budget, although seemingly immense from 20th century memories of house prices ("A quarter of a million pounds!!!") was comparatively feeble for Bradford and automatically excluded most of the available properties. The ones that were still viable were either small & quirky old places or new apartments in the mock-warehouse 'conversions' along the riverside.
The Georgian Lodge
The newer apartments were the easiest to reject. They tended to be small, a bit boxy & anonymous, and crammed in together with nothing but parking spaces around the repetitious blocks. All seemed to have a combined kitchen / dining / living room layout, bedrooms just big enough for a double bed and, unfailingly, a large en-suite attached to the 'master' bedroom. This 'feature' continues to bemuse me - having what is effectively a second bathroom in a two-bedroom flat seems like a ridiculous choice, especially as it then cuts into the space available for the other rooms. Another strange but common design element was the lack of cupboard space in the kitchen that was deep enough for frying pans, casserole dishes, etc, resulting in them being stored on top of the units. Not a great option for someone of my height. These flats reminded me of holiday apartments, comfortably liveable but not somewhere you'd want to stay for a long period of time. A reflection on our times perhaps?
The older places were more interesting but were often just a bit too quirky - small, oddly shaped rooms, tight staircases (and lots of them - one of the houses extended over four stories with just a single room on most of them), lack of access and so on. To say nothing of wiring, plumbing & other fittings that dated back to Olden Times and threatened dire consequences should they break. I feel that given time I'd have found something that would have been the perfect fit for me but that the process could easily have taken decades.
After returning to one of the estate agents from another disappointing viewing I was persuaded to have a look at a glossy brochure for a refurbishment project in the town. This was the Georgian Lodge, a handsome building in the centre of Bradford that had stood empty since I'd arrived in the town. I'd seen work start on it a few months previously but had assumed that it would be way out of my range and had mentally dismissed it. However young Duncan was insistent that this could be just what I was looking for and a quick glance through showed that the prices were (just about) affordable, so we made a date for a viewing and I took the brochure away with me to ponder over.
The more I looked through the blurb the more attractive it became. The elegant street-facing house would be split into an office on the ground floor and two flats above it but there was a larger section of the building hidden behind it that was to be developed into six further flats clustered around a central courtyard. The two flats at the front of the house looked very tempting but there was also a maisonette in the rear section that caught my interest, not least as I didn't realise that people still used the expression 'maisonette'. I looked forward to my viewing with increasing excitement.
Sadly my first visit to the site started with disappointing news - both of the street-facing flats had already been sold. Bah! However the maisonette was still up for grabs so we made our way through the seeming chaos of the building site to have a proper look at it.
My reading of the glossy brochure hadn't prepared me for the reality of the project - this was definitely a building site and although I'd be viewing something there was a lot of mental addition and subtraction required to get an idea of the final result that I'd actually be buying. A lot of what was there was due to be ripped out, some of the basic elements (like the floor!) weren't in place and there was building debris pretty much everywhere. Despite all this I found myself immediately warming to the place, as if my subconscious had internally constructed the end product and had, perhaps guardedly, given it the OK.
A nice surprise was finding that this unit came with a garden and, delightfully for me, the door to it would open from the upper storey. I love split levels & asymmetric layouts and the prospect of having access to the garden from an upstairs bedroom fills me with childlike delight, especially as this would be my home office.
However my sensible aspect still had questions to be answered. The plans in the brochure had no dimensions and were vague about a lot of the details, even when viewing the actual place. I arranged to come back and meet with the developer in a few days time to get a better idea of what the final result would be. But overall I was tempted.
Meeting the developer. Or not.
The front door
The living room / bedroom area
The garden and roof
My first attempt to meet with the developer didn't go well, on the fairly fundamental level of not managing to actually meet at all. I arrived at the site at the agreed time but ended up waiting outside while the estate agent and the site foreman rang around trying to find out who was expected to be where, both failing to get through to the developer himself. After half an hour or so it became clear that something had gone awry (both sides subsequently claimed that the fault was with the other) but as I was about to leave the foreman offered to show me round himself.
As we made our way around what was still basically an empty shell he pointed out what was going to be removed and described where the new parts would be going. Slowly the floor plans in the brochure transformed into three dimensions and I began to get a mental image of what they might become on my own human scale. It was an exciting & beguiling feeling, as I pictured the house and myself within it the sense of it being 'mine' (maybe even 'home') grew stronger and more compelling. However I kept being brought back to reality by the, er, reality of the situation, when my inner visualisation wavered and the physical walls, construction detritus and missing floors presented themselves in harsh starkness. My vision was of something wonderful but how closely would it correspond to what would actually emerge?
One of the more challenging mental constructions was to raise the roof, in a very literal sense. The existing one was apparently going to be taken off, the walls around it built up to a new level and a new one put on, giving an extra couple of metres of headroom for the upper storey. At the same time one of the existing external walls was to be knocked down and replaced further along to greatly extend one of the bedrooms - the one that wasn't there yet. I was getting a good feel for the lower storey's layout but the upstairs was still pretty abstract.
My companion was engagingly enthusiastic about the entire project, leading me around the unit while describing what was being done and, with much hand waving, what was yet to come. He showed me round one of the other flats that was further along the building process, still all plasterboard and dangly wires but enough to give me an idea of room sizes and ceiling heights, and finally insisted I join him atop a pile of discarded wood & insulation in what would be my garden and take in the view. And a splendid view it was - Bradford's varied but harmonious creamy stone houses rising up the steep rise to the Cotswold hills.
I don't think it was just the prospect of a nice, er, prospect that made my mind up but something had clicked inside. This wasn't just a place that would be nice to live in, this was somewhere I could make my home - a feeling I hadn't had for many, many years, perhaps not since my first flat back in my twenties. It wasn't just the prospect of sole ownership and freedom to make the place exactly the way I wanted, there was the sense of this being a good fit for me at this point in my life. Small enough to be cosy without being cramped, large enough to let me compartmentalise my work away from my leisure, conventional enough for easy maintenance, unusual enough to match my own quirky idiosyncrasies. A place that could be really me.
But the biggest bombshell came almost in passing - the foreman revealed that it would be possible to make changes to the plans before the real construction got started. There were a couple of things in the brochure plans that still needed clarifying but the biggest obvious 'problem' was the (by now inevitable) en-suite - might I be able to get rid of it? The idea that I could tailor the plans had never occurred to me and although I had an initial burst of 'what if I mess this up?' I quickly realised that I'd have professional help from the developers & builders and wouldn't be doing it on my own. The uncertainty of buying a place that didn't exist yet was suddenly offset by the freedom to sculpt my own image of a home. I wouldn't be starting from a blank slate but then again I'm generally happier working within a framework anyway, modifying something that's already there. This seemed to be the best of both worlds.
And so the decision was made. There were still questions to be answered and details to sort out but in my mind I'd gone from "Why?" to "Why not?". I said I was sold to the foreman who laughed & asked when he'd get his salesman's commission.
Knowing that I could make changes (although not yet how far ranging they could be) I needed something more than the small sketches in the brochure. The foreman led me back to the site office and dug out the cross-section plan for my unit which I duly photographed with my phone.
Next up would be a meeting with the developer but the agenda had widened from a simple walk-through to the prospect of changes & modifications, a lot to think about. I started scrutinising the plans and thinking about what exactly I wanted from a home.
The developer, the architect & me
After a few miscommunications I finally met up with Jeremy (the developer) at the site. He arrived with a small family group who turned out to be the people who'd bought the two street-facing flats I'd been interested in, I magnanimously congratulated them on getting in before me (on several levels) to much laughter.
Jeremy led me around the unit and filled me in with more information about the project. The front part of the building was grade II listed, meaning it had special architectural or historic interest (to put this in context there are 346 other grade II listed buildings in Bradford-on-Avon) and had restrictions on how it could be changed, but this didn't apply to the rear section where my unit was. About half of the eight units had already been sold and although my one was still available they were being snapped up quickly. And, most important to me, it would be possible to make changes to the plans - he'd put me in touch with the architect so we could talk through my ideas.
12th March - the view from the garden
Over the next week I exchanged emails with Jeremy and Nigel (the architect) about potential changes to the house. I had no idea exactly what was possible (or if it would affect the final price) so I approached the process in as naive a manner as I could - listing my ideas without worrying too much about how practical they might be and leaving it to the experts to give the OK or not. The process went really well, both Jeremy and (later) Nigel were very open to changes and gave very clear feedback on what was possible, why the others weren't, and what else I might need to bear in mind.
This openness to my ideas was the final confirmation that this was the place for me so I rang the estate agent to make an offer. As it had been over twenty years since I last bought a house I wasn't sure of the protocol - did you offer the asking price or always start well down and bargain over the final amount? I'd been told that as someone without a chain (with no property of my own to sell) I was in a good bargaining position and the agent suggested I try knocking £5k off the asking price as my first offer. This sounded good - an extra £5k would make a nice emergency fund - but almost immediately the reply came back: the asking price is the price that will be accepted. Looking inside I realised that the price wasn't an issue for me in reality so I upped my offer and put it forward again.
Within a day it had been accepted. I WAS BUYING A HOUSE!
So now it was time to get started on the finances & legal stuff. This is the sort of thing that I really shy away from if I can possibly avoid it but luckily I had help already on hand. In my previous job I'd joined the company pension scheme and as part of the process I was introduced to a financial advisor from the company who managed it. My own finances were in a bit of a mess at this point, the savings I had were spread around various accounts and although they were earning a reasonable amount of interest it had come about in a very haphazard way. Darren (Mr. Finance) had helped me bring them into some sort of order and provided annual reports on how they were doing, probably the first time in my life since pocket money days that I had a good idea of what my savings were.
At the start of my househunting I'd spoken with Darren about what I could afford and how easy it would be to get hold of it so it was just a question of saying yes to get the process started. Soon I had a mortgage application in place, a solicitor for the conveyancing and a formal acceptance of my offer. Suddenly everything was moving.
One thing that surprised me was that there was no deposit required. Apparently the process of making an offer & having it accepted constituted a contract between the developer and myself and although there could be Dire Repercussions if I were to back out there was no need to put any money on the table until the place was ready to be bought. I felt a bit uneasy about this and kept asking if it was normal practice - having decided to buy the last thing I wanted was to lose the house due to a misunderstanding but everyone assured me this was the usual way of doing things.
So there I was, committed. Time to have another look at the plans and start, er, planning.
Making plans with Nigel
Over the next couple of weeks I exchanged emails with Jeremy & Nigel - asking questions, making proposals, seeing what was possible and thinking about what exactly I wanted in a house. It was a fascinating process, at times it felt like one of those 'sliding tile' problems where you try to move elements into place without upsetting the rest, at times a seemingly off the cuff remark would open up a new world of possibilities. By some strange quirk of fate I seemed to have found a made to measure home for the price of something off the peg. Once again the Gods smile upon me.
7th April - half the roof & the front wall gone!
Meeting up with Nigel gave a droll contrast - developer Jeremy had arrived in his Porsche 4x4, architect Nigel came on his motorbike. As a 'techie' I'm perhaps oversensitive to this sort of discrepancy between those who make things and those who manage them and without the full story it's all too easy to jump to conclusions but it did make me smile, if ironically.
One of the alarming things about these early visits to the site was seeing less & less of my place each time. First the roof went, then the front wall, then the garden side wall. At this rate there was a risk that there'd be so little left that people would forget that there was meant to be a house there. It really brought home what an abstract transaction I'd gotten into - I'd promised money that I didn't have for a house that not only wasn't there but despite this was somehow still managing to be in constant flux. At my instigation. This was certainly living in the modern world.
The first big change was to get rid of the pointless en-suite. In fact it was easier to just relabel it as the main bathroom, then (on the advice of a friend) not to remove the old bathroom but reduce it down to just a second toilet, releasing lots of space for the second bedroom which was going to become my home office. In the new bathroom I decided against a bathtub (I haven't had a bath for many, many years) and instead opted for a walk-in shower.
Next, the staircase. Originally this had been enclosed so there could be a door at the bottom - for fire safety, as there was only one exit route from the (vertical) windowless bedroom 1. I really didn't like the idea of a 'corridor' staircase but in order to have it be open I'd need to have a sprinkler system installed. I was pondering this when Nigel found a way around it - by having a door (and a short flat section) at the top of the stairs the sprinkler wasn't required. In earlier discussions he'd said that he'd always been able to design around needing a sprinkler and true to his word he managed it.
The plans, as at 24th April
The kitchen was the one room that had no external windows. Rather than have a doorway into the dining room I opted for a double-door opening to the high, airy 'hall/study area'. This will add a few seconds to the vital oven -> dining room transition time so I apologise in advance to future guests for my lukewarm entrees. An interesting feature of the kitchen (in the original plans, not one of my ideas) is a 'light pipe' bringing natural light down a polished tube from a dome on the roof.
The last of the big changes was around the front of the living/dining room. This was going to have a similar 'light well' to the hall/study area but without a skylight above it. After much pondering I asked if the ceiling could instead extend all the way across giving lots of extra storage space in bedroom 1, the room that was going to be my actual bedroom. Nigel was resistant to the idea - the ceiling would have to 'step up' to fit over the windowframe and he thought it would make the living room feel too low - but he suggested that I come back in a week or so when there would be part of the floor in place and I could get a better idea of the scale. This was great, no need to hold an imaginary space in my mind, just wait until I could try it out for real.
Smaller details went back & forth and the plans started to feel solid. Would they survive through the construction process?
Neighbours & visitors
Living room - no floor, no ceiling, no roof
The new roof begins to appear
The bike store - under my kitchen
As I walk back from work I come over the road bridge at the centre of Bradford-on-Avon (a 13th century structure augmenting the 'broad ford' from which the town gets its name) and the Georgian Lodge stands squarely before me. It's a nice opportunity to see how things are coming along, since the walls have been raised for my new roof they peer over the building next door giving me an instant progress report. But last week something else caught my eye - one of the windows on the first floor was open and through it I could espy people holding champagne flutes. As I got nearer they called down and invited me up - these were the people who'd bought the front two flats, the ones I'd met when visiting the site to see Jeremy. The bubbly was in celebration of their moving in and, being a sociable & neighbourly sort of chap, the least I could do was join them for a glass to welcome them to their (and what would, eventually, be my) new home.
After toasting their good fortune I was taken for a tour of the flats - they'd bought both of them and were already making plans for a loft conversion at the top of the house. The rooms in this part of the project were the old Georgian ones with high ceilings and tall windows looking out onto a beautiful view of the Avon, the old bridge crossing it and Bradford rising up to frame it all.
It turned out that this was a mostly symbolic 'moving in' as there was virtually no furniture or possessions in either of the flats but this did give a good opportunity to get a sense of the space and check out the finishing off. The rooms were decorated in an understated and very tasteful way, which boded well, but some parts were decidedly unfinished - the tile spacers in the bathroom gave an indication that there was more to do, as did the total absence of a wash basin. It seems that construction delays had met fixed deadlines so they'd moved in despite work still going on around them. Still, overall they seemed very happy with their purchases and the impression was of things incomplete rather than badly done.
Since moving to Bradford I've come to realise that I'm a townie at heart. Maidstone was too big, sprawling & impersonal but Findhorn (both the village and the community) was a bit too small and insular. I had a theory (I always have a theory) that at a formative age we get a feel for the size of town we're growing up in which then feels 'comfortable' in later life but now I think it's more to do with personal 'visibility'. In a city we are anonymous, there are too many people to deal with on a personal level so we swim through an ocean of strangers and in the reflection of this we become invisible and unseen. In a village it's the reverse, everyone knows who you are and your every move is observed & noted. What works for me is the middle ground - the recognition of being known and part of a human community but with enough anonymity to not feel hemmed into a role. To use an inappropriate quantum physical metaphor I like to dance between my particle & wave aspects.
Talking with Jackie (I think, oops!) & Hans I found they had a very similar attitude, although maybe not expressed quite so quirkily. We liked the idea of walking to shops, pubs, and so on, living in the town rather than on the fringes & outskirts.
We were also interested in how the dynamics of our little community might work out. With eight households tightly packed together it will be interesting to see what sort of social interactions emerge, especially as we will be sharing the freehold between us. Perhaps my Findhorn experience of community process might be useful again?
A couple of days later I was back at the site again with Peter & Krista, dear friends visiting from Australia. It's hard to show off an empty space filled with random chunks of masonry but they seemed impressed by the potential and by my infectious enthusiasm - slightly too infectious it seems as we had to restrain Peter from wandering past the DANGER - KEEP OFF sign to take a closer look. While there we met Nigel the architect who was working on the front unit on the ground floor which was to become his office - good to see such confidence in his own work! He said it was looking good for my 'extended ceiling' plan for the living room but we could discuss it later in the week when we had an appointment to meet.
When I arrived for our meeting things had changed. The new roof was starting to go up (rafters but no tiles, just sheeting) and there were more walls than there had been previously (although not at what would be my front door) but the floorboards had gone! From the unit below mine it was possible to look up through my place and see daylight through the temporary roofing. Once again I felt like I was the prospective owner of a volume of space rather than an actual structure.
The good news was that the ceiling would fit nicely (just) above the windowframe and my extended bedroom / storage space plan was a good one. Yay! Part of the storage area would have a very low ceiling but it would be like an oddly placed 'cupboard under the stairs'. The cupboard under the gables? Very sweet.
As I (very carefully) moved around the space I began to get a proper sense of the scale of the house. It would be cosy but not pokey, a house for one but with space to live, work and host friends & visitors. With luck, a home.
A space for living
Office above, kitchen below
It's been a while since I wrote about the house. Part of this has been down to other stuff going on and taking my attention away, most notably in my work (more on that below). But the building process has also reached a state where there's less input required from me - it's now too late to make any more changes to the plans but too early to get into fixtures, fittings, surfaces, decoration and the like. Progress is swift (at times dramatically so) as rooms take shape inside the space.
My sense of scale has been going wildly up & down as various parts of the house come & go. When I first saw the plans it looked like it would be big & spacious and this impression stuck with me when I first visited the site - especially when I was told the roof was going to be raised. Then as the old walls, floors & roof were removed it flipped - the empty space that was revealed seemed far too small to hold all the rooms! As the new floors went in and the rafters for the new roof were laid in place it felt like the space was expanding again, but on recent visits as I mentally added the remaining walls the resulting rooms seemed small & boxy. Sigh! An architect friend has warned me that this perceptive oscillation will continue for a while yet - as the walls go in it will seem smaller, then larger as they are decorated, then smaller again as the furniture goes in.
This has made me consider just how much space a person (or, specifically, me) needs to live in? Since moving out of my eco-mansion in Findhorn the places I've lived in have been progressively smaller and yet still seem to develop 'spare' areas that I rarely use. My current house seemed very small when I first saw it & moved in but now the dining room has become a guest bedroom that I only venture into for its weekly hoovering. I used to yearn for a cellar or basement that could be used as readily accessible storage space for all my bits & bobs but with the effluxion of time (a great expression!) I found it easier to get rid of the stuff than to expand the space for it.
What remains important is a clear distinction between 'working' and 'relaxing' spaces. I need to have an office space where I live (I guess this would have been a 'study' in days of yore) where I can surround myself with computers, musical instruments & equipment, paperwork & filing, tools, etc. and, perhaps most importantly, working surfaces & spaces where I can spread out the detritus of whatever project I'm currently working on. The room is dense with Stuff and often in a state of flux - it's set up to support me in Getting Things Done and to preserve the setup of where I am with work still in progress.
Bedroom, bathroom & stairwell
Living room - the doorway on the left isn't staying!
In contrast to this I like my living room to be calming & neutral, visually uncluttered & undemanding of my attention. Not quite an empty, Zen-like void but somewhere I won't be reminded of work, chores or (in extremis) the outside world. The colours are soft & muted, the technology (TV & music) hidden under throws when not in use and the lighting unobtrusive & easily variable. I'm making an effort to add more Art to my living space but it's a delicate balance (for me) between enhancing and cluttering, in general when in doubt I go for less.
So how much space do I need? My current place fits pretty well (apart from the neglected dining room) and the new one should match it fairly closely. My office will be larger but will need to double as a guest room - which will give me the excuse to add a sofa(-bed) to which I can retreat to from the computer to ponder Tricky Technical Problems. The living room will have a low ceiling but to balance this I'll have the 'study area' at the front with wide windows and the high light well above it. I'm still having trouble visualising the kitchen and mentally adding the appliances & shelving but having it open into the study should give it a more spacious feel. On a conscious level this new house should be an ideal fit for me but while it's in such an incomplete state my worries nibble & nag at me - hopefully as the physical form emerges it will gently allay them. Hopefully.
Part of my confidence in starting this whole process sprung from feeling secure in my job, something that hadn't been true for me for quite a while. In my time at Trapeze I'd brought my skills up to date and found that not only could I function well in a modern corporate environment but that I was receiving consistent & meaningful praise for my work. My bosses were happy, the clients were happy and (most importantly) my workmates treated me as a fellow competent professional. Careerwise things were cool.
And then things changed. Our main iPhone client announced that they were taking their work in-house and for a while confusion reigned - nobody was sure what was going to happen when, job adverts started popping up for the project, all sorts of conflicting information was coming from different sources. On top of this it was clear that without this client there wasn't enough work for everyone in the iPhone team. In theory I wasn't likely to be the first one to be laid off but it wasn't inconceivable that the company would just get out of iPhone apps altogether. Scary times.
Eventually things settled down. We had assurances that there was work for us up to the end of the year and began collaborating with the client's new iPhone team to hand the project over and help with the learning curve & transition. Various inducements were offered to keep us happy, including an extension to our notice period so that we'd now have three months warning of being laid off. However the uncertainty remains, the company have assured us that there will be more work coming along but so far there is no sign of it and little assurance that mobile apps are seen as important to the company's future. There's been lots of talk but not much substance.
All this is a bit worrying for someone facing a large mortgage. But as I've grown confident of my role at Trapeze I've also realised that I'm eminently employable and if I needed to find another job it shouldn't be too difficult to find something similar. With luck I could get work at a commutable distance - both Bath & Bristol regularly have iPhone jobs popping up - but if the worst came to the worst I could probably take a highly paid contract in London and live in a bedsit through the week. Despite all the uncertainty my future plans seem reasonably secure.
The process of making a decision is a strange & wonderful thing. Sometimes there's a clear YES! (or, sadly more commonly, NO!) that carries all before it, sometimes the pros & cons continue to battle away while we prevaricate about the bush. With a lot of the questions about the new house having long-lasting consequences I've been pleasantly impressed with my clear & focussed decisiveness but I've not been able to completely avoid my habitual hesitancy.
The kitchen with its (sob!) rendered wall
Office/guest room with French windows on the far left
Looking from the garden through the office to the bathroom
The kitchen has a curved wall where it goes into the hillside. When I'd first discussed the plans with Nigel the architect he said it could be blocked off and 'straightened' but I'd decided to keep it - I felt I had enough space, the worktops would almost certainly be wood which could be worked around the shape, and I liked the idea of something quirky, especially something that retained some of the history of the building.
On one of my visits the wall had been cleared and cleaned up to reveal a beautiful pale yellow surface, constructed from irregular stones rather than rectangular bricks. Held in a light mortar the effect was delightful, a slice of Old Bradford in the heart of my modern apartment. I wasn't quite sure how the kitchen fittings would, er, fit in around it but it looked so good that there had to be a way.
Unfortunately rather than leave the 'how' to the builders I tried to think it through myself, seeing if I could come up with a way to combine the old and the new. When I visited the site a week later to talk it through I found the wall rendered in grey, a smooth surface coating and obscuring the pretty yellow stones. Sigh!
In subsequent discussions with builders and friends it's become clear that keeping the wall wouldn't have been a straightforward process and that the rendered surface was almost certainly the sensible way to go. But part of me misses my beautiful old stonework already. The house will have some exterior walls retaining the old appearance & character of the building but the inside will be purely modern, hopefully not anonymously so. Luckily the eccentric shapes of the rooms will provide some personality, keeping it from being another cookie-cutter 21st century apartment.
It's quite surprising to me how quickly I've been enchanted by the delights of old houses. For most of my life I've lived in modern housing (in my previous tenancy I was the first inhabitant of a brand new flat) and I've always enjoyed the spaciousness & clean layout of contemporary homes. And yet after my first taste of living in a place that's older than me by a few centuries I find myself loving it - the irregular shapes, uneven proportions and unexpected nooks & crannies. It's obviously the case that somewhere old will tend to have more 'character' but this isn't necessarily a good thing, fitting a contemporary lifestyle into a house designed for an earlier age can pose its own problems & challenges.
So what has changed? In the past I've tended to view houses as just containers for my belongings and working spaces for my projects, functional spaces to support me in my various endeavours. That's not quite as Spartan as it sounds - I have always followed my own aesthetic when lining my nest and comfiness is one of my prime functional requirements - but there's always been a sense that my home is that which is enclosed within the walls rather than extending out to including them. My recent times as a rental tenant has certainly encouraged this approach but even when I owned a flat of my own I realise I still operated this way, a transient occupant rather than king of my castle.
In some ways I think this reflects a clearer distinction between work and leisure in my lifestyle. My job has become much more challenging (in a good way - rewarding too) and as a result I find I tend to leave it 'at work', ironically even when I'm working from home. My hobbies - playing music, my own apps, supporting friends' websites, etc - although still important to me are less urgent and demanding than they once were (especially when they were providing important income). I find I have more time to just lounge around at home and am taking more notice of my surroundings, looking beyond the surface decoration and seeing how I feel in the space itself.
Is this a result of getting older? I feel less driven to be working & producing and more drawn to just enjoying & appreciating the things around me. The urge to create is still there but it comes & goes and I find myself content to follow the flow and not try to force myself when inspiration is absent. I still have deadlines at times but these are now mostly externally imposed, my inner taskmaster is less of a tyrant and more of a helpful assistant. Mostly.
As I contemplate somewhere that will be 'mine' in a greater sense than simply a roof over my head I like the idea of it being quirky & unusual and I think this reflects how I want to be seen in the world. I've known for a long time that I occupy a place on the fringes of contemporary society and that my tastes & outlook tend to range from 'unorthodox' to simply 'weird' (from a conventional perspective), in the past I've tended to keep a low profile and not make a big deal about this but I find that I can now approach it as a simple declaration - 'this is who I am, take it or leave it'.
If I had to sum up my philosophy of life a good approximation would be 'we are here to bring more beauty into the world'. This is similar to 'making the world a better place' but it reinforces the idea that this is an aesthetic rather than moral choice and that we are responsible for making the distinction ourselves rather than just obeying the whims of a Higher Power. My intention is to have the house be a thing of beauty (on many, many levels) and by having it be a reflection of myself I offer my own sense of beauty to the world - be it as an invitation to explore the Wild Side or as a contrast to more established modes. And that feels good.
Progress into uncertainty
The roof finally arrives!
Bedroom & bathroom space with Velux windows
The first (re)appearance of the front wall
The big change since my last visit was the roof! I'd gotten so used to seeing temporary sheeting over the rafters that it was a (very nice) surprise to see a spread of red tiles in the sunshine, punctured with large Velux windows. Not as many windows as I was expecting but surely that was just a case of how far along the work had come. Wasn't it?
But some scene-setting is in order before we continue with the story. Up to this point the only completion date I'd been given was 'Spring 2014' which was starting to sound a bit strained in July. A while ago one of the builders had given his personal estimate as 'June/July' and, in what I thought of as a realistic slant, I'd assumed it would be sometime in August that I'd be moving in. However as the end of July was fast approaching even this seemed like an optimistic target and in the absence of any feedback from the developer I'd contacted the estate agent to try and get a more reliable estimate of the time remaining. I wasn't particularly concerned by the delay - my landlady was very happy to see me staying on - but it would be good to have something to work towards.
The reply brought some very unexpected news. Not in the completion date which was 'aiming for mid-September but not confirmed' (more or less what I was expecting) but that the exchange of contracts would be much earlier than that and this would be accompanied by the payment of a deposit that would be 'around 10%'.
One of the things that had surprised me about the purchase process was that there had been no deposit required at the time I had my offer accepted. When I'd started changing the plans I'd been told that the developer might want a deposit at this point as removing the ensuite would make the apartment less saleable should I pull out but even this had come to nothing. I knew that I'd have to make a deposit when contracts were exchanged (after googling for it - I'd forgotten the procedures from my first house purchase) but I expected this to be just a couple of weeks before completion & moving in.
In this slightly uncertain atmosphere I'd been invited to come down to the site to 'review the studwork set out', an expression that meant nothing to me at the time but transpired to be checking that the planned positions of the internal walls was correct. The plans had been through quite a few changes over the months so it was a really good idea to see just where the walls were going to go, especially with the external walls (and roof!) now providing some context. With the downstairs being mostly open plan the focus was on the upper storey, mostly around the bedroom/bathroom area.
With the form of the rooms starting to emerge more fully it all looked fine. Without the ceiling in place it was hard to work out where the wardrobe/storage area should start in the main bedroom but at this point it was easy to just wall around the whole area and decide later. I decided to keep a high ceiling over the staircase rather than adding a false wall above it (resisting the urge to add another pocket of storage space) - maybe I'll have a chandelier! My boiler needed to be moved into the office space but with the ceiling being so high it could be placed above an existing storage space without losing any floor area. All in all it was looking rather good.
However when we came to the as-yet uninstalled Veluxes above the light well there was a bit of a shock. The frames had been build into the rafters but the windows to go in them had been sent back to the supplier, on instruction from the developer. The site supervisor was as bemused by this as I was, he said it made no sense to not fit them now and that delaying it would make it much more work later on. These windows had been present from the very earliest set of plans and without them the light well and internal window into the office made no sense at all. I assured Pete that they would be going in and we both said we'd contact the developer to get things sorted out.
The next day I got another, apologetic phone call from Pete. He'd spoken to the developer but had been told that I had to take responsibility for the windows as they were not on the plans that had been submitted for approval. I said to go ahead, on the basis that it was always 'easier to get forgiveness than permission', and when I checked through the old plans & correspondence I found that the original design was to have one window there rather than two. I'd assumed that this had been approved as nothing more had been said to me. I fired off another email query to the developer but have, as yet, received no reply.
The problems with these windows hasn't given me any great concern - I can't imagine one extra Velux in an essentially new build will cause any great upset - but it has made me a bit uneasy about how the development is progressing. A friend who visited the site mid-week said that there didn't seem to be much going on and the site manager had complained to me about how long it was taking to get decisions from the developer. Tied in with the delays and the talk about early deposits I'm starting to wonder if things are not going entirely to plan. The development seems too far along for any major mishaps to occur but I'm a little apprehensive about how bumpy the last part of the raod will be.
Into the valley of the shadow of debt
Living room with staircase
Top of the stairs, bathroom wall markers at the bottom
Office with loo & laundry cupboard marked out
After all my chasing around to sort out the Velux windows I thought I could move on to other things but, as I'm starting to realise is the case with many aspects of a building project, there was more there to drag me back. While walking around the site I realised that several of the windows were very high up and would require a very long stick to open & close - a long stick that would need to be stored somewhere. On a recent holiday I'd stayed in a place with motorised Veluxes and I thought it would be nice to have easily operated windows in my place. They would cost a bit more but (and I can see this as a potential slippery slope) in the context of the house price I probably wouldn't notice the extra few quid.
When I brought this up with the architect he quickly dashed my hopes - the plain windows had been bought & delivered and without another place in the development to use them I would have to pay for these and any motorised ones I wanted to use. Suddenly the extra expense didn't seem worth it (which is interesting in itself) and I said I'd be OK with the manual ones.
On reflection I was a bit unhappy about this. It would have been nice to have the option of motorised windows and, from my perspective, it would have been easy to have given me the option before the windows were ordered. Considering what was coming (stay tuned!) it gave the impression that things were getting a bit rushed and the Big Picture was getting obscured by immediate details. This was perhaps a little unfair - it would undoubtably have been easier for the developer to just build to plan and not give any customising options to the buyers - but it left me feeling that with a little more foresight the process could have been simpler & more harmonious for both sides.
And there was another twist to the tale. An interior designer friend (who will probably feature again in future episodes) said that motors could be retro-fitted to Veluxes but if I was considering them I should make sure the wiring was in place from the start. So I'll be back in touch with the builders with yet another request. Sigh!
With all this focus on the physical building process I was somewhat unprepared for the next surprise, which brought the legal side back to the forefront. A week beforehand the estate agent had said that the exchange process was being brought forward and I'd asked for some details, preferably in writing. Nothing had materialised from this when I received an email from my solicitor saying that the exchange needed to be done by the end of the week, which would require the deposit (10% of the offer price, £24K) to be transferred to their account. Eek! I'd (perhaps naively) assumed that I'd be given a bit more notice of what was required from me and, in a bit of a panic, set to organising the paperwork and the money.
Naturally nothing was simple. My solicitor was in Kent so I had to get them to post the contract to me so I could sign & return it - no digital transfers in the property world. When the letter arrived it had nonsensical instructions - I was told to 'sign on the front page where your initials are pencilled' but the document had no space to sign on the front page and no pencil markings anywhere. A phone call found the solicitor's secretary who, after searching through the paperwork at their end, clarified that I was to sign on page six - something I'd worked out for myself but was wary of doing without professional advice.
The money transfer was equally fraught. My savings were tied up in an investment scheme so I needed to contact my financial advisor to get the deposit amount released. He was (of course) out of the office when I called but the staff there sorted out the relevant paperwork and posted it off to me - once again there was no way to do this electronically. I filled in the form with the required amount and the solicitors' bank account details and sent it back, only to find out a couple of days later that due to money laundering regulations I could only transfer the money to my own account. So I would need to fill out a new form, wait for the money to arrive in my account and then send it on to the solicitors' account from there. Sigh!
While all this was going on I was starting to suspect that the sudden deadline was the developers way of getting rid of me. A couple of the builders had commented that my unit was rather nice and that I'd gotten a real bargain, which made me think that maybe it could be sold for considerably more if my accepted offer could somehow be nullified. The sudden demand for contract exchange & deposit hinted at cashflow problems (as did the increasingly deferred completion date) and could be seen as a way to push me into some form of default that would free up the flat for resale.
This was undoubtably paranoia (although THEY would want me to think that) and when I finally contacted the developer he assured me that a small delay on my part wouldn't be a problem.
What most surprised me about all this was my emotional reaction - I found I was beating myself up and blaming myself for not getting everything sorted out in time. This doesn't stand up to any sort of logical analysis and I (as yet) can't work out why I'm taking it so badly - there was no notice given and as soon as I was approached I did all I could to get the various processes completed. And yet it feels like a personal failing. What's even more ironic was that I'd offered to pay a deposit back when I'd first started making changes to the plans but the developer hadn't taken me up on it.
The smooth progress of the previous months was suddenly changing to panic & urgency. What would come next?
Fixtures & fittings
Bathroom walls go up
Kitchen lined & wired
Tidier looking courtyard (really!)
If I was hoping for a let-up in the level of urgency after getting the contract exchange starting (and I must admit I was) there was rude disillusionment ahead of me.
After another frustrating three-way email conversation with the developer and the architect I was finally told that I needed to specify the flooring, carpeting, tiles & kitchen layout, and that this should be done as soon as possible. The selection process wasn't exactly straightforward - I needed to visit 'Gavin' at a shop in Chippenham to choose carpets, flooring & tiles while the kitchen was being done by a firm in Yeovil who had visited & measured the rooms in the previous week (naturally nobody had told me about this at the time). I then found out I had to decide on doors & wall paint too and was lent a colour swatch for the paint and a glossy brochure for the kitchen units, although these were the only copies available and I had to promise to return them promptly. This was all coming thick & fast but at least there was the sense that things were moving on.
The first step was to see Gavin. In contrast to the confusion I was encountering from the developer he turned out to be friendly & helpful - he knew who I was & which unit I was fitting out and we made an appointment for me to visit the shop a couple of days later.On my journey to Chippenham I realised just how much my approach to travelling has changed, particularly in regard to how much I use my phone. I'd made sure that I had Gavin's phone number loaded in but for everything else I assumed I could just look it up as I needed it - Google for the shop address, Maps for finding it, theTrainline for train times, Skype for keeping in contact with work, Notes for, er, notes, the Music app for entertainment along the way. It's nice to realise that I'm living in science fiction.
The process of choosing the various floor coverings turned out to be surprisingly easy, a great relief amid all the stress. From my initial thoughts - wood floor for the kitchen & hall/study (I must think of a better name for it), techno-lino for the bathroom & loo, carpets everywhere else - Gavin helped me narrow my options done to something manageable (mostly - there were still a lot of carpets) and then left me alone to make my decisions. This really helped me avoid being overwhelmed with choice and left me free to follow my 'informed whim' style of decision making - be sensible & rational to whittle down a short list and then use my emotional response to make the final choice.
I ended up with oiled oak flooring, wood-effect lino and, perhaps inevitably, an 'off-white with flecks' Berber style carpet. Bathroom tiles were large, stone-effect ones. In theory I could have some tiling in the kitchen but until that was sorted out they would have to wait.
As would the paint colours. The kitchen was becoming the sticking point for interior design decisions but was proving frustratingly difficult to organise. Eventually I received a provisional layout (as a plan and a 3D mock-up) that had been put together by the kitchen designer after his site visit. Sigh! The design was wrong in so many ways - there was a wall & doorway that didn't exist in the room, the hob extractor was shown with a vent that wasn't possible, there were wall units directly below where my light tube would emerge and a washing machine had been included despite the fact that I'd arranged for it to be sited upstairs. There generally wasn't enough storage (I have a surprising amount of kitchen clobber) and the white units with dark worktops looked harsh & clinical. There would have to be lots of changes.
NOT my ideal kitchen
This didn't come easily. I rang the kitchen fitters and found that the person dealing with my development was just about to go on holiday, he promised that someone else would ring me back the next day but nothing came of this. I left a message asking for a call so long as it wasn't on Tuesday, when I'd be off working at a client site. Naturally the call came on Tuesday while I was on a train but against all the odds I had reception for my moby and we managed to arrange an on-site meeting for a few days hence.
My perseverance paid off when we finally met. Jason, the new designer, was receptive to my ideas (& concerns) and approached the oddly-shaped kitchen with interesting & creative ideas. We ended up with another L-shaped layout but with units rearranged to make better use of the space, the far end (below the light tube) was left without wall units to make best use of the light and the worktop was to be shaped to fit into the curved wall. I was still a little concerned about storage space (something that was coming up regularly - perhaps there's an obsession here for me to work on?) but decided to leave the other side of the kitchen open, I could always add more units there later if I needed them.
There was one more wrinkle - the plumbing for the sink and redundant washing machine had been laid in and was in the wrong place. Luckily a quick check with site manager Pete gave the OK for moving it. With no washing machine I made the impulse decision to have a dishwasher instead - I've hardly used the one in my current place but they've been a convenience in the past and perhaps it will encourage me to generate more washing up by cooking more elaborately and having people round to eat more frequently.
With the kitchen set up I was able to finally confirm the paint colours - a creamy off-white for downstairs and a slightly warmer creamy off-white for upstairs. A cautious (maybe cowardly) choice but repainting is the easiest form of redecorating and my initial impulse is to add colour with rugs, furniture & objects. And at this point I wanted to get things agreed rather than linger over them any longer.
Progress! But while all this was going on the deposit transfer was continuing to drag and the developer was becoming increasingly insistent about exchanging contracts. Might all of this still come to nothing?
As the building & fitting out proceeded apace the legal side of things was logjammed. I'd expected that withdrawing money from my investment accounts would be straightforward and essentially it was, however this didn't mean it was quick. The paperwork had been successfully delivered but the processing time kept growing, starting at 3-5 days (and I'm sure these were working days) and building up to 7-10 days. Nadine, my doughty financial advisor, was trying to hurry them along but it didn't seem like this was having much practical effect.
The intrusive chimney stack
Bedroom walls start going up
Someone drilling just out the front
While this was dragging on the developer was becoming more and more insistent that contracts were exchanged, often accompanied with deadlines of a few days ahead. This threw me into anxiety at first but as time passed and they kept coming I became increasingly irritated and annoyed by them. I'd point out that I wasn't able to speed up the process and the earliest that the money might arrive would be (for example) Tuesday, the response would be that the exchange must be done by Monday. It became apparent that these demands were just attempts to hurry me along, regardless of how I tried to explain my situation the reaction was that things had to be done in the next day or so.
Then things took a serious downtown. The developer said that if I didn't exchange contracts within (inevitably) a few days he would have to put the house back on the market. Suddenly the deadline had teeth.
The idea that I might lose the house came as something of a shock. I'd been told that having my offer accepted constituted a firm & binding agreement but after checking with my solicitor it turned out that until we'd exchanged contracts either side could walk away with no penalties. A few weeks ago this would undoubtedly have sent me back into the arms of Mr Panic but the relentless tide of demands & deadlines had worn down my enthusiasm and I found myself considering the situation with (some) calm detachment. I'd been approaching the purchase in a spirit of making the best of something I was committed to but now I could freely decide if it was actually what I wanted to do.
Putting the situation with the money to one side - I'd been (professionally) advised that it was very unlikely that the developer would put the house back on the market for the sake of a few days delay - I took a long, hard look at the state of the house. There were a few small changes & niggles still outstanding but the one big issue remaining was the chimney in the second bedroom. This was an old brick chimney, not shown on the original plans, that had been encased & sealed but still intruded into the usable floor space. As I visualised the final layout of the bedroom it struck me that there was now no flat wall against which a bed could be positioned and that between the chimney and a protruding wall on the other side of the room (another 'unplanned' change) it would be a very tight squeeze to get a double bed in at all. I was intending to use this space as an office so I could probably cope (with a sofabed for visitors) but now I was wondering if this would affect the resale value should I decide to move again.
My email exchanges with the developer were becoming quite frosty at this point so I took my time when writing to him again. I explained that the latest estimate for contract exchange was the following Tuesday and asked him to let me know if this was or wasn't acceptable and, if not, to confirm that he was putting the house back on the market so I could cancel the money transfer. This was partly calling his bluff but also an attempt to be professional about the purchase and to be clear about what was real and what was bluster. I added that I had concerns about the bedroom and that if these could not be resolved then I would be reconsidering whether I should continue. Finally I suggested that we meet up at the site to sort everything out and see if we could come up with a solution that worked for both of us.
The reply said that next Monday would be fine for the exchange (sigh!) and that we could meet, with Nigel the architect, on Friday. Resisting the urge to (forcefully) point out that once again his answer hadn't matched my question I agreed to see them.
Friday came and the three of us met up in the shell of my (at some level it was still 'my') unit. I'd only met Jeremy (the developer) once before, back before I'd made my offer for the house, and I was a bit apprehensive after our recent email exchanges. However in person he was affable & friendly and seemed keen to sort things out rather than apportion blame. When faced with the offending chimney he agreed that it was a problem and then asked the obvious question - 'Why does it need to be here?'. The answer was so unexpected that I couldn't at first believe it.
It all boiled down to the local planning department. The original structure had a chimney there and so they had decreed that the new building must have one as well, even though the roof was now radically different and the chimney itself wouldn't connect to anything and would be purely decorative. They stuck by this decision when it had been appealed against and so the existing structure had to be kept to support the rooftop chimney stack.
However a compromise solution came out of this. As the chimney was only decorative a narrower design could be used, meaning the supporting structure only needed to be wide enough to support it. Half of the stack could be safely demolished & removed which, with a little adjustment of the plasterwork, would release enough floor space for a bed to be comfortably fitted in. Suddenly my office/bedroom felt usable again and the remaining issues returned to being niggles to be sorted out rather than huge barriers to the project as a whole. On an emotional level I was back on track.
It was as if the chimney issue had allowed everyone to project their anxieties onto an external 'bad guy' - I was the awkward customer, Jeremy was the rapacious developer, Nigel was the insensitive middle man. When the solution came we were all friends and things progressed swiftly & harmoniously - the remaining building issues were discussed & sorted there and then with compromise on both sides and a clear list of what was required by whom. My funds had (finally!) arrived in my account late the day before so I was able to transfer them to my solicitor straight after the meeting and within an hour or so I heard back that the contracts had been exchanged. I'd started the day wondering if I'd carry through with the purchase, now I was fully committed.