Saturday, June 25, 2011


Another week's gone by and nothing much has happened that you'd notice, though the impending demolition site is freaking me out so I've taken to fussing over the cubby house - it's even got a carpet inside now - there's only the shade of paint left to decide on.

We've commissioned a structural engineer (another £795 since you ask). We know from bitter experience that knocking out supporting walls requires a structural report (we didn't know that last time and were asked for one by the man from Building Control halfway through the project). The report tells you how much steel to use and where to put it.

We've also chosen a builder - he starts in August -and the kitchen company have more or less finalised our design, which wasn't what we originally had in mind when we visted Wickes and Benchmarx, but I guess that's why you go to a proper kitchen designer - so he can rip the Wickes design to shreds and come up with something much better. The kitchen will be oak, painted in a Farrow and Ball grey and featuring a big granite-topped island for cooking and sitting at. That's as much as I can remember.

And then there's the front door, which is still locked closed and has produced much belly aching and hand wringing until we finally came up with the goods. The problem is, I like 1930's houses - you know, leaded glass doors, mosiac tiled floors. This 1960's house just can't take the sort of doors and floors I've always hankered after so we've had to find a compromise, though we weren't expecting to make those sorts of decisions just yet. The new door arrives by courier on Monday, which is far sooner than the company advertised and due in no small part to my pleading down the telephone that I couldn't get out of the door. For all I know, the door company think I'm actually locked in the house. Anyway, the new door is solid oak - contemporary in design but with clear glass rather than that opaque stuff they insist on fitting to the engineered wood versions - finding a door with clear glass was the main cause of the belly aching all week.

The door is due to be flanked by leaded glass side panels at a later date - possibly with a tiny bit of stained blue glass depending on how maverick I'm feeling on the day. I know it's not a 1930's house but there's nothing wrong with a bit of good taste, is there?

Friday, June 17, 2011

Locked Out

Despite not knowing the men with the cubby house were turning up, I'm glad they did because they were still hammering it together when I left to collect Ella from school. Thinking I'd better tell them where I was going, I left by the back door and took the back door key, something I don't usually do.

Anyway, when we got back, I couldn't get in the front door - the key was spinning in the barrel, kids in the car, cubby house men on the front lawn waiting for their payment. Thank god for that back door key. I had a locksmith out within half an hour, who charged me £20 to tell me it was 'buggered' and I'd need a whole new door.

Dr B's away watching the test match in Southampton. I phoned him - he'd been drinking with his mates.

'How's your day?'

'The men turned up with the cubby house and wanted cash on delivery but I didn't know it was being delivered. The front door is 'buggered' - can't get the key in. Locksmith just left. Tomorrow is Alex's birthday and I haven't even written her card. Ella wants to go to dance class but I'm too stressed out to take her. Since you ask.'

'Only two hours play here. Rained most of the afternoon.'

Project Cubby House

I wouldn't say Dr B is one for DIY, especially not 'outside' DIY involving sharp sand and other really boring products that come in polythene bags. I was desperate for a wooden playhouse in the last house (yes, me, not the kids) but I knew we'd be moving on and didn't want the hassle of taking it apart so it's waited until now. We had a huge corner of the garden hidden behind a crab apple tree that had seen better days, so Dr B lopped the tree and cleared the bushes and...called his brother.

The patio took them three days to construct and was formed partly from flags donated by my friend Jo, who was ripping hers up. In return I'm donating our old plastic playhouse for her son - perfect example of freecycling, I'd say.

The playhouse arrived today - we bought it on e-bay but couldn't pin the seller down to confirm delivery so I was a bit taken aback when it arrived this afternoon and even more taken aback when they expected cash on delivery, which they didn't get. The girls seem to like it. And I see a perfect getaway from the builders.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Brick Matching

So the planning permission was granted. Of course, these things are never as simple as they sound and planning permission rarely comes without conditions attached; you must start the project within three years, you can't add any windows at the side - that sort of thing.

In our case, there's a condition about the bricks. We can't start the project until the planning officer is satisfied with the brick match for the front elevations, which presumably means we have to go into the planning office and show him the actual bricks we'll be using. We could always recycle the ones from the garage - there's enough of them - but the cleaning and removing of mortar will cost more than it would cost to source new ones.

I was home today when the brick matching man came to look at the house. He'd been sent by Carl the builder, who was sitting at our table last night firming up the finer details before we decided to commission him. We e-mailed him to offer the contract this morning and within two hours he had the brick man round. The brick man's called Aiden and he spents his life identifying the differences between buffs and greys, reds and browns. In our case, it's a purple.

'They're a bugger to match,' he comments. 'Give me an older house any day - anything less than fifty years old and the bricks will be discontinued. In your case you have one choice - I'll bring you a smple board and hopefully you'll like them.'

'One choice. Is that an actual choice?'

'Well, you know what I mean.'

Monday, June 13, 2011

Elevations - The Rear

And then there's the back. Yes, it's WIDE isn't it? That was the first thing I said to the architect when he drew the plans, but the house at the back can't see it and I've got used to it now.

You'll notice the side extension is slightly lower at roof height - this is purely to satisfy the planners, as you know. Of course they wanted us to abandon the side extension and build across the back.

The floor to ceiling windows will actually be bi-fold doors (we think). The far left hand window is a playroom off the family room.

We were mulling the plans over last night and I noticed we won't be able to ventilate this room if it's raining - velux windows and bi-fold doors offering no shelter from the rain at all. there's a sliding patio door round the corner that you can't see on the plans - same problem.

Haven't found solution yet but we will.

Elevation - The front

Now we have planning permission, I can show you how the house is going to look. The huge amount of potential space for a side extension is probably now apparent - imagine if we'd built to the planner's suggestion of knocking down the porch instead....

From the front you'll notice the cedar wood cladding removed and replaced with smooth render. The windows are replaced, the garage is demolished and rebuilt as a longer and wider structure with that highly contentious first floor extension jutting out by a metre above it (the two windows there are bathrooms). The porch is re-glazed and has a new pitched roof and oak door. There's also only one chimney stack where currently there are two.

The garage door won't look like that - it will be smooth and operated by remote control - have glorious visions of self driving into it during snowstorms and entering house through the utility room, where muddy boots can be deposited...

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Our Kitchens

I've probably never shown you the difference between the house we left and the house we bought. The kitchen illustrates our pain. We built that kitchen ourselves, so we know we can do it again, but like the damp-proofing, I've largely forgotten the pain.

Our lovely fridge wouldn't fit into the new kitchen so it's been relegated to the garage. The beer fridge from the garage is now standing in pride of place in the kitchen. That's not the law of nature is it?

I don't know how old that dishwasher is but we also inherited the manual, which depicted a lady with a bee-hive hairdo displaying her finest earthenware goods. They apparently only used it at Christmas, which means it saw 11 years use in the first fortnight we were in the house. After that it died and we got a new one from e-bay for £6. The new one belonged to a Chinese bloke who was emigrating to Australia. He'd managed to melt the side of the dishwasher on his cooker until it looked like Freddie Kruger's favorite kitchen appliance. That's why it was £6.

Our loss is Australia's gain.

Aerial View

This is how we currently channel our TV pictures - it's an attractive feature of the windowledge in the main bedroom. I think Noah built it with the left over wiring from his ark. The original owner of our house was an engineer - we find his stamp all over the place.

Damp Proofed

I neglected to mention our damp-proofing, probably because it happened four days after we moved into the house and I didn't have an internet connection, let alone a blog.

On reflection, it wasn't the wisest move when you've just moved house. Damp proofing is a messy job - we'd done it in our old house 13 years previously but 13 years is long enough to numb the pain. This is the 'dining room' by the way. We don't use it as a dining room, we eat in a corner of the sitting room because the kids have colonised it. One day soon it will be a study, and a dry one at that.

On reflection, it

New Loo

Our friend Steven refurbished the downstairs loo while we were away on holiday. You can probably make out the new water connection in the first photograph - £795 thank you very much - and the water meter disappeared into the garage.

At last - one room is finished - gorgeous isn't it? He's done a brilliant job and I could happily lock myself in there now and pretend the rest of the house wasn't happening. There's a slight problem with the cistern, which isn't attached to the wall and is still wobbling 12 hours later. Apparently these new toilets don't sit flush to the wall - all the Europeans are doing it, which presumably means they're all balanced precariously on the edge of their seats. Anyway, we're not European - we're British, and we Brits require more stable toilet arrangements than your averge Italian, so we'll have to find a solution. Until then, I'm not sitting on it.

As an added bonus, I notice the council has replaced the street lights while we've been away, which is ironic since I jokingly mentioned them to the planning officer as he was leaving last Thursday and asked whether the council might ever consider replacing them. The old one shone into our bedroom, the new one shines down onto the pavement, which is far more useful. I'm certain he had nothing to do with it - but it's the cherry on the cake.

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Longest Week

I knew that our project would have its ups and downs, but the last week has been unbelievable.

It began last Wednesday. We were a week away from a decision on our planning permission and we still hadn't had a site visit from the officer in charge. Dr B telephoned the planning department to explain we were about to go away on holiday and would be away during the decision date and enquired whether they might like to come and have a look while we were still available to let them into the house.

The planning officer said he'd probably come out with the council tree officer. Dr B referred to the tree survey - the officer admitted he'd never read it. You heard that right - he'd never read it. He'd set the project back 8 weeks, he'd consulted our neighbours about its contents but he'd never actually read it himself.

I could have cheerfully wrung his neck, but mindful of the need to 'keep him sweet', we arranged for him to come and have a look on Thursday morning - which was bad timing as Ella had a friend over to play for the morning, which meant I had to bribe them with chocolate to keep them quiet.

So the officer turns up with his tree man. I asked him why he'd brought the tree officer and he said he didn't always believe what was written in tree surveys. By now, my blood was boiling but I was still managing to smile and keep my hands from around his neck. He stood in the back garden with his clipboard and pointed out all of the other things we could have done rather than extend over the garage, which is odd when you see the amount of space over the garage just dying for an extension and the space across the back of the house that we really don't need to enlarge.

The tree officer advised that the trees were no problem - but we already knew that. The planning officer climbed onto the coal bunker to look at the neighbour's garden, which wasn't quite as close to our house as he'd previously thought - the neighbour's house being slightly higher up than ours, which he'd failed to appreciate despite us telling him on the phone. And then he came into the house.

Now bear in mind, this guy is employed to interpret plans - we're standing at the window of bedroom 3 and I'm showing him the view over the house backing onto our western boundary - the house you can't actually see because of the trees but who's owner has objected to our plans on the grounds we might be overlooking him. And this planning officer is continuing to tell me what else we might do once he's refused the planning permission (which I've pinned him down on - yes, he's going to refuse it) and yet despite this, he insists he's standing in bedroom 2 and he argues the toss quite vehemently until I'm forced to virtually drag him onto the landing and show him he's wrong, at which point he concedes he's mistaken.

And this goes on for quite some time, with him waxing lyrical about how we could knock down our porch and create a useless bedroom on the front lawn. Anything rather than extend over the garage. I gave up in the end. 'We'll have to beg to differ,' I said. 'We'll run with these plans - you can refuse them - we'll appeal.'

'An appeal takes eight weeks,' he says. 'If you just amend the plans as I'm suggesting, it will be much quicker.'

'But I don't like your suggestions. They are nothing like the plans we submitted. And anyway, a resubmission will take another 8 weeks so we might as well go for what we really want.'

'I could rush your plans through,' he says. 'It shouldn't be the way, but it's a case of he who shouts loudest. And I've never lost a case at appeal.'

Now this is odd, because I'm pretty sure our architect has told us that he was locked in a planning appeal with this particular planning officer not so long ago, and the appeal was allowed. I'm also lost for words that he's being so unprofessional as to trot out 'he who shouts loudest' to a punter. And what with him admitting not having read the tree survey, (which was never made available to view with our plans, as it ought to have been) and not believing tree surveys anyway, I'm starting to build quite a portfolio against the way this case has been handled.

'We'll go to appeal.'

'Well perhaps you can build over the garage afterall,' he says. The council don't like appeals - they cost time and money to administer and they are supposed to explore every other avenue rather than allow things to get that far. They are supposed to offer amendments to your plans - which is what this man thinks he's doing.

'So we can build the width and the height?'

'Yes but you need to set it back from the front elevation.'

'If we do that, we can't fit the bathrooms in.'

'I'll refuse it if you don't set it back.'

'On what grounds?'

'It would be detrimental to the street scene and to the original dwelling.

Now at this point I'm laughing because the existing house is so ugly that there's nothing you could do that would make it look any worse. And the neighbouring houses are set forward in the same way, which I point out, but he says is irrelevant because they haven't been extended.

'Ring me on Monday,' he says as he leaves. I rang a local councillor instead. I drove around the estate taking photographs of similar extensions and photographs of our 'street scene' and emailed them to myself for safe keeping. And then we went to Center Parcs.

Now I don't know whether you've been to Center Parcs at Longleat, but it's very hilly and very woody and as you can imagine, there's no mobile phone signal. Fortunately there's Wi-Fi internet connection and luckier still, we'd taken a laptop, so I was able to communicate with this councillor and our architect via e-mail, which I did every night for a week.

The councillor listened to our woes and asked for a resume of events over the last 16 weeks (planning permission taking 8 weeks, as you know). I supplied the resume. I also emailed the planning officer and his manager, the head of planning, attaching relevant photographs and arguing the case for our planning permission being allowed.

The head of planning emailed the councillor. The councillor asked for the decision to be suspended pending some sort of investigation, or else that the application be 'called in' and presented before the committee, at which I would have to present the case myself. The architect was steadfast - we were set for an appeal.

The decision date came and went. We continued to play mini-bowling and slide down the rapids and pretend all was well but my stress levels were through the roof. The planning officer still hadn't written his report and therefore hadn't made a recommendation. He'd read my email but it hadn't changed his views - he still planned to refuse it, but the head of planning was on leave and he'd been told to hang fire. Two more days went by.

We drove home from Center Parcs three days after the decision had been due, cheking our emails all along the motorway, chewing lips, wondering what was happening. Half an hour after we arrived, we received an email from the head of planning. They were approving our plans. They didn't like them but they would approve them.

Victory. Onwards!