Trouble Building

    21 June 2014

    On the first-floor landing of my new house stood Martin the structural engineer, giving an inch-wide crack the sort of look one adult gives another’s wayward child. His eye ran up the crack to the point where it met a sagging beam and he sighed but still said nothing. Silently we trooped upstairs. Out of a bedroom window, garden-side, Martin and I looked down the wall at three storeys of sooted brick, not straight but gently rippling. Martin unbent back into the room, faced me and cleared his throat: ‘Well, I would advise you not to buy this one. It’s falling down.’ I said: ‘But Martin, I’ve bought it. You know that. There’s nothing I can do now.’

    ‘Yes,’ said Martin sadly, ‘I know.’

    And so a house in Islington I’d snapped up greedily, imagining it to be a great bargain, turned into a year-long headache. What I’d hoped would be a paint job turned into major surgery: stripping back plaster and stapling together cracks (nothing I don’t know about ‘helifix bars’); pinning the wall to the wooden joists, inserting steel.

    These days I feel like an American with no health insurance and a child requiring expensive care: another £6,000? Are you sure? Oh. OK. But the curious thing is that I don’t resent the house. Perversely, the more work we do on her, the more her broken bones are exposed and pinned and re-set, the more affectionate and protective I feel. My husband wisely said one day as we walked towards the site: ‘Please don’t personalise the house, sweetheart, it’ll drive us both mad. What if we need to sell it?’

    ‘Not it, she,’ I said, with a venomous look. ‘And we’re never selling her.’

    I have become, I think a victim of what behavioural economists call the sunk-cost fallacy: I’ve come so far now, meaning spent so much, that the only way seems to be forward. It’s far too late to admit defeat. Though sunk, I can at least offer the unsunk advice: spare no expense on the survey, get a structural engineer round to cast his eye before you buy. That way at least you know what lies ahead.

    And don’t assume, as I did, that they necessarily built things better in the old days. Perhaps that’s true in Kensington and Mayfair, but remember who lived in Hackney or Walthamstow when the house you love was built. Hard-working tradesmen, doctors, nurses — not the sort to stand over builders and crack the whip.

    My saintly, patient and brilliant head builder, Artur, chipped the plaster from that sagging beam to find what should have been solid wood was a botch-job made up of planks and rubble. It was like a time capsule, left behind in 1860. You could hear, quite clearly, the back-then builder say: ‘Rats. Those beams have arrived one short. Never mind, no one’s looking: let’s just chuck in this plank instead then plaster it up. No one will ever know.’ At times, as Artur worked through the house, it felt as if it’d been booby-trapped, designed to collapse on cue in 2014: beams just at snapping point, bricks crumbling away.

    Perhaps you’d have thought that, having screwed up once, I wouldn’t have made another blunder. Well I did. I decided far too late in the day to add on an expensive extension. I decided on it long after the builders had started work and just when everyone thought the end might soon be in sight. It has meant many months of stress and a wholly unnecessary race against time. Why did I do it? The trouble was that sunk-cost fallacy again. Having spent so much on repairs I thought: sod it — I’m in debt now anyway and the builders are all here and I’m getting used to rubble. Also there was Jack.

    My brother, much beloved, is a man of taste and judg-ment, learned as a monk. On his first visit, I watched him closely for signs of approval. The sitting room? ‘Much as you’d expect from early Victorian,’  he murmured. The lower ground floor? In what I’d thought of as a comforting gloom, my brother blanched and made a dash for the French doors leading into the garden. Once safely outside he said: ‘God it’s dark in there. I do like that nice rosemary bush, though.’ In that moment, the notion of a glass extension was born. We lay on the fox-scented lawn, my brother and I, and agreed that however painful, it needed doing. In for a penny, in for another 70,000 pounds.

    Oh poor Artur, poor patient husband, poor bewildered neighbours. As I write, my beloved house is in a very curious state. Her top half is primped and ready, all shelved and painted in Dulux’s cheap equivalent of Farrow and Ball. The bottom half looks like the first world war. From the garden looking back, there are men waist-deep in trenches, digging through north London’s heavy clay, making holes to pour the concrete to fit the steel to frame the glass required to let light in. And as we knock about below, so cracks appear in poor Artur’s careful finishes upstairs. It’s not the right way to proceed, and I hope at least someone learns from my mistakes, which is not to say that I regret it. I don’t. I’m too far gone for that.

    So make major decisions before you begin work, decide what you want and then stick to your guns. This includes decorating decisions too. For instance, when your helpful builder shows you a sample of some horrid laminate floor and says, ‘Boss, what about this, I can get it cheap?’, don’t say, ‘Oh yes Artur, that’s lovely, thank you’, then backtrack later on email. That is the coward’s way and it’s confusing and unfair.

    Instead: conquer your fear of hurting feelings and tell everyone what you want outright, which if you’re me is a wooden floor from the Clerkenwell-based Reclaimed Flooring Company. It took me months to find a decent floor. Element 7 were too expensive, Homebase too cheap, and though I wanted wood, most of it reminded me dismally of school assembly; the way a bare, crossed leg unpeels from varnish on a sticky day.

    RFC’s driftwood weathered grey is now my pride and joy — engineered boards, wide. Just as soon as I can, when the glass is in place and the steel sunk, I’ll order another batch for downstairs.


    Pick the right team for the job
    Choose a company that has done similar work in nearby locations and will be sensitive to the requirements. Visit a couple of sites, at least one where they’re actually working on site

    Make sure of your party walls
    Don’t economise on party wall agreements. Check out your own party wall surveyor before letting them loose on your neighbours. Disagreements can be expensive.

    Take your time
    It is never a waste of time poring over ideas, plans and costings. Changes of mind can be expensive and prolong the time frame.

    Too good to be true
    Beware of the cheapest quote. Either you will get a cheap job, or they will stack on ‘unforeseen extras’.

    Check the credentials
    Call up some clients for personal recommendations. Don’t just rely on your neighbour’s advice. And make sure your contractor is solvent.
    Start early
    Bring in your building company at the very beginning. They are likely to know as much about the property as the architect — and their advice can save you time and money.

    — John Thursfield, managing director of Broseley London.