The following blog was written during the building of Larchwood.
The Highs and Lows of a House Build
Here I go, about to launch myself into the unknown, both from the point of view of creating a blog and of creating, hopefully, our dream home.
I’ve decided to write this blog, as much as anything, to keep a diary or record, of the ups and downs along the way as my family and I begin our adventure into the world of house building.
For anyone out there reading this, who cares to follow our journey, I’ll detail the decisions we have to make as the build progresses and if you’re thinking of doing something similar, then I hope that the decisions, issues we encounter, thought processes, tips, etc. may be of help.
Steve Osborne, of Osborne Developments, who we chose as the builder, was keen to build us a property based on a design he had used at a site nearby, but I had different ideas! He rolled his eyes to Heaven when I showed him a layout I had drawn of how I wanted the house to look. However, I stuck to my guns and working with one of his architects, Yemisi Idicula, who listened to our brief, we came up with the finished plan. Yemisi was brilliant. I’m not architect trained, but had a clear idea of what we wanted to achieve from the house and she translated my hand drawn efforts into reality. Paul, my husband, and I have the same taste in all matters property, so he was happy to leave the design up to me.
Steve and his business partner, Andy, liked what we came up with so much that they decided to use the ground floor plan for the house they were building behind ours.
Okay, it’s 9.00 am and there’s no sign of them. I’ve arrived, camera in hand, to take photos of the house as it’s demolished, but there are no demolition men on site. The place is deserted. What’s going on?!
We get a call from the builders. Sorry but it will be tomorrow. The tension/excitement, call it what you will, mounts.
That was Monday. Today is Tuesday. No sign of our demolition men. Another call to the builders. There’s a bit of a delay and they won’t be turning up for a couple of days. Seems we’re at the mercy of British Gas, who have to ensure that our supply is safely turned off before the building is torn down.
Going, Going, Gone!
The days slip by and then just as I’m beginning to wonder where I put my camera, some men appear with heavy duty trucks and equipment and we’re off!
Interestingly, I expected the house to be demolished from top to bottom, but as you can see from the photograph, the front section was sliced away first, rather like looking into a doll’s house.
It didn’t take someone long to help themselves to a lovely old urn that the builders had put to one side and which was going to be a focal point in the new garden design! It was extremely heavy, so I can only hope that whoever took it has done their back in!
Our budget didn’t allow for the brick we wanted. I drove to various parts of the country, looking at houses in different bricks. In the end, I kept coming back to the one we’d liked all along. It’s called Old Clamp Blend by the York Handmade Company.
So, decision made. Over budget already, even before we start! However, Paul and I agreed that the exterior is as important as the interior – it’s the first indication a person has, driving up to the house, of the quality of the build, so it has to be right. I can see I’m going to be my own worst client! Somewhere down the line I will have to come in under budget on other choices, to get back on track.
Off To A Good Start!
Looks like it’s going to be a good, solid build. Foundations are 1.8m deep. External brickwork will be 4” thick, with a 4” cavity and 6” thick internal blockwork. Engineering bricks are used in some areas, rather than concrete bricks, as they can take more load.
Rising Damp – I don’t think so!
Steve is taking no chances with the damp proofing course. The builders have put in 3 DPC’s at different levels, which is great news for us. It’s another indication of a good quality build.
Three steels have been erected, so we can now see how high the ground floor ceilings are going to be. The builders are also beginning to position the internal blockwork, delineating the layout of the rooms. The build is slowly starting to come alive!
Framework shows where the windows and doors will be and the bricks are laid around these, so that later on the actual windows and doors can be installed in these spaces.
Concrete slabs now laid, with SVP’s and drain pipes in position.
Had an update meeting on Friday, just before Andy left to go on holiday. Stone sills are just going in now. The staircase design still needs to be finalised and Andy said he’d get details drawings prepared so that we can get exact costings for the stone and balustrading.
I walked around the rooms with Paul, imagining the finished product. Funny how some days the space looks small and other days it looks much larger. We were told this would happen.
We went over to a show house this weekend, which is a little smaller than our build, but looked positively huge to us!
The fireplace in the hallway has posed an interesting dilemma. Because the house is on three storeys, we’ve been told by Osborne’s technical architect that on no account can we have a gas/open fire. We’ve been advised that our only option is to go for a glass-fronted firepace. I spoke to Yemisi, our architect, the borough council, and my main fireplace supplier for confirmation. Whilst it’s not illegal to install a gas fire, it would be inadvisable. A certain amount of time has to be allowed for anyone on the top floor to be able to vacate the house safely, in the event of a fire. So there it is. Having discussed it with Jon, our Project Manager, I’m going to have a word with Robert at Marble Hill fireplaces to find a suitably stylish solution.
We’ve Turned a Corner!
The quoins (corners of the building that stand out from the rest of the brickwork) are going up. Gary, the head brickie, spent an afternoon of his spare time, drawing out the design of the quoins, to ensure that long bricks met with short bricks and vice versa, as you can see from the photo.
Frame structures, showing where the windows will eventually go in, have been installed, so that brickwork can be erected around the framework, thus leaving the openings for the windows.
Scaling the Dizzy Heights
I recently took a fellow interior designer friend around the site and under Jon’s supervision we scaled the scaffolding and walked around the property, looking down into the rooms. Both internal and external walls are going up fast now. By the time we get back from our summer holiday, no doubt we’ll see a huge difference. The first floor will be in!
We’re on holiday! I’m sitting in the lounge of a hotel that has internet, so that I can access emails, etc. and find out what’s happening on site (sad really, I suppose, as I should be by the pool on a sun lounger, but I’m agog to see the latest pictures Jon has sent, one or two of which I’m attaching to this post.
According to Jon, “Gary has reached the top of the second lift and the first floor steels have been fitted. Gary was meticulous in the positioning of the padstones, the concred pads that the steels sit on. Where they normally allow a 10-20mm tolerance, they’re actually close to millimetre perfect on both height and lateral position. This will result in a very flat structural first floor, which isn’t necessarily critical, as the level is always corrected in the screed, but it’s better practice, as it avoids shallow areas in the screed, which could potentially lead to cracking”.
All the scaffolding has been lifted to within 750mm of first floor slab to avoid the fitters falling from a height. Osborne insisted that all the rooms were swept to allow for airbags to be inflated on the ground floor, to act as a fall arrest for the floor fitters.
A Job Well Done
I’d like to mention Gary here, our brickie foreman. A significant part of Gary’s job is to work out the exact positioning of the walls and instruct his bricklayers accordingly. He has to be one step ahead of his team all the time, ensuring that he knows the orientation of all the walls and opeings, heights of windows and doors, position of stonework, inclusion of damp trays and any other details pertinent to the build. He has to relay all this information to the bricklayers before they start to ensure that none of these details is missed.
At the same time, Gary has to keep productionmoving smoothly and quickly, because every bricklayer (or trowel as they’re referred to in brickie lingo) is expected to lay about 400 bricks or 200 blocks a day for a house of this size. So the more trowels on site, the more pressure Gary comes under to stay ahead. To quote Jon, “if mistakes are made, then time is lost rectifying them and if the momentum isn’t kept up, then Gary’s company wouldn’t earn a margin on the job and he’d be quickly replaced. Not an enviable position to be in”.
I’m happy to report that Gary is doing a fantastic job, aided and abetted by his team of trowels!
The internal walls on the ground floor are up, so we can walk around the rooms and imagine how they’re going to look when finished.
Bricks, Mortar … and Shortbread!
How do you ensure your builders tackle their work with gusto and do a top notch job? You bake them copious quantities of shortbread, flapjacks, triple chocolate muffins, carrot cake, lemon drizzle cake, Portuguese custard tarts …
The electricians were first through the door and are now most of the way through their first fix. I popped up to London to visit John Cullen in the King’s Road in London for some lighting inspiration. It’s a great showroom to visit, where you can see different scene settings and the staff are extremely helpful. I took away some samples to show the head electrician on our project. Choosing the right fittings and the positioning of them is key. One of my pet hates is seeing ‘runway’ lighting in ceilings. So many new builds seem to have this and it’s often overkill. Lighting should be there to create mood and drama, as well as provide good ambient and task lighting.
Two very good books I’ve pored over are The Lighting Bible and Perfect Lighting. Both contain great ideas and recipes for lighting different scenes and objects and they’re well illustrated.
Even choosing the right sockets and light switches has been important to me, as I wanted to find something elegant, that would stand the test of time and not look commercial. I’d prefer to go with screwless plates, but this would blow the budget, so will have to bit the bullet on that one!
The plumbers and carpenters are also working their way through now.
Externally, the house is looking good, but we are assured that there’s still a long way to go and things will only get busier. The majority of the brickwork is now completed and the timber roof structure is up. The roofers have insulated between the rafters and the breathable felt membrane has been fixed down with batten. This is an important stage to have reached for the builders, because we are now dry inside (hooray! – just looking out of the window, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much snow!). Work has therefore been able to commence internally.
Decisions, Decision, Decisions!
It’s been a month of decision making. With only block walls and concrete floors as a guide, it can be difficult to make choices so early on in the build, such as bathroom layouts in the roof, when you’re not quite sure what the angle of pitch is going to look like. It’s an endless balancing act, trying to achieve the highest quality in the overall product and design, against the inevitable cost that comes with it.
We’ve finally chosen our kitchen supplier, after having worked with two different companies on the project. It’s been a tough call between the two, as they’re both extremely good quality brands. Alex Beauregard, from Mark Wilkinson Kitchens, is my contact there and a designer with creative flair, who I’ve known for a while. Alex knew that it has always been a dream of mine to own one of their kitchens. At the end of the day, however, we decided to go with Extreme Design and my contact, Jamie Harding, as logistically it was more practical (Steve Osborne is using Extreme Design for the house build behind ours). I’d given both Alex and Jamie the same brief, so the designs were more or less identical – I’m going for a ‘New England’ look, which I hope will prove both timeless and appropriate in either a modern or more traditional setting. As a passionate cook, the appliances were as important to me to get right as the kitchen furniture itself and I’ve opted for Sub-Zero and Wolf appliances. I’ll make a decision on the steam oven later on. As well as looking beautiful, the kitchen will be a real work horse, so investing in some heavy duty appliances will pay off in the long run.
Other decisions now made include external doors and windows (although the front door supplier has not yet been chosen), which should be installed in January, the audio visual specification (we’ll get services installed for certain elements we can’t afford to do at the moment, but may want to do later, finances permitting) and I’m currently trying to bring our sanitaryware quote down to within budget, which isn’t proving easy as the products I like always seem to be too expensive!! But I’m determined!
Staircase to Heaven?
You may think I have ideas above my station, but I’d always wanted a beautiful stone, winding staircase, with metal balustrading and slender Georgian-style handrail. And so that’s what we’re trying to achieve, although it will be no mean feat if we manage to do it on budget. The staircase up to the second floor will be in wood, but with the same balustrading to continue the theme through and link both together visually.
At the moment, a wooden structure has been erected, onto which concrete will be pured to form the stairs and this will then be clad in stone. Having visited a show house built by another local and very well known property developer in the area, I’m concerned that because some of the steps will be curved, the stone will have to be cut to fit and the way the developer had done it in the show house looked really ugly. I have voiced my worry to Andy, but he is confident that our stone supplier will do a good job and that the joins will not be visible. I use the same supplier and they are very good, but nonetheless, will be keeping a close eye on what’s going on!
I visit site on an almost daily basis and every day there’s a little more to look at. With Christmas almost upon us, it feels like such a long time ago that we were decorating our tree in a house that doesn’t exist anymore!
Paul and I drove to Newport Pagnell between Christmas and New Year and met up with Tim Hutchinson, who runs the UK division of V-Zug, a Swiss company that manufactures high quality kitchen appliances. The company has only recently come over to the UK, but I think it’s going to be very successful, if the quality of the products is anything to go by. We wanted to look at their steam ovens and coffee makers. The ovens range from a simple steam to combination and the company’s Combi-Steam XSL has a large 51 litre cooking volume, much larger than the Miele.
I’m waiting for Tim to get back to me with prices, but am concerned that it may be too deep to fit into the space Jamie’s earmarked for the steam oven (it needs a depth of 55omm, whilst the Miele sits in a 350mm niche). It may well be that we end up going with the Miele, which I’ll still be very happy about as it’s a great product.
Snow Stops Play
We had hoped that the tiles would go on before Christmas, but the chimneys needed to be built first and due to the extremely cold weather, this wasn’t possible as the cement wouldn’t set.
This week, however, the boys have been busy and the chimneys are almost up. Jon says they’re hoping to finish them by the beginning of this coming week. The work includes the brickwork cobel detail and band of stone at the top. Once the stonework is finished, they’ll be putting the chimney pots on and creating a concrete flaunch above the stone. They are, of course, heavily dependent on a clear day’s weather for this to happen. Once the scaffolding around the chimneys is truck, they will then be able to start slating the roof.
Windows to the World
Not such good news to report. The company that the builders are using was supposed to deliver the windows and external doors at the end of January. This got delayed until 4th February and we are now being told they don’t know when they can deliver. Think we’re going to have to ask the builders to put a bit of pressure on the company for a date, as it could put the build behind schedule. Jon says they’ll have to push other activities hard to make back the time.
After having looked at hundreds of different styles, we’re going for Georgian-style sash windows and were keen that there be three, rather than four panes across each window. The height of the windows on the ground floor are typically much taller than those on the first floor and where the number of vertical panes weren’t equal, we then had to decide where the bottom edge of the top sash windows would appear. We opted for more vertical panes showing on the bottom sash windows.
As a general rule, the builders usually plaster from the top floor downwards. There will sometimes be good reasons to work in a different order, but this is likely to be the way they do it on our build. Clive and his team of plasterers are eager to start tacking, skimming, and plastering the walls and ceilings as soon as possible. Unfortunately, however, the windows need to be installed first!
First Fix Finished (Almost!)
We’re now approaching the end of the first fix. The electricians are doing their final sweep through the house, the carpenters only hae a few days left and the plumbers have pressure-tested all their pipework. They carry out two pressure tests – after capping off the pipes, they pump up the pressure of the air inside the pipework and then monitor the pressure to see it it holds. If it doesn’t, they locate the points at which the air is escaping and rectify the leak. Once they have carried out the air pressure test, they fill all the pipes with water and keep the system on test, checking that it holds for a number of days. They can then be confident that there are no leaks in the system.
Scaffolding around the chimneys now struck and we are able to see them clearly from the ground. The combination of the brickwork corbel details designed by the architect and the handmade Old Clamp brick looks really good. Thought went into the style of chimney pot and the stone band around the top, resulting in chimneys that match perfectly with the house.
The roof tillers have begun fixing the slates. They started with the garage and will be continuing on to the main roof next week. They now have a clear run and are eager to finish the slating in one hit.
Inside the house, we spent the week ensuring everything is where it should be before the plasterers begin. First fix on the top floor is complete and the plasterers have started to fit all the rigid insultation to the underside of the rafters. They are also fitting the metal framed sacrificial ceiling on all floors. Tacking and plastering won’t begin until we are confident that the roof is dry and we are safe from the elements.
My heart missed a beat the other day when I walked into the kithen to find that the studwork that had just been built to house the refrigerator and larder, was not where it was supposed to be! I was faced with a brick wall when I tried to enter the larder! Due to a misunderstanding, Jamie had taken his measurements from the ties in the blockwork and hadn’t checked the plan for the correct positioning, so the larder was farther back than it should have been. Poor Paul, who had just finished the work, had to redo it, but I’m happy to report that it now looks fab! Disaster averted – in the nick of time!
There are still electricians and carpenters completing the first fix on the floors below and once done, we will ensure that all sockets, switches, and lighting are where we want them to be.
The staircase will be finished and poured very soon. At the moment, the staircase is covered in all the timber shuttering, so it is difficult to get an overall feel for the actual size and shape of it. Once the timber is struck out, we can begin to finalise the detail on the cladding, balustrading, and handrail.
Jon said that the home-made chocolate muffins handed out to the trades midway through the week were a welcome sight and a highlight for those having to work in close to freeing temperatures all winter long!
The slating on the roof went well this week. Despite rain, wind and low termperatures, the roof tillers made better progress than we were expecting. The majority of the slates are now fixed. Once they are all on, the hips and ridge tiles will be fitted and pointed in.
The boys have also been working on the gable at the front of the property. The brickwork is up to height, ready to carry the large stone copings. Due to the weight and design of these stones, the builders asked for input from the structural engineer as to how they should be fixing the stone in place. He has specified a number of different straps and reinforcement, from the stone through the brickwork and blockwork, fixing into the second floor slab. They will be working on the stone to the gable next week.
They have also finished pouring the concrete to the primary staircase and we now have a feel for the size and how it will eventually look.
The metal grid on the ceilings is ongoing and all the first fix is complete, barring a few areas the builders are awaiting information on, namely kitchen and bathrooms.
Looks like the roof is doing its job and keeping the rain out, so the plasterers have the go-ahead to start tacking on the second floor during the early part of next week.
On Target (Builders and Me!)
The stone pediment to the front gable is complete. It was a challenge to install, due to the weight of each individual section, the height at which the stonemason was working, and also the amount of reinforcement and strapping necessary to secure the units in place. Now the roofers will be able to continue the tiling and will be working on this next week.
The plasterers are under way on the top floor, tracking the ceilings and dwarf walls. They will be plastering walls and skimming the plasterboard during the arly part of next week. They’re expected to be on the top floor for a couple of weeks, before they move down to the floor below.
We were disappointed to discover that the windows, originaly due to be delivered today will now be arriving a week late. The manufacturers have had some trouble with their production line. Thankfully, losing a week is a manageable delay (or so Jon reliably informs us!) and the builders should be able to cope. Osborne Developments has a long standing relationship with the company and are confident about the high quality of the product. We shall see!