Building The Dream, Chapter 5: What a Facade!

Creating a ‘Self Build’ home for our family

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We are giddy with excitement! It has been such a good month (on balance!), so I am pleased to say we are set for a rather chirpier post than usual. Yippee!

Let’s talk wood.

The thing that had sold the plot of land to us was the fact that there was already planning permission in place for a rather awesome 6 bedroom dwelling. Each of the 14 plots at this soon-to-be demolished, closed down garden center site, had a very different design, which had been fully approved by the planning office. So we chose our plot based not only on its position on the site, its size and value, but also based on the particular house design it had been allocated, which (subject to some non-material amendments we could apply for later, in order to tweak internal layouts and some of the external features of the design), we thought was about as close to perfect as it could get for us, without us having had any prior input.

One of the things we loved most about our particular design from an external point of view, was the main impressive glazed, oak framed, double fronted elevation and the fact it was a little less rectangular and barn-like than some of the others. The CGIs and suggested floor plans of each house design were a genius way of the developer selling the plots, giving prospective purchasers the vision they needed to see the potential and making them so much more appealing as building sites. It was apparent from our CGI and the rest of the drawings, that what had been designed and approved was very different to your average, typical new build style property, but that the proposed dwelling oozed character, luxury and charm and this rural development of just a few large detached properties would be exclusive, unique and full of variety. It was the next best thing to our original dream of a private tree-lined country road with no neighbours for miles, which we had finally accepted would not be achievable without a lottery win.

The computer illustration depicted the most beautiful, chunky oak framed gables to the front, with vaulted ceilings to the first floor, wraparound glazing all the way to the tip of the apex and an abundance of oak cladding to the sides and rear, which we were sure would be the features to set the house apart from anything else we could have bought for our budget and would work perfectly with the countryside surroundings we adore so much. We fell in love with the whole idea of it and couldn’t wait to bring it to life.

The architect recommended to us for this, as mentioned in an earlier chapter, can only be described as positively bloody useless.

It turned out this was easier said than done, as we discovered that the architect who had designed these very aesthetically beautiful, luxury houses, did not seem to have remotely considered or put any thought whatsoever into the actual practical/construction-related aspects of the design. It was purely a ‘visual’ for the purpose of creating romance, drawing us in and selling the plots, which had worked like a charm, of course. But it was now our responsibility to have technical drawings completed and all of these marvelous ideas priced up to be executed. Yikes!

The architect recommended to us for this, as mentioned in an earlier chapter, can only be described as ‘positively bloody useless’. There was a big lesson learned here. However, our structural engineer (who we’d had no idea we would also require!) was worth his weight in gold and luckily for us, helped to re-work the design into something that was structurally possible to build…and would stay standing! He guided us with regards to the roof in particular, which was a nightmare beyond belief. The catslide section to one of the rear ensuite bathrooms didn’t even allow enough head height to stand up in the shower or for a gentleman to stand at the toilet, and required additional support in the form of an oak post to even remain erect, but BOTH architects had failed to spot (or at least highlight) this, amongst many other issues with door sizing, built in wardrobes not working with the roof design, the garage being backwards, to name a few. But with numerous alterations along with the rest of our preference-driven non-material amendments to the original planning permission, we have been able to make it work and this has been especially vital with regards to the oak façade. Matching up two gigantic oak framed gable ends, which had been fabricated in a workshop by one (amazing) group of tradesmen, to a roof very poorly fitted by a separate group of seriously incompetent carpenters, would not be the easiest experience of our lives!

But wow, was it worth the perseverance.

Sometimes, a supplier comes along that blows my mind (in a good way) and Norton Timber is one of those. From the moment we first spoke, I knew they had the passion, creativity and skill to help us pull off this absolutely key part of the design for our new home.

We had met with a couple of other prospective oak frame suppliers and installers to discuss this aspect of the works, and I was starting to wonder if our vision was even possible. One guy literally laughed in my face when I explained that I didn’t want perfectly sawn, fresh-out-of-the-factory-looking, clean bits of Ikea-style timber that had no character or charm and I showed him pictures of my desired, weathered, ‘authentic’ aesthetic (aka green oak, we now realise), which had clearly been achieved elsewhere somehow, despite its shrinking/expanding properties, so surely it could be done??

Don’t these people realise it’s often the wife who makes these calls and not necessarily the husband who has all the cash and calls the shots or has the creative eye?

He replied with a patronising laugh, ‘Well if you want me to drag out some dirty bits, I can do that, yeah, if you want it to look like old shit and fall apart’……..along with an eye roll to my husband, followed by talking straight through me as though I was invisible for the remainder of the meeting. I took that as a no. He only offered air dried oak – apparently.

Needless to say, we didn’t call him back. I was determined that I would not be treated like a lunatic with unrealistic expectations just because I wanted this to be perfect, am a woman without a building background and because the people we were talking to appeared to lack the vision, knowledge, versatility, competence and creativity to deliver on our brief, and instead just spoke to me like I was an idiot and insisted the version I wanted wasn’t achievable. A quick lesson in how NOT to get money from us. Don’t these people realise it’s often the wife who makes these calls and not necessarily the husband who has all the cash and calls the shots or has the creative eye? I think it’s about time some of them learnt to address their clients of both genders as equal decision makers, if they are looking to win the contract!

I knew someone out there could do this how we wanted and would respect both of us and our requests, and we were not going to settle for anything less, especially at a cost in excess of £45,000 for this single element of the build, which we had naïvely not even originally factored into the budget, along with lots of other things! Whoops.

A chance phone call to someone advertising in a fancy, shiny local home improvements magazine lead to the recommendation of Terry Norton of Norton Timber. They seemed adamant he was the man for the job, based on the description of my requirements. I have a habit of summing up any company by their website and their brand, within minutes, seconds even, and I stand by this. In my opinion, your website is your first and only chance to impress and make an impact on your potential clients as a business of any kind. If you cannot demonstrate your professionalism, signature style and portfolio of previous work effectively, using this remarkable, unlimited tool, then what hope could you have of successfully delivering such attention to detail in a job as huge and intricate as this? Or any kind of job for that matter! As soon as I saw Norton Timber’s website, I knew they were right for us.

 

The images were exactly what I had been trying to describe to the other [insert rude word here] and the description of their ethos and approach to their service delivery jumped out at me immediately. I knew someone existed! I had appreciated it was obviously a fairly niche, artisan offering, but knew I couldn’t have been the only one in the world with such ‘specific’ taste! We had found them, and it was non-negotiable that we have Norton Timber provide us with our oak façade, so I called Dan immediately to tell him who we would be using (he didn’t even have a choice in the matter!), before we had even spoken to Terry on the phone. I remember feeling so satisfied.

Norton Timber continued to impress to the point that it made me quite emotional! The passion and care that went into crafting these solid oak pieces for our future home by Terry and his whole wonderful team was like nothing I had ever witnessed before. They worked closely with our structural engineer before we had even committed, to ensure that everything would work together seamlessly and hold up, structurally. There was so much time invested and Terry and his team’s extensive knowledge and expertise of their craft were plain to see. They just got it from the start and even corrected the mistakes of our previous chippies on the roof structure for us. I can’t tell you how incredibly relieving it is to wholeheartedly trust those responsible for helping to make your dreams come true and know that you can just sit back, relax and rely on them to do wonderful things. It was a pleasure to watch them at work.

Terry invited our family to his workshop near Dover when the oak was delivered, and I think this is where everything started to truly come to life and sink in for us. This was such a special experience and one I will never ever forget. Even just the fact that Terry suggested this, was incredible and a testament to his passion for what he does and his personal, bespoke approach. It was so precious to share this with the kids and have them see parts of our home start to take shape in such a magical way. We had never seen chunks of oak like it!!! The apex window frame for our 6 year old’s bedroom was a sight to behold and the mammoth window sills were like entire trees, which I couldn’t stop stroking! It was all just phenomenal and we were completely awe-struck and overcome with emotion at the sight of it all. I couldn’t believe that this was ours and would soon be part of the building where we will continue to raise our little tribe, watch them grow and cook Sunday roasts for our grandchildren one day. Our forever home.

The day we watched a 40 tonne crane lift the oak onto the front of the rest of the brick built construction, was probably the single most exciting day of our lives since we got married! We both booked the day off work especially and it was an utter privilege to see it all take place. The oak arrived onsite in segments like a giant Meccano set and we watched from the garage roof in disbelief as each section was painstakingly built together and lifted through the sky before being lowered down precariously into its slot, between scaffolding and brick. The doorframe alone weighs a whopping 1.5 tonnes and it fit like a glove. Dan even got to have a go on the crane (and I posed in it for an obligatory picture without touching any buttons).

 

This very recent progress has been so uplifting and a long awaited high point for us.

There have been days where we have honestly wondered if any of this is worth it. We have had some mega lows (I am sure there are still more to come) and we couldn’t have possibly anticipated quite just how tough the tough moments would be and how life-halting a project like this is! But it’s days like this, the highs, when we take huge steps forward and get to witness such momentous milestones that we have worked so hard to make possible, that put a huge smile back on our faces and give us the boost we need to carry on towards reaching the light at the end of the tunnel and seeing it all through.

By the end of this day, which started out pouring down with rain, the clouds had cleared and the sun was beaming, the skies blue and birds singing away excitedly. It felt symbolic and I had a bit of a moment.

I couldn’t be prouder of us. But I am knackered. Like, really knackered. I’ve always thought that we will forever need something major going on as we are so ambitious and can’t sit still, and that there would undoubtedly be something else for us to focus on, even after this. We have never seemed to be satisfied unless we are going at 100mph. But I think we have now discovered that this is our limit right here. As grateful and lucky as I feel, I can’t wait to just ‘be’ again, for the first time in years! I have now finally reached the point where I think I could happily do f*ck all after this is over and just spend the rest of time enjoying the life we have made for ourselves with our children. We will have everything we could wish for.

I have also worked out that this will be the 17thhouse I have lived in, in 29 years!! That’s moving an average of every 1.7 years for my entire life! I never want to move ever again and I refuse to let Dan get it valued, to avoid any temptation to sell it! It is NOT for sale. Until the kids have left the nest and we retire to a chateau in Provence and embark on a fixer upper project there perhaps. I can’t help myself. A girl’s gotta have goals 🙂

 

So, as I write now, the chimney Dan proudly designed has also been finished by our fabulous bricklayer. We continue the search for an underfloor heating/air sourced heat pump supplier/installer that will charge less than £34,000! (that blasted £30K rule again). I have just poured my seventh Bacardi of the week. Sandblasting has been booked in to clean up the oak and that will happen along with the glass being fitted within the next couple of weeks, which will be amazing! The rest of the windows are on order and the roof tiling is being completed on the main house as we speak. I’m prepping for the first of 24 weddings this season, taking place this weekend! The money from our first self-build mortgage stage release ran out a long while ago. But we are hanging on by the skin of our teeth for the time being, with credit, savings and income.

We are now well over the half way mark and having also brought the moving in date forward two months, five months behind schedule, we will soon, finally be wind and watertight.

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