Sandy Mitchell’s country house with basement completed–the perfect nuclear bunker.
With my hard hat and muddy work boots still on, I share with you three of my latest discoveries from the frontline of our building project.
1. Dreams and teeth
I expected to care a great deal about our building project and to watch its progress closely. I love our old house deeply and was anxious about knocking it about. Even so I was utterly unprepared for the effect the building works would have on me.
What follows is a true story…
As soon as I returned from work the other evening I inspected the progress made by our builders during the day. I knew that their diggers were about to gouge out some deep drains and would need to clear areas of our well–established garden. But the devastating scene that met me still caught me off guard: that day the workmen had uprooted all the yew hedges—great fat green glossy avenues, two yards wide and two yards high—which we planted over a decade ago as lines of baby shrubs, and we have tended and trimmed ever since. Ugly open trenches of raw earth, like toothless gums, gaped in their place.
That same night, just before I turned out my bedside light, my jaw exploded with pain. This was no ordinary toothache. It was so fierce I struggled to breathe, and ran around the house desperately raiding cupboards for as much Ibruprofen and aspirin I could lay my hands on.
Next morning, an emergency dental appointment revealed that one of my eye-teeth had cracked in half like a dry walnut. The dentist yanked it out on the spot.
When I got home from the surgery, I stood in front of the raw trenches in the garden running my tongue over the newly vacant fleshy gum.
The garden and I had suffered the same brutal dental extractions, I realised. Still woozy and anaesthetised, I asked myself if I had brought this on myself. Did I care for the house and garden so passionately that the attack on the hedges triggered my tooth drama in a weird psychosomatic episode? Or, more darkly and supernaturally still, was the house getting its own back on me? A tooth for a tooth?
Madness, I know, but at that moment I heard a builder with a mallet attack a brick wall. I flinched.
For someone like me, whose business depends on enthusiastic clients wishing to remodel or enlarge old houses they love, I realise this tale may not be the best advertisement.
2. Building is still a man’s world – mostly
When my wife and I restored our house nearly 20 years ago, all the workers employed by the small local building firm we used for the two-year restoration project were men. They were honest and hard-working, but were the kind of men with crushing handshakes, a thirst for tea as strong as oxtail soup and a taste for pictures of topless women torn from The Sun. They liked to pin these pages to the ancient oak panelling of our dining room, which served as their canteen.
Fast forward to two decades to today and we thankfully live in a far more enlightened age. Well, up to a point. There are no pinups on site this time around, but the builders employed by the firm are still—to a man—men. Except for one. She appeared briefly on site the other week and she, like the other workers on site, was clad in a bulky ‘hi viz’ jacket, workboots and shapeless jeans, But while the men’s jackets were fluorescent yellow, hers was a shocking cherry pink. Had she been dressed in high heels and dressed like Cinderella with a tiara and taffeta ball gown, she could not have stood out more from the blokes. The building sector has a way to going before being fully ‘woke’.
3. Enough with cement
Until recently we owned a flat in the Swiss Alps, built in the 1970s at the height of the Cold War when Switzerland required each new property to have its own nuclear bunker. Our nuclear bunker was in the basement, a sinister echoing void. Its walls were reinforced concrete, a good foot thick. It was handy for storing Christmas decorations and skis.
Our house in the English countryside was built some 800 years ago. It does not have a nuclear bunker. Yet should Armageddon ever come, the Mitchell family will be so much safer here in the Shires than in any Swiss hideout.
This is because the newly formed basement at our country house has reinforced concrete walls at least four feet thick. And should President Putin ever decide to fire his vaunted hypersonic Zircon missile directly at our home, I shall not fret. It will bounce off and leave us watching Bake Off without even noticing the bump.
But why, oh why is so much cement necessary? Especially as our old house has no foundations and has stood rock solid with handmade brick on hard mud, for almost a millennium. “It is down to the builders’ insurers”, our project manager explained. Apparently the insurance industry, looking to mitigate every possibly risk lest they have to pay out on a claim, has forced builders to over-engineer basements to an ever increasing and ever more absurd extent. And we ask ourselves why it costs so much to build? At least, I can be sure our house will stand for another 1,000 years.
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