Sandy Mitchell’s garden at his country house at the point of ‘Peak Destruction’
There is a glorious tipping point in all building projects. It comes when the builders finish what they call ‘demolition and strip out’ then start at last to put the house painstakingly back together. This week we passed the point of Peak Destruction on our site. Light the fireworks, sound the trumpets.
Until now each time my wife and I have looked at our home, under siege since April from the builders, our hearts have sunk an inch lower. The beautiful little country house we paid so much for originally, and have loved and coddled in the years we have been living there, has been reduced bit by bit to a desolate swamp of mud and rubble.
I suspect the same scene plays out at some point between the owners of every home in the gruelling months before reaching Peak Destruction. They will seek a private moment out of earshot. They will look deep into each other’s lovely eyes, hold firm each other’s familiar gaze, and passionately ding-dong over whose bloody idea it was to start the bloody building project in the first bloody place.
You cannot avoid the Vale of Despond that leads to Peak Destruction. But as soon as it is behind you, pilgrims, a world full of promise opens up.
The first signs of change at our home are there for us to see and celebrate: a delivery of steel roof beams has arrived in what is left of our garden, along with fat rolled wads of insulation, and plastic-wrapped pallets of reclaimed brick as russet and rich in promise as ripe autumn apples. The builders have swapped their sledgehammers for palette knives too—no longer Mongol hordes bent on destroying all before them, but creative artisans.
All through the most testing months of demolition and strip out we have at least benefitted from a clever strategy suggested by our project manager before the builders started work. He sat us down with them around our kitchen table and got us to agree ‘house rules’.
Rule number one: the builders were to confine their mess within an area marked by a red line on a map of our garden and grounds, and were never to stray beyond it themselves. Rule number two: they were never to knock on our door unexpectedly asking for cups of tea or to borrow the loo or just for a chat. (They have their own smart temporary facilities in a field behind our house.)
However it came as a shock for my wife and I to learn we had to obey strict rules too: we were never to stray inside the red line marking the builders’ patch, even for a snoop at their progress. Rule number two was more startling: we were never to speak to the builders directly but should communicate only via our project manager who would pass on to them any message from us.
These rules are meant to insulate my wife and myself as much as possible from the petty irritations of living next to a building site, and equally to prevent us from confusing the builders by giving them ad hoc instructions that conflict with our architect’s plans.
But there are unintended consequences. We find ourselves nodding at the builders if we catch their eye, and in their turn they nod back politely. So one moment we feel like nobility in the era of Queen Victoria, too grand to speak to servants, but the next the tables turn as the grandees in their hard hats on the scaffolding above peer coolly down and ignore us scuttling below. Someone somewhere must write a manual on ‘The Correct Etiquette of Living with Builders’. Or did a Victorian do that already?
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