What I wish I had known – Part Nine – Sandy’s confessional diary continues

—3rd June 2020

With his project inching towards the finish line, Sandy shares some of the surprising lessons he has learned

Our builders told us this week they plan to finish the new wing on our very old house—800 years and counting—at the end of July. With the end of our project tantalisingly in sight, now seems a good time to share a little of what I have learned.

1. Hidden secrets

One of RedBook’s clients, who is restoring a beautiful manor house he inherited, told me last year he spent so much money on new plumbing and electrics, destined to remain hidden forever behind fresh plaster, that he was going to stick ‘Post-It’ notes on every wall to remind himself where all the money went. I laughed at the time. Now I plan to copy him.

We have built a utility room and heating-plant room stretching under the entire length of our new wing. It is destined to be similarly invisible unless you are actually in the room below ground, of course. But instead of using ‘Post It’ notes, I am thinking that something more substantial is called for—a red neon sign, like the ones you see on New York sidewalks pointing to a bar or nightclub downstairs. Ours will flash ‘Basement’ into the West Berkshire sky to remind me where so much of our project cost lies buried. It will be a spiffy place to do the ironing and washing. Maybe we can tempt friends down there to admire it and invite them to help us with the chores while they are there.

2. Chimney worship

A new chimney rises from the ground to a point in the sky far above the tiled ridge of our new two-storey wing. Its base is a good 16ft wide. Inspired by the Arts & Crafts style of our house’s rear elevation, it nonetheless reminds most of an Aztec temple, with its stepped brickwork and its swaggering scale. ‘I will be standing here proudly unchanged in 3,000 AD when you are but windblown dust,’ it boasts. I am in awe of it and in love.

And it is not only me. The few people who have been allowed into our garden over the past few months have reacted in the same way. They clap eyes on the chimney and instantly prostrate themselves, muttering incantations. Maybe a slight exaggeration, but they have all stood back slack-jawed and gone ‘Ooh!’ or ‘Wow!’ I have a sneaky feeling that everyone who starts a building project has little idea which bit they will end up loving most. I certainly never intended to become high priest of a peculiar chimney cult.

A new altar for the Berkshire chimney cult

3. A-level angst

At the very first face-to-face meeting with our builders back in the hazy mists of time when they were about to start on site, sometime early in 2019 it must have been, I remember my wife and me explaining they must finish the job by March this year without fail. We told them twice at that meeting so they would get the message. We were that worried.

It was our middle daughter’s A-levels we were thinking about. She was due to sit them this summer and we could foresee exam revision would be impossible with banging and drilling outside her bedroom/study. Well, here we are way beyond March. There are certainly no A-levels to worry about thanks to you-know-what. Again, I have a sneaky feeling almost everyone worries about entirely the wrong thing when they start a building project.

4. Let’s dance

What is the best way to describe the double act between an architect and an interior designer when they work really well together on a project? Jeeves and Wooster? Batman and Robin?

After much thought, I think I have the answer. An architect without an interior designer is like Fred Astaire without Ginger Rogers. You can admire his solo artistry but when he and Ginger spin, tap and sway perfectly in step you witness something far greater—brilliance, glamour, glimpses of magic. And right now, with the ‘second fix’ on our new wing well under way, tiny sparks of magic are beginning to appear inside the building thanks to the brilliant complementary talents of our architect and interior designer. The textured herringbone tiles at the back of a new fireplace, the unexpected barrel-vault of a corridor… Looking at these, I want to kick up my heels and dance.

Beautiful details bringing unexpected joy

5. Ouch

It was the American novelist and Nobel laureate, Saul Bellow, who famously wrote that ‘truth comes in blows’. If I recall correctly, one of his fictional heroes finally sees the reality of his life when he is chopping a log and looses a splinter that hits him hard in the face. The pain opens his eyes.

We have reached that stage of our project, after 14 months with the builders on site, where every new revision of the cost estimates they supply, along with those of all the other consultants and trades it takes to put a complex building together—each estimate higher than the last—stings like that splinter. And what is the truth revealed? It is a simple one I always share with clients. Make sure you have designed every last tiny detail before your builders start work on site or it will end up costing you. It is such good advice. I wish I had followed it. Instead, my wife and I have had endless ‘good ideas’ since the building work began that have added up inexorably. Yet perhaps you can’t really hold on to a hard truth until you feel its sting.

‘Is there any chance we could make the chimney bigger?’

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