Project manager: calling in reinforcement

Structural variations sounds like the title of an experimental, electronic album and indeed my concerns over the cost of such items as wall ties, beam ties and extra steels and other reinforcements required for our house have been like a theme song raging through my head. For a while I stopped visiting the house.
With a book to launch and a death in my family, it was too much to face.
Yet the need for such things as beam ties is part of the gritty reality of restoring a house built in 1710 and there has been progress. Andy and crew from Hurlingham Developments completely stripped the house, a process which will allow Form, our structural engineers, to see the state of the brickwork and the foundations. Andy stripped it all: floors, ceilings and roofs, faster than my daughter gets undressed for swimming. He works like greased lightning — and how many renovators can boast that about their builder? Our house becomes roofless and the rubbish and tiles disappear in one Saturday alone. It is staggering. We receive texts from Andy’s new fan club, our amazed neighbours.
I proudly spread the good news. But our rooflessness is the root of the intractable problem of structural variations. When the roof is replaced, we will be putting the weight of another whole floor on a worn, ancient structure. Sanchia from our architects vividly explains the problem. “Imagine your house is an old cardboard box. When you sit on it, it completes squashes. Unless it’s properly reinforced.”
‘The wall ties are needed to reinforce the brickwork walls, which are essentially peeling away from each other,” explains Max, Sanchia’s colleague, calmly.
I have pontificated before about the importance of a strong, trusting architect-client relationship. It is so important now when our house is in need of reinforcement, which comes with a large extra price tag: wall ties (£2,500 plus VAT), beam ties and steels (£6,160 plus VAT).
We want and need to do this work. However much I may wish it all to be very different. Max soothes: “This is not unusual. We have a contingency in the cost plan.” While Sanchia rightly reminds us: “With a building of this age, it is always safest to go with the structural engineer’s advice.”
Architectural development is by its nature ageist. With an old house, it is also wise to have a drain survey (£440.40 plus VAT). A one-man band from Drain 365 comes and puts cameras down our manholes — one under the hallway, the other under the old kitchen.
The drain survey highlights that Thames Water needs to carry out a repair to the collapsed pipework in our road. The company responds instantly. I dream of “a good utility story”. Briefly. Thames Water makes a preliminary visit. Despite having a copy of our drain survey, the engineers need to come back and do their own investigations. I am promised an update by April 14. When I chase them on April 17, they say their own report contradicts our comprehensive survey. There is no problem. They cannot give me the details, because it’s Friday afternoon. But they will refer my case to their specialist team, who will compare the two reports and get back to us before next Friday afternoon.
The drains under our property are our responsibility. We will have to carry out 2m of epoxy lining works between “manhole one” and “lateral two” (£900 plus VAT), 100mm of epoxy patch repair 16m downstream of “manhole two” (£385 plus VAT), and carry out cleaning works to remove roots (£130 plus VAT).
It is amazing I sleep. I do because I no longer feel responsible for the house. Andy has been on site just four weeks, which have included Easter. Yet the scaffolding was up immediately, the structural support to the ground floor is almost in place. He has rebuilt the exterior brickwork to the back courtyard. The new roof steels are ordered.
His progress hails his inaugural bill. We have no idea exactly how this works. Sanchia explains that she will value the work monthly, and spreads the cost of preliminaries, dividing them evenly over the length of build.
Unexpectedly buoyed by writing this feature, I brave seeing the house. Yes, the ground-floor extension is open to the sky — well the protective covering. But five men are busy at work at 4pm on a Friday, sacks of cement are piled along one side of the porch, fresh wood along the other. Steels form another pile.
I am beginning to visualise the house that we fell in love with, rising up stronger and even more beautiful than before.

Hurrah! Building work can now begin

Shireen and her new houseMy New Year’s resolution was to practice ‘mindfulness;, a state in which you focus your errant mind on the present so as to stop stressing about the future. However, I appear to have already broken this resolution as I am focusing on the work that can begin at our house, now that we have received a letter from Hammersmith & Fulham Council’s Planning Division. In accordance with the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 and the Town and Country Planning Regulations 1992, we now have… full planning permission. I am visualising the extra loft space we will gain, the guest room and my office space – and our family home finally taking shape.

The permission is subject to standard stipulations: work must not start later than three years from planning permission (let’s face it, if it did, my ashes would be scattered over the site), and must be in line with drawings submitted. The only caveat exceptional to us was our roof must match that of our neighbour. Strange as it’s a different period and not architecturally part of the four terraced houses alongside it. Having bought the house late last summer, I feel that finding the path to the centre of the Hampton Court-sized maze that constitutes town planning is a feat which Thomas Wolsey would be produce. That is even though I have understood little about the process, have done even less and left it all to our architects De Rosee SA. The credit is all theirs.

Once planning permission was granted, a company carried out ‘opening up works’ (£330 excl.VAT). To me, these look like a bouncer has brawled in our home, punching holes in the walls and floors. Though from the debris, Rob, our structural engineer, drew up a quick scheme (four drawings) of what’s going on beneath the surface. He now knows where the joists lie; where the large structural components are like the steels and which part of the existing structure is in line with our scheme. Some parts may need reinforcing and others may not be up to today’s standards.

Having studied Rob’s findings, Max, our architect, declares: ’We need a fair bit of structural work.’ Max will worry about that, while my husband and I worry about our weekly outgoings of rent plus mortgage on the new house – and potential spiralling costs over which we have little control. In an attempt to lessen some of this expenditure, we have contacted a VAT consultant. (How many consultants does it take to renovate one house? I’ll let you know next September). We had hoped raising the roof will constitute ‘new build’ and exemption from VAT. It doesn’t. If I were to build a modern bungalow or convert a cow shed (note the plethora of Oxfordshire barn conversions), there would be zero VAT. But restoring a pre-Georgian house still carries the heavy 20% penalty. We could get 5% rating on energy savings work if we insulate all the internal walls. Solar panels – if we can still afford them – are VAT exempt.

The next steps will involved putting party wall agreements in place. This involves many more conversations with our neighbour’s surveyor that one would logically imagine (read potential for high fees). Max is also working with two possible contracts to cost the works. Both contractors will give a provisionally priced tender then, once we have chosen the preferred contractor, a second tender will be put together with exact prices. Max puts it like this: ‘Don’t let’s discuss hinges until we know that we can build a bathroom.’

I’m with Max. Not least because he is worried we are going to be over budget. He is wondering whether to contract out the demolition work that’s required before the makeover can begin. This could save us two weeks and some money if we find a builder who needs the cash. Meanwhile, Max is putting together a schedule of the cost of the sanitary ware, appliances and lighting. The contractors appear to need these costings.

I keep trying to imagine standing with my husband, wearing hard hats, in own building site before Valentine’s Day. Not very mindful, but it does the trick.


The Times, Friday January 16 2015