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What I wish I had known, The Finale

21 Dec 2020
In the final instalment of Sandy Mitchell’s confessional building-project diary, he reflects on the highs and lows of his epic project.

A building project involving your home brings moments so intense you hold your breath, for better and sometimes for worse. I counted three in the course of our project at my home in the country, completed last month.

The first of them came two years ago. On this otherwise ordinary day my wife and I were having breakfast at our kitchen table when the postman rang the doorbell. He had a special delivery for us, a bound document 30-pages long: the builder’s contract.

By this time, we had planning permission and listed-building consent to build a wing on to our ancient house, and remodel parts. We had also assembled our project team and chosen the builders.

But sign the contract and there was no turning back. We would be committed to spending far more cash than we have splashed on anything since buying the house. And I was all too aware that my children would be facing 18 months or more of upheaval and intrusion, while my wife and I would be starting a marathon trek, plodding as if towards some distant and invisible South Pole, through the exhausting blizzard of micro-decisions that a building project demands and so many meetings with designers, project managers, heating engineers and countless others that we would lose track.

As I held the pen, ready to sign the contract, my wife stared at me saying nothing. I scribbled my name, eyes shut, half of me terrified, half of me exhilarated.

A year and a half later we have, Hallelujah, planted our flag at the Pole. In the first phase of the project, we refurbished most of the ground floor of our 13th-century Grade II-listed house. (One of the painters, a man in his 50s, told me proudly that painting my youngest child’s scruffy old playroom with its dingy panelling, and transforming into an elegant new dining room, ‘was the best job I have ever had’. Dealing with skilled and committed artisans like him was one of the greatest delights of the project.)

Guests will be the longed for final touch to our new dining room

In the second phase we built a new wing on to the house of about 2,000 sq ft over three floors, including a bedroom suite on the first floor, a generous family room on the ground floor, and a basement across the full width of the building containing a large utility room, small wine cellar and gun room, and quantities of underground storage that Aladdin could get lost in.

The second out-of-body moment came right at the end of the project. Having spent the first night in our new bedroom, I woke up realising the builders had gone at last. Peace reigned in our little corner of West Berkshire. It was not a sudden realisation, but a slow dawning—a warm feeling best compared to coming around post-surgery from a knock-out anaesthetic and discovering the operation had been an unqualified success despite the frightening risks.

And then came the last breath-holding moment, when my wife and I asked each other some weeks later, ‘So, do you think it was all worth it?’

It was not the impact on our finances I was most anxious about because, before launching our project, I took advice from the best estate agents and buying agents around on the value of our house and what it might be worth if we carried out our building plans. So I am pretty sure we have not committed the sin of ‘over capitalising’ our house.

No, what I needed to know was whether my wife felt in the final reckoning that all the sweat, thought and long days we had both put into the project had paid off.

She took her time replying to me. Eventually, she said. ‘Ye-es. But it will take me six months before I really begin to enjoy the new space.’

My wife was at the house far more than me during the build, so she has my complete sympathy. And she was the main witness to the fact that building a house or enlarging it may be called ‘construction’ but 99% of the time it looks like destruction.

Regrets? I have a few to look back on over the last 18 months, but then again…

I slightly regret the moment that flippancy got the better of me when our gentle, ever-attentive architect came around early in the project to show me a sketch of a roofline he was detailing for the new wing. Looking at his lopsided design, I quipped, ‘It looks like a mullet,’ His face fell: ‘A mullet?’

‘Yes,’ I replied, wanting to swallow my words but needing to explain. ‘You know, a mullet haircut. Maradona circa 1985…’

He stared at his drawing. Long seconds of pained silence dragged out. ‘A mullet? What we are looking at is a ‘‘cat slide’’,’ he said softly to himself. ‘Sir Edwin Lutyens was an admirer of the cat-slide roof.’ I am not sure our architect or the late great Sir Edwin will ever forgive me.

The oak clad exterior of the new wing

I regret, too, that I persuaded my wife and children to camp with me in a glorified garden shed during the first phase of our project. The shed had a microwave for cooking, a woodstove, a tiny sink and bathroom, bunk beds…What more did we need?

When the bitter winter frosts came, I realised some insulation might have been welcome. Handwashing every plate and fork can become a little wearisome after three months, too. But what fun we had living there, as I reminded one of my daughters the other day. ‘It was ghastly,’ she said. Her sisters nodded in agreement.

And I regret that the one feature admired in the finished house more than any other by those we have shown around—and trust me, no one comes here without having to suffer the full tour of the house—is not the perfectly proportioned full-height windows and their elegant fine glazing bars giving onto the garden or even our magnificent curlicue three-storey high oak staircase. No, it is a large cupboard or French armoire in our new drawing room. Or at least it looks like a cupboard. Until you open it. Then the lights come on and the mirrored interior dazzles you with an array of liqueurs, whiskies and polished glasses, to say nothing of the Moroccan brass sink-and-tap combo and mini-fridge. ‘Wow. I wish we had one of those!’ they all gasp, eyes popping.

‘Wow. I wish we had one of those!’

But I only have one profound regret. Honestly, I regret worrying so much: worrying when the ‘bonnet tiles’ were hung on the new front porch whether they matched perfectly the old ones on the main gable; whether the sawn-oak boards that clad the new extension were quite wide enough; whether the York stone surrounding the swimming pool should have been a metre wide or slightly more; worrying about pretty much everything. I worried because I am cursed (perhaps like you) with caring intensely about the look of things and, just as passionately, I wanted to avoid anything that would dishonour our quirky, beloved old house. Given my day job, there was also an extra twist of pressure to ensure our project was a success.

So would I ever tackle another big building project? Hah! The week the builders finally finished the job I would have collapsed, spluttering with disbelief, if you had asked me that. A month or so on, a change is stealing over me. A huddle of decrepit farm barns stands a few hundred yards from our house with a view over a field so inspiring it would have lifted Gerald Manley Hopkins himself to heights of poetic ecstasy. Just imagine, if we knocked down those barns, and replaced them with a sleek contemporary house, a clever confection of stone and wood and glass, beautifully linear and perfectly poised in the land. What a home for my wife and myself in our dotage…

That thought is for another day though. And, as my wife of 22 years advises me, that project is for another wife.

So for now, sitting here in the family room in our new wing, I look around at what we have done and it is enough. The Christmas tree is up. Presents in shiny wrapping spill out beneath it. The jazzy cupboard-bar is open for business. My wife is curled up on the large new sofa reading, my daughters play another fierce round of Racing Demon at the new card table, and the old Labrador toasts gently on the new oak boards with their under-floor heating. I look around and a powerful thought begins to form. I am happier than I ever dared imagine at the start of it all.

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