Saturday, October 21, 2006

Conservatory Horrors (2)

Still trying to write, publicise a new book, and set up a new Scottish Home website in the middle of a building site! I had a week's blissful respite, while I tutored a fiction writing course at wonderful Moniack Mhor in the hills above Loch Ness (see my other wordarts blog, for a fuller account.) My husband had done his very best to clean up before I came home, doing sterling work with brush and mop and duster, but no matter how often you clean up plaster dust, it tends to settle all over again within the next few hours. The low point came on wednesday when the concrete arrived for the base. Actually, the concrete didn't arrive for several hours. The workmen who had been building the walls waited and waited. Eventually they left and an hour later two more workmen turned up, nice polite lads both of them. (All the tradesmen involved have been fine - it's the organisational skills of the company itself that we keep calling into question. ) They waited as well. I made them a cup of tea. At last the concrete lorry turned up, several hours later than planned. 'Are all those pipes to be concreted over?' asked one of the big young men, innocently.
'I don't know' I told him, exasperated beyond belief. 'That's what I'm paying the company many thousands of pounds to tell you!'
Normally I'm not quite so prone to irritation, but we have done so much of our own project management on this job that we feel we ought to be somehow billing the company in return. We have just had to organise our own builder to restructure the drainpipes above the proposed conservatory - a necessity which these so called specialists never even mentioned.
Yesterday I was about to write a cheque for the second slice of money when two thoughts struck me. One, we have had nothing in writing about additional work which the company have agreed to do on a couple of upstairs windows, so I have no idea what they are planning to charge me for this. And two, we haven't seen hide nor hair of a building control officer, when we know that they usually come out to check work in progress, particularly on - as this is - a listed building. Have they even been told that work has started? Until I get the answer to both these questions, I find my hand curiously reluctant to write out a cheque....
There is only one element of progress to report. Several young men energetically barrowed concrete through the house (and were touchingly concerned about not walking on my kitchen floor in dirty boots) Now the new floor has set solid ('turned to stone' as my son described it, when he was a very little boy) and - praise be- I can get into my kitchen without negotiating a piratical plank.
More as it happens.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Conservatory Horrors (1)

Late last year, having had a number of quotes from several companies, we finally decided who we thought might make the best job of putting a convervatory on to the back of our 200 year old listed, terraced, Scottish cottage.
They came highly recommended by friends who I shall be having words with when I see them, although oddly enough, I don't seem to have met them for a good long while.....
This was to be a replacement for a much smaller conservatory, which had been built by my husband some years previously, and was all we could afford at the time. It was nice enough, but Alan has always felt that it was a 'bit like a corridor' and as our antique Scottish textiles and interiors business is about to expand we felt the need of a bigger room - somewhere to store our lovely old linens, somewhere to dry herbs for our own pot pourri, somewhere to sit quietly with a glass of wine, on a summer's evening, and come up with the next good idea. Somewhere to entertain in comfort. Well, that was the theory anyway.
The conservatory is only part of a much larger plan to renovate the whole house, something which we knew would take a year, and most of our savings. However,since a house is the biggest investment most of us will make in our lifetimes and - when you work from home in various ways as we do - somewhere you will spend a great deal of your time, we thought that major renovations and refurbishments were well overdue. On the first working day of the year, we took our deposit and the completed plans in to the company in question, and signed on the dotted line. Then we turned our attention to our bathroom, which I have written about elsewhere on this blog, and spent some three months turning it into a small paradise. It is now the nicest room in the house, and one where I am inclined to spend more and more of my time for reasons which will soon become obvious. The rest of the house is rapidly turning into a cross between Steptoe's living room (for those of you who are old enough to remember) and a reclamation yard.
The first hitch came with planning. We know from long experience that getting planning permission for alterations to a listed building can take time. The conservatory company should have known that too. To save a little money, we had our own reliable architect draw out plans to the company's specifications. We were also planning two new upstairs windows, which we said that our own builder (who was working on another project for my husband's family) would tackle, although planning permission would be sought for them at the same time as the conservatory.
We had already told the company that my husband would be making a long trip abroad in the summer, so the conservatory would have to be completed by the end of May, or mid June at the very latest, so that he wouldn't be leaving me in the middle of a building site with so much other work to be done (I was on the final draft of a commissioned book, and knew that I would be busy.)
Weeks passed. Then months. The end of March came and there was no sign of planning permission and no word from the company. Eventually we phoned up our local planning department to be told that no plans had yet been submitted to them.
At this stage, when we threatened to withdraw from the project altogether, the company offered to throw in the taking down of the old conservatory, since it was likely that Alan wouldn't be around to do it by the time planning permission came through. They also offered to include a window at a very good price. Our builder went in and ordered it. Planning permission, after a little negotiation, was granted, just as Alan was about to depart for foreign shores. We had tentatively proposed September as a new start date and we were told that the company would 'look after Catherine if you're not back by then - don't worry.' No firm date was mentioned by either side.
After that, we heard nothing from them whatsoever for the whole summer. Nobody told our builder that the window was ready for collection. Nobody phoned me. Nobody emailed me. Nobody wrote to me.
Alan came back much later in the summer, and we wrote to the company more in sorrow than in anger. The response was immediate and irritable. The window had been awaiting collection for months. (But if that was the case, why on earth had nobody phoned me about it? They had my address and phone number. I had been at home, writing hard, all summer.) Moreover, the conservatory panels were already under construction. They were planning to start work on 7th September.
Says who? Nobody had thought to tell us that.
Once more, we capitulated. Trading standards told us that we had so little in writing, that they could sue us for the balance if they wanted to. And they already had about £2000 of our money.
They actually began work during the last week in September. Two nice young men came to dig the foundations of the new conservatory to find the old one ( which they had agreed to take down) still standing. Nobody seemed to have passed that message on to the workforce. Besides that, although their surveyer had visited twice, they seemed completely unaware that there were electrical cables to be isolated.
As I write this, the entire contents of the old conservatory are piled in my boarded up study, there is a large hole outside my back door, and to get into my kitchen I have to walk the plank. Since this is a terraced cottage with a huge garden which borders on a field (no back access) the skip is outside the front door, so everything is being barrowed through the house. You can imagine the mess. We have no idea when they plan to finish. We are not unreasonable. We know that the Scottish weather causes delays. What we didn't realise was that they were going to pass other people's delays on to us. We thought we were employing quite a big company, with enough manpower to cope with autumn rainfall.
The final straw was when the woman in the office told me tetchily that it was taking so much time because everything had to come through the house. As soon as I had hung up the phone, I realised that the inconvenience is all ours. The skip is some 20 feet away from where the men are working, down a nice straight corridor. There can be very few projects where they are so close to the job in hand. Most conservatories are, after all, built onto the backs of houses, so building will invariably involve much greater distances.
No, it is we who have to put up with the mud and the muck and the dust and the noise, and - now that autumn is upon us - the wind and rain and cold. My conservatory plants are all huddled together for warmth under a little glass roofed arbour at one side of the house. God knows if they will survive. The plan is now to finish the conservatory, and the upstairs bedrooms (decoration only!)before Christmas, and tackle the kitchen after Christmas. The bill for the second tranche of payment arrived last week. It said 'Balance due on commencement of works'. The contract I signed, on the other hand, reads that the money is due 'on completion of ground/building works.'
Are we there yet? No way. Are we paying yet? No way.
More as it happens.