Tuesday 22 April 2014

Be Your Own Project Manager

I don’t know much about building work, renovation or restoration but in a previous life I had some experience of project planning for new schools. You know that the school has to be open on 1st September, so before the students move in, you have to clean and furnish it during August at the latest. That suggests that the builders have to be out of there by the end of July etc, etc – i.e. start with the outcome and the deadline and work back to the present, describing tasks to be completed in a logical order and highlighting milestones to track progress.

so when I bought this house I had some idea that there would need to be a plan of some sorts – a sequence of events that would lead to a logical conclusion at a pre-determined date.

To get it right, you need specialist knowledge of building processes – when do you bring in the plumber, the electrician, the roofer and the plasterer? Get the sequence wrong and they’re falling over each other, or they spend a good deal of time undoing each others’ work.

I didn’t feel knowledgeable enough back then so I employed an architect to manage the process  - BAD mistake!

It seemed to me that there were three phases to this project. The first was to build an extension onto the house that would eventually become the kitchen. Second phase, a new floor in the old house, rip-out old kitchen and install a new one in the extension. Phase three, renovate the barn.

Initially my building manager seemed to agree with my logic but then presented me with a new problem on every occasion that we met. I also had to whip, encourage and cajole his chosen craftsmen all along the way (thought that was his job). As for getting a planned end date out of him – well I never ever achieved that – we just kind of drifted to an exhausted conclusion.

We parted company at the end of phase two and now I am my own building manager and a much happier person. The initial problems arose when all three phases became interlinked – inevitable probably, but the problems which could have been foreseen were not considered until they stared you in a face, excusable for an amateur but not for a professional.

It began with the extension. A stone wall had to be demolished and earth dug out for the footings – the builder hired a mini digger and dug himself into a hole, couldn’t get the digger out and rolled it over in the attempt. As a result he didn’t separate the stones from the soil as agreed. Instead he created a mountain of mixed earth and stones in what had been our garden.

When we finally had a roof on the extension, the manager insisted on ripping out the floor and dry lining of the old house before laying the floor in the extension because he didn’t want to damage the new floor in the extension with the rubble that would have to be removed when the old floor was lifted. Then, for the same reason the old kitchen had to be removed before the new kitchen could be fitted. Then pipes and channels had to be laid across the courtyard to ensure that there would be water and electricity in the barn in preparation for phase three of the project. Somehow the change in location of the kitchen required major plumbing in the upstairs bathroom and we lost all water in the house.

On one occasion the electrician left the premises without earthing the electricity. The builder took three 240Volt shocks in the period of one hour and he hadn’t even touched an electrical fitting. ‘Ah oui, C’est normal – pas grave’ was the electrician’s response to my phone call.

As this was going on electricians, plumbers and builders would disappear to undertake other jobs. Work on my site was interrupted for weeks on end. The workers didn’t talk to each other and the manager of the project didn’t seem to speak to them either. It was now winter, even though the project had begun in June. By November we were without floors and doors on the ground floor, we had a single functioning electrical socket which was upstairs and the only water came from a tap in the garden. Dust was in the air and cooking was done in the bedroom on a single burner gas stove I had taken from the boat. Everything tasted of antique plaster. On one occasion, to speed up the process, I offered to collect the floor tiles from the builders merchant myself, only to discover that the builder used the day saved to give himself a long weekend holiday.

In retrospect, I should have read a few more books and managed the project myself. Now I’m well into the barn conversion and I have encountered no problems. I have sliced the project into several bite-sized chunks and I bring in the professionals I need when I need them – its not rocket science. As with many things, I have learned that communication is the key and so here are seven top tips for success, learned through bitter experience.

  1. Get the sequence of jobs right

  1. Set realistic but firm deadlines

  1. Create a team of builders, electricians etc who are good friends with each other. That way, they look after each other – a plumber might not think twice about letting you down but he will be careful not to upset his good friend the electrician or his brother in law the carpenter.

  1. Let your builders purchase the material, they get a discount and they should pass at least some of it on to you.

  1. Stay on the premises, if you are away for a week, the rate of progress slows down

  1. Keep two steps ahead, so you can book the people you need and give them plenty of notice. Know how many sockets you want and where the light fittings are to go and make sure to pass on the information in good time – don’t wait to be asked

7.   Keep a record of the work and you can’t be overcharged for time

Well it’s worked for me so far and if it goes wrong - well I have only on person to blame. Project managers?  No thank you.


Thursday 10 April 2014

Solar Energy

I thought about solar panels a couple of years ago. I was very tempted to put them on the south facing roof of the barn. I looked up the offers from my local electricity company (EDF), did some calculations and decided against it. My reasoning was simple, it would take fifteen years to recover the investment – that would make me 78 years old Mmmm – not sure I have that long!

I’m still interested in solar power though and I hope the technology will develop faster than I age, so that I can benefit from it. Friends tell me the problem is a political issue rather than a technological one. That’s to say there is little governmental interest (here or elsewhere) in developing technologies that make people more independent and free. A nuclear power station keeps energy resources in the hands of government. What’s more, it has to be protected and defended, thus governments have an excuse for Security Services, Special Forces, and elite police – and if the going gets tough well, government can always assert its authority by denying power to a rebellious population.

So while I sit and wait for technology to liberate me, I have come up with a solar panel of my own. It works, and the cost was nothing at all. I expect to profit from it by June!

My solar panel converts the Sun’s energy to fructose and it delivers it in the form of Strawberries. Essentially it is an old pallet, planked over on the back, filled with earth and positioned to face the sun. The strawberries grow between the slats like rock plants and seem to love it! Best of all it takes up almost no garden space – it’s a vertical crop and, to date I haven’t felt the need for electric fences, concrete walls or armed guards to protect it.