I talked last time about the six factors that can turn an ordinary, everyday project into a once in a lifetime nightmare. I dealt with unneighbourly relations and the rising costs that go hand in glove with an inadequate design brief and poor contract documentation. In my case, I had those issues under control.
This time, let me take you to the subject of our discoveries. These are not the sort that you find behind closed doors at the Christmas party, but an even more worrying kind: the butchered building. These are not unique to television consumer shows; they can be found in your own street, or one close by.
The thing is, cowboy builders have been around a long time. I suspect the pharaohs sealed in one or two that got their plans wrong. However, I fondly believed that in the Georgian craftsman was a sturdy and dependable artisan. The Georgian townhouse was a solidly constructed building in the great line of Barry, Nash, Hawksmoor and Wood. I was in for a shock.
Yes, I knew properties of this period and type were usually built without a dampproof course, and relied on lath and plaster, or timber panel linings on battens, to cover the brickwork and provide a dry surface. The walls are normally solid – thicker than modern brickwork, even if the bonding is often suspect – and contain timber wall plates and fixing grounds, and timber lintels over door and window openings. Oh yes, I knew, too, that roofs are commonly covered with slates or tiles laid on a close-boarded timber lining over the rafters, with brick parapets at the edges, and box or valley gutters formed with lead on a timber-boarded framework. I knew that it is usual for the rainwater goods to have large hoppers and downpipes built into the wall structure, so defects were often not visible until water had caused damage to the surrounding masonry and adjacent timbers. I kind of assumed that my previous owners kept that lot in check.
We soon discovered that things were not as they seemed. My undefined provisional sums were about to be rapidly revised. Our allegedly solid basement floor, with 150 mm of concrete atop it, was in fact a suspended flagstone floor under which "drainage" and foul water had passed freely. That explained why our flooding problems left a dead-mouse-smell that lingered far too long. Yes, there was concrete, but what my engineers had not anticipated earlier, when opening up above, was that the load temporarily transferred down to that very "slab" was now imperilled.
Cracks appeared in the flank wall, then they migrated. Emergency temporary propping had to be introduced to overcome these discoveries. In came shims, chocks and braces. Much additional digging became necessary. In went the ubiquitous Acrows. Lots of them. Soon to be a veritable forest. An old vaulted structure was found near the underpinning works to a party wall. The district surveyor had to come out. Hand digging was the order of the day and more time was lost.
Indeed, an internal window in the centre of the basement in the spine wall was found to be supporting much of the house above. It was held in place by a few nails. We discovered this as we were taking it out …
Enter Lottie, the dry rot dog. Lottie is a specialist in sniffing out the mycelia associated with dry rot. She found them. Lots of them. It was ancient but the damage that it had done to nearly all the lintels, joists and wall plates in the house became apparent when uncovered. Even without the rot we found lintels that did not bear into the brickwork. Indeed, an internal window in the centre of the basement in the spine wall was found to be supporting much of the house above. It was held in place by a few nails. We discovered this as we were taking it out, when the structure emitted groans.
Before long, nearly every wall needed stitching and dry packing. Then flank walls needed elbows to tie them to the front and rear walls, which had become "live". Further delays ensued, there were additional visits by the engineers and another visit by Lottie.
However, there is some good news. We discovered at the back of our kitchen that we had a secret room complete with a little row of shelves and jars containing decayed fruit, locked up like an Egyptian tomb. It was probably a pantry but earlier remodelling of the house had lost it. A gain to us.
Which brings me back to the whole point of this article. Even with the best intentions and the most competent advice, one cannot guarantee with any certainty what building activity will cost and how long it will take.
The moral of my little story – in spite of all the media encouragement – is don't! Build, that is.
Simon Tolson is senior partner in solicitor Fenwick Elliott.