Following on from last week, it’s time to talk plans. How do you start turning a two hundred year-old uninhabitable shell into a home? Imagination, optimism, and a liberal supply of alcohol? Of course experience would come in handy, but our experience of DIY was limited to painting murals, hanging wallpaper, wiring the occasional plug and watching ‘This Old House’ for nine months.
How could we expect to restore a house ourselves?
This is where the optimism and alcohol come in. And remember, all tasks – however complex – can be reduced to a set of smaller, achievable tasks. And, for good measure, ‘The march of a thousand miles begins with a single step.’
Our first step was to measure what we had to work with and get everything down on a piece of graph paper.
The existing house had an internal space of 8m x 5.7m arranged in a rectangle with a sloping floor that dropped a jaunty eighteen inches from one corner to its diagonal opposite. It was divided into three rooms: one large living space/kitchen (6m x 5.7), one very small bedroom, one even smaller bathroom. Evidence of the existence of a kitchen was a twisted copper pipe rising up from the concrete floor by a window, and a plastic waste pipe doing much the same alongside. The bathroom was too small for a normal bath, and too old for a shower cubicle, so what it had was a hipbath – a plastic construction with a seat. It also had an ancient stone sink set into the wall that drained via a channel through the wall to the outside. There was space for a toilet, and some pipes to indicate there’d been one, but that was all.
Upstairs there was a hayloft, accessible only from the outside, via a small wooden door that looked more like a dormer window than an entrance. There were no windows in the roof but the head height was reasonable – although the cross beams of two ancient oak A frames would make anyone over 5 foot ten stoop.
Next door to the house was an old, low-ceilinged cattle byre. It was separated from the main house by a three-foot thick granite wall. It had two very small windows – in this context I use window to describe a shaped, unglazed hole in the wall – a stone and wood feed trough running the width of the byre – and a sloping concrete floor leading down to a channel for mucking out. The internal space measured 4m x 5.7m.
Above the cattle byre was a space – a term I use loosely – accessible only by ladder from the barn next door. There were no roof windows, and a metre high stone wall separated it from the main barn.
All this looked much better on graph paper. On graph paper you could see how easy it would be to knock out the existing internal walls in the main house to create an 8m x 5.7m lounge/kitchen. You’d then knock a door through to the cattle byre and create a study and bathroom there. Next, you insert a staircase to the hayloft and create a bedroom and bathroom up there. And, finally, you knock through another stone wall upstairs to create a second bedroom above the cattle byre.
The first problem was where to site the staircase. We’d argued about this for months before moving. We’d taken down all the measurements earlier with the intention of having a finished plan by the time we moved in. But then we ran into problems with working out – from a distance – whether there was sufficient headroom for a straight staircase that ran along a wall. Was it better to add a 90° turn to the staircase to keep the top away from the sloping roof? This is the problem with measurements – however many you make, there are always ones you forget (or your partner disputes). There’s room! No, there isn’t! I measured it myself! Not there, you didn’t. You measure it by the door. The height’s different on the other side. I’d bang my head!
The other problem we encountered was that our new best place for a staircase was by a window. We’d have to design the staircase so its quarter turn didn’t block the window, or get in the way of our proposed door through to the cattle byre.
Our plans changed frequently in those first few weeks as we altered the placement of staircases and doors, and varied the dimensions of bedrooms and bathrooms. When you have an old stone property and no money to bring in a contractor, you find that the idea of knocking holes through a three-foot thick granite wall composed of irregularly shaped boulders, can be somewhat influenced by selecting the area of wall with the smaller stones.
Next week – planning permission.
Chris Dolley is an English author living in France with a frightening number of animals. More information about his other work can be found on his BVC bookshelf .
An Unsafe Pair of Hands – a quirky murder mystery set in rural England charting the descent and rise of a detective on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Which will break first? The case, or DCI Shand?