This is the tale of my first major renovation project some years ago…
On the table is the surveyor’s report; yellow Post-it notes stick from its pages in such profusion that they no longer have any relevance. Phrases like “needs attention”, “must be thoroughly overhauled” and “a fair amount of dampness” are highlighted by marker pen with a frequency that ensures the eye goes instead to the few innocuous words left in the white spaces in-between.
This, I suppose, is what buying a 1900 terraced house is all about especially when its been lived in by an elderly tenant who has had to make do with an outside loo, a lethal looking gas fire and ceilings which may collapse at any moment. I’m thinking that no sane person would have parted with a considerable sum of money to buy such a place but then I know I’m not alone – others have succumbed to the temptation of crumbling plaster and damp.
“Look at the mould on this wall… the windows are rotten… you know it’s going to cost a bomb to do up.” This was the commentary the young and inexperienced estate agent gave as he first showed me round having clearly never been in the house before.
“Oh, aggh, help!” was the cry of my friend Linda some months later when her not very high heel punctured one of the floorboards in the hall and became stuck amongst the powdery gnawings of the woodworm.
My goal is not just to put right the wrongs of years but to subtly pull the house into the present so that it can work as a home yet retain the fabric of the past. I know it’s a difficult balancing act and that’s why I’ve decided to consult an architect. When we meet I feel I’m being psychoanalysed as he seems keen to know the most intimate details of my life but he assures me “It’s all about making the house and the person work together.”
The architect has been and gone. I am now waiting for a structural engineer and for a few moments I admire my striped deckchair and decide it looks rather smart amongst the general decay. As is the case with so many homeowners my mortgage company is insisting on damp proof courses and chemical treatments. I believe, like a lot of the experts, that this is unnecessary and that there is a much more holistic approach: cure the cause – be it soil banked up against a wall or a leaking downpipe – and the problem will go away. What’s more a great deal of money will have been saved and damage to the building avoided.
Frenzied raps of the doorknocker reverberate through the empty rooms. In an anorak that looks as though it has been in worse places than this, the engineer arrives and begins a slow process of prodding walls and sucking teeth in a way that quite clearly says all is not well. He draws expensive looking designs in his notebook. His main concern is that the flank wall – mine is an end of terrace – will not fall out and that a corner, where I intend taking out a chimney breast, does not collapse at the first hammer blow. As he leaves he promises to discuss “the problems” with the architect.
I return to the surveyor’s report and notice that in one of the white spaces are the words “the house is built in solid brickwork”. It is a strangely reassuring statement.