As many of you may have gathered, we are in the house, and it is beautiful.
Yesterday saw two important events occur: one – we were finally connected to the electricity supply, the conclusion of a bitter, painful and nailbiting saga of determination, incompetence, maliciousness and generosity that, when the battle scars have healed, I may narrate. Two: Eurik and his friend built us a garden path, so instead of wading through a bog of mud to Bluebells, we can now crunch with deep satisfaction across amber and brown pebbles to get to our front door. We have light and heat and we have path – so that, I think, should be motivation for me to get down and tell you the next part of the story.
We built a house. I think I can safely say it is the hardest thing I have ever done, and that in a year of non-trivial actions like completing a PhD and giving birth. It has been atrociously good for me – for us, I think. But peppered with manifold mistakes. Cheerfully, all the mistakes we’ve made are now literally cast in wood and stone to reflect on every day – nothing like a house build to teach you about careful living.
The first post I wrote about this housebuild spoke philosophically and poetically about balance and compromise. If I could go back to the start of it all I would say to myself – wait, stop. Not good enough. There’s a place for compromise, of allowing the pendulum to rest and settle until it’s in the middle of the tensing possibilities that are accumulating around. And there’s a time for not compromising, for changing the status, for blowing and shifting and opening up so that the expanding possibilities in which you need to find a middle path are different than they were.
And, let’s be fair, compromise is about working between two different viewpoints, and its nature very much determined by who you have around you to compromise with. The compromises between husband and wife – yes, necessary for building a home together. The compromises between us and money-making contractors – er – not so much.
What I’m trying to say is that, if I could do things again, what I would do is begin by deciding what house we wanted to create, and then work very hard to discover who we needed to create it with. Some wonderful things have happened in the building of our house, and a wonderful place has been created. But I regret what could have been if we’d paid more care.
Much of the original carpentry is shoddy work, for example. The windows, while beautiful and warm, are still not as well glazed as they should be, particularly in a house that is aiming to be “eco”, nor are the walls as absolutely insulated as we would have liked. There are parts of the house that would have been better done, I feel, if I hadn’t confused gratitude with complacency and acceptance with resignation. Being struck dumb with the wonder of having people in our garden building a house for us, and not making sure that those people were doing a good job, for example. Taking painstaking hours over some things (see tiles, below), and making snap decisions over others because we were stressed and flooded with detail, and I told myself that these things in the big scheme of things don’t matter – when in fact each and every detail was an invitation to the complex soul of the house which we now inhabit.
So. What I would have done, if I could do the thing over, is to make sure – to the best of our abilities – that the house build was narrated in chorus. My story is about saving and respecting matter, but there are others – saving and respecting energies, avoiding the use of toxic substances – that did not get told sufficiently in the making of our house, because we didn’t call up the right other people to join in.
Put another way. To build a house, even a little one in the garden, is a great big, massive, potent, powerful act of doing. Trying to do it by buying as little new as possible is powerful in its not doing, A retrograde act, if you will, or a breath held rather than released. An imposed impotence. But because you’re already immersed in the doingness of the activity, all you manage to do is to take your balance sheet of impact down a few notches, when it’s rapidly going up. That’s all. Somewhat foolishly, in fact, when a far better and deeper retrograde act would have been to release the need for a new house in the first place.
However, what I have experienced in the learning of the whole process is that the retrograde act can become potent – can, indeed, change the meaning of potency, when what is built is not just a house but a system of links. What was beautiful about building Bluebells, apart from its walls, windows and doors, were synapses – the moments when our thinking connected with other people’s thinking to make tiny new electrical connections in the meaning of making house.
Examples. 1. It is October, Arun is three months old, and the house and garden are in chaos. The new house is all frame and plaster, and behind it lies what was once, long ago, a tennis court. Its tarmac is now covered in moss, half of the court is taken up with solar panels, and the other half with bee hives. We have finally decided to take down the netting, and re-use it to make a chicken run in the other half of the garden. So while David the incredible carpenter, one of the few contractors we never once regretted working with, is making our kitchen, the tennis court netting behind the house is gradually being unravelled. I arrive onsite, Arun in sling, with my customary offer of endless tea, and David is fizzing, in the same way that I fizz when I am hit by a sudden poem. What has come to him is the idea that he could make the handles of the kitchen units out of the poles of the old tennis court netting, rusty, paint-peeling and ancient as they are.
Now this is the same David, who, when he first arrived, said categorically that we could not have the innards of our kitchen units made of anything old. I wonder if he has caught my re-use mania. Eurik is not enthusiastic, and even I am hesitant to agree that rusty poles will make a good addition to our shiny, newly built cupboards. However, it’s agreed that David will take some back to his workshop to experiment with. The next morning he arrives to tell us that the experiment went so well that he stayed up all night and has finished handles. Somewhat alarmed, we all traipse down to the kitchen, and he shows us the handles on the wood. They have not been painted or altered, only lacquered, so all of the moss, peeling silver and rust is preserved, the dark green and rust red picking up the salty wood of the old scaffold boards kitchen units. He is right. They are perfect.
Later, David tells me that he appreciates working on Bluebells because we are up for creativity. And it makes me wonder about our interactions with so many of the other tradesman, which have been relatively soul-destroying in the sense that much of the work has been done without passion or care, but as quickly as possible for as much money as can squeezed out of us. But then I think – no wonder. The norm and the expectation is not for creativity, but a machine-line process of demand, deliver and destruct. How can makers of anything be expected to make creatively when we are coached to be dull in the demand – leaving no space for being, no joint creative forum, only a factory packaged catalogue of this and that to put together without choice or discussion? I’m not suggesting that Eurik and I as consumers avoided this – of course we didn’t. I’m just wondering how it is we are coached to approach the exchange of makings and matter, and how the process could grow – old, new, better.
2. On Tiles. (I promised you this story). It is May, Arun is a little swimming whale in my belly. Talking of catalogues, we have been given by the building company the catalogue of the house, broken down into parts – windows, floors, doors, frame, plumbing, etc, etc. At a loss of what to choose, I ask them whether there are any of these substances that can be reclaimed. The building company representatives are both enthusiastic and sceptical simultaneously. Roof tiles, for example, could be got second hand, but if we want good quality, they will be significantly more expensive than buying new. But fancy antique tiles, they tell me, would look fantastic. Fancy antique tiles are not in our budget. The new ones will cost 50p per piece. Surely the world must be full of roof tiles no longer needed. Is it really impossible to find some old ones for less? I finally pin the manager down to exactly what quantity and tile type we need, and spend the next two days on the phone with reclamation sites and online with reclamation directories. As I’m doing so, there is a constant, niggling doubt at the back of my mind about whether I’m wasting my time. Whether my last month before becoming a mother could not be more productively spent. Yet I am on a trajectory of tile hunting and cannot get off. Everybody local I speak to speaks proudly of their vintage, pound a piece tiles. But then I take a look at Salvoweb, a fantastic directory of reclamation sites recommended to me by the phenomenal Cat Fletcher, creatrix of Freegle. Some beautiful clay tiles are advertised from an enormous yard in Warwickshire for 30p per tile. I give them a call. They are fantastically friendly. Yes, I can have the tiles, yes, they are excellent quality, and yes, they would have the massive amount we need to cover our whole roof.
They send me photos, and I email our building manager. He says they look great. I panic. The overall cost of the tiles is over £5000. Should we drive up to Warwick to inspect them first? I am eight months pregnant and neither Arun-my-whale nor I relish the prospect. The manager tells me they are a reputable reclamation yard. Eventually, with much trepidation, I just send over the order and the money, and hope I have not just ordered 12000 pieces of junk.
The tiles arrive and they are lovely. They are installed, eventually, and the house begins to toss its head and open its eyes. On one rainy September day, the building manager and I walk down to the site. He stops by the Scots pine, and looks up at the top of the house. I wouldn’t have thought you could find those tiles, he says. But they look really good.
So whether I could have spent those two or three days more productively? I still have no idea. It would have taken me about 20 minutes to buy from the catalogue, it took me about a week, all organization included, to unbuy from the world. Like an unbirthday, an unbuying is nothing special. There is nothing particularly stunning about the tiles, nothing out of the ordinary to celebrate apart from the mundanity of covering our roof with pre-existent pieces of stuff. But who knows? Will the building company give a different answer when asked about the possibility of building with reclaimed tiles? At least I can imagine so.
3. The Paints.
Quite early on in the research for the house, we come across the website for New Life Paints, a local company who produce “recycled” paints. It was started in 2009 by an industrial chemist, who, inspired by the half empty paint tins piling up in his garage, figured out a way to convert waste emulsion back to high quality paint. Given that DEFRA estimates around 50 million litres of paint end up in landfill or incinerated every year, this seems a pretty sensible thing to do. So, we bookmark the website and agree to think about it in that misty future time when we have a house to decorate. Life trundles along. Things seem to have a way in the building process of becoming very urgent very quickly, and before we know it, it is November, Arun is five months old, figuring out where and with-whom he is, and Eurik and I find ourselves with a few weeks in which to get the house painted and tiled before other important things, such as plumbing and kitchen, can occur.
I had planned to be very organized about decoration. There’s an eco-decoration company in Brighton who promise non-toxic substances, and I was going to ask for their help, and do everything in a beautiful and creative way. But everything happens so suddenly that there is no time. Instead, we find a fantastic local handyman, Ivan, who says (thank god!) that he can start on Monday. And then I remember New Life Paints. I ask Ivan if he’s willing to use them, and he says, why not? We have two days to get enough for the mist coat (the first layer of white paint on all the walls). Luckily, I have a meeting in Chichester that day, and the company is based just outside Littlehampton, which is on the way home.
I ring the number on the website and the woman says absolutely, come round. New Life Paints is a family company, and their administration centre turns out to be their house, in a little gated community just off Rustington town centre. I get utterly lost on the way; Arun is unimpressed with our detour around West Sussex and I arrive at half past 5 with hysterical baby in toe. Linda, the woman I spoke to on the phone, gathers me in and cuddles Arun while I take a breather, then helps me carry the paint buckets to the car. At home, I give them to Ivan, who begins the next day and gives us the definite thumbs up for quality.
The mist coat is done, other things continue to happen, and suddenly, with a few days notice, we have a slot in the schedule for the rest of the painting to be done. Unfortunately, Arun has by now decided car seats are the devil incarnate. It is a Wednesday, we need the full array of all paints by Friday. They have them in stock. Eurik is at work, and Arun and I could make the two hour round journey back to Rustington to pick them up. But we don’t want to. I ring Linda, and explain the situation. Do they ever, I ask tentatively, deliver? She says she will drive the paint over for us tomorrow morning, no charge. I almost cry. She comes the next day and I show her round the house. She has been reading my website and asks if I will use the space for workshops. That’s the plan, I tell her. We part with mutual friendliness on both sides, and it feels as if another connection has been made, another community synapse plugged in.
3. December, Arun reaches the six month mark, the new house is looking neater and more complete, and the garden is still chaos. There is wood everywhere. Because we didn’t want to waste the timber offcuts, we have collected a large amount of them. Treated and untreated, we have big chunks and small, in front of the house, behind the house, in the driveway and in the garage. Pallets, plyboard, chipboard, scaffold board, great timber planks and tiny door-stopper size pieces, cedar wood trunk and branches from the very first site clearance work. There is even one of those giant cotton reel things that our electricity cable came on. Needless to say, the other inhabitants of Lattenbells are less than enthusiastic that the garden and garage have become a home for unwanted ex-trees.
In the midst of building chaos, Arun and I are invited to NHS postnatal classes in Newick. There we meet a very nice lady by the name of Lucy, and bond over the fact that both of us live with our parents. I defend the multi-generational lifestyle choice, and she is fascinated to hear about the house build. In the course of conversation she tells me about her husband Fabian, who trained as a furniture maker, and was in an apprenticeship in London before Brexit happened and the company lost a lot of its business and had to let him go. He then managed to find work locally, but because of complications with the birth of her baby Felix, lost the work looking after her and the baby. He is now working freelance. We talk about other things, and I go home and then message her. Is there any way, I ask, Fabian might be interested in working with offcuts?
After negotiations, Lucy, Felix and her husband Fabian come round for tea Something great is released in my heart when we meet Fabian, because, like an animal-lover at an RSPCA site, Fabian is respectful to our unwanted wood. He does not see it as waste, but as potential. Whereas everyone else said: bin it, Fabian says: that’s a fantastic piece of plyboard for a corner cabinet. Would you mind bookshelves that match your floor? Because these floorboards could really work….
And so Fabian is making furniture for the inside of our house. He came round again today to take the measurements. We have not been able to use all the wood, some of it might just have to go to the tip, in the end. But the connection with Fabian and Lucy made a reason for saving what we saved, and made a flow of craft where it would not otherwise have been.
So these, and other things, too many to name. The house is here and has its character because of them. And what I want to say at the end of it all is that, in having the money to build the house we are by the nature of privilege set apart. Lines of possibility make gulfs between us and others who are struggling to find a place to be, a place to inhabit, a place to live. Instead of being deeply ashamed by this, building a house has made me realize that even if we feel independent, we are not. We are utterly dependent on the community in which we are enmeshed. And what I’ve learnt this year is that if lines of possibility separate you from the world, then you damn well lay those lines out on the ground, and make of them a giant canvas on which we can repaint our ways of being together.
In a recent article about ways to make things better, George Monbiot writes about the importance of community. “At work, he says, at home, both practically and imaginatively, we are atomised.” No wonder we are disengaged from society and its politics. The way to take back control, he says, “is from the bottom up”, that “through local initiatives we can regenerate our culture”. I don’t know about that though I feel it to be true. But what I do know is that this house build has been a long, confusing, traumatising and difficult process. Sometimes it felt dead. It felt like we were asking for more from the world, when the world has already given enough. More space in a wild garden. More paint on the walls. More plaster to be made, more insulation to be unwrapped. At other times it felt alive, it felt breathing. These were the times when it became a thing we did not do alone. And I’m not arrogant enough to think that our house build changed the world. But what it made me realize is that change can’t come by anybody telling their own separate story. Change has to come by making things different together so that the glue between us becomes different, and the whole world looks up and says: okay. I felt that.
We did it right in the housebuild and we did it wrong. But thank you for sharing the journey with us, my friends. I hope you will come and visit, because we have built Bluebells to be a community space. A house of being with.