Self-builder’s syndrome

We have a digger. And a man to drive it. Our friend, Will, who can start as soon as he has sorted out the exhaust. We learn from Stewart at the garage that he has already been working on it. This is a man who does what he says he will do, when he says he will do it. It’s a bit of a shock. Mainly we’re used to waiting. Usually for weeks or months at a time. It means we could get started with digging foundations within a week or two.

It’s taking a while for this to sink in. The idea, the dream, the plans, the drawings, the forms; we’ve got used to these. Even posts and measurements we’ve done. The reality of blade breaking earth, of something taking shape, and of that happening imminently….. I ought to be more excited. I was very excited when I built an approximation of the ground floor with lego. My son, Isaac, aged 11, brought some of his lego men in to live there and promptly placed snipers strategically at the windows. He must have felt the need to defend this precious model; the half-built, haphazardly-constructed version of his future home. In the end, it was he who destroyed it, to build something else – we’re short of base-plates. My daughter, Bea, aged 9, was devastated. For her, the model had not lost its potency. Before the snipers moved in, she had rehearsed with me, several times, which door she would come in after school, where she would hang her coat and where she would find me (in the kitchen making a delicious snack, naturally).

From lego models to real machines is a big step which is frankly terrifying. We don’t have a master-builder coming in to take control. We are the project managers. Thankfully, with the support of Jim, our friend who is a builder. He’ll be there for the essentials, like measuring, but he can’t be there on a daily basis to hold our hands. He’s busy. And we can’t afford him.

Over the past few weeks, particularly since we heard in mid-December that we have qualified for a Croft Housing Grant, we have become increasingly preoccupied with the house. Payment of the first portion of the grant is dependent upon the house being wind- and water-tight, including roof-covering, by December 2015. That’s possible, but daunting for the complete beginners that we are. On Sunday my husband, Phil, was hunkered down in the office/drying-room/stationery cupboard/guitar-storage-facility (every caravan should have one). I thought he was catching up on the weekend’s sport and was prepared to indulge him for a while – he’d had a busy day moving poo. My patience started to wear thin as I cooked tea and attempted to negotiate screen-time with grumpy children. Deciding on the subtle approach I went quietly into the office, and found him researching concrete-mixers.

This is not normal behaviour for Phil. It’s a symptom. Later that same day I found him standing with a sock half on, staring into space. He was trying to calculate how many cement-mixer loads of concrete it might take to build the foundations. An impossible task until we know how much Will is going to have to dig out and where the bedrock is, and whether we might have to build up the foundations in some places. The distracted staring, bizarre calculations and obsessive researching – known as “self-builder’s syndrome” – it’s only going to get worse. We’ve already become socially inept and boring, only really able to communicate with other self-builders, who think nothing of being bombarded with a stream of questions about septic tanks, under-floor heating pipes, ducting and u-values. Even before they’ve been offered a cup of tea.

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Faith, hope and ice.

This morning we woke up to ice on the inside of the caravan windows. I had to peel the curtains off the ice, and the tea towels that are wedged in the draught at the bottom of the kitchen window were stuck fast. It reminded me of caravan tales I’ve been told by the many former caravan- dwellers that live on Mull. It feels good to be part of this hardy community. There are so many of us, each with stories to tell of cupboards mouldy from condensation, walls shaking in the gale force winds, the noise of hailstones on the roof, the draughts and leaks. Winter in a caravan is not fun.

One former caravan-dweller survived eight years in a caravan with no running water. She remembered rinsing clothes in the freezing cold burn. We’re lucky – we have electricity and running hot water (when the pipes aren’t frozen). And the ultimate in luxury – a wood-burning stove. Once that gets going our caravan is pretty cosy, but as soon as the wood burns out, which it does in an hour if not tended, the heat vanishes through the paper-thin layers of window, wall and ceiling. Getting out of bed on a dark, cold morning, hours after the stove has lost its heat, is difficult.

No wonder in my head, most of the time, I picture living in our new house. Although sometimes it is hard to fight the feeling that it is an imaginary house that will continue to exist only in my head.

Optimism, stubbornness, single-mindedness, bloody-mindedness, faith, perhaps hope – something gets us up on the freezing cold mornings and keeps us going.

Fitting bumpy pegs into square holes

Standing in lashing rain and gale force winds, trying to measure. The tape measure blows wildly in the wind, the string for marking the boundaries flaps. How accurate is this going to be I wonder? How do you get a right angle when none of your lines are staying still?

We’re measuring to mark out the land that we have to get decrofted for our house, garden and maybe ground source heat pump pipes. It is not easy. We have little hills and trees suddenly cropping up in the middle of a straight line, walls, holes, wiggly fences. Nothing like the lovely, flat, rectangular plan shown on the sample decrofting form. This is the third day we’ve been out in the worst weather trying to make sense of the space we need and how to fit it into the reality of the topography we inhabit. We’re going to have to do some digging or we’ll be parking the car at 45 degrees up a hill. But there is only so much we can do to change the physical environment. The rest is a struggle to fit the bumpy, beautiful, imperfect peg of our land into the square hole of bureaucracy.

Once inside, dry, with a large cup of tea and an even larger slice of Christmas cake, my treasured scale rule makes the lines and angles that were impossible outside. It works. It looks odd. But it works. Another form filled in. Another step along the road.

Clearing the way

I’m beginning this story with a fire. It’s not really the beginning. My 9 year old daughter would tell me that my story started when my mother was born with me, an egg, already formed in her ovary, waiting to be released. But that’s not the story I want to write.

The fire is a good way to start. We’re clearing prunings that we have collected over the last two years from customers’ gardens. We intended to shred them, but the pile got bigger and we ran out of time. And we need the space, because the pile is where we need to start measuring out and digging for the foundations of our house.

At last! After living in a caravan on our croft for more than two years, jumping through various bureaucratic hoops, and waiting for long periods of time when nothing was happening, it’s a relief to be getting nearer to the point of starting. There are still more hoops to jump through, and more waiting to be done, but it’s a beginning.  .