Building Clayhill Arts: Part Three

Following on from Part One, which dealt with finding Clayhill Farm and putting our initial plans in place, and Part Two which dealt with assembling the team and getting underway with the process of renovation; Michael is here with Part Three of Building Clayhill Arts where he reflects on the skills that were involved in managing a project of this size, and how he found he already had some of these skills, due to his previous career in teaching.

There were challenges and difficult days. On a project of this size, that was inevitable.

The builders knew what they were doing but we didn’t. We had never managed a building project before and this was a big and complicated one. We spoke to both teams early on as to what to expect from us as both clients and as project manager. Steve’s advice was quite simple – there was going to be a lot of decisions to make, so when they ask for an answer they would need to know as soon as possible.

We thought we could make decisions, we knew what we wanted from the building, what the business needed. We thought that was more than acceptable, not fully appreciating the scale of what this meant. Everyone needed decisions making all the time, hundreds of decisions a week! Not only that but as project manager you would have to quickly assess the impact of those decisions on the whole build. You had to always be thinking a few days ahead and had to keep the entire architects plans in your head. You needed to make thousands of decisions and then weigh up the impact of those decisions on future decisions and what was happening next. Everyone wanted your attention. Builders would want specific materials or would want to know when things were happening, plumbers would want to know where toilets were going and what taps we wanted. Electricians wanted to know where light switches and sockets would go. It all needed deciding.

 

As well as managing the site we were also doing all the little jobs that would pop up on site that needed completing to make things runs smoothly. I quickly learnt that a simple 30-minute job for me could save 4 hours for someone else, so I would labour on site where I could; in between meetings or searching online for door handles. It was all very intense. I had to keep so much in my head; measurements, building regulations, dates of deliveries. There wouldn’t be any time to write things down and if I did things would so quickly change making the notes redundant.

It was exhausting, long stressful days and to make matters worse we were still finishing off the farmhouse and living on site in a caravan. The winter of 2016 was particularly tough. Cold, damp, muddy. Freezing water pipes first thing in the morning. When we did try to get a break by going away on the occasional weekend, we would always end up with a building site opposite our accommodation as a constant reminder of what was waiting for us when we got home!

To manage the build and get the best out of everyone I called upon my previous experience working in education. I had been a teacher for over 12 years, which also came with some management experience. To teach you need to be very organised, have excellent communication skills and be adept at conflict resolution. I adapted these skills to managing all these conflicting trades, demands and radio stations. I ensured good communication on site with regular daily meetings with everyone to see where they were at, what they needed and what was happening next. I’ve always thought that you get the best out of people when they are challenged. When they are working on something just slightly out of there comfort zone. Building Clayhill was going to be one of the biggest projects any of us had undertaken. We were all stretched by the scale of the project and the new technologies involved. It felt like we were all learning together. Especially me. The builders would explain the steps involved and the why and how things were built and I would ensure everyone had everything they needed to best get the job done and on time.

By May 2017 we had our first booking, it was to be for a wedding party for our neighbours in September. This gave us our deadline we had six months left!

The last six months would be the hardest we had ever worked. By now I had taken on board the painting and decorating. I thought this would be quite a simple way to add value to the building and save some money. I was just one person with a lot of building to paint. It took 8 months in total. From fresh plaster to the finished article. Skirting boards, wallpapering, walls, ceilings. I also laid the brick floor in the Granary (2 weeks on my hands and knees) finished the polished concrete floors in the studio (although not actually polished concrete – it’s a liquid floor with added hardener) whilst managing everyone else to get things finished.  The amount of painting was monumental, 8 bedrooms, Granary, Studio, bathrooms and all woodwork, doors and windows, throughout the building. To help me and keep myself sane I would listen to Radcliffe and Maconie’s Radio 6 afternoon show on headphones over the loud beeping of the Skylift, a noisy scissor lift we hired to access and paint the highest ceilings. I bonded with my paintbrush (now named Wilson) and mediated on the effectiveness of differing brushstrokes and the best way to “cut in”. It was like slowly going mad.

 

The more finished the buildings were, the more unfinished everything outside looked. One of the things you tend to forget when building is the outside space. It was looking like…..well a building site! Bits of building materials lying about, tire tracks, lumps of concrete dotted about. We needed to do something about it.

We spoke to a civil engineering company, RW Gale, that we had already used on the farmhouse. They were able to come in and excavate the concrete yard at the back of the building so Phil our digger driver could get in and lay the ground for the garden. We had to build a retaining wall, steps up to the studio and a pond. It was during the hot summer of 2017 and dusty and hot work, we did the best we could to keep everyone hydrated.

The last few weeks of the build were spent snagging and moving and building furniture. It was the worst time of the whole build. We were all tired and exhausted. Getting on site at 6am and getting back home around 10pm. We motivated builders with bacon rolls on a Friday. They were excellent, going the final mile to get everything finished and tidy. The bedrooms by now were carpeted and almost ready to go. There was just the “easy” job of building all the beds, furniture, and lugging mattresses across all eight bedrooms.

The beds would prove to be a bit of a last-minute headache. We’d built the bed’s, but the mattresses wouldn’t fit in the frames. We had bought hotel standard mattresses that could be joined together with a zip making them king sized beds. However, these are not standard and would not fit in conventional frames. We only had a few days left and new frames were going to take weeks to get to us. So we made the painful decision to get in new mattresses, storing the old ones and found a company called “Mattresses Tomorrow” to help us out. They arrived the day after tomorrow and although we ordered 8 – only 7 arrived!

The last day was finally here. There was still lots to do. Cleaning for one on a building site is a never-ending task. As soon as you’ve cleaned up a new layer of building dust suspended in the air would quickly settle. The final bits of furniture needed building, and beds needed making. Our first guests were arriving at 11am and everyone was running on fumes. We finally got the last few things finished at 10:56 with 4 minutes to spare. The last remaining mattress arrived after the guests had, we had to sneak it in without them noticing. Patrick’s team had stayed on to clean up outside and make sure everything was ok. We all turned back to look at what we’d done together, all of us full of pride and mild disbelief that we managed to do this. Although physically exhausted we all had a big collective hug.

It took 18 months, from Spring 2016 through to September 2017; 8 skips, 2 changes of work boots but we were finally here! We took some time off, but it was difficult to relax. Now the real work started….

Michael Parkes

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