Building Clayhill Arts: Part Two
Following on from Part One, Michael explains how we assembled the team, approached the build and managed with the buildings’ design and aesthetics throughout.
Work started on the build in the spring of 2016. We had two separate building contractors on board, who we had already been working with for the past year renovating the farmhouse that was to become our home. They were happy to work together with me as the project manager and client. They had already taken us under their wing and been very generous with their time.
They showed us how things worked on a building site, some tricks of the trade, and introduced me to some of the language of building – which in Somerset has some unique iterations, cement is called muck and we now know what an ‘elephant foot’ is (see below!)
It’s a actually called a waste manifold – but it does look like a Elephant’s foot!
It felt natural to continue working together; we knew each other’s approach and more importantly they knew the local area, local trades and builders’ merchants. We discussed the project together and decided to split the building into two separate parts. Part one included the studio and bedrooms 1-4 which was originally a milking parlour. This was all under the same roof and felt reasonably contained. This area was going to be built by Milhaze Builders, based in Over Stowey and managed by Patrick Tully. Patrick was from a farming background, so knew agricultural buildings very well and the local farmers. Patrick’s team included Andy, Martin, Rick, Sully, Mal, Kieran and his digger driver Philip Feltham. Patrick had a keen eye for detail, which was important on a project like this and his previous relationships with local joiners Grandfield and Sons came in very useful as they ended up making all of our windows and doors!
The other part of the building included the Granary and bedrooms 5-8 which were originally a stable block. These were going to be under the control of Meade Builders based in Edington. Steve Meade came from a building family and had many years of experience on similar projects. His team included Steph, Jim, Ash and Andrew. Steve enjoyed restoring and renovation and was excited by the prospect of the the Granary and stables. We would be able to restore this area and keep the original beams and stonework, Patrick’s building was unfortunately too far gone to restore and required replacement over renovation.
We also had onboard Colin Martin and Sons to work with us on the heating and plumbing. His team, Ian and Richard, were traditional plumbers and had years of experience in heating engineering, particularly with renewable technologies, which we were keen to include in the build. Our electricians were Robert Crab and occasionally his colleague Matt from Delve Electrical. Both were excellent, practical electricians and really considered the building use when planning their first fix. Our structural engineer was Dave Bearman, again a local structural engineer (also an Alpaca farmer!) He had a real down to earth approach to engineering, if there were a simple solution to a problem, he would find it. We also needed water on site. Fortunately, the farm had its own spring fed well which had provided water for the farm for decades, but we needed to upgrade the pump and filtration system to bring it up to modern standards. H W Hendy and Sons from Wiveliscombe came to our assistance from a recommendation from our neighbours. They would be responsible for providing the new water supply and all the waste services.
When you add all those various trades up you start to get a picture of what it was like ‘on site’, as it was now called. It was busy, very busy! Builders knocking something down, materials arriving on site electricians and plumbers installing the first fix, digger drivers driving around and engineers installing equipment. It was quite hectic.
At first this was quite overwhelming; so many people to organise and look after, any number of things could go wrong with this many people on site, all working on top of each other. Despite this though, everyone got on very well. Each team would share different approaches and techniques with each other, and if one team were running low on a particular material, they could borrow it from the other team. If we needed more hands on something, if something were particularly heavy for example, everyone would drop tools and get involved. It all worked very harmoniously.
You could always tell who was working where on site, by what was playing on the radio! Patrick’s team were firm Radio 2 listeners, especially when it came to Pop Master at 10.30, which we’d all get involved with. Rob and Matt had Kiss FM blaring out. Steve’s guys had the dial set to Radio 1. Walking around site was like being at a very messy and noisy music festival. We had converted one of the rooms in the farmhouse into a rest area and I would make tea and coffee every day at 10am and 1pm. With an average of eight people on site every day, that came to over 5,700 hot drinks in total over the course of the build! Everyone would catch up and chat and there was a lot to chat about in 2016! Brexit, Donald Trump etc, so as you can imagine, there were some heated debates…
Starting a project like this is always (as I have come to learn) fraught with early setbacks. We had our energy provider install a new electricity supply – the day after the roof fell in in that area. We dug trial pits around the site to find out how deep the foundations were, it turned out there weren’t any. We had architects plans to guide us and measurements from the surveyor, but within the first few days we discovered their limitations. The surveyor had made mistakes (by 50 cm in some places) calling all the preparatory data into question. As soon as you start actually building and realising the reality of an old building, the plans have to change and adapt. We started carefully investigating and ripping the place apart. Some walls had to come down to improve access and all the floors had to be dug out to accommodate insulation and underfloor heating as per current building regulations. Scaffolding went up, roof’s stripped – with an ecologist on hand in case we encountered any bats. We found one little fellow hiding out and moved him to a bat box on a nearby tree.
We wanted the building to not only meet current standards but also be as self-sufficient as possible and have a low carbon footprint. I thought this might be difficult and there may be some opposition from some of the builders. However, everyone was onboard and already had a practical and efficient approach to reducing waste and impact. We had decided on heating the building using biomass, a system we had already trialed in the farmhouse.
We were remote, with no connection to main gas or water so we had to install something from scratch anyway. We also were fortunate to have our main roof face south, making it ideal for a photovoltaic solar array. We had already tested this out on the farmhouse roof and had had some problems with leaks that we didn’t want to repeat. We found a solution with an inline solar panel that sits as part of the roof rather than on top of it. This would be installed as part of the roof and save a lot of the old pan tiles that we were already running low on.
The solar panels set atop the Granary, a building that we were able to restore the majority of. It had originally been used to store grain upstairs whilst the ground floor occupied a workshop, store and area for mixing and heating pig food – that would become the kitchen! The top floor had to come out. It was very dangerous thanks to leaks in the roof taking its toll over the years. This would enable the building to be light and airy and would contain the dining room and kitchen.
The small part of the floor we were able to keep became the office and underneath a small lounge. We insulated the floors, walls and roof which had to incorporate a traditional bitumen felt. It turns out that bats get their claws caught up in modern breathable felts! We built 4 bat habitats into the Granary, two in the walls and two in the ridge tiles. We are yet to see any bats use them though. The Granary backed onto the threshing barn which was to become the studio. This was to be joined with a reception area, the only part of the building which was to be new. This was a critical area as it was the point both building teams would meet, and it was essential that both parties were working to the same measurements so the floors would meet. To do this you have to calculate measurements for digging out the floor, laying insulation, damp proofing, underfloor heating pipes, floor screed and laminate flooring. In the end we were only out by 2cm!
The studio was to be one large open multi-use space. To build it we needed a new floor and roof. The roof came down with little encouragement and fell in on itself when we started taking it apart. The main issue with the studio was with its foundations. It didn’t have any. We could either underpin or demolish the wall in question and rebuild. Looking at the costs, demolition looked the best option, so we took it down and rebuilt. This enabled the north gable end to look straight and made glazing much easier later on. You can still see the join where it was demolished and rebuilt.
This also freed up some stone that we could use elsewhere in the building. To get into the studio we needed to improve access and after researching the options we decided on a set of cast concrete steps and an accessibility lift. This was the only part of the building that had accessibility issues. Everywhere else had level access due to it being a working farm. The lift was an easy install, the steps less so. We had found a company that specialise in making cast concrete steps however, they are used to dealing with project managers with more knowledge and experience. We had to supply all measurements, stress loads, angles, tread heights, etc all things that we had to make an educated guess at. So, it was a bit hairy the day they arrived on site. As the telehandler carefully lowered them into place, we were very relieved to see that they fitted.
To celebrate we placed a time capsule under them filled with items that acknowledge the major events of 2016. This included a newspaper from Donald Trump’s inauguration, David Bowie’s (who died earlier in the year) Blackstar album, a DVD of Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs, my old mobile phone (a Sony Ericsson C901) and a bottle of wine from 2016. We’ll see what future generations make of them…
The bedrooms were a bit of a headache. They needed careful planning early on for the excavation of soil pipes running underground to take away waste from toilets and showers. This meant that in an entirely empty building, with no roof and a soil floor we had to work out where each toilet would be and be accurate within a few centimetres. We used the plans as best we could, but things had changed so much. So, we opted for a different approach. We measured things up over one weekend walked through the site, pretending we were using the rooms and moving in and out of imaginary doors. We then marked out the walls with red spray paint until we were happy with things. We used different coloured spray paint for different services making the whole place look like a building instruction manual produced by Banksy. This technique worked well, and we continued to draw out where everything needed to go, sockets, lights, TV points, there is still some spray paint visible in the lounge area marking out where the wall lights would go.
After discussing the overall look of the building with Steve one day, we decided to adopt a striped back aesthetic for the buildings. This became a guiding rule on site. Everything should look like the material it’s made from. This enabled us to strip things back and celebrate the materials. This also helped when procuring furniture, lights, and fittings. The only thing painted or covered up was the plastered walls. This meant the skirting boards would be left as varnished wood, floors as polished concrete, light fittings raw metal. We felt this connected with the building’s original use and its future use as an art school. It meant that we would have to dig deep to find reclaimed materials and artefacts to include in the building. Some of these decisions didn’t work out. We originally planned on using galvanised cattle troughs as baths in the en-suite rooms. Our plumbers were less keen. After pointing out how difficult they would be to plumb not to say how cold they would be to use and difficult to clean we decided to follow their advice and eventually found a compromise using galvanised metal as bath panels and key clamp fittings as shower rails.
Reclaimed building materials would also be required throughout renovating the building. We had to source materials from reclaim yards, but in bulk. Wood panelling, slate, and 2,200 old roof pantiles. We thought this would be a tough ask, but we were in luck! Our local reclaim yard were in the process of stripping just that amount from a nearby church. Rather than ship them back to the yard, process and deliver them, they would take them straight from the old site and deliver them to ours. So, on a wet afternoon over 2,000 tiles arrived which needed lifting onto the scaffold. All hands on the pumps!
We also were able to procure our own reclaimed materials from what was left from when the farm was in use. Old drinking troughs, hooks, bracket’s and milking equipment which is now used to hang aprons on in the kitchen. We also recycled what we could from the building process. All the concrete that was excavated from the site, and there was a lot of it, was piled up where the gardens are now. The builders had told us that it could be recycled and reused on site. We hired in a local concrete crushing company who brought onto site a huge machine which proceeded to crush all the concrete over a few hot summer days. This produced hardcore (rubble) which went back into the building forming the sub floor. This saved a fortune in material costs whilst recycling the material at the same time.
We had also been quoted £10,000 to demolish a large cattle shed at the northern edge of the property which blocked the view and made the site very dark. We had planned to remove this and turn the area into gardens. Fortunately, Patrick’s brother-in-law, a nearby farmer was looking for just that type of barn. Patrick arranged for him to come in, take it down, transport it and rebuild at his farm. This cost us nothing, did us a favour and recycled a perfectly good building. It certainly paid to have that local knowledge and contacts to hand, which is also something that came to light when approaching the Project Management…