Down down deeper and down

Start on site on Prospect road Moseley. The gods have been kind and given us soft red sand to dig out and extend and existing basement. At the moment it is too small to park a car – that is all going to change. 

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Kings Road

For this project we had two phases – a loft room and a deep and narrow extension into the garden. The full width (at under four metres maybe that’s not the right expression) extension normally breaches planning rules but in this case we have a terraced house with the back of the neighbour’s wing in both sides. A special circumstance. In order to comply with fire regulations we had to fit a ground floor domestic sprinkler. These are heat activated so they don’t go off when you make toast and they work off mains feed, so no extra water tank is needed. 

We were able to fit a new stair to the loft room above the existing stairs and gain a small loft storage area under the eaves opposite the room. We could also fit in a tiny ensuite above hanging over the stairs. 


At the ground floor we used three steels in an H shape to let us build open plan below the existing wing and roof lights to bring some daylight into the deep room. The dining space is on the sunny side, the kitchen in the middle and the lounge is near the centre of the house. Thanks to Phil, our builder, for making me climb the top ladder!

Is my builder dodgy AF?

I recently had the educational experience of working with a builder best avoided. Let’s call him El Malo.

There are some builders who are disorganised, have trouble, make mistakes, or get the quote wrong. Like El Feo. It’s bad luck to get a builder like that but with enough flattery, threats or bribery you can usually get 95% of the outcome you were hoping for. 

Builders like El Malo are not like that. When they take on the job, they have no intention of delivering what they think will be a good scheme. They only want to take your money. They make for the horror stories of the building trade. 

The play

El Malo is looking out for clients who need work and can be fooled into paying out money without the work being done. He then offers them a low price, an early start but also an emotional connection. He then convinces the client to hand over increasingly large amounts of money, sometimes for no visible site progress. As long as the money keeps coming, so do the promises. Whenever the client behaves the way El Malo wants, he tells them what they want to hear. Whenever the client asks questions or delays payment, El Malo responds with threats – risks to the project, danger of delay, aggression or intimidation. The client wants to believe the promises and is afraid of the bad side. This is how after months of disaster, the client can still be handing over money. 

The signs

Is your builder like El Malo or are you just stuck with an El Feo? One is a bit incompetent, the other malevolent. If your builder has no address, or a fake address, no landline, no Google history, no paper invoice, no company number these are danger signs. Also look out for a really low price and early availability. But what are the killer tells that you are being double crossed? The key is that you are being emotionally manipulated into believing the lies. Try this. Ask your builder to do something extra that you know should cost money – El Feo will try to charge you or avoid adding it to the contract, El Malo will use it to control you – it’s no problem, no cost, but it will make it more important that you make the next payment. 

What you can do

Say goodbye to your money and your project. Don’t make it worse. If you try to negotiate or confront El Malo, he will look for your emotional vulnerability. Go to trading standards or citizens advice. You can try to go to court, but make sure trading standards are on board. With no contract, no address or even the name of the builder you have a problem. Warn your neighbours. 

El Bueno

El Bueno can give you a reference. He (or she) is not the cheapest. You will get a letter contract or a written agreement with a real address. You will pay VAT (unless it is a specialist micro project business like stained glass or Minton floor restoration). If you want to hire them, you will wait. If you want something extra, it costs money. El Bueno gives you a payment schedule, which can include a deposit, but the payment stages and amounts are defined. El Bueno wants to get the job done and make a profit but they also want to walk away knowing that you will give them a recommendation. 

VAT can’t be right!

Ahh, the smell of tax in the morning!

The VAT rules are pretty simple (well, not really). If you run a business and you have an income over £82,000 in a twelve month period, you need to register for VAT. You get a VAT number and you have to show your price net of VAT and the VAT on your invoices. It’s a lot of money – if you pay £50,000 on your project, you will need to pay £10,000 of VAT and for most of my customers, that’s a lot of money. 

What if your builder says he is not VAT registered? There are some genuine businesses that don’t need to charge VAT because they just don’t do that much work. A decorator, gardener or a even a jobbing electrician might be under the threshold. But if you are looking at a project over 20k and it’s going to take less than 3 months on site, you need to ask yourself why your builder is not VAT registered. He could work for someone else part of the year, or he might be starting up under a new business name. Or there might be an “arrangement”. This could be two some traders splitting the jobs, or asking you to pay the materials. If you don’t see a VAT number, ask. And make sure you speak to a previous customer and see if they are happy. The construction trade goes up and down, at the moment everyone is busy so you should see less unregistered traders. 

It’s also worth remembering that builders who don’t charge VAT can’t claim it back on their materials. So unregistered traders should be charging a bit more for the bricks and timber – if this isn’t reflected in the prices you get back they might not be charging enough to do the job properly. 

We have a breakthrough

 
The bifold doors will go here. The external ground will be lowered by about 600mm and the new insulated floor slab will be about a foot higher than the sand. A nice project. 

On another matter, I was able to help the builder (we help each other really) to resolve issues for the drainage, structure and the spatial arrangement.  I attend site partly because I am a nosey person, but also because my role as the architect is monitor the progress of the works and assist with the technical design. So I am there assure the quality of the work. I like that too. 

On site on Prospect Road

A basement project is a little bit different than a normal up in the air scheme and it starts with the foundations. For a regular house extension we dig a trench where we want the new walls to go and fill it with concrete. For a basement the foundations have to go under the existing house. The first time you see a 100 year old brick wall floating in the air above a hole it can be a bit alarming, but for the builder it means moving a lot of muck from way down there to up here. The ground is always different and for this builder we can be very happy that it is clean dry sand.
P.S. The photo of the little sunny bench – this is where the doors will go!

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