So near and yet so far . . .
Alongside her husband Ben, and with their one- year-old daughter Florence in tow, Hannah Huggins is beginning to feel the strain, as the couple’s ongoing struggle to convert a Devon barn into a £1 million home deepens under the burden of broken promises
Mon 5 One week to go before completion on the sale of our cottage. I set the week aside to focus on some serious packing. On our way to see another grotty cottage to rent, we stumble across someone planning to rent out her own, much nicer house for the next few months. It is cheap, and just a few minutes from the site – homelessness crisis over.
Back at the barn, Ben and structural engineer Bart Stockman fine-tune the design for the main bridge, spanning a six-metre void above the kitchen. The original structure has been worked, reworked and tweaked to within an inch of its life, as it has to be light in form, but, obviously, sturdy in practice. The bridge is to be plasma-cut from 2mm-thick steel sheet that will sandwich a 18mm plywood frame. Fri 9 We get the keys for our new temporary residence. Box after box is loaded into the van ready to be offloaded at the other end. Fri 16 My 30th birthday. Ben surprises me with the promise of a holiday in France beginning a week on Monday. This will be our first proper break in a while. All very exciting. Mon 19 The slate arrives and the long and laborious process of slating 120 square metres of roof begins. Wed 21 Six one-ton dumpy bags of lime putty and sand mix arrive just in time to begin the external render. First up, the mix gets put into the cement mixer along with a fi stful of hair, which will help the render bind and stop it cracking. On this occasion, we use alpaca hair. Not sure why; there just seem to be an awful lot of alpacas in Devon right now. Sat 24 Having satisfied ourselves that all is in order on-site, Ben Florence and I take the ferry from Poole to St Malo in search of some much needed rest and recuperation. Mon 26 Phone in from holiday to check all is going OK. Fred, our site manager, assures us it is. Thurs 29 I get a call from Andy on Channel Four’s Richard & Judy, which is planning a segment about potty-training. I have presented strands on the programme before and somehow news has reached R&J that I have been putting Florence on the potty from the age of fi ve months. We’re booked.
Mon 3 A call from a supplier brings some bad news. The huge glass units, which were ordered weeks ago, have been seriously delayed. It will be another month before they are delivered. With the autumn weather closing in, the news comes as a serious blow.
Meanwhile, although the sale of our cottage has enabled us to inject some urgently needed cash into the barn project, it’s still not enough to see it through. The bank will need to do their bit. I spend anxious hours on the computer, calculator by my side, attempting to produce a fi nancial schedule that will convince the bank surveyor that our new budgets are realistic. Tues 4 We return home from our hols to a beautifully slated roof and rendered walls. Thurs 6 A call from our bank and we fi nally have the news we’ve been praying for. They are willing to put up the cash to see the project through, providing we put our £70,000 in fi rst. It’s been an excruciating few days. The thought of being left with a half-finished job doesn’t bear thinking about.
It’s two days before her fi rst birthday and Florence has just made her debut TV appearance. To my huge relief, not only did she sit still throughout, not cry nor wee in her pants (entirely inappropriate in the circumstances) but to top it off, she did her own version of a “wind-up” cue in response to the fl oor manager’s signal – that’s my girl. Fri 7 Florence and I leave London and head straight to the barn. A pile of time-sheets and post awaits us but the driveway has been dug. It’s fi nally reached the stage of the project where if you turn your head something has changed. Sat 8 Florence is one year old today. A cliché, I know, but where has the time gone? Cake is consumed by children. Champagne is drunk by adults. A fun day is had by all. Mon 10 To protect the oak structure from the elements, the studio and garaging is wrapped securely in Tyvex felt. It doesn’t look pretty but it works. Soon, the time will come to clad it in horizontal strips of green oak. In the courtyard the topsoil is almost in place – now there’s turf to be laid before the frosts set in and trees to be planted. Thurs 13 News from our glazing supplier of yet more delays. The latest call sets the arrival of the glass back by another three weeks – “a hitch with the manufacturer”. Ben is livid. I am devastated. Our entire schedule hinges on getting the linhay wing of the house sealed up. This setback puts us seriously behind schedule. Fri 14 Today has not been a good day. Before my very eyes, and with very little notice, the Pod (my office) was winched on to the back of a tractor and transported 300 metres across the site to its fi nal resting place. The move goes smoothly enough but my systems are in turmoil. It’s going to be days before power, broadband and my sanity are reinstated.
Thurs 20 Hefty rent and
business rates force us to
move our until-now rented
workshop on site as soon
as possible. Transport is
hired to move the
oak that will
and oak louvres. Hours of precious time is spent on the move. Tues 25 With all there is at stake right now, the very idea of Ben and Fred disappearing to run a marathon seems beyond reason. To make my point known, I summon them both to a “crisis meeting”. To soften the blow, I prep them both with a beer or two before breaking it to them that I think they should postpone the run until next year. This turns out to be the most stupid idea ever. They both think I’m crazy for suggesting and tell me in no uncertain terms. Well, I tried.
Wed 2 Ben and Fred head for New York in preparation for the marathon on Sunday, leaving me in sole charge of the build, a nocturnal, one-year-old daughter and, if that wasn’t enough, fundraising for the charity they are both running for. Fri 4 I place the order for the
wood burner that, on
completion, will provide the
drawing room with its
centrepiece. We opt for a
fairly pricey, classic 1970s
Despite the budget
struggling to take the
strain of what has
turned out to be an
incredibly expensive project, we are determined not to compromise on quality. Sat 5 Florence is sleeping terribly, waking numerous times in the night and refusing to sleep beyond 5.45am. Without wanting to sound like a precious parent, I’m convinced she senses that her Daddy is away. Tues 8 Florence lands up in Exeter’s A&E having consumed a mouthful of dishwasher rinse-aid. In a state of panic, I just manage to call NHS Direct who, after a few minutes and 101 questions, confirm that the substance is “low toxicity”. By the time we get to the hospital, Florence seems absolutely fi ne, which the doctor confirms. I, however, feel completely traumatised by the whole experience. Phone Ben in New York to fi ll him in. Sat 12 Flo and I travel to London to meet the boys in from their New York trip. They look shattered. While in London, we take the opportunity to pin down the spec for the bathroom tiles and place an order. Mon 14 Ben’s birthday and back on site at 8am as usual. By 2pm he calls to say he is feeling ill. A combination of jetlag and 26.2 gruelling miles of marathon has taken its toll. To top it off, temperatures have plummeted and the night storage heaters in our rented cottage aren’t cutting it. It’s absolutely freezing. Sun 20 The huge pains of glass that will span the entire length and height of the kitchen utility and dining area are due to arrive tomorrow. We can hardly wait. The glass forms such a key part of the house’s structure and style that until it is in, we won’t feel we’re dealing with a complete unit. Mon 21 A phone call at 7am from our glass company brings the horrific news that our glass – all 75 sq m of it – has somehow got lost in transit. We are both utterly gutted and the company tells us there is nothing it can do. The scissor lift, which costs £500 per week, sits redundant. Tues 22 More phone calls to and from our glass company. We are now seriously concerned about their ability to see this order though - how on earth can you simply lose 75 sq m of doubleglazed units? Wed 23 We have no alternative but to cancel the existing order with the glass company. It’s a huge decision but, with the weeks slipping by and the elements closing in, the situation is getting serious. A number of calls later and we’ve switched to a local
company, which assures us it can turn our order around in 10 days. Thurs 24 Ben and I meet with a company to discuss the specifications for two huge glass doors for the kitchen and study. We opt for aluminium frames fi nished in a powder coat of matt grey to tie in with the linhay glazing frames. Unfortunately, we miss the deadline for pre-Christmas deliveries. Our hopes of getting the house sealed up before Christmas are slipping away. Mon 28 Our electrician, Eric, who has worked for us on many projects before now, is proving tough to pin down. This, yet again, has serious implications on progress. We had our plasterer, Long John Garrity (the tallest plasterer in Devon) booked in to fi nish the kitchen and dining room but unless Eric shows up as planned, we’re going to have to send LJG home. It turns out that the charms of presenter Kevin McCloud and his latest Grand Designs project have lured Eric away from us. Tues 29 David Wilcock – purveyor of fi ne architectural ironmongery – is back on site to get the order for the door furniture moving. Unfortunately, a couple of bespoke items won’t be available until after Christmas but the majority should be with us before then. The aim is to get all the solid-oak external doors hung before Christmas so that we can get the heating system on. The oak fl ooring will need two weeks in the heated house to adjust to the atmosphere before they can go down. All being well, we should be able to get it down in the fi rst week of January. I tackle the plans for the kitchen which I feel aren’t quite right. Wed 30 Ben supervises the sealing of four of the wet rooms in preparation for tiling next week. The fi fth “pod” bathroom – a selfcontained, curved-cornered, oakclad structure which appears to sit half-in and half-out of the bedroom it serves – will require a different treatment.
Thurs 1 A huge quantity of limestone for the kitchen and entrance hall and bathroom fl oors arrives plus tiles for the en-suites. Ben gives our tiler a briefing in preparation for tomorrow. Fri 2 Driving rain makes work on site miserable. The courtyard has turned in to a mudbath. On the positive front, the lake – which was lined with almost £3,000 of puddling clay - is fi lling nicely.
Property development rule number one: never set targets that coincide with religious festivals. It just never works. With three weeks to go until Christmas, the barn turned house is not looking as it should. The glass is still not in (although it is in the depot being checked), the doors aren’t hung (although Ben and the team are working flat out) and our electrician has only just shown up. Panic? Me? The season of goodwill is almost upon us and so is the Christmas party. Two great reasons to hang on in there. Besides, we’ve got until Easter to get this place finished.
In all their barn days: ( far left and above) Hannah, Ben, Florence and colleagues on site in Devon, as the barn slowly, painfully, endures the next stage of development. Left, Ben took time off work to run the New York marathon