“What are you doing in London?”
“Waiting for my kitchen extension to start.”
That was June 2017. The same conversation repeated itself in July. Little did I know this was the beginning of an extended chase with rising tension.
My American friends asked for clarification. “What is a kitchen extension?” It’s another word for home improvement of your kitchen, renovate your kitchen by extending it, making it bigger. That’s what the English call this project.
In early August, on the 42nd and last day of the planning application, I finally heard from the local council. I suspected they had called me on my mobile phone, registering “no caller ID.”
“Thanks for calling me back. I’m using my personal mobile phone, as there’s a no caller ID from my office phone. I’ve been trying to get hold of your builder. He used the wrong map. It’s the wrong house.”
When I called Gx, the man who had answered my query on Quotatis, visited me in March and won me over with the special roof design he niftily created from his computer software, he said it had been taken care of. He mumbled something about “it didn’t matter.” The response from the council was that there was no need for planning permission.
“Why did we have to submit all that paperwork?” I asked. I had paid him fees for a survey, planning application, etc to the tune of 1,720 pounds.
“They always reply that there’s no prior approval needed. But we still have to apply.”
I was perplexed but relieved that we could finally get started.
“I need to order the skip and other materials. It’ll take a week to get the skip permit. Please transfer 4,450 to my bank account.”
“But I already paid some 20K by credit card to your roof supplier!”
“That’s for the roof and other items. I need 500 for skip license & the skip, 1,800 for bricks, 1500 for other materials, and 650 for the pump.”
Grudgingly I transferred the cash.
A week later, five men showed up at my doorstep. The oldest one introduced himself as Ix and his 18-year old son. “Do you have the plans?”
“Didn’t Gx give it to you?”
The other three, aged from 18 to 22, stayed to dig.
The young men dug for two days, removing the earth from the raised bedding and surrounding red brick enclosure that once held a huge red camilla bush and other plants. One by one they carried strong plastic tubs of dirt through the house, filling the yellow skip outside. The white walls and door frames were soon smeared with brown dirt.
On the third day, an older, more experienced builder named Rx replaced one of the youngsters. “I’m here to supervise the boys. Do you have the plans?”
Surely, they had the plans. How else would they know what to dig and how far to build?
I had a drawing that did not look detailed enough to be the kind of architectural drawings that my first kitchen designer had asked for. I called Gx, the man who sold me the idea of a dream extension with a four-sided pyramid roof.
“Where are the plans?”
“They are on the council website.”
There were only documents, no drawings. From that website, back in April, I had downloaded the proposed plans for loft conversion and kitchen extensions of all the houses on my street. I knew what a plan looked like, but I couldn’t find one for this house.
I kept asking and getting the same response. “Just go to the website. They should all be there.”
Meanwhile, after taking down the terracotta tiles, the builders discovered a manhole just outside the kitchen door. “You’re not supposed to cover it. We’re going to install a new manhole in the garden as the new extension will cover this one up.”
The guys dug a foundation one meter deep all around the existing two by three meter kitchen. They piped in the concrete by hand. Where was the pump I had paid 650 quid for? I paid the builders for their labour at the end of the week. Did I pay double ? The invisible pump and the labour to do its work?
After the concrete had set, the builders started build a wall 100 mm from my neighbour’s.
“Why can’t you build a wall next to their wall? What if animals get trapped in this gap?”
“Do you have a party wall agreement? If not, we can’t touch their wall. We don’t know what’s underneath their kitchen. Under old regulations, the foundation won’t be deep enough to support your wall against theirs.”
Later, I learned that without digging under my neighbour’s foundation, building a lean-to wall higher than theirs would cause their wall to topple.
In the second week of the project, Rx showed me the concrete brick he had laid to mark the end of my extension. He read the measurements. It was less than the initial plan of 4765 mm.
“This is as far as I can go,” he said, pointing to the obstruction in the way. “I’ll remove this brick and put a new one in.” The new wall was cushioned against the new manhole but it’s still 300 mm short of the original plan of 4765 mm.
“It doesn’t matter. The council approved it. Better to be more than less,” said Gx.
Kitchen designers questioned the one drawing I had. “These don’t look like architectural drawings. I wouldn’t use that symbol for a window. Doesn’t matter, I’ll have to visit and measure once the walls are up to be precise.”
The builders didn’t return in the third week. Only the first row of concrete bricks had been laid for internal and external walls.
“What happened? Aren’t they coming back to build the rest of the walls?”
“No. We can get the size of roof to order just measuring these.”
“I thought you needed to build the entire walls. Does that mean I can go away while the roof is being manufactured?”
“Yes, I’ll send my brother Tx over to measure before you leave.”
Tx, the roof fitter, brought his laser measuring device and gave me the internal dimensions to plan the kitchen: 4440 mm by 3785 mm. It was considerably smaller than the 4.7 x 4 meter space I had expected.
At this rate, I’d have to think twice about putting a toilet there.
“Whatever you do, don’t put a toilet in the kitchen,” warned a friend from Colombia. “When we’re visiting places to let, we skip those with toilets in the kitchen.”
“You can’t have a toilet in the kitchen. You need double doors,” said my own builder who, over the years, had replaced my fence, painted the house, fixed my toilet, and traced the cause of a short circuit to a faulty job by the boiler installers.
I deflected all resistance with answers like “but it’s a large kitchen, the units are far away” or “the regulations have changed. There’s no requirement for double doors” or “it’s the most convenient place to put a second toilet — next to the soil pipe.”
One of the reasons for investing in an extension was to have a second toilet. The presence of a second person staying in the house gives rise to “toilet anxiety.” I simply had to have a another source of relief.
During RB’s short visit, he showed me a new possibility. “You can’t put a couch under the stairs. You’ll hit your head getting up. Who wants to sit under the stairs?”
“But there’s so little space in this little house. I don’t want to make the living room smaller than it is.”
He pushed the brown sofa bed away from the walls. “Look, you don’t need this opening under the stairs. You already have a door into the dining room. Why don’t you make this your downstairs toilet and a storage area under the bottom half of the stairs? You need it for your vacuum cleaner and other stuff. By the way, once you get your new kitchen, your bathroom will look dated. Why don’t you think about getting a new bathroom, too?”
After a week of convincing, I gave in. By chance, we spotted a bathroom designer trade room next to the kitchen store in Brentford. Sal, the designer from New York showed us the latest virtual reality technology to view the three-dimensional bathroom he created.
In the next three weeks, I researched bathroom costs and hired a local renovation company to replace my bathroom upstairs and build a second toilet under the stairs. The Polish man said they could give me a better price for both rooms as one project. My only stipulation was that at any time, one toilet must be working.
On the first Monday after my return to London, the Polish builders showed up to work on my bathroom and new toilet. The next day, I cycled to the bathroom design store to get a design for the toilet and pay for all supplies to be delivered.
Where were the English builders that started the kitchen extension? Gx said they were working on another job. Where was my roof?
Once again, I felt let down. How could they start a job and not finish it? I couldn’t use my garden. It was a building site.
As a pre-caution, I called the roof suppliers. “Has the roof been ordered?”
“Just received it in the last day or so. It has to be signed off.”
Suppressing a violent urge to scream, I texted:
“I am cancelling all orders.”
“The roof was supposed to be here yesterday. Gx told me he had ordered the roof and it’ll be done by the time I came back. He lied.”