23rd March 2020. The first day of lockdown, the first day of my loft conversion. Not quite as I planned it. Having reassured myself that that we were working within the ‘rules’ (construction, unbelievably you could argue, was never formally stopped), I set off on a journey that would turn out to last over seven months. It would include a new kitchen combining the original one and the second bedroom, a bathroom refresh and full decoration. I am just emerging!
As many of you have lived the journey with me, especially those who were there as I taught the Tuesday morning Strength For Life class with accompaniments I could certainly have done without, I thought I would share with you the many lessons I learnt, all of them applicable to life beyond the loft.
It was a project that was years in the making. I knew what I wanted to achieve but didn’t exactly know how. I wasn’t even clear about the process. As always, everyone’s advice was well-meaning but slightly different. It felt like I was taking one step forward and two steps back, and time was passing by. Eventually, one of the ladies who came to the zumba class (Gaby from Paper Project) turned out to be an architect and agreed to do the planning drawings. She was brilliant. I was on my way!
Lesson: Persistence is key. If you have a vision, never give up.
Wandsworth planning department presented its own unique challenges. Their last-minute demands made no sense and felt hugely unfair when I looked at nearby properties. Gaby managed them much better than I would have done. We were forced to make the dormers smaller and therefore limit the space for the bathroom. Finally, permission was granted, including a tiny balcony, the little bit of outside space that had been my highest priority, and which I never thought would get through.
Lesson: pick your arguments! There are some you will never win. Prioritise those things that matter the most.
Finding a builder who was trustworthy, not ridiculously overpriced and who I felt comfortable with, was time-consuming. The costings were coming out far higher than I imagined and seemed excessive for a loft conversion. It was only when the builder I eventually used explained to me that it was not a standard conversion due to the unusual shape of my roof, that I realised I needed to rethink. It also made me question whether it was really worth it.
Lesson: sometimes hurdles are put in your way for a reason and prove how much you want something (or not!).
Everyone told me that building work is stressful but it’s hard to imagine how those stresses might present themselves. I didn’t have to wait long. On the first day of the scaffolding going up, I had to endure one of the more distant neighbours screaming abuse as I opened the front door! I was shocked and shaken and could not understand what they were hoping to achieve….
Lesson 1: …ask them! It is much easier to diffuse the situation that way.
Lesson 2: people’s behaviour is usually about them and not about you.
With the flat shrouded in scaffolding, the building got underway. It was fascinating to see things taking shape. The builders’ skill and attention to detail was amazing. I loved climbing up the ladder and crawling in through the small gap in the roof to see what was occurring.
There were many milestones I remember so clearly: the first velux windows being installed, the steels being craned in, the framework of the dormers emerging from the side of the roof, the unveiling of the wonderful view from what would become my balcony, and the first time I could walk up into the loft via the stairs. Of course, for the highs there were as many lows. I had days when I felt defeated but, interestingly, they have faded much more quickly from my mind.
Lesson: don’t lose hope. It may take some time to present itself, and there may need to be compromises, but there will always be a solution.
With the loft nearing completion, we made the big decision to carry on and create a new kitchen-diner, update the bathroom and decorate. It was a crazy couple of months when everything had to be sourced super quickly. It felt never-ending and often quite overwhelming.
The result, though, is a space that is transformed and which gives me pleasure every day. It makes me want to get up in the morning to enjoy it and I often find myself wandering around just looking at it! I had always loved my flat but I hadn’t realised that I had got too comfortable and put up with things that, in truth, had not been serving me well for a while.
Lesson: putting up with things means accepting second best. Listen to your instinct and take action.
On Monday this week, the builders handed my keys back and left the building for the last time. The project was complete. I was strangely emotional. It was partly because I had got used to them being around, I enjoyed their company, and felt enormous gratitude for what they had helped me create. But it was also because, as I looked around, I realised what a monumental achievement it was. I think back to those early days when I could not see a way through and the number of times it would have been so much easier to give up. I am so glad I didn’t. I won’t do again!
‘When you get into a tight place and everything goes against you till it seems you could not hold on a minute longer, never give up then for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn’ Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896)