It’s Easter weekend and we are finally in our new home! It’s a grey and rather chilly Sunday, and both fires are blazing to ward off the chills when it should, by rights, be a gloriously sunny and warm Spring day. We have that to look forward to.
We might be living in our new house, but the work is not yet over. While the builders did their best to finish the main house before the contract deadline, the studio got ignored so there will be another 5 weeks’ worth of builders tramping around the garden to get the studio finished. We also have a list of snags that need attention over the coming weeks, but that is all part of building a new house.
It is a strange feeling moving into a house that you have watched being built every day for the past 10 months. Suddenly, in a matter of days, the project reaches the stage when it becomes viable as a home and you can start to live in it. For the first couple of days, both Andrew and I wandered around the spaces we have created as if we needed permission to be there. We shared our living areas with builders, so it never quite felt our own until this weekend. As Easter is such a huge festival here in Spain, and Thursday and Friday are holidays, we finally had the house to ourselves from Thursday onwards for the whole weekend and we could start to introduce ourselves to each other.
We have been gradually unpacking boxes and putting up paintings to create a home. We have been finding our way around the new kitchen and filling cupboards and drawers. Books remain crated up until we have bookshelves built in, and the kitchen needs additional storage cupboards which will soon be built, but we are getting there. Once the studio has been completed, a lot of our work paraphernalia will be rehomed and we can start to organise ourselves more efficiently and become more productive. We have spent the past few weeks in a state of limbo and it has been a little unsettling.
We thought that now might be a good time to share some of our thoughts and suggestions in case anyone else was thinking of undertaking their own build project here in Spain. Obviously, we can only share our own experiences, good and bad, rather than provide an in-depth analysis of the state of the construction industry in our region of Granada.
If you are doing any major building work, employ an architect. We were very fortunate to have found a young Granada couple who were recommended to us by a number of people, and we had no hesitation in employing them for this project. We had conversations with one or two other architects in the area, but none really impressed us. Ana and Jesús are Spanish, so know the process like the backs of their hands. They have also learned a great deal about managing projects and budgets. It is all too easy for a project cost to escalate without you knowing it, and over a period of months this cost escalation can prove to be crippling.
Get an architect who understands what you want to do. It is your house and your project, so you need someone you can trust to translate your ideas into something workable for the site and the local environment. Are they architects who appreciate traditional building techniques, or who can get to grips with contemporary materials, insulation and heating? Remember, you are the client and you will be paying the bills, so make sure you are happy working with anyone who comes on your building site.
Our architects, OC Arquitectos, are based in Granada, and we would recommend them without hesitation.
Quantity Surveyor and Health and Safety Supervisor
The QS with whom Ana and Jesús had previously worked was just about to go on maternity leave; she clambered around our building site when she was around 8 and a half months pregnant without a second thought. Ricardo therefore took over the project, and he was exceptional. He took a huge interest in the project and we could both tell that he had both a professional and personal love for what we were trying to do. At one stage he even called us direct to check if we were happy with progress, rather than go through the architects. If he felt there were any quality or cost issues, he was like a dog with a bone and would not let any issues be brushed aside.
We are hugely grateful to our architects, with the support of Ricardo, that our project has been so tightly managed from a financial point of view, and that the budget has been adhered to.
SGS is the global company for whom Ricardo works.
You will often find that architects like to work with sub-contractors that they have used before. Don’t be bullied! If you would like to use local builders, or builders that have been recommended by someone else, then make sure they get included in the tendering process. Wherever you live, ask local people for their recommendations. Reputation amongst Spanish villagers is important hereabouts, and if someone does a bad job, then everyone will get to know about it. If you are able to tell a local tradesperson the they were recommended by a well-respected villager then you will be treated well, more often than not.
We did have two sets of builders. The first construction company was one recommended by the ayuntamiento (our local town hall), and was based in the area, so they understood the tricky terrain and access that put more than one builder off the project. The builder also owned a cement factory and had the wherewithal to pump a lot of cement onto site, saving time and money. We had been advised that this builder was great at the structural elements of a project but was maybe not so great at the finish. However, it was the budget that got the better of him in the end, and as the costs for rock excavation galloped away, so did the patience of our architects.
Our second team of builders have worked with our architects before and pride themselves on the finer detail of a project. They love restoring older properties, and have lots of their own ideas, which worked well for us. If we were to have a criticism, it would be that the charismatic boss, Manolo, should be on site more often. During his part of the build, Manolo would be on site perhaps one day a week and then leave his team to get on with it. We explained, more than once, that when he was not around, the team did not work as fast and were much messier. Our advice is to check how often the boss will be around to drive the team and motivate them to be productive. We would also advise that you visit your site every day to monitor progress. There are stages of the build that move very quickly indeed, and you may need to make immediate decisions or put an equally rapid halt on something that you don’t like, before it is too late. We both agree that we could not undertake a project like this if we were living elsewhere, and could only make the occasional trip back to check on progress. Our architects managed the project, but we still felt we needed to be here every day.
Our builders are Conyser, of Granada. Manolo is a charmer, but tie him down and don’t let him sweet-talk you. He has missed a number of project deadlines, and made mistakes, but still keeps smiling. He has undoubted creative flair and passion for what he does, but if you are not happy with something, tell him and don’t let him get away with it.
Hmm, a tricky one…..our architects took us to see a carpenter with whom they have worked before. However, we thought the quality of the workmanship was pretty cheap, and left the workshop unimpressed. We made our own enquiries locally and were given three names. For our doors and windows we chose Paco Lorca from Íllora. Paco and his father have worked for the Duke of Wellington, on his Íllora estate, for over 40 years, but this is not the reason we employed him! Paco took us to see doors and windows he had installed in one of his own properties, and the solid craftsmanship was what impressed us. However, we have had issues with the fitting of the doors and windows that were eventually installed. There have been problems with fitting, rainwater entry and draft insulation, but we have insisted that Paco keeps returning until we are happy with the final result.
As Paco was busy with our doors and windows, for our beds we decided to use another carpenter from our list of 3, and we could not be more pleased. Miguel is based in Armilla, on the edge of Granada, and works in a lean-to next to his mother’s house. It is not as well-equipped as Paco’s workshop, but when the beds arrived they were a thing of beauty. So, we will be using Miguel to fit all our other shelves and cupboards around the house.
From the very start of our project, one thing that we were insistent on was that we had a wood-burning stove that could also heat radiators. In the winter, fire is essential and for us it made sense to use the wood burner to provide additional heating elsewhere, efficiently and cheaply. The concept of a wood-burning stove with a back boiler is not common in Spain and we had quite a battle to convince our architects that this was not up for discussion. After quite a search, we eventually found a supplier of word burning stoves in Granada stocking a good range, including stoves with back boilers. It was their installer who became our plumber, and he has been invaluable. Originally, we had planned to use solar panels to provide the bulk of our hot water. There are a number of problems with solar panels: you need to have an area to put them, preferably south-facing, and we didn’t really like the look of them; when the clouds come in, you don’t get hot water, so you need an electric immersion heater, and to heat hot water sufficient for 6 - 8 people this costs a lot of money. Our plumber suggested an aerothermal system which uses renewable energy sources (air, ground or water) to provide heat using a low-energy pump and a compressor to create the energy needed to heat water. Supposedly, this system provides enough energy to heat water whatever the weather, around the clock and for a fraction of normal heating costs (estimated savings of 75% of average heating costs). So, we have the wood-burner to heat radiators and towel rails, and the aerothermal system to provide our hot water.
Our builder, Manolo, provided our electrician, Sergio, and he is charming. In the UK we rather got used to surly sub-contractors who did their level best to charge the earth and do an average job. Sergio is an undisputed gentleman who always takes the time to talk through our ideas, update the antique light fittings we pick up in antique shops, add more switches and sockets whenever we change our minds (which has been very rare!) and is just a pleasure to work with.
When you are building the house in which you want to live, it is vital that you work with a team that respects your wishes and ideas. They are instrumental in bringing your dreams to life, and if you have a bunch of lazy, indolent bodgers lolling around it can affect your own perspective of the project. What should be an immensely rewarding and exciting process can quickly become a bit of a nightmare. We have been fortunate, despite there having been many times when we have had to moan about the dirt left behind by the builders.
In our next blog post, we will share details of some of the places where we sourced the finishing touches for the project - lighting, bathrooms fittings, tiles etc. We will also share more of our ‘before and after’ photos - we still need to take photos of the new exterior with the sun shining! For now, we are going to stroke the work surfaces in our new kitchen, open and close our smooth drawers and snigger guiltily about living in such a fabulous home.