The Health of Your House

Over the course of the pandemic our personal health – and that of those around us – has been our main focus. With the extreme winter weather we had in the UK a few weeks ago, suddenly my focus has moved to that of my house. I came home from a few days with my family bubble to find that my main roof valley (my gutter) had failed and that litres of water had come in through my daughters ceiling – and then continued on down the radiator pipe runs to the bathroom below.

My house was built in the 1860’s and from the front it would appear to have a flat roof. What it actually has is an inverted pitched roof with a central valley that collects rainwater from both sides of the roof and falls from the front parapet wall (the so called flat roof) to the rear hopper and down-pipe, making its way to the drain in the back garden. The big problem with a roof like this is that you can’t see the roof! So when it snows heavily, without getting up onto the roof, you can’t tell if the valley is clear or, as was the case this time, frozen.

I had actually been up on the roof a few weeks ago – my tv aerial had to be repointed – so I took the opportunity to follow the tradesmen up and have a look. (It’s not actually as intrepid as it sounds because there is a roof hatch inside my loft space… but I’m not great on ladders…) To my inexperienced eye (let’s be honest how often is it that we look at a roof close up?) the roof and valley appeared to be in pretty good shape: no split slates, no slipped slates, smooth flat lead on the valley and no standing water at any point. So I could only assume it was the volume of snow and the fact that it was starting to melt.

I went up armed with rubber gloves and dishwasher salt to find that the whole section leading to the hopper and down-pipe was a solid block of ice. The water from the melting snow had nowhere to run to, so it had risen high enough to come over the top of the valley and underneath the slates – and from there down into the bedroom below…

Water, we all know, will find its way. It will find the lowest point and make its way down from there. I’m just lucky I wasn’t away for longer because it could easily have run down from the bathroom to the front room below!!! What this has done though is pushed forward my need to get workmen on site to do my building works. If we get more snow this winter, this could easily happen again and in a year when life it totally upside down anyway, the daughter that is usually at university, is at home and her bedroom is now out of action.

Maintaining the fabric of your home is a hugely important aspect of protecting the value of the property. It’s not the exciting part, because most often you can’t even see the results, but if your roof isn’t sound or there are issues with damp for whatever reason, decorating is pointless because the health of the building will compromise whatever surface treatment you choose.  Understanding why things are going wrong is the crucial part and where water is concerned finding the source isn’t always as easy as looking at the roof valley. The point it enters the building is what first needs attention – and that can take months of investigation. In this case it was extreme weather, but the valley has steps: wide and shallow at the front and narrow and deep at the rear as it falls to the hopper. After I had sprinkled dishwasher salt on the valley and scooped out all the snow that was covering it, I went and filled hot water bottles and lay them on the ice blocking the rear part of the valley. It was nice and sunny at that point and the view is pretty too, so I sat and watched what happened to the melting snow.

The problem with lead is that it can warp and it can split. There don’t appear to be any splits in this case, but the fall in the rear section closest to the hopper no longer appears to allows the water to keep moving in cold weather, especially if it’s just a trickle – and if the stars align and the wind is coming from the right direction – as it was then – it actually forces the water back towards the lowest step, so if the weather is freezing it never gets as far as the hopper. Both roofers who inspected the roof said I was just unlucky that the conditions had been so extreme, but the fact remains if the water can’t get away properly, it’s only a matter of time before it finds another access point. The weak spot of the valley is that final step, it’s where the full volume of water flowing towards the hopper needs free access but because the shape of the lead appears to have changed over the years, in extreme cold weather, it is no longer doing its job the way it should.

You are the eyes and ears of your home. In the same way that you notice changes within yourself, you need to take notice of every little change in your property. And if you don’t understand what they mean, don’t just ignore them. So often simply clearing leaves from gutters is the first step in preventing moisture from penetrating brickwork and causing damp. And it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than a damp proof specialist! Over the years a property can change a lot, many ‘upgrades’ are covered over or inaccessible, think of rewiring or plumbing and not every contractor is conscientious or highly skilled, especially since so many homeowners will have a go at something armed with a YouTube tutorial and a motivation to save money. They may not have the follow through to finish the job as it should be and where water is concerned, the knock on effect can be extremely expensive to rectify – you may not be saving yourself money in the long run! Any building of age needs maintaining, they don’t get to go to an old folks home for specific care and attention, so you have to be their carers and their custodians at the same time as living there. Tenanted properties are highly likely to have changes go unnoticed and unreported, which can see the value of your most expensive asset impacted considerably. As a landlord simply remembering to do an inspection at least once a year can be the difference between ongoing problems or protecting the value of your bricks and mortar, so in your own home, think of yourself as the tenant and the mortgage as the landlord.

I have had to face the sobering fact that my building works this year will also have to encompass a wider view of my property’s weak spots including the roof and several original sash windows. For those of you doing buildings works this year, I urge you to think beyond the original project you employed your contractors for and take the opportunity to inspect any areas that can’t otherwise be accessed without scaffolding or specialist tools. Even if the work doesn’t need to be done now, a health check of the fabric of your property will cost you nothing if you already have contractors on site.

Getting Things Done in a Pandemic

Because we are all at home all the time right now, it’s been interesting to see how many skips and builder’s vans there are in my street alone at the moment. The contractors I work with in London have been working solidly throughout the various lockdowns of the pandemic and while building contractors have an exemption from the government, it doesn’t mean that they’ve had it easy. They deal every day with the issues of the supply chain we are hearing so much about – and not just because of Brexit. Ordering supplies – and then being able to collect them – has been tough and this has a knock on effect for their clients. Plaster and plaster board has been in short supply which has pushed the price up. Windows and doors have had massive lead-times (upward of four months) and there has been no supplier support on site. Kerb-side deliveries of items that weigh 600kg+ and need to be manoeuvred to a loft that is being converted is an impossible situation. Prior to the pandemic, there would be extra manpower on hand from the suppliers to ensure that no damage was done, as the contract was for the supplier to be on site when the items were fitted. Instead, the lorry driver unloads and puts his foot down to get back to base.

In the last nine months the restrictions have changed so many times that it can only be said, some suppliers have taken advantage of them. They’ve taken the money but not supplied their usual standard of product or service. This makes the expectations of the client incredibly hard to manage. As someone who specifies the fit out I would naturally chase an order and have a level of contact with the supplier that, it would be hoped, would help everyone to know where they stand. But keeping the workforce on site when you have no idea when a delivery is likely to arrive because the supplier themselves have no control, is beyond difficult to plan around. Only last week I was told that some fabric that had been ordered for a client who is recovering a sofa wasn’t going to be released, even though it is paid for, until the new batch due in had had its quality control checks done. So although they have the stock, they won’t dispatch it, because they don’t want to be left with a delivery that could potentially be faulty. This fabric is sold but they won’t let us have it.

These are things to keep in mind if you are planning building works in the next six months, because the supply chain is still being impacted by the pandemic and it won’t settle until the unpredictable human has had their vaccinations. The other thing to keep in mind is that how we use our homes has changed. This time last year no-one had thought they would be home schooling at the same time as they were trying to hold down a full time desk job. All in the same room, at the same table. Pressure builds when home doesn’t deliver on what you need, but that doesn’t mean you should take the knee jerk response of just addressing the immediate problem. We live in an era where waste is overwhelming our planet and the building trade is a major contributor to that. We need to think first about what we need in our homes. We need to plan not only for what we want to fit but what we want to discard. It is time to be responsible for everything that leaves our home, to know that if it can be recycled, it is going somewhere that this is possible.

Take the time to do your homework. If you are interested in something be it a kitchen, a sofa, a bath or bifold doors, speak to the suppliers and ask about lead times. Ask too, if they have a recycling service. In all likelihood they won’t be able to give you real dates until the order is placed, so it could give you peace of mind to have a Plan B. It is customary with any order that is made to measure – worksurfaces and windows and doors spring to mind – to put down a 50% deposit when the order is placed. This puts your order in the queue, so ask again at that point what the likely lead time is. If it is wildly longer than expected or than your build schedule can handle without all the contractors downing tools, cancel the order, get your deposit back and go with the fall back option. At the moment some companies are soooo busy that they simply can’t meet demand. That doesn’t mean that they are best, it just means they have the biggest advertising budgets. And this is where social media is your friend. Get onto Instagram and search for the item you want to order. You will find a wealth of people sharing images of their lovely new doors, tiles, radiators, curtains. Send them a DM and ask for their opinions and supplier names. This is what I mean about doing your homework.

Talk to your contractors. Ask for their opinions about suppliers they’ve used in the past. They’ve seen everything be pulled out and refitted hundreds of times over, you’re not asking for their style advice but on the quality and service of the supplier. Some of them have fantastic contacts with small producers around the country who will work with you and care about the end result. And at the moment a voice on the other end of the phone who is committed to your project is much more reassuring than a large scale manufacturer who only knows you by the order number. Always ask about their commitment to sustainability and if they offer an end of life option for items that are being removed. At the moment a lot of suppliers won’t be able to answer those questions favourably, but until they get the point that the consumer cares about what happens to their old, unwanted items, they won’t explore how they can offer this as a service. Closing the resource loop means that many more items can be saved from landfill – and jobs can be created.

Order in advance. This might sound odd, but if you know you will be fitting french doors into your kitchen extension and you have drawings already done, order them before the builders start. They can easily make the opening for the doors to fit, its so much harder to work off measurements on plan because they still have to be checked on site – adjustments might need to be made and that impacts the order. Obviously not all items can be ordered in advance but where windows and doors are concerned, the number of stock items at companies like Wick’s and Screwfix tells you that it is perfectly possible to make this process easier. And there are specialist companies around the country with stock items, so do your homework.

Reclamation and salvage is a great way of sourcing items that are characterful and in keeping with the period of your house. Most companies now have websites and someone to speak to about your particular needs – they always have great stories to tell about their stock. Even if you favour a very modern look, you will find pieces on eBay and Gumtree that people have ordered in error, that have never been fitted and sometimes still in their original boxes, at a greatly reduced price. Every little saving on second hand purchases you make saves something from landfill, so it’s a two fold benefit and helps the construction industry to reduce its hefty waste contribution. But don’t stop there, look for reclaimed tiles, flooring and carpet as well, there are so many ends of lines that are perfect for small rooms or for adaptation to a more personal style. I’m opting for a mix and match approach for my refurbishments – which will hopefully start in the next couple of months – and have picked up a hand basin for £4.20, a corner handbasin that needs re-enamelling for £60, two marble fire surrounds for £320 each, a pair of glazed leadlight doors for £100, a vanity with a marble top for £75. Not to mention the leadlight panel and the slate fire surround that someone had left outside their front gate!

This crazy time we are living through has opened us up to the possibilities of reflecting on what we have and what is important. Home is central to that. It’s where those we hold dear are found, it’s what anchors us in our lives. It is where we feel safe and where we do everything from exercise to education. But we need to do more, we need to learn about how the lifestyles we have led for so long have impacted on the planet. I’ve said before that as an interior designer, across the last twenty years I have contributed an incredible amount of waste to landfill. I’ve done it unconsciously and a great deal of it could have been recycled. I wish I had thought about that sooner. I wish I had said to the contractors, ‘we can separate this into usable and unusable.’ I want to change that by highlighting the small steps we can all make – and it starts with when you’re planning your project.

Heating the Heritage Environment

Earlier this year I finished my degree in design and innovation at the OU, focusing on the heritage environment for my end of year project. As we start to see government directives enabling us to meet our carbon neutral targets in 2050, (like last weeks announcement that new petrol and diesel cars will be phased out by 2030) my project started to look more meaningful because I asked the question: how will you heat your home when fossil fuels are banned?

Prior to the pandemic – and while I was researching this project – I got the distinct feeling that climate change was something that was ‘happening outside of people’s personal experience,’ it was something they could offset, plant a few trees and conscience was clear, but carbon neutrality means that every one of us must assess what we contribute to the emissions and waste that is damaging the planet. And one of the ways that we contribute most highly is in the method used to heat our homes. Gas and oil are fossil fuels. We burn them every time we turn on the hot tap, every time we turn on the heating and for many, every time we use the hob. Gas is highly inefficient as a fuel because only 30% of the flame produces heat. This means 70% of that flame is lost to the atmosphere every time you use it. (Science Direct)

SEVENTY PERCENT OF THE FLAME IS LOST TO THE ATMOSPHERE EVERY TIME YOU USE IT. And from 2025 gas boilers and hobs will no longer be permitted appliances for installation in new build properties. (HM Government) Right now innovation surrounding heating requirements focuses on new build, but by the time we reach carbon neutrality in 2050, new build properties without fossil fuel boilers will only account for 24% of the built environment. (Energy Technologies Institute)

This suggests that the current built environment – the homes we already live in – has a much bigger part to play in achieving our targets than the manufacturers – or the scientists – have acknowledged. That means we all have to understand the part we play in reducing carbon emissions because the clearer skies we have seen throughout the pandemic have certainly served to illustrate the damage we are doing and how changes are necessary to achieve results. Interestingly, carbon emissions from the residential sector are at the same level as those produced by vehicle use –  changing policy on diesel and petrol engines will only do so much. So I ask you, how will you heat your home when fossil fuels are phased out?

And what about the heritage environment? Those buildings controlled by regulations to protect their historic importance and cultural significance? They need consent for any alteration, indeed it is an offence to alter a listed building without consent, but external appliances such as solar panels or air source heat pumps do not comply with the regulations. So the current favoured sustainable energy options are inaccessible for the most vulnerable buildings in our current built environment. If they can’t have a heating appliance installed that complies with regulations, they won’t be mortgageable. What then? An entire sector of the built environment would become obsolete – and it is the sector with protected architectural significance.

The heritage environment extends from listed buildings to conservation areas and encompasses those neighbourhoods where the owners have refurbished the period details of the property to enhance the character of the street. Around the country and indeed around the world, heritage buildings attract tourists, provide jobs and training opportunities and they themselves are the innovations of the past. Not one of them prior to the late Nineteenth century would have been built with electricity and very few would have had running water or plumbing, so these ‘modern’ additions are certainly not original features – and yet because they were largely installed prior to a property being listed, they are permitted by the regulators. The listing date draws a line in the sand and from that time on the fabric of the building regardless of any unsympathetic additions from the Twentieth century, is unable to be altered without consent. This creates a conundrum, the very reason these buildings survive is because they were the ‘Grand Designs’ of their day and yet the reason they may fall into obsolescence is because they can’t be updated for the Twenty-first century with technology that will ensure their survival.

This was the context of my research. The regulators (Historic England) are largely not in favour of external appliances, so seeking their approval for anything that needs an exterior component may lead to costly delays – and the application being refused, which leaves the owner precisely nowhere; no replacement options for their fossil fuel boiler. Even the Tesla solar roof is only acceptable in certain situations, so I started to think about how a solution could be created indoors and a chance meeting at a client’s house led me to air absorption heat exchange panels.

This technology is currently used to heat hot water with the inclusion of a stored water tank – and has been fitted in a number of listed buildings over the last eight years. The refrigerated panels take the ambient air temperature, cool it and through a process of gaseous exchange and compression create heat which is used for the hot water tank.  I asked if this same system could be used for heating but because it relies on heating a storage tank, the distance traveled across a central heating system results in heat loss which reduces the ability to create an ambient temperature in a radiator panel.

So, what if there was no distance for the heat generated by the compression process to travel? What if the air absorption panel and the radiator were united with the compressor in a single unit? If the control unit (the compressor) was redesigned to take a lateral orientation, could it be sandwiched between the air absorption panel and the radiator?

This concept uses already existing technology but reimagines it – adapting the components so that the projection is shallow and able to be combined with companion components to create a single unit.

The Thermodynamic Radiator needs no pipework and is surface mounted so it is sympathetic to the fabric of sensitive buildings – and because most homes do have some kind of central heating system, this would be considered an upgrade. It is therefore compliant with the regulations and all it needs by way of fuel is to be plugged in – because what it runs on is air circulation. Every home has that.

In finding solutions we need to first look at what is already there. One of the design thinking techniques employed on my course was something called random stimuli; something supposedly completely unrelated that prompts inspiration and on this project it was my iMac. It’s something I stare at every day – I’m writing on it now – and it was the change in orientation between an external tower hard drive and the integrated hard drive and screen designed by Apple for the iMac, that prompted me to think about what a change to the control unit orientation might achieve.

This inspiration has the potential to change the way we heat our homes – not just the heritage environment. And while I realise this is just a student project, it is people like me who are challenged to look for solutions that provide the inspiration to those who are able to do something about it. We need to close the resource loop and consider ways of recycling redundant components, to keep those materials in circulation and not consign them to landfill. The Thermodynamic Radiator has the potential to recondition existing radiators and keep them in use. It allows us to reduce our carbon emissions in the home, it removes the exposure to waste products like carbon monoxide and most importantly it does not rely on a building to be thermally efficient. Of course that is the ideal, but most older homes are like leaky pipes, impossible to find the exact point where the leak is occurring. There’s no point focusing on energy efficiency when the problem to start with is the age of the building, let’s create a solution that allows that building to remain viable – and carbon neutral, to be functional as a dwelling – or indeed a commercial entity – and maintain its value for future generations. Oh, and I’m about to submit this innovation to the Spark Awards – who knows what they’ll think, but wish me luck.

The Ongoing Personal Cost of the Pandemic

On the 12th November I got a letter from my home insurance company telling me that my insurance policy had been cancelled on the 23rd October! WTF I knew nothing about this.

The letter was dated the 5th November, it had taken a week to get to me, such is the speed of the post as we continue to live with the pandemic. Naturally I phoned them immediately, to find that I had missed a payment at the end of September. Again I knew nothing about this – although I certainly did know I was having trouble with my bank at that time, but more on that in a minute.

The very pleasant minion on the phone told me that they had written to me to tell me I had missed a payment – and I hadn’t seen the letter. I checked my emails. One from the 15th October directing me to their website, a generic marketing type email, so not personalised alerting me to a problem, just telling me that I could defer payments. And that was it, no other contact to see if there was a problem they could help with, just the chopper dropped on my head – without my knowledge. This is my home, my second biggest asset, how the heck would I cope if I had an accident/emergency/act of god (and in this crazy year it’s hard to say you can rule that out) without insurance to cover it?

I was mystified, but over the last five months I have had a lot of contact with my bank and all that marketing hype about being there to look after you is a load of BuLLS**T.

I have no qualms telling you who it is – or how they have behaved – HSBC (now short for Horrid Situation Borderline Conscience) have deferred all contact with the ‘needy’ (such as myself) to minions who have no authority to act on a case by case basis.

In June, after I had had no income for nearly three months, I put my flat on the market. I contacted the bank to arrange a small loan to cover six months which was about the time I thought it would take to sell the flat given the current climate. (Oh how wrong I was, who wants to live in London when the death toll is high and the weather is great??) So assuming that the bank would take the value of the flat (high) and the size of the loan (small) as being in their favour, I was dumbfounded when they said no.

Apparently if I had been wanting to get married, take a holiday or buy a car, they’d have been ‘happy’ to lend…. I applied to increase my overdraft facilities and they said no to that as well.

I now have tenants in the flat, but at the time I was part way through the contract with the estate agents for the sale and a minimum tenancy term was too long to bridge that income gap without jeopardising a potential sale. There were no AirBnB guests either – so no income. And I watched as my account balances dwindled.

At the end of September the crunch came and HSBC started to reverse my direct debits. They would text me and essentially bully me into bringing my account balance within the overdraft limit. But with what? I had no income. They had known since June that I had been adversely impacted by the pandemic and I had told them I needed help. I had asked for Help. HELP. HELP, DAMN YOU.

I’ve been a customer with HSBC since 1988, since before they became HSBC. I’ve paid them thousands of pounds in fees over the years because I’m constantly in overdraft. But I’ve never had a problem with that because I always felt they had my back. When I was first separated, they were really supportive – and that mattered because I was scared and uncertain of the future. So I rewarded that by putting the proceeds of my house sale in 2016 into an account with them, which they had access to for nine months in its entirety. I’ve put all my rental income through my HSBC accounts as well. They’ve had nearly a £1M of my money in the last five years – it’s quite beside the point that because of the pandemic I now have none.

Where the F**cK is their loyalty to me?

The banks have not changed their lending criteria. In the middle of a pandemic they don’t have any interest in small investors like me – even though we are the ones who pay the fees – premium account holders pay no fees – so those who can afford to pay don’t and those who can’t are thrown to the wolves. And in this topsy-turvy world it is very difficult to say now who is able to pay and who isn’t.

So while I was sorting out putting tenants in my flat in London, HSBC were cutting off my source of finance, they froze my linked credit card (so I couldn’t even pay for groceries or fuel) and turned away my insurance policies. They sent me text alerts but these were automatically generated, I couldn’t tell who they were reversing payment for – and they already knew I couldn’t resolve this, yet emblazoned on their website was ‘ASK us about a TEMPORARY extension to YOUR overdraft.’ I wasn’t even offered it.

If it weren’t for some very dear friends, my 55th birthday and a proactive financial advisor, I would have gone under. I mean emotionally as well as financially drowning, literally nowhere to turn. Luckily because I was turning 55 I could access my pension fund. My financial advisor was brilliant (Zest Financial Consultants) the money to clear this ‘debt’ was to be transferred after my birthday in mid October. And then good old money laundering protocol raised its head. Money coming from an account already in my name, being transferred to an account in the same organisation, also in my name, was frozen. WTF? I mean what the actual?

In a world that has had change forced upon it, where are the changes to the systems that support those of us who live in it? The platitudes and marketing campaigns don’t protect people who have lost everything. The organisations we depend on are not interested in the individual. I have assets to sell which means I am a lot better off than millions of others, but with no income it is a very steep slope, even with assets, because you can no longer afford to keep them –  and I can see exactly how people end up on the street. The relentless bullying of HSBC has been nightmarish because as we all know this situation hasn’t been caused by the individual. This is global and those minions who said no were sitting in their ivory towers (with jobs, yes I know it must be so terribly stressful saying no all the time) and no idea of what life is like in the UK right now, because I hate to say it none of the lending team I spoke to were in the UK. I thought a global bank would understand what it meant to live in a world of diversity and change but clearly in this situation it just makes it easier for them to ignore what is happening on foreign shores.

As for the insurance company, I haven’t yet had my complaint heard so I’m reluctant to dish the dirt, but what I would say is that if a customer has had an account with you for nine years and has transferred you from home to home during that time – and never missed a payment – then suddenly in the middle of a pandemic this happens, perhaps checking that things are ok as soon as problems arise might be helpful. That first letter the minion mentioned was dated the 9th October – not the day after the missed payment. And allowing for the week that things are taking to arrive, it actually arrived closer to the date when the account was cancelled – but I was given no warning of that. Writing on the 5th November about something that happened on the 23rd October is inexcusable. We are in the middle of a pandemic. If you want me to know something – and it’s urgent – why choose the least efficient means of communication? Lessons to be learned? This is not difficult, it costs less to email or text and I’d have known that there were problems. Pretty well immediately.

Covid is a Personal Demon – for All of Us

I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on life this year because I contracted covid in March. In the run up to lockdown, as a family we did everything we were told not to: travel to other cities to collect children from university, transfer their stuff from one car to another, say goodbye to their friends, help them load their cars, stop en route and then travel to be with the family so we could go through lockdown together. In five days I travelled 750 miles and little did we know that when we arrived at the family home, one of us would already be showing symptoms.

I was next to succumb, then my son and two days later, my daughter. The kids bounced back quickly – they’re now 22 and 20. Their dad, who had the fever the most severely of us all, was pretty well normal three weeks later but I’m still struggling. It’s been seven months and I get to 90-95% recovered and then have to do something more ‘normal’ and I suffer a relapse. So my life is about resting and during that time I’ve been doing a lot of thinking.

Covid is hitting us where we hurt because we’ve been living very unbalanced lives for a very long time. I rush, rush, rush around because I’m busy, busy busy. I take on far too much, find it hard to say no – or ask for help – and then drive myself into a frenzy of not being able to get everything done. I have months where there are so many things happening (I’m looking at you June) that it’s like a treadmill to get to the end. There’s no time to unwind, or to appreciate the why’s, let alone the who’s. And this year that has all come to an abrupt halt. I can only do one thing at a time right now and perhaps for me this is the point of being ill. To reassess the way I live my life, to make the changes needed – and because I’ve got long covid – to internalise those lessons so that they become second nature, so that I don’t try and do things the way I used to.

I can’t run up and down the stairs any longer. But did I really get there more quickly when I did? Often I would bump myself, trip up, bruise an elbow or a thigh, even bite my lip all because I was distracted and not actually present when I was on the stairs; my mind was elsewhere, planning the next thing/job/event to be done.

I have been forced to live for the right now; to make decisions that are right – for now. I have had to make the distinction between body and mind and what my body needs is not necessarily what my mind wants. Learning to put my body first has taken months of careful listening and that started with changing my diet. In the early days when I couldn’t taste or smell anything, it was hard to know if my body was unhappy with what I was eating or because I had covid. Now, I realise that I should have removed all the trigger foods immediately. But doing a full on diet change when you have neighbours doing your grocery shopping because you’re all in quarantine meant that at that time, it wasn’t practical to put myself first. I couldn’t read either in those early days (too much eye movement caused vicious headaches) so learning a new way of eating wasn’t possible until I could open a book.

Since June I have been vegan + fish – sugar, wheat and caffeine. I have to treat my body as if I have a severe food allergy. My last relapse was caused by a gradual reintroduction of sugar, that I hadn’t even really registered I’d been doing. The headaches were so bad that I felt like someone was driving a knife through my eye. Last week I took a calculated risk and had a piece of vegan flapjack at a cafe (it was my birthday) – it tasted great, but the next day I had what I can only describe as a hangover. There had been no alcohol consumed, it was the sugar. So when my body needs me to do something: rest, have a different food intake, not do too much, I do it. Our bodies put up with a lot from us, this virus means we have to put them first. Your mind will have to take the back seat – and so will the other things in your life because without your health, you have nothing.

Being locked down has meant that everyone has had to change their lifestyle. That in itself is a demon for some, not being able to go out, but there’s a clue in this. Enforced change surely means we need to take notice of what we personally need to change. If my demons are doing too much, not putting myself first and saying no, then the very things I needed to change were thrown right back at me simply by being in lockdown. Perhaps for those who live for their social lives the balance that lockdown presented was finding pleasure in being at home? Finding is the key word. You have to look for what it is you need to change. Our lifestyle choices are so ingrained that you may not even know what that is, but lockdown was a mirror, a chance for us to get to know ourselves better. Anyone who has had therapy will tell you getting to know yourself – warts and all – isn’t an easy process. Being able to understand your failings is as much a part of what makes you you as the parts you like the best. And those failings present you with the opportunity to make changes, because if you don’t like that aspect of yourself, the people closest to you probably don’t either.

If we needed a demonstration of the impact of human processes on our planet then the clean skies and lower pollution levels of lockdown have surely provided a clear example of the damage we’re doing. Using that as a metaphor, our lifestyles are damaging our lives. Since August last year I’ve earned the bulk of my income from running my flat as an AirBnB. I really enjoyed meeting the guests and having the world on my doorstep while I was finishing my studies. But the driving to and from London was the pivot of my week. I’ve never washed – or ironed – so much bed linen in my life and in my small way I was contributing to the environmental damage that I’m wanting to stop. Aside from my personal demons this is something I can’t sustain, either consciously or physically – and certainly not now that I have long covid. So this change has been made for me, not only are there no guests, I just can’t look after them.

For too long we have had a stoic attitude to being ill. That winter cold, ‘it’s nothing,’ and off we go, sharing it with colleagues and friends alike, the workplace dictating that we are to put productivity ahead of health. If lockdown has taught us anything it is that when we are ill – with the slightest sniffle – we should be at home, because NO-ONE ELSE NEEDS TO GO GET THIS. It’s an important lesson in self awareness understanding that if we don’t stop when our body tells us to, other people will also get ill. And that is what this pandemic is all about. Track and Trace is all about awareness. We need to be aware of where we’ve been, what we’ve touched, who we’ve met and how we’ve travelled. We need to be personally aware – not just because the authorities need to know – but because we have for so long been unaware.

Prior to lockdown did you ever wash your hands before you ate food you picked up on the go? That muffin, or bag of crisps? Did you ever avoid touching your face after you’d been on public transport or used a public restroom? Did you every wash your hands after putting fuel in the car?? These are the every day practices that expose us to risk. Think back to days of old when etiquette dictated gloves as essential items and it was not deemed ‘polite’ to touch ones face in public. Think back too, to the early twentieth century when there was no penicillin or antibiotics – it makes sense of the more formal lifestyle when disease can so easily kill. As late as the 1960’s trendsetters wore gloves as a fashion item and we were all told as children to wash our hands before we ate a snack or a meal. When did this all change?

We have had a very casual, informal lifestyle for too long and that has given this virus an easy access. In learning to listen to what our body needs we also need to understand that hygiene and diet are linked. This too is a demon because the point of eating from the mind’s perspective, is the pleasure it gives and this has been a big part of lockdown – the need to enjoy some part of the experience. The point of eating from the body’s perspective is nutrition and energy and many of the lifestyle choices we make in relation to food speak of culture and up bringing, reassessing this is a big ask. But enforced change means our choices are limited anyway. If we don’t do the hard work now, when are we actually planning on facing those demons? Finding balance in the age of covid needs to be a conscious experience which puts what the body needs first – because this will potentially save your life. Just thinking about it won’t.

Making Money from Rental Property

As you may remember, I have a flat in Fulham that I have tenants in. Right now, while I work towards a masters in Architectural Conservation, it’s also my only reliable source of income and back in May I had to make the difficult decision to evict the tenant that moved in at the end of January. On paper it all looked completely fine, the tenant was an older woman in a wheelchair who was moving to London to be closer to her family. My flat is modern and complies with all the regulations for disabled users, so no problems there, no wild parties. One careful lady user. Or so I thought. All the negotiations between the estate agents and myself were done with her son and everything went smoothly – but with every tenancy there are teething problems, little niggly complaints and questions because the manuals for various appliances have been misplaced. There was none of that. He also asked to have a key safe fitted to the front of the building so that her carers could let themselves in. I knew she needed help so this seemed a reasonable request, but I should have known this was a bad sign!

I emailed several times to ask if his mum was settling in ok and then thought I really should meet her and ask her myself. So in May I arranged to visit and was met by a carer who presented me with a list of problems and things she wanted me to sort out. Then I was handed a pile of post that hadn’t been forwarded – and then I spotted the dining chairs, you can see one of them above. Three of them, collapsed in pieces on the floor. The post was the council taking me to court for non payment of council tax! By this point I was barely able to breathe.

She had lived there for three months.

Luckily the dates of the tenancy agreement proved that I was not responsible for the payment of the council tax. The son – who by the way, is a barrister – was most apologetic, but pleaded ignorance over the dining chairs. What he did explain though, was that his mother had five carers a day: the first helped her out of bed and gave her breakfast, the second gave her lunch, the third (the only one they had a constant relationship with) spent the afternoon with her, the fourth gave her dinner and the fifth put her to bed. Oh and she also suffers from vascular dementia. My tenant wasn’t capable of toileting herself or of opening the front door, so to sort out the ‘repairs’ I had been told about, we had a complicated arrangement between myself, the contractor, the third carer and the son (it’s starting to sound a bit like a film title…) because the contractor refused to go into the flat alone – no surprise there. How could he take responsibility for the welfare of a disabled woman he had never met and be on site alone with her? He could be accused of anything!

He did have a good look round though and told me that my ‘careful lady user’ had taken the kitchen cabinet doors off the hinges and ruined the carpet in one of the bedrooms! And here’s the crunch, she wasn’t causing the damage because she was confined to a wheelchair. All the damage was being caused by her rotation of carers, who clearly sat down on chairs so hard that they collapsed and slammed doors so hard that they came off their hinges. And here’s the next crunch, they had no obligation to me as their contract was with the person they cared for.

So, I evicted a granny in a wheelchair.

The check out inventory showed damage that included needing to replace the mattress, the carpet and the kitchen sink. What? They’d broken a pendant light fitting and of course, the three dining chairs. They also removed four pillows and an ironing board and for some unknown reason, put a passcode on the tv which now needs to be reset by the manufacturer at the cost of £179. AND didn’t use the shower for six months – my tenant was given a bed bath every day (hence the new mattress) – so the valve had seized and that too needs replacing.

We won’t go into the decorative order…

To date – so more than two months on – I have had no response from the barrister son. No acknowledgement of the the check out report – or the request for retention of the deposit – and bonus, a bill for non payment of the utilities bills (which I can luckily prove are not my responsibility.) Yesterday I found out that to raise a dispute on the deposit I have less than one month to apply. The estate agents have contacted him on my behalf and get a very charming response about how busy he is. Clearly the legally binding tenancy agreement isn’t worth the paper its written on when you’re a barrister.

Clearly he is swatting at me as if I’m a fly.

Clearly I am taking advice from a solicitor.

And clearly this guy can fly off.

I will report back.

Inside van Gogh’s House

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to spend time in a room that was once inhabited by a famous artist? I’m not talking about a museum or a stately home, but about a private family home not normally open to the public. How atmospheric would it be? Would you feel the presence of that past inhabitant?

Vincent van Gogh aged around eighteen

Ramsgate was home to Vincent van Gogh in 1876, he was twenty-three and taught at a boys school located in Spencer Square. He, another master and four boys boarded at a house further round the square and it is his room, in this house that I was given the opportunity to style.

Vincent was a prolific letter writer – the letters were published some years ago – so the homeowner could pinpoint very easily from his own words which room had been his and I had a hunch that if we opened the room as a fundraiser and part of a wider event celebrating van Gogh being held in the square, people would be interested enough to want to see it.

The homeowner was really enthusiastic about bringing Vincent’s room to life and we spent quite a bit of time analysing his letters to decide what we needed to highlight and what we could downplay. As the room no longer has a fireplace and has modern fitted carpet, there were certain aspects of the bedroom that were definitely not true to period, so we had to work with those and create something that would enable people to see past the current family use and back to a time when the property was a boarding house for a boys school. There would have been no electricity, possibly gas lighting and possibly running water to the scullery in the lower ground floor. Each room would have been heated by a wood/coal fire. Other than the views described by Vincent in his letters from his window “looking over the rooftops,” that would have been it for creature comforts. His bed would probably have been narrow and the mattress thin. As he was a young man when he resided here, perhaps this didn’t matter and was just part of the experience. We know from his letters that, “these are happy times, these days in Ramsgate,” it’s nice to think that for someone so troubled by mental illness in his later life, for this time at least, he enjoyed where he was and what he was doing.

This is the first time this house has been open to the public and as I spent time quietly in Vincent’s old room, dusting picture frames and polishing glass, I felt a real sense of sadness that this great artist is remembered more for his turbulent life and ‘cutting off his ear,’ than for the relationships he had with those he held dear – and for the skill and knowledge he had of his medium.

Being in this room, Vincent’s personal space when he was just starting out; there are only two pen and wash drawings from his time in Ramsgate, made me feel that we’re doing him a huge disservice. As we all become so much more aware of the invisible pain of mental illness, I think it’s important to remember that van Gogh, like all suffers, was more complex and diverse than just the fragility of his mental state. His use of colour and the landscape around him was joyful and intense, he created what he saw from the inside of it, it wasn’t just a casual observation. He wanted to express the way those things – colour and subject – made him feel. The body of work he left behind is not just the product of a troubled mind, but of an analytical, technically gifted paint experimentalist.

To call him and the other modernist, impressionist and post-impressionist painters artists doesn’t acknowledge the way they pushed their medium to its limits. Only a couple of decades earlier, painting was about faithful representation; the skill of the artist was in creating the accurate likeness of the subject. That changed in the mid nineteenth century when artists wanted to express what they thought about the subject matter by making the texture of the paint part of the visual honesty of the painting. It was challenging to the viewer and it wasn’t immediately popular – but it opened people’s minds to the idea that paint is a component of art; it is not invisible and the way it is manipulated is a skill that should be celebrated in its own right.

Van Gogh more than celebrated his paint, he revelled in it. We can feel in his work the heat of the sun, the sparseness of the bedroom, the shade from the brim of his hat. It is this translation of feeling to canvas, the directional movement of his brushstrokes and the quality of his paint colour that makes his work universally recognisable and for that courage of purpose, we should remember him.

Making Money From Your Home

When I moved to Ramsgate last summer I knew I would end up with a different type of client base; Ramsgate is a coastal harbour town and it has a lively tourist trade. My current local clients are involved with tourism and have holiday lets as part of their business. One of the clients has a large rental property (which sleeps nine in the main house and four in the attached flat) listed on AirBnB and was really frustrated with the poor engagement he was getting from the listing, so I offered to review this for him.

AirBnB is something of a buzz word at the moment and seems to be a bit like marmite – you either love it or you hate it. As both a host and a guest, AirBnb works best if you consider it as a community that you contribute to and work at to uphold the values that are clearly stated in their terms and conditions. It’s about creating a home from home and welcoming guests to an area that you know well. It’s also about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and making sure that your property lives up to expectations because the photographs on the listing are the reason that guests decide to part with their cash. You have about 2.5 seconds before they scroll through to the next listing to convince them that this is the place they want to stay.

To give my client a good idea of the way AirBnB could work for him I analysed the listing and then I did the same thing to the house. Prior to the review I found that the pictures were dark and not descriptive of the rooms. The order of the images was jumbled and confusing. The lead picture was the view, so not of the house at all and the text didn’t offer any ideas to the type of guests that the property was suitable for, so in checklist form:

1 Define your Market In an area where there are many other short term let properties available, it’s vital to know what kind of guests your listing will attract. With big properties (anything with more than four double bedrooms and several ensuite bathrooms would fall into this category) you are likely to attract families – either extended multi-generation or friends away with their children. Groups of friends are also likely to look for larger properties for special weekends away. If there are several receptions rooms as well, then it’s safe to say that you can accommodate the needs of varied age groups.

2 Assess your Competition Scroll through the AirBnB listings for your local area and find out how many other properties there are that can accommodate the same number of guests as your house. Look at the pictures they feature on their listing, do they make you want to stay there? Read some of the reviews and decide if you can deliver comparable – or better – guest accommodation.

3 Review your Property Now that you have a feel for the type of guest your property is likely to attract and what other hosts locally have to offer, you need to do the hard work and decide if your property is up to scratch. It’s really important to be honest with yourself, would you want to stay there? Because if you don’t like what you see, why would a guest? It might be that a simple rearrangement of furniture makes the space more functional. You may need to freshen up some paintwork and remove some of your ornaments or photographs. The property needs character but not to be so personal that a guest might feel as if they’re intruding. This is a balancing act but it’s important to remember that it’s the photographs that will bring your guests to you, so appearance is everything!

4 Photographs You don’t need a professional to take your pictures – and an iPhone does do a pretty good job – but you do need a good eye for composition. It’s as simple as that. If you can’t see that the curtains aren’t hanging straight and that the bedlinen is crumpled or worse, dirty, then you need help because the images on your listing need to be aspirational. They need to suggest to your guests that they can linger over a meal or sit in front of the window and admire the view. They need to show comfort and function. This is the only chance you have to sell what makes your listing unique in your area.

5 Price Again you need to be honest with yourself. Is this listing a second income or is it just paying for the maintenance of the property? Do you want as many guests as possible or are you just thinking of hosting at times that are convenient to you or to bolster the local visitor economy? Being an AirBnB host is labour intensive, you work HARD on change over days (my flat in London is listed when I am between tenancies) and there are lots of email conversations with upcoming guests. If you want to make the best possible income from the property, then price it lower. Seriously. Your competition is not only AirBnB and holiday lettings but the local hotels; if they have a room rate that is lower than your imagined price per guest (ie a double room is £89 and you want to charge £50 per guest,) they will get the booking first and you will pick up the ‘no other options’ visitors – which means you have no idea until the week (or sometimes two days) before they arrive that you are going to be running around like a mad person.

6 Personal Contact Taking the time to meet your guests, introduce them to the property and to give them a bit of local knowledge is one of the main attractions of staying in an AirBnB property. It really adds to the excitement of a trip away and it’s this that always features in the reviews guests write. Their words do as much to sell your property as the photos do. If you don’t want to have that level of involvement with your guests, AirBnB might not be for you.

It pays to consider what you want the property to do for you. AirBnB really generates interest in a local area but you have to monitor the way your listing behaves and to make a business of it, you need to respond to the information you are given. The bottom line is that you get out what you put in – guests notice the effort you make and will certainly be critical if they feel something could be better. You must also make sure that AirBnB in your local area isn’t subject to restrictions. Some cities (London, for example) have a limit on the number of nights per year or the number of listings in an area, so it is possible that AirBnB might not be able to offer you the right type of listing platform for your goals; analysing the market you intend to host in is very important.

My clients ‘new’ listing has now been live for eight weeks. In that time he’s had an 80% increase in views per week; it’s generated twelve enquiries, eight of which have gone on to book the house for their holiday. Sometimes a fresh set of eyes makes all the difference.

The Make-Do Kitchen Makeover

As you know getting refurbishments done in a house that you live in takes time. And in my case with having to re-wire the house as part of that process, there is an order to the schedule that I can’t do much about. The kitchen, which is the last piece in the puzzle – and a space that annoys me intensely – is all about being patient. Which of course just adds to my annoyance!

So to refresh your memories, the kitchen is a melange of textured fake plaster on the walls, fake terracotta tiles on the floor, pale blue mosaic splash back, (which has the potential to be nice but because they’ve been really badly fitted, just isn’t) maple effect shaker style cabinets and fake black granite work surfaces. It’s a dated and challenging space because there is very little natural light, no heating and things are just falling apart a bit. Funnily enough this kitchen is the same one as I have at the flat in London – there, I ripped out the work surface, the flooring, the splash back and repainted the cabinets, which just goes to show you how quickly things age (it was only fitted ten years ago.)

This kitchen is in marginally better nick but it needs to last until I redo this area – which is the major part of the refurbs because it involves realigning floor levels, flattening the poxy little porch, excavating the ground to the rear to create the foundations and extending across the whole of the rear elevation to create a studio space for me to work in that will give a better connection to the garden and double as a spare bedroom. It will bring in more light and give the house a much more flexible lower ground floor. When we’re all at home we often have visitors and it’s the living space that gets hammered. Reconfiguring the kitchen/dining area will also create a space for an additional relaxation area. At the moment there is nowhere to play music (and as my son owns seven guitars, two synthesisers, a mandolin, a zither, a ukulele and a zazz (not sure of the spelling!) the lower ground floor would really be fantastic for that. But that is down the road a bit, not least because I’m studying right now.

The first part of the process was the messiest and I still have a bit more to do – stripping off the horrid textured fake plaster, you can see it above on the opening around the cooker… In some areas it was just a wallpaper but in others it was a plaster effect, so the stripping was pretty slow going, but oh my, the walls look so much better without their rough texture.

There was a lot of filling and sanding to do afterwards, which is really worth taking the time over because a smooth, flat wall updates a space so much. I have the contrast right now of walls that are smooth in the kitchen and walls that are still textured in the dining area and it is incredible to see how much more considered and calm the smooth walls look in comparison to the textured. They also bounce light around now which is much needed in this space.

It would be easy to assume that the texture would reflect light, especially because it is coated in a shiny paint finish, but it does the reverse. It draws attention to each ridge of plaster so the affect is one of shadow and imperfection – not of a surface that acts as a reflector. The walls have been painted Slaked Lime Mid, by Little Greene which is a soft dove grey. It’s a warm but fresh off white and in any other space I’d probably love it. In my wretched kitchen the lighting plays a big part. Grrr.

Next up was painting the cabinets and I went all around the houses with what colour I was going to go for. To unify the splash back with the rest of the scheme I initially thought I would go for a pale grey-blue. But then the floor would still be a complete contrast – and I did not want to draw attention to that! So I opted for a grey-white.

I also experimented with how I prepped the surfaces.

Rubbing alcohol! Who knew!

So easy, it removes all the airborne cooking grease immediately, no hard rubbing and no horrid fumes. This is the same stuff as used for massage and clinical tests (to clean the skin) so as I had some in the cupboard, I thought I’d give it a try. It worked a treat, what a revelation!

And I also experimented with spraying the unit doors and would say that you really need to put time into getting the consistency of the paint right. My mix was too thin. It went on beautifully and then slid straight off! The finish would have been lovely but in the end I opted for brush painting because I didn’t want to waste paint in experimenting with how much I needed to dilute it by.

It’s not been the quickest of jobs and to all my friends who have seen the kitchen without drawer frontals and in its two toned state, thanks for bearing with me, but I have to say it’s transformed the look of the room.

It’s certainly lifted the space and created a much lighter room, but with the very harsh lighting I have in the kitchen, the cabinets, painted in a colour that I usually love, (Strong White by Farrow and Ball) look flat and a bit clinical. Obviously when the end wall is finished this will give a different look to the overall room, but the two colours which on paper swatches (big A4 sized swatches) looked great together, don’t quite hold hands the way I thought they would. On the cabinets I used the acrylic eggshell finish and found it really nice to work with. It is a water soluble paint which actually has an oil base; the oil is water dispersible like bath oils, which makes it a little bit more robust. I’m hoping in a kitchen this will last the distance.

All I need to do now is get rid of that horrid fake crystal drop pendant fitting and update the light bulbs in a bid to make this space go the distance. Other wise I’ll end up repainting the walls and the cabinets in a never ending quest to find colours that work in the room when it’s the space that’s the problem and I just have to be patient until I can change it!

A Quick Cloakroom Update

The bathrooms and cloakrooms in this house clearly never got the love they should have done. Another small area that I haven’t photographed is the lower ground floor cloakroom. It didn’t even have a sink! I was shown the ‘room’ when I viewed the property but it was used for storage, so the fact that there was no sink wasn’t obvious until I got the keys. I assumed they’d taken it with them, bizarre – but if people can take light fittings and fridges, why not sinks? When my solicitor asked them to provide a replacement, they said that it had always been like that! So, no pictures of that room and for several months it has been the receptacle of step ladders and paint tins, but no more!

I bought a wall hung vanity and hand basin online and a tap to go with them for the princely sum of £93 and yesterday it was connected up! I wonder how long it’s been since that room was plumbed? If it’s never had a sink, then this means it’s the first time it’s actually been a proper cloakroom. In a house that is 152 years old (or thereabouts) it’s quite funny to think this is a first! I’m chuffed.

As with my ensuite this is essentially a temporary measure – but this will be in place for much longer as I won’t be doing the lower ground extension for another couple of years. It will be a complete reconfiguration involving both the kitchen and my studio, so I’m not able to take that on yet. I don’t have the funds right now and I’m also studying so my workspace is doing a double duty.
Because I do spend a lot of time at my desk, I want to enjoy being in the space – even if it’s a short term fix – so the walls in the kitchen and dining area are being stripped and this cloakroom update is a part of that process – getting things the way I want for right now.

Let’s be honest, I did not want to spend any money on it at all! But I didn’t have a mirror I could move from somewhere else in the house and with no sink or tap, there were things that had to be considered, so the online research was all about size, cost and style – the least offensive, the best price and the right size for a room that is 610mm x 1650mm. The lighting is harsh and as it is off the utility area, it isn’t what you’d call welcoming, but it is close to the kitchen and my desk – and the closest WC to the garden – so I wanted it to be functional. Another thing, because the pipework was capped off with gaffer tape, there were a few nasty niffs from that area which I didn’t care for! So, spending even a tiny amount to get rid of stench had to be considered a good thing.

The paint colours went through several incarnations. I had some pink that I’d bought for a different property and then *chickened out* decided not to use, so that was first put on the walls, I mean I had 2.5 litres. But, I didn’t like it here either, I think this colour just needs more natural light and both areas I’d tried to use it were lacking in that. Then in the process of finding a vanity I found one that was supposed to be black (of course it isn’t, it’s a dark wenge effect) so decided to embrace the idea of high contrast and realised I had, as always, several dozen tester posts in various off whites and earth tones. The tongue and grove paneling became an off black and the wenge effect vanity and oak mirror add a little warmth to the deep tone. I got out the spirit level and measured a random grid on the walls and then just brushed each patch on in a different colour. The lines aren’t completely straight but nothing in this house is, so I decided to embrace that too.

What I’ve ended up with is a cloakroom with character, that I managed to pull together for about £150. It won’t look anything like this when the reconfiguration is done, but spending a small amount to make a space functional over the next two years or so, is money that has improved an area that wasn’t usable before. I could have ignored it completely but the idea of nasty smells just wafting out from time to time didn’t thrill me either. On balance it’s one small improvement that actually pleases me a lot.