The secret to turning your home into a construction site without being consumed by stress? Finding joy in the process, not just the far-off promise of a fancier place to live.
The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand
Original illustrations by Joe Carrington.
The house sits, an old greying villa, leaning towards the western sun. An ancient plum tree tickles her flaking sides. The first time I step over her threshold, I feel an immediate connection. When this old stable-owner’s home was first built in 1907, she marked the western-most edge of Auckland. Beyond her there was simply space and hills, the susurration of the Manukau harbour, clean ocean winds, a dearth of people.
We fall in love with her, my husband and I, with her palpable sense of time and place. Her high ceilings are lacy with pressed tin. Fallen pōhutukawa feeds her fireplace. Her wrap-around verandah is crumbly but pretty. Something – her soul, or perhaps just memories of the past – thrums in her gorgeous timbered bones. The places we live in, the topography of trees and stones and earth, shape our desires and thoughts and mould our memories like soft wax. We dig up other peoples’ memories from the garden – horseshoes and corroded bridles, glass medicine vials with foul-smelling residue, shards of broken pottery.
Years pass. We shiver through winters where the house feels crystallised with ice, where draughts whistle up through the floorboards and around gaps in the windows. Mould grows on all our clothes. My asthma flares, my chest corsets with wheeze. The single toilet has a queue of visitors. The single garage is damp and small.
We consult an architect and a builder. We’d like another bathroom, we say, and a functional garage. Perhaps more insulation while we’re at it. Modest and practical requests. A smidgen of ambivalence – we could, after all, continue to live in the house as it is and just wear more clothes.
The curly-haired architect is a visionary. He sees the fall of light, the tracery of imagined walls and windows, the flow of people that makes a house a home. He explores the earthen subfloor – the aching potential of it. He sketches a rough design, and we are shocked by its audacity. Move the kitchen from the hot western end to the cooler eastern end (when we didn’t even ask for a new kitchen)? A second bathroom smack-bang inside the spacious hallway? A front entrance with a staircase in place of a cold office? His plan doesn’t just tinker around the edges, it shape-shifts our weather-beaten darling into a much better iteration of herself. Our shock is replaced by awe, by excitement. The curly-haired man has, in fact, nailed it.
We are absurdly naive to the vagaries of construction – the eye-watering cost of things, the chronic months-long stress, the multiplicity of decisions that will need to be made. We do not realise that everything will take longer than anticipated, or that our home will become an empty shell teeming with the lives and technical prowess of other people.
I decide to project manage the renovation, in order to keep costs down. I know nothing about the construction industry. I am a family doctor, and my trade is liver and spleen, a curved needle to thread through skin, the maelstrom of another’s emotions, the fissile beauty of human connection. I don’t do straight lines. I’m reasonably rubbish at math and finances. Logical, linear thought patterns take concentration and effort – my mind prefers to flit like a butterfly. I dislike complicated technology; thinking about Microsoft Excel or Gantt charts gives me an immediate headache. I am not savvy or strict enough to deal swiftly with dishonesty or poor workmanship. And I wonder if being short, brown and female will be a significant impediment in what is surely a realm full of men.
On the plus side: I love details, I work absurdly hard, I don’t give up easily. That quality of perseverance that segues into stubbornness. I have no qualms asking questions on topics I know nothing about, even if I look stupid (“What’s a joist? What’s a bearer?”). I am eternally curious and live to learn, and am pathologically optimistic and hopeful. Also, I love this house, and I want the end result to be excellent.
I use notebooks to scribble down the things I need to organise, the things I need to buy. I try and plan months ahead for supplies and contractors. I use a large wall planner and an old-fashioned cork board to keep track of council inspections (so many weird acronyms) and multiple tradespeople. The builder’s apprentice rolls his eyes when he sees my cork board, but I don’t care. The board is tactile, it’s visual, and it works for me.
The spirit of my grandfather strides over the floorboards. He was a carpenter who owned a sawmill in a sleepy seaside suburb in Colombo. I think of his ox-like hands, the patches of vitiligo on his face, his trumpet-shaped ears. I remember his tireless work ethic, how he kept building things and running large machinery till the age of 85. Other ghosts waft through; time is non-linear in this house, shifting and whispering to me with the amorphous solidity of old window glass. Someone once grew marijuana hydroponically in the attic, until they hurriedly left prior to the arrival of the law. In 2005, a television crew camped out here to film the series To Catch a Thief. A time capsule from the 1920s to the 1940s reveals coins, a gun receipt, a school report. I hold rusty horseshoes in my hands, and I feel the sheer physicality of the glorious creatures that once wore them, how they snorted and cantered in the pastures that surrounded our home, how their coats steamed with sweat, how their nostrils flared. I want to work with wood, I want to build things, I want to squeeze a couple of horses into the garden.
This will be our builder’s first major renovation as a sole trader. Another architect, the builder’s friend, joins our planning meetings. He has a fantastic eye for detail. Choose quality over crud, he says, and it will last the test of time. The quantity surveyor’s estimate of the total build cost is eye-watering, and we are so despondent we come close to pulling the plug. But we’ve already sunk copious cash on design and engineering, and spent more than a year planning and getting quotes. So we press on and hope for the best.
We move out. Wreckage sprouts around our house like hurricane debris. Temporary steel truss beams are slipped under the floor, then bolted to steel posts cemented to the ground. The excavators move in with their tipper trucks and bobcats. Tonnes of dirt and debris move out. The house floats on air, a cavernous maw opens underneath. Fragments of asbestos fenestrate the soil, have to be plucked out, bagged for collection. Rebar is bent, polystyrene pods placed, cement is smoothed like icing. Scaffolding creeps up the walls, a metallic exoskeleton that we clamber up and over in order to run our hands over the finials, the eaves brackets, the tinny window flashings. We find petrified pigeon poop in soaring crevices. Old gib is cracked open, exposing art deco wallpaper attached to hessian, the glue that once bound this to the scrim so loose the walls shimmer and ripple under our breath. A mummified rat tumbles out of a dusty cavity. Graffiti from 1942 reveals someone’s name, that they were once here. Rimu studs are repurposed into a bathroom vanity. New pink framing is erected next to eroded matai. I touch the old parts of the house, catch my nails inside her hieroglyph borer holes, tell her I’m sorry for disrupting her century of stillness.
The cold June air is Tāwhirimātea on a gleeful rampage, hooting and stomping on the floorboards, shouting inside the rafters, chilling the workers with rainy tears. The ear-screaming whine of drop-saws, the rattling of drills, the shocking sudden plosive of pin guns. Every morning at 7.30am the builders hear an unseen neighbour shout, “Fuck those fucking hammers!” Massive trucks groan and sidle down the driveway to deposit scoria, architraves, glasswool. The joiner, a silver-haired lovely bursting with southern charm, chisels strength and beauty out of cedar. A builder friend, a creative soul with a wild past and a taste for Lana Del Rey, lays swamp matai in the dining area, transforms solidity into chocolate-brown gorgeousness. The entrance staircase is smooth and soaring, the wrought iron balusters a perfect complement. Pressed metal ceilings are tacked into place by an arty Dunedinite who micro-doses mushroom juice for alertness. Someone asks him if he has enough wood, and he cheekily replies, “That’s a very personal question to ask another man.” I burst out laughing and duck into another room.
The smooth Perrin & Rowe plumbing is swan-neck over porcelain, is silver serpent against shower tiles. The kitchen cabinet-maker is an exquisite craftsman; quiet, meticulous, prone to intense bouts of solitary contemplation. The internal painter works under floodlights late at night, floating on a current of music so loud the neighbours wonder if he’s having a party; his work is achingly beautiful, his soul is gentle, his character astounding for its honesty and integrity. The external painters scrape and gap and sand until they seamlessly blend the old house with the new; the house is dressed for the opera in smart truffle grey and merino white, and she looks spectacular, better than she has done for one hundred years.
At times the build moves like treacle. The builder seems overwhelmed by the complexity; he is a good builder, but the paperwork and the myriad details are too much, he struggles to plan ahead. He argues with several people. The bank balance depletes like a pricked balloon – we get used to paying people in allotments of $10,000 or more. There are weeks when nothing much seems to happen, and there are other weeks when the site is crawling with a multiplicity of tradespeople. One awful week there is only the builder’s apprentice on site. His character shines under fire – his maturity, his mettle. There is the option of hiring a fourth-year female apprentice, and I am thrilled – another woman on site! The builder declines her sight unseen as he does not want women “lifting heavy things”.
Almost all the tradies are friendly, easy-going, hard-working. There is a jokey camaraderie afoot. There is sometimes ridiculous and very loud techno music. There is a lot of swearing; I start to swear more to keep up.
I feel in awe of the hours these men work – answering emails at six in the morning or late at night; answering my inane endless text messages and phone calls; arriving on site by 7am, leaving exhausted by day’s end. I feel in awe of the stamina needed. Crawling into tight subterranean spaces to lay pipes, noses squished inside armpits. Inhaling fibreglass fragments to lay electrical cables in the furnace of an attic. Balancing on ladders to push rollers thick with paint. Hoisting clods of earth, chunks of steel, heavy double-glazed joinery. Cutting wood on days when the air is so pinguid with moisture and heat, I sweat just by standing still.
I accumulate contractors and suppliers like a bad case of scabies. By the end of the build, I will have liaised with more than one hundred different entities. A person for each year of the house’s lifespan. One contractor running late has a domino effect on others. Council inspectors stride on site with steel-capped boots and high-vis mana: I like the practical, reasonable ones the best. Project managing becomes my second job. I am distracted at work, my mind festering with things undone, unsaid, unordered.
The importance of the pre-build stage becomes clear. The delineation of details, the time spent refining quotes, the endless planning meetings; these things started in 2018, and seemed interminable, but now save us time and money. Word-of-mouth recommendations for tradespeople are salt and gold. Conversely, contractors found on websites are hit and miss. They talk big but can deliver small and imperfect. Hobbling together tradies saves a large margin but takes an awful lot of work. It is at times a messy organic dance, and mistakes made by one person cause cost over-runs elsewhere.
Words fly around me at a dizzying rate. I frequently have to ask people to repeat themselves. It’s like I have entered a strange and alien dimension where I am learning Elvish. Some of the words are new; some are old but with new meanings – purlins, nogs, centres. I make decisions quickly, with intuitive gut-think and heart-think more often than mind-think. Being able to choose is meaningful. For more than a year, I have no free time. Hours are spent organising, paying bills, finalising details. I mostly get things right; the internal painter scores me eight-and-a-half out of ten for my project management. I get some things wrong – during one rushed lunch break, I order fence posts that are the same length as the fence palings. I feel foolish, but I get over it.
My husband and I help where we can. He spends weeks digging the subfloor into a useable space. He de-nails and stacks wood, picks up supplies. He cleans calcified poo out of our old toilet bowl. He helps build the fence, then damages his shoulder. I pin panelling on bathroom walls with earmuffs on. I paint fretwork, balancing in mid-air with one elbow hooked around a beam to prevent a fall. I stain and varnish garage walls, squirt and scrape gapping into cracks, spread luscious white paint on skirting and doors. The real painters tease my slowness; we would never hire you, they laugh. I spend days shovelling soil; every muscle in my body aches for a week afterwards. I try to wriggle a piece of rebar free from a piece of wood, and stupidly hit myself in the mouth. I look in the mirror and I have a fat lip, the taste of salt and blood on my tongue, exposed bone where my gum used to be. My face swells. I wonder what it feels like to die of tetanus.
A case of delta is reported in the community. It is August 2021. Our site had been in full swing. Within a few hours, everything stops. All lies fallow for five weeks. Our builder has a significant medical event at his bach, and is air-lifted to Wellington. He asks his second-in-charge to take over once lockdown lifts. It is spring, and I am overjoyed when the ancient plum bursts into fierce bloom, turns a glorious bridal white. I feast on her beauty for weeks. Later, she will bear a heavy crop of fruit, old-fashioned, deep crimson, juicy with sun and tart as lemon. Alas, the ravages of earth-moving and old insect infestations have weakened her, and her limbs crack and splay. I fear she has died. I cry. A lot. The second-in-charge builder is Mr Pretend Grumpy, a man with a love of nature, a hatred of racism. He assesses the tree, props up the remaining branch, offers words of hope and reassurance. The glow of these words, these actions, still remain. The tree also still remains, deforested but alive.
The build enters a new phase. Pretend Grumpy is a task-focused introvert – my tribe of person. He builds and builds and builds, and we see astonishing progress. This man once built high-class hotels in London, and this shows in the quality of his work. He fashions us a new bedroom key – next level genius. I love his honesty, his kindness, the way his face goes all goofy and soft when he’s talking about his wife.
We move back in after 11 months of renting elsewhere. Omicron is afoot in the land. The final jobs drag on as tradesmen flit off to other jobs. We feel so consumed by the enormity of the past year and a half, so depleted of time and energy, that it is at first hard to appreciate the end result. All we can think of is the list of things that still need doing.
But that list dwindles. We walk around the house, again and again and again, and we are amazed. Everything – the colours, the textures, the currents of light and heat, the craftsmanship of different people – coalesces together into a Gestalt whole, better than we thought possible. I feel the soul of the house re-awaken from her protective hibernation, and I am dead certain that the old girl is pleased with her new beauty.
I sometimes meet tradies as patients in my consult room, but having them in my home for months at a time is altogether different. Their skills are now woven into the fabric of this place, and I feel a huge amount of gratitude for them. The best are those who work hard, who charge fairly, who treat you as a human being rather than just another job. The incidence of ADHD and dyslexia seems high, and I wonder if some people are sluiced into the trades to keep their hands busy. It’s a pressure-cooker lifestyle. The stress caused by job over-runs, fiscal uncertainty and amateur project managers must be enormous. Working from dawn till dusk leaves little time for leisure, little space sometimes for loved ones. Like all of us, tradespeople are coloured by the prism of the past, the unseen things still carried: broken relationships, harsh words, unresolved hurt. One man tells us tales of his awful father, the violent anger and cruel tricks, the constant debts that moved the family from town to town. I suddenly see the small child he once was as he talks, and my heart aches so much I have to look away. These human stories from our construction site are the richness I have gleaned from the past year, the richness I can’t stop thinking about.
There is no more mould in our house. No longer do we step into a draughty ice-box when we come home. Unlike a generic new build, there is an abundance of substance and character and beauty saturating this space. We may have to keep working till we are 91 to pay it off, but the journey, the accumulated friendships, and the end result are utterly worth it. If I have to do this all again, I will have a wealth of good people to draw on, and I will improve my systems (a bigger cork board, perhaps). Till then, I’m off to get a horse.