Jonny submitted the hefty planning application in November 2009, along with a preliminary geotechnical survey – because of the possibility of contaminated land – and by January 2010 we had full planning permission! Jonny’s thorough consultation and response to neighbours’ concerns meant, we had no letters of opposition and even a letter of support from the Bath Preservation Trust. Undoubtedly, our application was also aided by the fact that the neighbouring buildings had permission to develop four small houses upon them, thus setting a precedent for residential development in that area.
Nevertheless, the permission was subject to 14 planning conditions. These included, among others, a very expensive full geotechnical survey; and an archaeological watching brief, as despite the shed being constructed on an infilled canal basin that itself would have dated from the Industrial Revolution, this being Bath there is always the belief in the possibility of finding Roman gold. Suffice to say, no ancient hoard was found, but yet another dent in our budget did appear.
In addition, in December 2010 it was announced that we needed to get a Bat Survey done by an ecologist. The Kennet & Avon Canal is a bat corridor, and home to the very rare Nathusius pipistrelle bat. If bats were found to be nesting or roosting or even just dropping in from time to time, we may have to delay the build indefinitely while the the bat people assessed how important a site our decrepit shed was. This concerned us so much that, somehow, we managed to get a local ecology consultant to go in on Boxing Day – we just wanted to know what we were up against. Fortunately, for us (not the local bats), our drafty shed was not popular with the mini-mammals, and our project marched on.
As our eldest son, Ioan, was due to start school in September 2010, we decided that we would complete his nursery education in Brixton, and move to Bath in the summer holidays. Shortly after receiving planning permission we heard that Ioan had been given a place in the school across the road from the site, Widcombe Infant School – a place we had a really good feeling about – and now our shed really looked like being a family home.
So, planning permission granted, a school place within walking distance, the next thing was to sell our house. This was a huge wrench, as we had personally physically transformed our two-up, two-down workman’s terrace from a condemned building into a comfortable family home. But, as we needed the capital to build with, the house went on the market in March and we had a lot of interest and quickly accepted an offer just under the asking price; six weeks later the sale fell apart, our house went back on the market and nobody came through the door for weeks – the market had dipped. We reduced the price, still no takers. Finally a really enthusiastic couple who had been interested from the very start made an offer. They loved the house, and it felt much easier to pass it on to people who were passionate about it as we had put so much of ourselves into it.
We packed up our Brixton house at the end of August 2010 and moved into a flat in Widcombe, from the garden of which we could just about see our site. We could certainly hear the works on the building site next door to ours, which had started a few months before. Gruff started pre-school 2 days later, and Ioan started infant school 3 days later.
Early on partial demolition and piling had already been undertaken and by the time we got to Bath there was little more than the stone facade left of our shed, and even this went not long after to be replaced with hoarding.
The build had a very slow start, as access issues came to the fore and went unresolved for many months. Our designs involved digging down between 1 metre and 1.5 metres right across the site, which in turn meant a huge amount of waste material to be excavated and removed from site. The big issue was how to get this waste off the site. Our only access to the site is along the British Waterways-owned towpath, and BW felt the towpath was not strong enough to withstand tens of loaded skip journeys. After much toing and froing, and exploring all sorts of options, including taking the waste away by barge (a wonderful idea in theory, but which in practice would have meant double handling of the waste material, plus it’s a very slow option), we finally came to an agreement with the contractors of the neighbouring site, Ken Biggs Contractors (an established local firm) – in truth, they came to our aid.
It was agreed that they would undertake our groundworks, and in turn they would access our site across theirs, thus avoiding all towpath issues. (The neighbouring site has a side alley access, albeit of disputed ownership!) At last, it looked as though we would move forward in October. Unfortunately, for weeks things moved very slowly, as the contractors were struggling with the restricted access and, understandably, were putting their original commitment of the next-door development first; while the occasional job got ticked off, ultimately it appeared to be languishing with dates being pushed back and pushed back. The dig had begun though, and we gradually created a most magnificent muddy hole as we excavated tonnes and tonnes of material through a very wet autumn and winter.
As the site was a former car repair workshop, one of our 14 planning conditions was to undertake a geotechnical survey to ensure that the land was not contaminated. Considering the extent of excavation we planned to undertake and the high cost of disposing of contaminated waste, we waited for the results with baited breath … the soil was inert! One very small area where an old oil tank had stood had minor contamination that could be dealt with by digging out and bagging up separately, but the rest could be disposed of without strings; a huge relief.