Beware Refurbishing 28

They kept their promise. At 7.30 this morning only Karol and Rafal rolled up in Boss Builder's large grey van (both of them are whippet thin, by the way, and very young). They were the ones making - and taking the delivery. It was a joist-hoist, or girder-herder, or real-steel-deal (structural engineers, please supply the correct term)...Anyway, its purpose is to do the heavy lifting of the steels once these have been positioned on the whatsitsname.
Karol assured me that they would all be cooking (or rather, the girlfriends of some of them would be) on Christmas Eve. Carp of course, frozen or, as he put it, 'not dead', got from one of the many Polish shops along Ealing Broadway where they are staying. 
For anyone who doesn't know London, Ealing has been a mini-Poland since the end of WWII, when special dispensation for Poles was made to by-pass Britain's tough immigration laws of the time, because the Polish contribution to the British war effort had been both great and indispensable. Where would the Battle of Britain have been without them, or the storming of Monte Casino or the various skirmishes in the deserts of North Africa?
Happy Christmas, guys. See you on 27th.

Posted on Friday, December 22, 2017 at 04:29AM by Registered CommenterZina Rohan | CommentsPost a Comment

Beware Refurbishing 27

21st December

The winter solstice is a favourite one for me, not because of the thundering approach of Christmas but because from tomorrow, in theory, the days will start getting longer.

Last night I went down twice to try to persuade Karol, Rafal, Bartek, Sebastian and Starszek to go home. They had arrived at 7.30 in the morning. They were still here at 7.30 in the evening. We have to finish this, said Karol, deputising for Boss Builder who has cleared off to Poland until next month. Tomorrow comes Building Control. He must approve what we have done or we cannot make progress. What time is he coming I asked (blistering with hypocrisy because I, too, want the BC officer to come and tick off this stage of the work). At 12 o’clock, said Karol with the sort of assurance that carries no weight.

And indeed, no BC officer arrived at 12, so that the workers could have gone home earlier and finished up this morning. Never mind. Eventually, nearer 2pm, the BC officer (Indian) showed up and duly approved. But!

‘Please send me the layout of what this flat will be,’ he commanded, stern as only a BC officer is allowed to be. ‘This is for fire regulations.’

I pointed out that on the lower ground floor where the bedrooms will be there are three exits from the building. And upstairs there will be two. Something tells me he will consider this insufficient.


Posted on Thursday, December 21, 2017 at 11:37AM by Registered CommenterZina Rohan | CommentsPost a Comment

Beware Refurbishing 26

20th December

As I said, both Boss Builder and Sebastian were the worse for wear on Monday and didn’t show up. Boss Builder explained yesterday, looking not so much contrite as a tad embarrassed, that ‘we work very hard – then comes the day we drink very hard. And we forget to stop.’ So when Sebastian arrived yesterday to take a kanga hammer to the concrete floor, pounding out a trench across the entire house for the steel frame to lie in, I feared for the state of his already fragile head. But he did it. Two deep trenches, in fact, one on either side of the feeble spine wall.

Today there are four of them (Poles, not trenches). Bartek and Sebastian, Karol and a new face. Starszek, who has an open expression and dusty cementy hands. He clearly thinks me hilarious because when we met I was wearing a cosy hat on a day that evidently didn’t merit it. They are putting up the Acrow props, six on each side of the trench to hold up the floor above. Then the spine wall will come down, maybe tomorrow.

Meanwhile, this is what I learned at school today a.k.a. The British Library. All building control stemmed from the London Building Act of 1774, which was a typically rapid Parliamentary response to the Great Fire of 1666. It listed all manner of specifications designed to reduce the spread of fire and, incidentally, was the document that introduced the concept of dividing houses into four ‘rates’ according to their value and size – even instructing who was supposed to live in which.

First was for the nobility, at a rental value of £850 per annum, with a floor space of 900 square feet.

Second was for merchants, who would pay £300-850 for space between 500 and 900 square feet.

Third was for clerks, paying £150-300 for 350-500 square feet.

Fourth was for mechanics, paying up to £150 for nothing more than 350 square feet.

But this was in Georgian times, and although the rates remained, the room sizes had grown somewhat a century later. The 1774 Act was so stringent (I must look it out) that it gave rise to what were called Pattern Books. A developer would give his builder a rough sketch of the house he was to throw up, and the builder would follow the precepts in one of the common pattern books. Like Lego, perhaps? Tomorrow I hope to look at The Builder’s Companion, which was one of these, its hard cover ripped off, the useful pages tucked into a back pocket much as a pencil is these days tucked behind an ear. Incidentally, 160 years ago, builders were called operatives just as they were in 1955.

Finally I turned to the 1859 compendium of the weekly journal The Builder, which as you might expect carried multiple advertisements for all things technical and wondrous and too good to be true. But it also printed long discursive articles, some of them deeply anti-worker because one of the big building companies was facing a strike: (how dare they demand a nine-hour day? Do they think they can be paid for nine hours what they get for ten? And what will that do to capital? Why, they’ll all lose their jobs, because houses will get so expensive no one will want any anymore and they’ll all be out of a job altogether. They are holding the public to ransom… (oh, all right. My words, not theirs).

(It made me think of my poles who twice at least have done a few more than nine hours. And usually do nine.)

It also warned of an outbreak of deaths of diarrhoeal diseases in Kentish Town, even though by this time the foul Fleet River swept down to the Thames through in a pipe underground. No. This was because of fetid standing water in pools by houses, in their back gardens (even of the better classes) and left to gather in holes where gravel had been dug. Something must be done.

I found no reference to the Kentish Town/Christ Church Estate, so I shall have to go back and leaf through the 1860 volume.




Posted on Thursday, December 21, 2017 at 11:26AM by Registered CommenterZina Rohan | CommentsPost a Comment

Beware Refurbishing 25

18th December

Bartek is here on his own today. Sebastian (and Boss Builder) have both taken the day off. And I don’t know where Karol and Karol and Rafal are – on another project probably, or maybe (also?) fragile from too jolly a jolly on Saturday night. Early this morning another flat-bed arrived with multiple bags of ballast. One man on his own cannot shift it all, so the bags are piled up on the pavement against the front fence. I did notice a white van with unduly interested faces peering round as it cruised slowly past. I think I will count the bags when I leave later on and count them again tomorrow. Bartek is all masked up, cutting something metallic, steel mesh for another layer of concrete perhaps…

In November 1955 Tory ministers Duncan Sandys and R.A.Butler sent a letter to all Local Authorities, asking them to rein in capital expenditure because of pressure on the economy in general and on sterling abroad in particular. Interestingly, though, housing was excepted – such were the needs recognised to be.

At the same time the Local Archives record regular rows between Council officials and representatives of the building trade, or rather, those who worked for the Council. They wanted more money and a five-day week. On the one hand, the Council tried to persuade them how much better their position was as direct employees of the Council because of perks like sick pay and the pension scheme; on the other, Council minutes regularly bemoan the lack of skilled builders – you just can’t get the labour. I find myself shouting down the decades, ‘Get yourselves some Poles!’ But of course, in those days no Pole would have been allowed out of his country nor, doubtless, into ours. Then, as now, there was pretty much full employment so in a sense the construction workers had it their way. The private contractors only work a five-day week, they argued, and we don’t want the bloody pension. We want the cash.

The Council is over a barrel because of all those houses it bought up in Kentish Town. They are so dilapidated there is no keeping up with the repairs. Time to re-work them entirely. The first one to be converted into flats is No 71. Work began on 17/10/1956 and by 13/02/57 it was completed, except for decoration. Next was mine. Work on it began the day 71 was completed, from 13/02/57-03/07/57. Five months. That’s very likely how long the re-building of just my flat is going to take, if I am lucky.

The day the work started on Number 97 in February ’57, the Building Committee of the Council wrote that ‘The Department is now beginning to undertake smaller contracts in the £10-£20000 range, e.g restoration of Woburn Walk and conversion at Kentish Town Estate, and it is necessary to appoint a General Foreman (A.P.T. Grade IV) for this work. A Mr G Knapp got the job at £727.15s - £907.2s 6d per annum plus £30 London weighting allowance.

Was it Mr Knapp who allowed the weird drainage system? Was it he who encouraged his ‘operatives’ as they were oddly termed, to shove some post-war bricks under the bottom of the ‘spine’ wall that we now have to remove? Where do I find him?

Posted on Thursday, December 21, 2017 at 11:25AM by Registered CommenterZina Rohan | CommentsPost a Comment

Beware Refurbishing 24

15th December 2017.

Work has stopped for today. The latest layer of the concrete floor needs to settle some more before the Acrow props can be put in to support the floor above, after which the spine 'wall' comes down and the steel beams go in. How will they do that? By magic, says Boss Builder. This morning Bartek, Sebastian and the boss loaded a skip of all the rubbish and then scrubbed the pavement. Now they have gone for the day. Football this evening and tomorrow, for their Christmas jolly, they'll all going go-carting in the Docklands. Then a knees-up, on the boss. Quite right too.

We did make an unfortunate discovery today, though. The water pipe coming into the house, serving both flats, is lead...Ho hum.

Yesterday's researches in the local archive turned up the following:
14th March 1956. "We are informed that a considerable amount of subletting on this Estate has taken place over many years, presumably with the previous owners' consent. In many instances the main tenant is a lessee of the estate and is holding over on the lease; many of the lettings are of a type which would not have been made by the Council - some having resulted in overcrowding, or at best, a deficiency of sanitary facilities and in many cases as a result of such lettings, an income is available to the main tenant."

Did the previous owners ie Christ Church College, Oxford, give their consent to lettings of this type? Did they ask? Did they care? Or were they only interested in the maximum revenue for their Trust, set up to provide an income for impecunious clergymen? What consequently happened to the impecunious non-clergymen was maybe not their concern. Back to the kind archivist, to ask her.

And a thought: private rentals these days are often as dire as the one Council minutes of 1956 spoke of. Post-war there was huge pressure on London's housing, and now there is pressure for different reasons. But bad landlords do not change. They just take advantage.


Posted on Thursday, December 21, 2017 at 11:24AM by Registered CommenterZina Rohan | CommentsPost a Comment