posted by Natalie Paddick

Working With All Sorts, Both in Terms of People and Materials… And the Importance of Food in the Mix ….

In the summer there is something fantastic about working outside, creating shapes with the hard landscaping. I was rummaging around looking for some other pictures when I came across these images depicting the architectural shapes you can create with bricks, cobbles, terracotta, tiles and wood …. As I looked at these images my memories of the trades people we worked with on this contract was ignited … And then it all came back to me!! …..

I have blogged before about Badminton Court, Amersham, Buckinghamshire, a project we undertook and won an award for the design, subsequently the development was listed on completion. As fabulous as the finished job was …. It was more than a bit of an undertaking …. To put it mildly!! … 

Badminton Court formally the Goya perfumery headquarters, had fallen on hard times and was ripe for a complete make-over, the developer had a vision of what he wanted….. This was a very, very expensive build for a very demanding, highly strung,  but to be fair definitely a visionary developer who wanted us to push our design abilities to the extremes on every front…..  Everything was purpose built, nothing was bought off the shelf, and it takes nerves to build like this as you have to take risks …. It is about breaking all the rules…. The finished article on completion commanded the same price per square metre as a prestige office building in Mayfair, London ….. Not bad!!

Most importantly for any development is to have a crew of many and varied specialist trades people. All these trades’ people have their own quirks and styles of working….. It can be like taking on the persona of a councillor to deal with these cast of characters, trying to calm the waters and get them to see it your way!!…. There can be a lot of tears and tantrums and sometimes tiaras, (worn by me)!... Tea and sympathy is in great supply along with the all-important bacon sarnie to get you through the project!! ….

We were involved in the project from conception, but unlike most jobs, where you work to plans and designs that are prepared in advance and / or worked-up whilst construction is in process... Not on this job, designs were more or less created as we went along, changes made, materials torn down and more designs recreated. If the developer had been away on holiday for example he would come back with a new design idea, which we would have to expand and incorporate into the construction ….. This did make the project very eclectic, but it was about amalgamating all the ideas so that they lived in harmony together….. Where possible!  

Returning from a visit to Barbados, the developer had noticed that instead of down pipes to take away rain water from buildings, they used chains that dropped to the ground from the gutters above. This created an almost waterfall effect with the typical rainy British weather. Many experiments were undertaken! But we got it right and it was a clever way of doing away with the traditional down pipes…

The developer who lived a very extravagant lifestyle, seemed always to be, ‘at lunch’ with friends and staff, food was his reason for a meeting to discuss the project with many glasses of wine thrown in to boot! … He had an exasperating penchant for employing his buddies, giving them fancy job titles and putting them in positions in his company that most of them had no experience at all…. A nightmare!!

This made the job even more complex and comical on occasions!!... One such hapless newly employed friend of the developer, who happened to be an ex-publican, was hired, with the new shinny title of “site project manager”; he was employed to deal with the tradesmen… It was of course a disaster, he had no idea how to undertake this role, no idea how to deal with tradesmen and the trade’s people hated him for it….. No professional wants to be told what to do by a person who does not know what to do in the first place! ……The publican would go off every day on three hour lunch sessions coming back totally blotto, incapable of walking and sleep the afternoon away!! … There was much irritation and consternation across the site about his behaviour ….So again our calming influence was deployed. More tea and sarnies required …

At this point I should say perhaps its better the devil you know!! .…  The developer fell out with the so unsuitably qualified publican who was unceremoniously dispatched to the developers - “I’m bored with you graveyard”….The next day a new site project manager, another friend appeared… We resigned ourselves …. “To here we go again” ….. However in this case he had actually had experience in project management. The only problem was that, as it turned out, he was hated even more by the tradesmen …… His name was Dick, which to be fair is a popular name but on a building site gives the dissenters plenty of scope for ridicule! ... He was gauche in the extreme but he was the developer’s new favourite toy …. Dick had a bypass when it came to any subtlety or diplomacy…. Which did not exactly enthuse the trade’s men, in fact it grated in the extreme…. There was massive decent where Dick was concerned, I have never worked with anyone so disliked ….. Sitting in the canteen, which is the best place to hear all the gossip… They were plotting against him, chatting over their bacon butties and tea, plotting and scheming on the ‘Demise of Dick’…  If the workforce takes a dislike to you on a building site in can be dangerous! … And Dick was “ruffling feathers” big time...  

Dick had a German wife who made him the most indulgent three course packed lunches…. Dick would not condescend to eat with his workforce, he would distance himself to some vantage spot, unpack his feast and gorge!... I really think you need to connect with craftsmen if you want to impart your philosophy, paint the mental picture and impart the design.…. Dick’s gourmet dinners became the subject of mutinous talk ….A plot was hatched to steal his lunch… Dick became aware of this plot, so in a valiant attempt to save his sustenance, he hitched up his trousers, put on his steel toe capped boots and HiVis jacket and went on site to give the tradesmen some grief!…. Workmen and their food - never underestimate what can happen!!

The following day an entire wheel barrow of bricks was unloaded out of a second floor window onto Dick who was standing beneath … Thankfully the assassination attempt failed, by chance he had stepped forward and the falling masonry missed by a millimetre! The internal investigation did not identify the guilty perpetrators…. Did I mention to you that working on a building site can be dangerous?...  Dick’s demise came, as it inevitably would! During an on-site meeting with the developer, (and others) Dick in a rare and unsolicited moment of euphoria decided it would cement his relationship with the decidedly smaller, albeit wider developer to throw his arms around him, lift him off the ground and unceremoniously shake him - in what can only be conceived as a bear hug of affection?? …  Dick was off the project - forthwith …

The metal work on the project was quite fantastic, crafted by hand in the old style forge by the very talented Trevor, he was known on site as “Metal Mickey”. Wearing baggy blue denims and a characteristic smile for all occasions he was a star to us “young-un’s” ….Trevor was understandably well liked by all and we all felt comfortable around him.  Except for the time the developer embarrassed Trevor by saying that he was going to knock off £5 from one of Trevor’s invoices. The developer did this type of thing from time to time, it was his way to belittle people and show everyone who the boss was. At the time Trevor was doing thousands of pounds of work on this project so this exercise seemed to me to be rather pointless? This deduction cost the developer dear, as every time Trevor quoted for a job thereafter, he would come up with a figure and without exception or a blink of the eye he would say, - ‘oh and plus £5 for this or that’. He must have got his £5 back countless times. Touché ….

I particularly remember a call Trevor took from his wife. There was much heated conversation, and the mobile was cut off unceremoniously. Trevor turned to me and said, ‘If my wife thinks that after a hard day’s work that I am going to get the bloody dog food on the way home, then she has another think coming!’ The language as I recall was a little more colourful! Anyway about two minutes later my phone rang, and it was his wife! ‘Tell him to get the bloody dog food or else!’ What a position to be in. I repeated the conversation to Trevor, he huffed … But you can bet your bottom dollar that he got the dog food!  

The Quantity Surveyor for the project, John was a nervous, introspective man with a pasty complexion, good at what he did but was very uncomfortable on a site of workmen and would stammer if he was engaged in conversation publically. John’s way of dealing with the developer’s hysteria would be to suddenly in the middle of a meeting pick up his brief case, pack it up and just walk out and go home to his mother. John would not eat, at least not publically, as I have mentioned this is unusual on a building site. Thus his stomach from lunch time on wards would make the loudest objectionable ruminant noises complaining to its lack of nourishment!.. I could make him laugh, I am a good mimic and I would regale him with little scenarios that had happened on site.   John would crumble and hold his stomach and gurgle with laughter and his legs would raise in the air. He was a nice man, who we became fond of….

George, the “bricky”, a “steel reinforced” solid character who looked like he had been cast in concrete, just like the “The Thing” character from the Marvel comics. He always had a packet of Wagon Wheel biscuits near where he was working, never worked out why!…. George created wonderful brick constructions, which was very much the character of Badminton Court… We had one big problem with him, our designs demanded a “historic” rather than the exacting plumb and dot symmetry he was used to building, we wanted to replicate the original construction as it would have been. He complained endlessly, and I do mean endlessly that he just could not understand our thinking, because he assured us that he was a professional and he could get all his brick work completely ‘plumb’ lined and straight! He did not get the aesthetic point in our design theme. He really did moan!...   

The plasterer Harry Turner was much liked by the developer, and in fairness most of the others on-site…. When the project was finally finished the developer had brass plaques engraved and placed to testify to the “works of excellence”, and put up in homage at various places on the building with pet names ….. The plasterer had the dubious plaque name of Turners Passage, as he had created the vaulted arched ceiling. This as you might imagine on a building site caused much amusement!  

The sparks, who like most electricians would you suppose have been fully conversant with working on “live” cables”, had the disconcerting habit of electrocuting himself on a regular basis. His wife attributed this malaise to his penchant for sleep walking. However as it turns out it was not just sleepwalking, but he had suicidal and homicidal tendencies whilst asleep, which led to a distinctly uncomfortable impasse in his private life. In fact his wife was only comfortable when she had him tied to the bed at night to stop him from sleepwalking, as his neighbours were complaining about him walking around their gardens naked…..The fore runner – “Fifty Sparks of Grey!” …..

The designing of Badminton Court was without doubt an experience. The outcome was magnificent as you can see…. One other memory of working on this project was the scaffolders….  Who had fallen out over some issue at their lunchtime break ….. This disagreement as it happens, escalated during the afternoon and a grudge match between the two men took hold….. A fight started on the third storey, these are men of steel, in the true sense of the word…  And their chosen weapon was scaffold poles. The noise around the site was immense as they swung at each and the poles crunched against the built scaffold and clanging against the building. The language was pretty blue too! I was on the ground, looking up. The site came to a standstill and there was a quite stillness for a moment or two. Then a few men started shouting at them to calm down. One of them by this time was hit and it was not pretty….. Suddenly the vicar from the Amersham church opposite the building site on the other side of the River Misbourne came running over… He held his arms open and appealed for calm, there was a few more clangs from the scaffold poles and then the two men put down their weapons and it was over… Ten minutes later these two men were sitting in the cafeteria, bloodied drinking tea and eating bacon sandwiches!

What crazy mad fun …. This is not the usual job … But who would have thought that being a Designer had so many facets … Never a dull moment!! Beautiful shapes created..  And all in a day’s work!!