Building Clayhill Arts: Part One

When we were looking for a site to build Clayhill Arts we had a specific list of criteria. It had to be an old farm somewhere out in the Somerset countryside, in dire need of repair but could be restored and brought back to life. We spent a month looking around the county and it wasn’t until property number 49 that we came across what would become Clayhill Arts.

I’m no expert on agricultural buildings. I grew up and lived in cities all my life and had only seen the occasional episode of Emmerdale Farm, so understanding the site and taking on the build was going to be quite an uphill challenge. Also, I’ve got no experience of doing anything like this. I’ve done a bit of DIY and a lot of Lego building in my time, however, I’ve seen a lot of Grand Designs and other daytime property shows so picked up a few things, mainly what not to do. So, with that in the bag, and YouTube to fall back on we thought we’d jump straight in and give it a go.

The site was an old diary and grain farm with stables, cattle shed and Dutch barns. After googling what all that meant we started sketching out what we wanted from the site. We wanted the business to provide professional training for creatives, so it would need a studio or teaching space. Somewhere to eat and somewhere to sleep. We loved all the old machinery, timbers and paraphernalia lying about the site and wanted to include as much of this as possible. We met early on with the local planning officer who was very helpful but did give some word of warning that current building control is very particular about insulation and materials so some compromises may have to be met. We met with a local architect to speak about our plans and they were positive about what we wanted to do. So, with a bucketload of naivety we decided to give it a go!

We purchased the property in January 2015, not the best time of year to spend in an open, drafty and slightly falling down old building. Storm season was around the corner (something I’d never noticed in the city!) so we cracked on with working out how to design the building and what was in risk of collapsing anytime soon. The Granary had a second floor that was in a very bad state and proved quite dangerous. The roof had started to cause the building to spread apart. Other areas of roof could collapse at any moment and there were possibly multiple animals using the site as there home.

We worked with the architects to come up with a design. This went back and forth over a couple of months until we had something that met our businesses needs and didn’t compromise the existing building. We got a structural survey drawn up and started the planning process.  I’d seen this play out on television before and settled in for a long-protracted period of bureaucracy, but the whole process went by very smoothly. What we wanted and what the planning department wanted were the same thing, to restore the building and bring jobs to the area.

We also had to have an ecological survey, a necessary process when renovating a rural site that has been unused for a while. A team of ecologists surveyed the site to work out what, if anything had made the building their home. This involved several ecologists camped outside the building one cold spring night waiting to see what might come out of the building. We kept everyone warm with hot drinks and took part waiting. In the end one barn owl and 5 bats popped out to sample the local nightlife. This meant that when we started the project, we would have to accommodate for them with bat roosts and an owl nest box. An ecologist would have to be on site when we stripped the roof and most importantly, we couldn’t start the build until we had 3 consecutive nights where the temperature was at least 8 degrees. This is the magic number by which we know that the bats are able to leave their roosts at night and be able to feed. This meant we couldn’t do anything until next spring. This wasn’t a problem as there was still lots to do finalising the design, choosing a contractor and pricing the entire job. This is where things got tricky.

The building process goes like this; you first start with an architect who draws up plans that will work in your budget. You then enlist building control who stipulate what materials have to be used, what level of insulation there has to be and where the fire exits go. After this you have to employ a quantity surveyor who works out how many bricks you’ll need. Well sort of, they work out what materials you’d need and how much it would cost. After this you start to get an idea of how much the whole project will cost to build and how long it will take. You then send this out to “tender” (another phrase you have to learn) to a variety of local building contractors to see if, firstly they’d be interested, if they could do it in time and how much they think it would cost to build. This whole process takes a lot of time and costs a lot of money.

Eventually we met with two separate building contractors on site to discuss the build project. I tried to look as professional as possible and convince them I had any idea of what was going on. Costs were escalating and I wanted to try to get the build costs lower but unfortunately the contractors valuation was coming back in line with what our quantity surveyor was saying …..this is going to cost a lot of money! The initial budget we set the architect was a distant memory, things seemed to be spiralling out of control and if I had to hear the word “tender” one more time!… Another issue we discovered, when going down this traditional route was one of flexibility. Using a contractor of this size meant locking down the design very early on and handing things over to them to plan resources and materials. Despite the occasional meeting onsite its pretty hands off, we wouldn’t be able to change anything or have much input, not with incurring more re-design costs and impacting the schedule.

Initially I was fine with this, what do I know about building something on this scale or even managing a project like this! But increasingly I was feeling concerned about this level of detachment. Deborah found the process unsettling too. As a creative she was used to getting involved, to adapting to things as they happened and often changing your mind. This is something you just can’t do on major building projects, look at Crossrail for example. However, I was now not completely new to building projects. During this time, we had taken on the job of renovating the house that came with the farm buildings. I had taken on the role of project manager and doing a lot of the building work myself. We had met with some local builders and tradespeople, kindly recommended by our new neighbours. We had two separate building teams working on different parts of the house. The house needed re-plumbing, re-wiring, a new central heating system, roof, internal modifications and decorating and I was starting to gain a lot of skills both in carrying out the work and managing a building project. So, we wondered, could we take on the barns ourselves?

This was going to be a major undertaking. Renovating a house is one thing, but completely restoring a farm complex of this size required work on a completely different scale. Major structural engineering, demolition, groundworks, drainage, engineered heating, not to mention everything that comes with building something used by the public, fire exits, disability access, car parking.  Also, it was too big for either of the building teams we had worked with….but, what if we combined the two teams? Split the building into smaller sections and managed everything in between?

We met with both teams and explained what we wanted to do. We had already a good relationship and they knew what we were like to work with. We looked at the costs projected by the architect and quantity surveyor and we tried to simplify the plans to bring the costs down. We worked out that if we did it ourselves and we managed the build using the contacts we had already gathered we could do it for a third less than the projected costs and still do it in the same time. It would involve a lot of work on our part, quick decisions, economical procurement, and a hell of a lot of tea making, but we thought we could do it.

We broke the bad news to the architect and his team and started to get things underway….

Michael Parkes


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