How to Destroy a House

Updated: Oct 19, 2019

The planning part of the house renovation took longer than we’d hoped. When the roofers finally moved in, the moody, wet summer had turned into an even moodier, positively flooded autumn.

Open to the elements. And there were lots and lots of elements.

It was a terrible idea to take the roof off in these conditions. The weather forecast was measuring rain-free periods in terms of hours rather than days. But the roofer had promised, in his contract, to protect the building from damage, so we let him and his three young workmates get on with it.

No roof. What could possibly go wrong?

On the first day the sun shone and large chunks of roof were tossed in the skip. In a few hours the top of one third of the house – the bit intended to accommodate us, rather than the guesthouse part – had disappeared, a vast wound in a house that now looked its age – rickety, crumbling, damp, geriatric.

And then the rain started. It poured into the open cavity like a river finding an exciting new sinkhole. The roofers didn’t have anything to cover the house with, in spite of the contractual obligation. We made a tense trip to the builders’ shop to buy some plastic sheeting, which did little other than collect sagging pockets of rain while the rest oozed through the wood and plaster ceilings and into the rooms below.

Ceiling gone

The ooze turned into a pour. Soon the house had the air and stink of a cellarful of mushrooms. Ceilings sagged and cracked, walls darkened, floorboards swelled, antique furniture legs peeled and buckled in puddles of rainwater. The house was aquatic.

By mopping and bailing out, we kept the ship from going down, and Magda was a textbook captain, a stoic presence on the deck of the broken ruin while the heavens poured their disdain. At the low point we thought we’d get the roof on, dry the place out, and then sell up and lick our wounds.

But the low point passed, and somehow, with the new timbers of the roof eventually meeting at the crux of the structure like a handshake of former combatants in a neutral zone, everything looked promising again. The sun even shone as we took morale-boosting photos of the skeletal frame of the new roof.

We’re going for the homely, post-apocalyptic look

With this structure in place, the roofer finally covered his handiwork with weatherproof tarpaulin, just as the last of the rainclouds departed. Our new chimney was rising painfully slowly, due to the builder (who also works as a chimney sweep) giving it low priority; but once it poked its head above the skeletal roof, the rest of the wooden canopy was put in place.

The consolidation phase then began. We installed a wood-burning stove and an army of dehumidifiers to dry out the house. We began to hope that we might have a barely-usable ruin to move into before winter. Optimism soon faded, though. Gazing at the holes in the wall where the colossal new beam poked through, the drenched rubble that used to be a ceiling, and the walls sagging with dirty water like colossal beer-guts, it seemed best to focus once again on the beautiful symmetry of the new roof beams. Keep looking up!, I kept telling myself.

But Magda is, if nothing else, a miracle worker. After a couple of days installed in the house with her mum, the mess was cleared, the house was dried, aired, even warmed a bit, and she carved out a vast downstairs space for us to move into. We had been staying in an out of season guesthouse in the village in the meantime – warm, cosy, comfy. Never has a homecoming been so reluctant.

I celebrated the triumphal moving-in by taking the dogs for a walk, and then flying back to the UK for three weeks.

The smiling troops emerge triumphant from the wreckage

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