Let me tell you all about our winter garden, or what was to be our winter garden. It has not been an easy ride: we’ve gone through the whole gambit on emotions with this one. Instead, it has been a lesson in how not to plan a house project and what to do with the weather, neighbours and the coronavirus threaten to derail the project.
The winter garden tale starts…
A little more than a year ago today, the sun was shining and we decided to use our patio and retractable awning for the first time of the season. We had not changed anything on either since moving in and both noted how uneven (even to the point of dangerous) the patio flooring was and what a bad state the awning was in (it has 2 major rips, three by the end of the season, where the stitching had come undone). We definitely needed to move it up on our project list.
Little did we know we were about to learn an expensive lesson in how not to plan a house project.
I wanted a winter garden
I had my heart set on a winter garden. For me, the thought of an extra room that we could use to extend our space for around 10 months of the year was just too enticing. It would also mean a fixed structure, doing away with an awning, which had to be wound in at the slightest hint of wind or drizzle and thus limited our use of the space, even in summer.
We visited our local hardware and garden store for a quote and discovered that there were few suppliers for the size we were considering (ideally 6m x 3 m). We also wanted to have the option of breaking the project into parts – first the glass roof and the glass sides at a later date.
We found our winter garden
Almost a year ago today, Peter, Miss M and I drove over to Holland early one morning to look at the showrooms of a company specialising in winter gardens. They came as a kit that we could either install ourselves or have installed for us for a very fair price.
We loved the simplicity, the lighting, the blinds the design, and the price.
Two things made us pause before biting the bullet then and there:
- Because of the height of our house and the roof angle needed, we would only be able to do a 6m by 2m winter garden. This was not optimal and we wanted to take our measurements again and reconsider.
- There was a waiting period of 5 months for installation: it would not be installed before the end of summer.
When we got home and remeasured everything and considered the smaller size, we decided to put the project on the back burner for a while.
The winter garden project heated up again
Towards the end of last summer, Peter became more and more determined to have our new patio and roofing installed before this summer (the full winter garden was postponed to save on costs). The awning had worsened and looked downright dismal. Weeding the cracks in the patio was getting to him.
He upped his research and spoke to some experts and was more determined than ever to get the Dutch solution to work. We had committed the first mistake on how not to plan a house project: we had neglected all other options.
When our tax return arrived, we took a morning, just before Miss M and I left for Australia, and drove across to Holland again.
Long story, short, if we could install a beam, our preferred 6 m x 3 m roof would work. We left to check some figures and make a decision.
And that is where our lesson in how not to plan a house project started.
Stage 1: Hastiness AKA it is better to think things through and consider all the costs
Excited after a summer in Australia and the prospect of extending our own summer, Peter and I (mostly Peter) bit the bullet at the start of this year and decided to order the patio roofing from the Netherlands.
We figured that we had a lot of time as we had been given an installation date mid-June. At least it would be done before the end of summer!
Still, we wanted to get ready so that all the work would be done before our installation date. Peter spoke to his buddies who would now be doing the patio work for us and installing the required beam.
The weather was with us (or against us, depending on how you look at things… more on that in a moment) and our patio paving crew was able to start only two days later. Great, or so we thought.
This is where we made our first mistake. Do you want to know how not to plan a house project? Don’t think through the consequences of your decision. This resulted in a very expensive lesson in how not to plan a house project.
Peter spoke again to our customer service agent in Holland to ask for the specifics of the beam we had to install. Naturally, as we wanted to eventually turn it the patio area into a winter garden, we went for 2.2 metre high doors, so that it would be the height of a normal room. Peter thought that was logical. We received the beam measurements on that basis.
We also widened the patio, particularly in one direction, to give us more space around the patio support beams.
How not to plan a house project means not thinking things through.
What we didn’t think about was the fact that our roof was a fixed height and we did not have much space between the top of the window and the roof. To meet the requirements, that meant that the who patio had to be sunk not just 5 to 15 cm, but 25 to 40 cm from the top of the pavers. More had to come out of course for the gravel and such under the pavers.
That additional excavating cost us a few thousand dollars! Between the time for the workers and the costs of the dumpsters, we were already over budget.
The knock on costs were not insignificant either. Lowering it meant we had to add an extra step, which then changed our plans a little. The step needed a new lid as it was the window and air vent to the man cave in the cellar below.
We also needed to reconsider what we were going to use to ‘frame’ the patio as the stones would need to function more like a retaining wall and not just a border.
The lowering also uncovered some of the walls of our cellar. While it wasn’t unstable, it was unsightly and a solution had to be found for that, too.
If we had thought about these costs when we made the decision to have 2.2 meter high walls on our winter garden, we may have changed our decision.
Fortunately, we got a little better at thinking of the knock-on effects. When we were considering whether to have a wall around the new patio, and whether to slope the floor of the patio for run off, we were of course interested in the costs and also our options.
Most of our options involved flattening the grass to bring it down to the same level… so that the water would run into the neighbours’ cellar, or into my MIL’s flower bed, or adding a wall and having a swimming pool each time it rained. We ended up adding a retaining wall to keep the peace and have grout which stops weeds from growing but allows water through to prevent pools.
Stage 2: Outrage AKA check the laws three times
This lesson on how not plan a house project is particularly pertinent to any external construction works that may require planning approval.
While our happy workers were digging away, they were, of course, making a lot of noise. We had had roadworks on one side and a house being built on the other (which is why our hallway and entry are STILL not finished). Our house and one other is sandwiched between all the noise. Now we were joining in. We also do not get along well with those neighbours.
One day, the neighbours asked our workers what they were building. One sarcastically answered something along the lines of “a winter garden for my new Porsche“. We heard nothing more – the workers did not even think to mention it – until we had the official from the City Building Authority on our doorstep, enquiring about our plans.
Turns out our neighbours had taken photos of what was happening and complained and the official had to come to check it out.
How not to plan a house project? Don’t read the law, or don’t read it properly. If in doubt, ask an expert.
We had read the law before starting. Planning approval was required if we were building an enclosed space (such as a winter garden) above a certain size (which we were). As we were not enclosing the area yet (we were thinking 10 years or so), we did not need planning approval. We had actually understood the law correctly.
However, somewhere in one of the local enacting ordinances is a rule that approval is required – in the form of a letter from the affected neighbours – if the construction will be closer than three metres from the boundary. Our construction would be, at least at one end. In fact, as we had gone with the 3-metre deep roof (rather than 2 metres), it would be a problem for most of the roof.
One option was to apply for planning approval. However, in order to receive planning approval, the neighbours would need to give the authority their okay anyway.
Stage 3: Lament AKA Consider the options and accept the sunk costs
This lesson in how not to plan a house project is also particularly pertinent to outdoor construction projects.
We were in a bind. The official asked us to consider moving the roof construction, but even if we moved it to the very back corner of the house we would have one corner that was not more than 3 metres away from the boundary. It would also mean that we stepped out of our back door and had to walk a bit before we were in the new winter garden (eventually), which defeated the purpose of an extra room.
We couldn’t move it to a different wall of the house as we had a carport and parking on two sides and the cellar stairs and a balcony on the other.
We had no options but to go with where we put it.
We wanted to talk to our neighbours to see if we could maybe pay them to give their approval (after all, they had a shed ON the boundary), but then the pandemic hit.
So we decided to finish the patio and consider our other options.
Fortunately, the company in Holland were nice enough to allow us to terminate the contract and returned all but a small administrative fee to us. We have decided to use this money to buy a new retractable awning. This one will be much bigger (6m x 4m – about four times the size of the old one), will be electric and will not have to come in at the first sign of wind or drizzle.
We have the colour and size picked out and it should be installed in a couple of weeks.
However, when considering how not to plan a house project and what we could have done better, we should have had a back-up plan. We had gotten so fixated on our one ideal that we had forgotten all our options. We are now going back to what we originally did NOT want and are trying to convince ourselves that it is the better option because there won’t be posts anywhere (more practical) and this option is much cheaper.
The fact remains that I am not getting my winter garden and an extra ‘room’ that we can use for 10 months of the year. We also have a lot of additional costs that would have been avoided, had we thought things through and gotten approval first.
Stage 4: Corona AKA you don’t know what will happen so talk to anyone affected FIRST
None of us could have predicted things turning out quite how they have. We ordered our patio roof and talked to our landscaper thinking we had time until June and then the work started much earlier than anticipated. As I said, the weather was against us. This left us with no real chance to talk to our neighbours before the work started.
How not to plan a house project? If we were doing things again, we would definitely talk to our neighbours first to work out where they stood.
When the pandemic hit, we couldn’t go and see our neighbours. Our neighbour is elderly (about the same age as my MIL) and the advice was not to see the elderly as they were more at risk. There was no way that we could sit down and have a chat with her and show her what we were planning.
We also couldn’t apply for approval because non-essential state functions, including the building authority, were closed. Peter did manage to get in to talk to our ‘caseworker’ before the pandemic forced the closures, to talk about our options so that we would know how much money we might have to offer our neighbour. We had no options. The last possible thought of asking for planning approval went out the window with coronavirus.
Our winter garden: A lesson in how not to plan a house project
Please learn from our mistakes, don’t relearn our lesson on how not to plan a house project. You do not need the headache, significant additional costs or sadness at having to totally change plans (so that you can’t recoup those costs). Our project was a winter garden, but the same goes for any project, particularly any outdoor construction.
We are now waiting for the new awning to be installed before considering new furniture and such. The strips of lawn around the new paving need to be watered daily and are sprouting very irregularly. Some will need mowing soon. Electrical work should happen this week and the new step should be installed too.
The new patio has also added another unexpected development: we have decided to get some paving out the front done too. It looks unsightly, especially compared to the new paving, is dangerously uneven, is a pain to weed and now threatens to slide down onto our new terrace because it is still significantly higher than the new patio. At least our red bench from our entry has found a new home.
Hopefully, in a few weeks, we can have the big unveiling of our new winter garden. Until then, fingers crossed that nothing else goes wrong!