Here's the reason why a long-planned round of home improvement works is causing our columnist Olly Mann so much worry and guilt.
We’re getting an extension
We only moved in three-and-a-half years ago; upgrading from our urban flat to a semi-detached house in the sticks. At first, our new home seemed enormous, what with its front garden path, staircase, French doors, attic, garage and many other cottagey features that so enthral the city-dwelling Millennial (A fireplace! A gate! A gnome!).
But now we’re getting an extension—or at least we’ve applied for planning permission, but we’re likely to get the greenlight because neighbours on both sides have added rooms to their properties. Mann HQ should soon boast a front hall, a utility room, a larger kitchen, a bigger study, a double-height bedroom, a downstairs toilet, an en-suite bathroom, a walk-in wardrobe, a skylight and an internal balcony.
That’s two more toilets, folks! One for me, one for the wife, one for the kid. We can all poop together. Exciting times.
So why don’t I feel excited?
Whenever I contemplate our extension (and I think about it a lot: every time I traverse laminate flooring; every time a Velux ad comes on telly; every time I’m within a mile of B&Q), I feel a tad nervous. What if we don’t get planning permission because our bribes to the planning office go unnoticed? (I jest! Hertsmere County Council are, of course, entirely incorruptible and—let me be clear—simply wonderful people, each and every one.)
Then there’s the disruptive building work: it’s going to take around six months, I reckon, and that’s lots of early-morning ceiling-drilling, lots of cups of tea for the builders, lots of “Will this dust kill the cat?!”
There’s the cost to consider too: we’re going to have to borrow more against the house, increasing our mortgage payments, to afford it. I’m freelance and my wife works part-time following maternity leave. There’s little room in the budget for anything to go wrong.
Perhaps all these things, floating round my mind, prevent me jumping for joy as I consider our new kitchen work surfaces, mega flow boiler and underfloor heating. But I think there’s another factor at play: guilt.
I know, I know: middle-class guilt, how preposterous! Particularly so when there are so many problems in the world. But I can’t help it, I feel it: guilt that I’m in a position to consider making improvements to my home, when so many of my peers will never afford one of their own. Guilt that I’m borrowing more money to make it happen, a luxury never granted to my grandparents’ generation, who bought all they had with money they’d earned.
And, perhaps most pressingly, guilt that I’m turning our Edwardian homestead—until the 1980s a council property, designated for staff of a nearby hospital—into another open-plan chic “space” for middle-class professionals. Guilt, basically, that I’m gentrifying my house.
This is silly, of course, because it’s not as if the changes we’re making are for the benefit of anyone else: we’re not pimping up the property to sell it on for a profit, or flooding it with new features to keep up with the Joneses. We’ve thought long and hard, having lived in the building since 2013, about what might make our lives better, so our family can live here for years to come—perhaps even the rest of our lives. And we’re trying to keep as many period features as possible.
But I keep coming back to that morning
That dull February morning when we first fell in love with the house. It was perhaps the tenth or eleventh property we’d viewed, and we were beginning to think we’d never find a home we’d want to buy. Then we drove up to this cute cottage, surrounded by open countryside, and just knew we wanted to live in it.
It had a quaint porch with roses climbing up from the garden. It had a sense of character and history. An eccentric charm. A weird bolt running through the living-room ceiling. It was everything we wanted because it wasn’t everything we didn’t want. It was anti-suburbia.
In our extension plans, currently being considered by the council, the porch has been scrapped. It was the porch or the front hall, and we wanted a hall because we “need” somewhere o park our boy’s buggy. We’ve tried to echo the triangular shape of the porch in the roof instead. It’s not as pretty. The views are amplified, but only through the addition of many more windows, which are, somehow, less homely.
I wonder if my melancholic train of thought about what is, essentially, an incredible extravagance is really anxiety about getting older: Getting An Extension is something that grown-ups do, not young people. But I also worry that in making our home more convenient for us, we may strip it of the very qualities that once made it so appealing.
But all things considered, I’d rather mull over my thoughts in a bespoke, freshly-painted home office…
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