Building Blox: Week 33 – Landscaping, Working practices in construction

What we did:

  • Tarmacking;
  • Landscaping;
  • Car parking areas.

After finishing the second fix electrics and connecting up utilities last week, the final part of decorating was going on inside. My attention shifted outside to the land and hardscaping (AKA tarmacking). The planting areas were marked out and tarmacking laid. Before doing this we had to plan for rain water drainage, where I realised again the contractor was drowning in the details…

Landscaping design

As part of my planning permission from the council, I was required to provide a decent amount of greenery, including trees, shrubs and other plants. I was required to submit a landscaping plan, created alongside a professional arboriculturalist, which needs to be implemented – see below:

Proposed landscaping plan

Proposed landscaping plan

As it was the middle of October, it wasn’t worth planting now, so the planting areas were simply set out, ready to be planted in Spring. To get the best results, it was worth doing this before getting into the tarmacking.

Planting areas marked out

Planting areas marked out

Whilst the dimensions of the planting areas looked good on paper, there wasn’t enough space for cars to turn comfortably, teaching me it’s always good to plan things out for real, not only on paper!

Surface water drainage

It became apparent this is an area where you can really judge the professionalism and knowledge of a contractor. Surface water drainage isn’t part of the main construction work and isn’t checked extensively by inspectors on many small building plots, so is often overlooked by the small, less professional contractors. This meant I had to take a larger role in ensuring things were done to standard, laying out how I wanted the surface (rain) water to drain from the surface. In brief, what is required here is hard surfaces to slope accordingly, allowing water to run away from buildings and sustainably into the ground. Regulations try to limit rain water being run directly into sewers to avoid overflowing, so instead water is directed into soakaways (large underground pits filled with rubble which allow water to slowly filter into the soil) or permeable ground. This is part of the Sustainable Urban Drainage regulations, something which unfortunately my contractor wasn’t competent in.

Tarmac laid down

After I had helped the team set out how much tarmac to lay and where in order to achieve the required drainage, the tarmac sub-contractor turned up. If the brickies were like a boyband (more about them back in week 4), these guys were more like football fans chanting on the terraces – working together, but out of harmony and far from symphonic. The tarmac was laid down at pace and without any level of precision, extremely disappointing. As I tried to ask the sub-contractor to check the work and rectify things, he brushed the comments off and said it would be fine, knowing he could get away with it. I should point out here that this sub-contractor was chosen by the main contractor; I had repeatedly said I wanted to vet them and check they knew what they’re doing, but unfortunately he went with the cheapest option. Because of the way the contract worked, only paying for acceptable work after it has been completed, (more here in week 5), I thought I could rely on it to have any issues rectified, but this is particularly difficult with tarmacking where up to £10k of work is being completed in a single day and is twice as expensive to rectify. More on this another week.

All these issues aside, the site did look nice and neat now, although unfortunately I am sure some wear on the road and rain over the coming year will change this picture.

Car parking layout

After tarmacking, I marked out the car parking spaces on cold Sunday morning using some chalk and a big ruler plank of wood. Originally I had specified block paving for the car parking spaces but instead now said tarmac was fine, saving the contractor money; In return he would use thinly cut patio tiles to mark out the parking spaces as below.


Bad working practices

The tarmacking issue is a great example of bad working practices in (small-scale) construction. Coming from a more corporate and professional environment onto a construction site was a bit of a shock, despite having been involved in renovations over the years. People are unreliable, forgetful, do not make records of conversations and often do not take responsibility for issues.

I should say first this is generalising and also more true for smaller contractors, but according to the House Building Federation, there are 2000 builders in the UK who construct under 100 homes p.a. Also, these are likely the size and background of contractors you will be working with for your small development project.

This is of course not to say they won’t get the job done, to the required specification, but be prepared to do it their way and don’t expect an easy ride, unless you pay a premium for a more professional contractor and/or project manager.

Now the landscaping was complete, we could get on to creating the balcony, which completed transformed the look of the houses!

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