During the summer of 2001 we bought a house in La Sabatera, Moraira. The views were amazing and still are, but as with many properties that were available at this time, the house needed extensive remodelling having been constructed probably some time in the ’70s.
The process of buying a house as with any big purchase was nerve-wracking, not least because most of the information being passed to you is not in your first language. We stuck with it however and in the end, with the help of our local Lawyer Juan Poch, we became the proud owners of an established four bedroomed detached villa with fabulous panoramic sea views towards Moraira and moved in July 2001. I celebrated my 42nd birthday about a week afterwards.
Significantly, in the October of 2001 I negotiated a voluntary redundancy package from my work that would help us to begin to pay for the very necessary remodelling plans for the villa. By early 2002, I was able to spend more time in Spain working from home for alternate weeks. In late June of 2002 we celebrated our twin daughter’s 15th birthdays and I started a year’s gardening leave as part of the redundancy package. Things were looking up and I could see our plan coming together.
Almost as soon as we purchased the house, we engaged the services of a local architect: David Weston to help us with the design and supervision of the construction work and the obtaining of the necessary building licenses and planning permission. It was David’s son Neil who worked through most of the planning details with Cathy. The eventual plans and all associated fees seemed a lot at the time but looking back, it was money very well spent as it helped us to plan the works and keep a firm grip of what we were working towards and most importantly helped us to design how the space in the house would work.
The construction work was planned in two phases. The first phase was to construct a pool and a double garage where the existing front garden of the house was situated. The first phase therefore focussed primarily on outside works. The second phase was to build an extension which would effectively double the existing internal floor area of the house and integrate the upper and lower floors by means of an internal staircase. In addition to this there was a pressing need to redevelop the kitchen of the house. This work did not require planning permission and would be competed largely by myself.
When I permanently returned home to Spain in 2002 it was early July. In a week’s time I would celebrate my 43rd birthday and the work to build the swimming pool had already commenced and would include construction of the swimming pool and coronation, the pool pumphouse and a covered terrace adjacent to the pool for the pool pump and filter. The works did not include the tiling and finishing of the terrace. At the end of this part of the project we would nominally have a swimming pool but it was hardly the finished article. Whilst the swimming pool itself was beautiful it was surrounded by a mixture of gravelled dirt and a concrete area along one side bordered by a wall constructed of scaffold planks.
This makeshift wall of scaffold planks lashed to steel uprights although unsightly was essential to reduce the risk of us falling from a height of three metres on to the exposed bedrock below! A swimming pool in most projects immediately enhances the outside of the house but we still had a long way to go before we could be proud of our pool area.
The excavation of the entire front garden down to the lowest level of the house took around two weeks to complete and involved the relocation of three date palms. The smallest of which was transferred by the swimming pool and the two larger palms were relocated to the front gate entrance of the villa. I don’t know how many truck loads of spoil were taken from the plot but it was a lot at least 250m3 of bedrock and top soil. The upshot of all this heavy excavation work was that by end July 2003 one could swim in our pool.
Once the pool had been completed, I asked the builders to construct a party wall with the neighbours at no 31, an inbuilt BBQ and wall separating the front of the house from the rear to create a courtyard feel to the proposed outside eating area along with some modifications to the structure of the kitchen. The kitchen work included knocking through into an upstairs adjoining bedroom to double the kitchen floor space and to brick up the existing single kitchen door and install new double doors onto what would be our outside eating area.
At the end of this work although we lost a bedroom in extending the kitchen space we still had a four bedroomed house as we converted an upstairs living room which was offset from the main lounge into a bedroom for our youngest son Jonathon. This newly formed bedroom benefitted from the best views in the house with unbroken views over the Mediterranean.
Once this work had been completed I immediately started work on making the outside terrace both safer and a place where we would look forward to spending time. I chose to do this work myself because I was confident I could make a mark on the house and begin the transformation we were looking for. Working with James our 16 year old son and a couple of his school friends, we planned to concrete the area outside the kitchen up to the pool area. The work involved laying around 40m2 of concrete in preparation for a tiled terrace.
I bought a concrete mixer for the job to lighten the work load and it took a hard and long day’s work to lay all of the concrete. The work was made doubly hard, as the concrete all had to be wheelbarrowed up to the upper level of the house involving a walk for each barrow of 50m with some stretches on scaffold planks. Even by the completion of this work, although you could see the shape of things to come, still nothing looked finished and we had to content ourselves with the fact that we were gradually making positive changes.
At this stage, our kitchen still comprised a couple of stand-alone cupboards, an old sink and table top oven and hob and our swimming pool although an encouraging deep blue was still set in a sea of concrete. What we needed now was something that marked real progress and helped us to enjoy our plans for an outside courtyard eating area. What we needed was tiled terraces and a working kitchen.
I had planned to build a large pergola over our outside courtyard area and having observed a collection of builders at work over the previous few weeks and months I chose to build both the block piers that were to support our pergola and to build an outside kitchen work top area to enhance our inbuilt BBQ area. I also chose to try my hand at rendering the blockwork I had put in place
Inspired by my new found rendering skills I also chose to tackle laying the floor screed on the terrace. This work looks fairly simple but is a real skill and needed some modifications to get right as it is important that this is laid so that rainwater flows freely from the area and does not form in puddles. Our outside eating area was beginning to take shape and after the area had been fully painted, I think all of us wanted to spend more time in this space. By around October 2002 we were ready to tile the kitchen terrace area.
I had always enjoyed laying tiles whether it be on the wall or on the floor as you can really see a result and this project was no exception. A much more ambitious project compared with anything else I had attempted to date, together with Cathy’s help we tiled an area of terracing of around 40m2. For the first time since our remodelling work had begun, we finally had a tiled terraced area to enhance one of the areas around the swimming pool.
The next step was to construct a pergola in order to provide shade to our courtyard eating area. I went to an architectural recovery yard to find some old timber and upon delivery to the house, James and I managed to lift a huge 7m long cedar beam onto the supporting piers. We then placed 7 timber cross beams. All of this timber had been recovered and recycled from former fincas from the surrounding area.
Once the pergola was in place, I covered it with bamboo matting and we had a shaded outside eating area, Somewhere where the family could enjoy meals together. The summer sun was behind us now and swimming was a cold experience. It was early November 2002 but we chose to eat outside to make the most of this new and welcome feature. Mediterranean living was beginning to come together. At the end of this work, I felt we could all really begin to enjoy our villa in the winter sun.
Early December and just before Xmas 2002, we celebrated James’ 18th birthday (our eldest son) and work on refitting the kitchen, another large project was well underway. The upstairs kitchen was unusable during the early part of the refurbishment but fortunately we were helped in the fact that the house had the benefit of a kitchen on the lower floor. This second kitchen, if truth be told, had been better equipped than the one upstairs. The only problem with it was that there was no dining room nearby. So having spent several months completing our beautiful new courtyard terrace in the upper level of the house, because it was such a schlep to bring all the prepared food from the lower level kitchen upstairs to the courtyard, we chose to eat downstairs in the lower garden. So here we were again back to no decent dining space and on top of this we were eating outside in December which is not for the faint-hearted.
In time for Xmas 2002, the fitting of the main upstairs kitchen had been completed to an extent that it could be used permanently. There were still many finishing touches needed but our kitchen had a working sink, an oven, a tiled floor, a hob and a working fridge. What seemed to take an age was all the small details including cupboard lights, some plaster work along with finding someone who could make a nice job of joining of all of the worktops.
So for Xmas 2002 more or less 6 months after we had commenced the first phase of our villa renovation project, we now had a nearly, complete kitchen which lead onto our terraced outside eating area. Needless to say although we had grilled steaks for Xmas dinner (Roast Turkey was very hard to find in Spain) we ate them inside; outside it was simply too cold. I remember well my sons and I had a Xmas day swim whether we liked it or not for the sheer novelty of being able to do so and I can still remember what it was like to swim in water with a temperature of 8C. We also spent some time on the beach and even in December at the height of the day it still could touch 20C in the winter sun.
In early February 2003, we celebrated Cathy’s 40th birthday with a surprise party for friends in the villa – it was brilliant and a fantastic memory. At a similar time my attention in terms of building projects turned to the refitting of our upstairs bathroom. The house was fitted with two bathrooms when we bought it. The upstairs bathroom had a shower, toilet and hand basin and a sliding door for access to save space. The downstairs bathroom was in truth a much better bathroom with a bath/shower, toilet and basin but as four of us were living upstairs, it was the upstairs bathroom that needed attention.
The refitting of this bathroom was completed by early March 2003. It comprised a new shower cubicle, hand basin and toilet were fitted along with a double glazed window. The walls and floors were all retiled. In retrospect it served its purpose but it was never a great job in the way that the kitchen or the covered terrace was. In truth I was reaching the limit of my enthusiasm for building, having done nothing else now for more than 8 months pretty much 24/7.
An additional factor weighing on my mind was that the time I was spending on building our home was conflicting with my need to develop a sustainable income stream in Spain. The latter however was proving very challenging.
The next project I undertook would lead to the completion of the first phase of the original architect’s plans. This involved building a double garage to the existing pool terrace and redesigning the front stairs of the house. I considered getting professional builders in for this work but the demand for builders at this point in time had raised building costs through the roof and I decided to undertake all of the structural block work myself. I engaged an excavator to prepare the foundations as the ground was bedrock and also to take away the old stairway that connected the upper and lower levels at the front of the house and reconsruct new stairs.
The excavation work took a week to complete in early April 2003. Later that month we celebrated Jonathon’s 13th birthday. I had the concrete for the foundations poured by a concrete company which saved a lot of energy and ensured compliance with the architect’s specifications for foundation concrete. This work was supervised by the architect and required inspection by the local town hall planning dept. Once the foundations were laid I set about laying the blockwork in early May 2003. Even allowing for my lack of experience in bricklaying, progress was very encouraging and by the end of June 2003 we had completed the structural work on both the garage and the stairs.
By early July 2003, we had accepted an offer of work in the UK which started in August. regrettably and in spite of all reasonable efforts, we could not envisage how we were going to continue to work in Spain and earn sufficient money to keep all of our interests afloat.
The last piece of building work I attempted before returning to work in the UK was to tile the terrace on the roof of the garage. I started to look at the job of laying the floor screed so that it was self draining and suitable for laying tiles but as in some of the earlier terrace work I had done the laying of the floor screed on an area of around 50m2 proved beyond my capabilities. Prior to leaving for the UK I obtained a quote from Abilio Costa, a local builder who I knew, to complete the pool deck and terrace and stairways, render the garage, build a driveway and secure the front entrance of the house. As I did not have all of the money for the work, I would need to return to the UK to establish our income stream before this work could commence.