The house that Joe watched

The house that Joe watched

Maybe it’s a man thing, but I love peering into building sites. Somehow, watching as a crater is dug, foundations are laid and then a building grows is absorbing. But observation is often difficult as construction companies often build screens to obscure the view. And, although peeping between corrugated iron sheets or through the knotholes of planks is possible, it is not exactly dignified.

Some building sites have special viewing ‘windows’ or ‘walkways’, but these are uncommon. However, it so happens that at home I have had just such a vantage point. From my study I have been able to watch the site behind our house metamorphose. In under four months it has been transformed from wasteland, to giant hole, to a four-storey block. An experience to die for.

The site itself, which is roughly the size of two slimmed-down tennis courts, has quite a history. In the eighteenth century it was the garden of a grand hotel. In the 1930s it became a car park. first for one of London’s earliest Kinemas and later for the local constabulary. Then, at the turn of this century, it was bought by a property developer and now building is under way. The block will have offices in the basement and flats above.

Work started with a flurry. In four days last January the ground was carefully marked out and thirty six columns of reinforced concrete were built in holes strategically placed around the site. It was on these columns that the building would rest. Each hole, which was around ten metres deep, was made by a giant drilling device, and when all was finished only the metal tops of the largely subterranean columns were visible – all very Oil-wellian!

Ten months later work resumed. A mechanical digger cleared away three metres of earth to make room for the basement. Hundreds of iron rods were then knitted together to form the foundation’s skeleton and, with wooden planks demarcating its limits, lorryloads of liquid cement were spewed out through their five-metre proboscises. Some twenty builders working in seeming silence were involved in the process. It was all very ant-like down there, and compulsive watching.  Then, with the same speed, and this time with the help of a mobile crane, a second concrete layer was created to make the base of the ground floor.

Next, onto phase two, and this demanded a change of site manager and workforce – new expertise was needed.  First scaffolding was erected to provide access as the building grew. As is common with scaffolders they worked with both dexterity and noise. Why they, and no one else, should have to shout and sing as they work is as odd as it is annoying.

From now on everything structural was made of wood, tailor-made like parts of a puzzle. The bits were delivered by a second mobile crane that arrived twice-a-week, and this one was enormous. When fully extended its rotating boom telescoped 40 metres into the air. Indeed its length was such that, within minutes of it starting to extend, phone calls hailed in from neighbours drawing attention its prowess.  Once in place, it unloaded pillars, rafters, joists and partitions from convoys of lorries and, with the help of walkie-talkies, the components were lowered blind to the various floors with pinpoint accuracy. Working at great speed it took three artisans two weeks to complete each floor, and much the same for the roof.

Watching the creation of this new building has been a delight, and the speed, efficiency and technical wizardry inspiring. More importantly, knowing the building’s intimate history, in fact the secrets of its very innards will mean that it will hold a special place for me. Indeed, it has given me a sense of ownership. I don’t know how I will feel when the new neighbours move in, but I am confident that this ownership will somehow help me cope.

Photo: Joe’s house, seen from Joe’s house


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