Professional Builder’s Kieran Nee travelled to Blackpool to see the upcoming DIY SOS: Big Build in progress as part of the BBC’s Children in Need.
You’d be forgiven for assuming that the BBC’s DIY SOS made use of just a smidgen of production trickery. The show’s remit, of course, is to complete a fairly major construction project in just nine days.
A seemingly impossible task when you take into account the fact the team has to rely on donations for labour and materials and the scale of the projects they take on.
The project I went to visit was a huge, run-down double Victorian house which, along with its extensive garden, was being converted into an exciting, lively children’s care centre.
But I can attest to the authenticity of the show, and the solution relies on the overwhelming outpouring of support from not only the local, but the national community.
“This is the sixth project I’ve been to in two years, and I’ve had to take annual leave from work to be here.” Says volunteer Tony Carroll, who has come up from Swansea and is sleeping on a fellow volunteer’s couch.
Tony is a Support Worker in a care home when not mucking in with the gang, “a wise man once told me that the most important gift you can give is your time,” he tells me, “as once it’s gone, you will never have it back.
On every one of these jobs I have taken part in, I have met some fantastic people. It will be the hardest that you will ever work, but it will be the most fun that you ever have.”
This build is a particularly special build. In conjunction with BBC Children in Need, Nick Knowles and the ‘Purple Shirts’ team were in Blackpool for one of the largest projects they’d done thus far.
To help transform the Victorian property into something local charity Blackpool Carers Centre can be proud of is Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen.
The homestyle consultant has designed the ambitious project, and there are over 250 volunteers helping in any way they can. From bricklayers to plasterers, gardeners to tea-makers, the community really has come together to donate their time, resources and materials for the good cause.
The property, Blenheim House, is owned by the local charity, which receives BBC Children in Need funding to provide out-of-school respite and training activities as well as peer support for over 100 children and young people with caring responsibilities.
The intended design of the new centre will focus on providing inspiration and joy to the children and carers who will spend much of their time there.
Laurence said of the design: “I’m delighted to be part of this project. Making sure these selfless children and young people are provided with a safe space to embrace their childhood is such an important cause and I am excited to be getting stuck in!”
I had assumed that the “renovation” project would mostly consist of a few coats of paint, some re-pointing and new carpets. I was wrong. The entire 300m² double Victorian house had been gutted, with flooring ripped up, new ceilings put in, walls knocked down, electrics redone, 42 new double-glazed windows installed, the gardens entirely levelled and built back up again and plenty more.
Essentially it would probably have been easier to build the house from scratch on pre-laid foundations rather than contend with an existing, labyrinthine house getting in the way.
With over 250 volunteers turning up each day, many of whom have no background in construction, the size of the property and the scale of the task ahead, it’s easy to see the whole thing descending into chaos.
It probably would have done were it not for the efforts of Build Manager Mark Millar, who worked tirelessly to keep it all together from the Trades Day event in June, when volunteers came forward to put their name in the hat till the last day of the build in July.
Below Mark, particularly experienced volunteers stepped up to help run various sections.
I spoke to Laurence Mitchell, a Landscape Architect, who had, naturally, assumed the role of foreman in the landscaping division.
He said: “I’ve come up from Devon to be here, and it’s not the first time. I run two construction companies back home and have actually participated in four events before, so I was asked to come along and help. One of the reasons I feel so passionately about coming up here to support the build is that my wife and I are carers ourselves to our daughter.
“She has severe speech and learning difficulties, so I know first-hand how important it is to have a positive, inspiring space around you.”
Showing me around the site was the show’s Series Producer Hamish Summers, who managed to be in six places at any given time, he told me about the logistics of the show and, from the off, it was clear this was no picnic for the volunteers.
“Everyone works from eight in the morning till eight in the evening every day for the full nine days. Even the volunteers think it’s faked, and then when they arrive and see what work has to be done, they’re shocked.”
But, of course, it’s not all hard graft, as Hamish explains “we do have ‘trade drinks’, where Nick Knowles buys the drinks for everyone on a Monday or Tuesday night, just before the end of the nine days. That’s where he says thank you personally to all the volunteers.”
It sounds like a lot of hard work when you’re supposed to be on holiday away from work, all for a few drinks at the end of it.
But there’s more to it than that, as Hamish tells me in the middle of the great food marquee set up for the volunteers:
“It’s about the spirit of all coming together and being part of the roadshow. We get all sizes of building companies who want to get involved. There is an element of competition amongst the tradesmen, because they all want to do really well. There’s such a great atmosphere on site because everyone knows they’re here for a great cause.”
The atmosphere around the site, based on a residential thoroughfare, truly is electric, with people coming back and forth from the food tent to the build site, spilling out onto the street and marching materials to the skips out on the road.
People stop as they’re walking by, not out of irritation as people usually do when confronted with builders, but out of curiosity and wonder at the sheer amount of people working on the house.
As I was standing outside, a local café owner even drove up to the site and brought crates of water and juice from out of her boot, “I heard from a customer what was going on down here,” she told us, “and I thought I’d do my bit.”
And this, not with camera tricks and shortcuts, is how you renovate an entire Victorian house and garden in nine days.
Tune in to BBC1 in mid-November to see the special one hour show as part of the Children in Need telethon. For more information on Children in Need visit www.bbcchildreninneed.co.uk