Diary Of An Eco-Builder

'Building a house is like Scrabble: whatever letters you get, you can still come out on top'
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The Independent Online

It's nine months since Steve and George first set foot on our patch of overgrown land in Clapham and began cutting back the undergrowth beneath our sycamore. If everything had gone to plan, Ford and I would now be settling in to our beautifully formed eco-environment and watching our four cats negotiate their air-tight cat doors and the pond beyond (feline stepping stones will be provided).

Instead, we don't even have a roof above us and our hopes of moving in before the end of the summer are fading fast. Despite the huge number of things still to do, we might yet get in before October because once the house is sealed lots of different trades can get to work at once, but this assumes a blessing of good luck and sharp organisation with which we have not so far been graced.

We may be behind schedule but we're still building a beautiful ecohouse on a difficult site in the centre of London, so I suspect we are unlikely to find many sympathetic ears for stories of misfortune. Furthermore, each time we have faced a serious delay - due to extortionate insurance, elusive timber and bodged steelwork - we have made the most of the extra time.

Building a house is like a game of Scrabble: whatever letters you are dealt, you can still come out on top. The secret is to see the potential in even the trickiest of letter combinations and not to lose heart when the space for your seven-letter word is ruined by some inconsequential five-pointer. Although we've had our fair share of duff hands, I have kept my cool in the knowledge that a 400-point score is still possible as long as we don't start swearing at our vowels.

Taking the long view, our luck has been in more often than it has been out. Finding a building plot in Clapham within two days of starting the search was like drawing ZYMOTIC from the bag on my very first go. Inebriated by this unexpected turn of events, I was convinced that my next hand - talking to the neighbours - would reveal a fist full of Is. Approaching each doorway with trepidation, I was prepared to encounter Clapham's most intransigent inhabitants, then turned over my letters and found QUAICHS staring back - and toasted our good luck once again.

We have great neighbours. They have been helpful well beyond the call of good manners, not only tolerating scaffolding, generators and Steve's jokes, but also helping out with storage space, a water supply and ever-welcome encouragement. To the left, Paula and Mark Wilson have borne the brunt of the digging and skipping without complaint, though I fear their son, Thomas, may object when Tree House turns out to be rather different from the treehouse he is expecting. To the right, Pam and Doug Woodhead have considerately let us turn half their garden into a storage yard, a kindness that has made an immeasurable difference to the daily business of getting round the site. Finally, Joss and Lawrence Walford at the back have simply been as enthusiastic and supportive as anyone could hope for, even when the diggers left and their young sons lost interest in the strange world beyond the garden fence.

For our part, we have sought to take their interests seriously at every stage of the game. Above all, this meant addressing their concerns at the design stage, an aspiration that proved to be far less onerous than expected once we began to see how these extra constraints could work for us as well as for them. Perhaps this is the heart of neighbourliness: finding mutual gain through mutual respect, a principle that we hope to sustain for the next 40 years or so. As any Scrabble player will tell you, if all contestants open up the board rather than blocking each other's chances, everyone gets to play their seven-letter words.

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