Five of us are standing in a yard around the back of a "unit" on an industrial estate. Trowels in our hands, we're looking at a small pile of bricks and a large heap of cement, and feeling slightly nervous. The task facing each of us is to build a small wall. Well, you can't really call it a wall; it's a small barrier. How difficult can it be? But out of the corner of my eye, I spy a white board covered in brick-related diagrams, and I get the feeling that building a wall is more technical than you might think. "Building a wall," says Stevie, our instructor, "is more technical than you might think." I knew it.
Brickwork is just one of the courses offered by a Crawley-based company, TradeSkills4U, one of the few centres in the country that not only give specialist training to prospective tradesmen, but also help the average person brush up their DIY skills to a stage where building one's own home stops being a fanciful dream, and starts becoming a possibility.
"This kind of place just didn't exist five years ago," says director Carl Bennett, a former policeman who was bitten by the self-build bug. "You either had to go through college, or sit down with a book, or learn from a tradesman – and they're always reluctant to share their knowledge, for obvious reasons."
The service has quickly become sought-after; nearly 2,000 people have taken a course in the last 12 months, be it eight weeks of intensive plastering culminating in a City & Guilds exam, or a weekend of elementary DIY for those who are terrified of even benign power tools, such as electric screwdrivers.
As it's a Monday morning, several people are here on their first day, either to learn tiling, plastering, brickwork or electrical installation. While the budding sparks are sat in a classroom studying algebra and pages of regulations, the rest of us are getting our hands dirty. I'm showing very little aptitude at wall-building – mainly because I can't get the hang of getting cement on the trowel – but my fellow brickies are well away, and Stevie tells me that they'll be looking at constructing a simple cavity wall by the end of the day.
The rest of the students are inside the Trades4U building, which is divided into dozens of little alcoves where plastering and tiling can be attacked with vigour. "At the end of the week," says Carl, "we rip out all their work and start with a new group."
When I have a go at tiling, my skills improve by 500 per cent in the first two minutes; the instructor, Sean, informs me to always start in the middle of a wall, never a corner – just in case your walls aren't straight – and goes on to reveal tips on achieving symmetry that are so simple they're almost common sense. But, of course, common sense isn't always available when we're doing DIY. Over in plastering, a council worker called Dave has taken a week off work to learn the skill. "I've bought a couple of properties in Bulgaria," he says, "and I'm looking to renovate them myself next year. If I can get up to the standard of that chap," he says, pointing at his neighbour who is on his second week, "I'll be very pleased."
This new-found enthusiasm for self-build and renovation among the British public is reflected not only in the success of TradeSkills4U, but also BuildStore, a company specialising in all the issues pertaining to self-build. They have opened two centres, in Livingston and Swindon; the latter is hosting a self-build show from tomorrow to Sunday, offering advice on finance, legal issues and sourcing materials, as well as masterclasses from TradeSkills4U instructors.
While BuildStore began as purely a financial service offering unique mortgage deals to assist the tortuous cash-flow problems associated with self-build, their link with TradeSkills4U makes this show a one-stop-shop for anyone looking to construct their own home. "As an organisation," says Buildstore CEO Raymond Connor, "we're able to stay with the customer all the way through the process." And with self-builds now accounting for one in eight new properties, that number of customers is growing quickly. "Everyone involved in self-build is doing so because they love it," continues Connor, "and that makes it a very seductive sector to work in."
At TradeSkills4U, everything stops for lunch at 1pm. I sit with Emma, who has taken a week off her marketing job in Yorkshire to stay in a nearby B&B and learn to tile. "I'm here because I was sick of being ripped off by tradesmen," she explains. "And as you get to make all your mistakes well away from a real bathroom or kitchen, this way of learning is just fantastic."
I wouldn't say my pathetic efforts at plastering – which elicited comradely laughter from fellow pupils – have given me the urge to embark on building my own home. But I have learned one very important thing: these skills aren't some kind of black art, they can be taught reasonably quickly, and, yes – you can Do It Yourself, Patch It Up Yourself and even Tweak What's There Already Yourself, even if Building It Yourself is out of the question.
Courses at TradeSkills4U start at £150 (www.tradeskills4u.co.uk). Independent readers will get a two-for-one ticket offer for the Self-build and Renovation Show, which is taking place from 18-21 October. Visit www.mykindofhome.co.uk/show and book tickets online, using the promotional code INDESBR241, or call BuildStore on 01506 409 616 quoting 'The Independent offer'; or bring this page to the show and present it when buying your tickets
Which course is for you?
Usefulness: 10/10 Difficulty: 4/10
Wobbly shelves, missing tiles – most of our homes are testament not just to our disinterest in DIY, but also our lack of ability. But a short weekend of professional instruction could banish our fear of the toolbox.
Usefulness: 9/10 Difficulty: 5/10
Most people are happy to have a go at tiling, as is proven by the number of dubious-looking bathrooms and kitchens you see. A weekend's instruction will give you the skills to undertake most home projects.
Usefulness: 8/10 Difficulty: 8/10
Skimming plaster before you redecorate will transform the quality of the finish. It's not easy, but it's a much sought-after skill. It takes a full eight weeks to gain a City & Guilds qualification, but a two-day course will give you enough of the basics to patch up bad walls and get a professional result.
Usefulness: 6/10 Difficulty: 6/10
Few of us will actually end up building a house, but a five-day course in hard landscaping is useful for a whole range of garden projects.
Usefulness: 9/10 Difficulty: 8/10
We call emergency plumbers to even the most basic jobs – jobs that, after a week of basic instruction, you could easily sort out yourself. Even if you'd rather leave it to the experts, acquiring basic plumbing knowledge could equip you for a lifetime of dealing with cowboy plumbers who try to bamboozle with jargon.
Usefulness: 7/10 Difficulty: 9/10
It's not surprising that, in the potentially dangerous world of electrical installation, much of the basics surround safety regulations. But a 10-day multi-course package will give you all this information along with a handful of qualifications. As these courses are designed for existing tradesmen, the teachers assume some prior knowledge.