The lady and the clamp

Paula Polonio, aka Mrs Fixit, tells Hester Lacey why women builders should be taken seriously - and it's not just about trustworthiness
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The Independent Online

What do you get if you ask a builder to come round and give you a quote? A lot of teeth sucking, reckons Paula Polonio. "And with every suck on the teeth, the price goes up by a thousand. And then they don't turn up to do the job," she says wryly. She's talking about male builders, of course, and while this may be a dreadful slur on many of them, it's hard not to agree there's a certain grain of truth in what she says.

What do you get if you ask a builder to come round and give you a quote? A lot of teeth sucking, reckons Paula Polonio. "And with every suck on the teeth, the price goes up by a thousand. And then they don't turn up to do the job," she says wryly. She's talking about male builders, of course, and while this may be a dreadful slur on many of them, it's hard not to agree there's a certain grain of truth in what she says.

Paula is one of a rare breed - the lady builder. Her father was a master builder and carpenter, and she picked up her first chisel at the age of seven. "He didn't tell me to put it down. He said: 'Would you like to know how to use that?'" she recalls. "It was the same with all three of us, we were in and out of the workshop as kids. My mother used to say: 'You'll make right peculiar women out of these girls.'"

Paula set up her business, Mrs Fixit, with her twin Isobel, formerly a PR executive, and their younger sister, lawyer Kate, who joined in on the admin side. Hands-on building work is Paula's particular speciality. "I got so fed up with women asking me if I knew a good builder or plumber or electrician," she says.

"I'd always say: 'Oh, I can fix that' so I started to think I could make a living at it." Now she lives in cheerful chaos in her Putney home, with a chop saw lying around in the dining room, a band saw on the landing and a whole assortment of other tools under her bed. "My cleaner moans like crazy," she admits with a laugh, all bright red hair and friendly bounce in her usual uniform of paint-spattered track-suit bottoms.

Before launching Mrs Fixit, which has been going for three years, Paula decided to gain some qualifications, and she now has a BA and an MA in interior design. But she's at pains to point out her qualifications are not in what she calls "cushion-faffing". "It's all the proper stuff like moving walls and RSJs - all about how to make the best use of your space."

Many of Paula's clients are women or pensioners. "Paula is a great character and utterly trustworthy," says one of her elderly clients. "We've left her with the key to our house many times." For her regulars, she will even agree to drop in and change a lightbulb - if that's all that's needed - without charging. "I like to build a relationship with my clients," she says. "And if they know me and trust me I'll be their first call for the bigger jobs."

Her prices, she says, are comparable with those charged by other builders - "but the service is better, I hope." There is nothing in the least odd, she says, about a woman who's handy with a hammer. "Building work is organisation, preparation, brains as well as muscle," she points out. "You don't need muscle for changing a light fitting, you need balance on the ladder. Women are perfectly competent, and in fact you get a finer finish on the work. The reason so many women struggle with DIY is that they try and do things while using the wrong tools - often a toolkit a man has put together."

She will tackle most jobs, including designing and fitting kitchens, flooring, tiling, bathrooms and even gardens. "If there's heavy-duty plumbing or electrics to be dealt with, I have a good plumber and electrician I can call on as back-up."

One of the secrets of her success, she says, is taking her time over each job. "You might think that putting up a curtain pole will only take 20 minutes, but then you hit a concrete lintel above the window. Most builders are working on a contract price so they need to work quickly. When they finish a job on a Friday they're going to another one on the Monday."

This means that she's often asked in for a session of "snagging" - finishing up properly after a builder has whizzed through. "Builders can leave a multitude of sins," she says. "You can find things are slipping or cracking, or perhaps they haven't replaced skirting boards after running cables behind them."

Although Paula is happy to tackle pretty much anything within reason, her first love is still working with wood. "I recently built some long wardrobes in an alcove," she says. "The client wanted the space for skirts, shirts and trousers, so I made three short spaces rather than one long and one short and she was able to have exactly what she wanted." Another recent project was the renovation of a whole house from top to bottom. Paula did the lot, including the soft furnishings; she can handle a sewing machine with the same dexterity as a power drill.

"The client was saying she'd need a new three-piece suite," she says, showing a photograph of a swirly brown Sixties' monstrosity. "But she said that although it didn't look good, it was a very comfortable suite to sit on. So I simply re-covered it in white ticking, because she wanted an all-white theme. Then I made her some washable linen curtains to match too." Now that's not the kind of finishing service you would get from very many male builders.

Estimates of how many women builders there are in the UK range from one to nine per cent - and that figure covers all women working in the trade rather than running their own firms. Most women in the building trade tend to be in managerial jobs rather than hands-on, so Paula's south-west London clients are particularly lucky.

The National Federation of Master Builders has no separate listing for women builders, but to find a NFMB accredited builder, ring 08000 152522 or go to www.findabuilder.co.uk

Mrs Fixit: 020-8780 9572

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