Victoria Summerley: Town Life

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The Independent Online

This is what happens when you embark on a loft extension. You think you're the neighbourhood's answer to Terence Conran or Norman Foster.

This is what happens when you embark on a loft extension. You think you're the neighbourhood's answer to Terence Conran or Norman Foster. You think you're creating a little bit more living space that will look (unlike the rest of the house, which you don't have the cash to redecorate) stylish and hip. It will be your haven, your sanctum, your eyrie.

The reality is that you've turned over your house to a vast army of people, few of whom are very interested in how you want your loft extension to look and all of whom are intent on creating their vision of perfection.

Stuart, our builder, specialises in making lofts look as spacious as possible. His vision might differ slightly from mine, but it is a vision I can admire. My vision is built upon pages torn out of Living Etc and Elle Decoration, a lamp I saw in the Aram shop in Covent Garden, a marble vanity unit in a New York hotel where my husband and I once stayed, and some expensive Lefroy Brooks 1930s-style taps. It's a bit vague.

Stuart's vision is built of floor joists and 4x2 timber, stud walls and Velux windows, masses of loft insulation and girders that would do credit to the Forth Rail Bridge. It's rock solid.

The Wandsworth Borough Council building regulations man has a different vision. His idea of heaven comes wrapped in a fire blanket and involves shutting off our open-plan living room with a door, which cannot be a trendy sliding door on a pulley, or glass, or anything interesting, because it is a fire door and has to have an automatic closer on it. As do all the rest of the doors. Have you ever heard a family of four moving around a house that has door closers? It's like being followed by a flock of gobbling turkeys in a world where Christmas never comes.

Steve the roofer thinks paradise is a nice sunny day (no faffing about with tarpaulins) and a clear run home to Chelmsford. And everybody's vision of heaven involves lots of cups of tea and then yet more cups of tea. I'm tempted to buy shares in Whittard. All of them take sugar - it's extremely reassuring to know that the people labouring on my house are bona fide stereotypical workmen.

Of course, with all these people under your roof for what already seems like weeks, it's only natural that you get to know them a bit. Thus I now know that Steve has a St Bernard dog, Sandy (Stuart's assistant) has his own Hebridean island, Roger the plumber has a wife who's an antique dealer, and Stuart himself has a private life that would do credit to an EastEnders scriptwriter.

He's going through a rocky patch at the moment, which according to my friend Madeleine is par for the course for London builders. In fact, when Madeleine tells me about the emotional entanglements of her loft-extension builder, I find it difficult to believe that he isn't the same person, until she tells me hers is called Kevin. (In fact, Madeleine claims that one day she had seven Kevins working on her loft at the same time - Kevin the plumber, Kevin the chippy, Kevin the sparky... and so on, though I don't quite believe her).

Madeleine, who has ripped the roof off more London lofts than Ozzy Osbourne has bitten the heads off dead bats, cherishes the theory that builders tell you about their marital break-ups, unrequited loves, blighted ambitions etc, so that when it comes to the "extras" - all those things for which you didn't ask for a quote, or changed your mind about, or forgot entirely - you won't have the heart to quibble too much. "Yes, I know he wants another twenty grand, but he's had such a terrible childhood."

After a week of deafening noise, choking dust and a regiment of builders tramping up and down the stairs like the 10,000 men in the nursery rhyme, my 15-year-old son has emerged from his room, blinking in the unfamiliar daylight, to inquire what "all that banging" is about.

I'd like to think he's been so intent on his GCSE coursework that he hasn't really noticed the commotion, but I suspect his iPod has worked as a sort of ear defender, protecting him from the worst of the racket. The young are not more resilient, they just tend to wear headphones.