The Dream House Project

If you follow me on Instragram you'll know that earlier this year, we moved house...to not just any old house...a house we designed and built on our own little plot of dirt in Paradise. O.M.F.G how did that happen?! Well - it didn't happen overnight that's for sure but we absolutely loved every minute of the process so I've been promising myself that I would document it, both for my own memory bank and to help other people that might want to take on their own house building project one day. 

We'd been renting since we moved to Cayman as we only ever meant this to be a 2 year adventure...but 5 years in, investing in some bricks and mortar seemed like a "sensible" idea. Only we couldn't really find anything to suit our budget and needs at the time so we decided to invest in land instead and keep renting. 

 Happy landowners in 2016

Happy landowners in 2016

A few more years passed, my parents started thinking about selling their architectural practice and retiring and we started to think about our long-term plans in Cayman. The more we thought about it the more sense it made - why not work with Mum and Dad to design and build our dream house?! 

"Sensible" had long gone out the window.

We took several months to refine the designs with the luxury of asking my parents for tweaks and changes as many times as we liked, safe in the knowledge that they just wanted to make our dreams a reality. Dad's professional motto is:

"A good architect should never have to ask you to compromise"

He's won some awards and stuff in his time (#prouddaughter) so I take whatever he says about architecture pretty much as gospel - so my first tip is: don't hire anyone that makes you compromise! You don't need that kind of negativity in your life! 

So we threw all of our "must haves" down on a piece of paper, sketched out a rough layout and off they set, mapping out a design that would make our hopes and dreams a reality. We wanted a house that was simple, functional and flowed from one room to the next. We wanted connectivity between the different spaces and a bright, airy feel. High ceilings, lots of glass and contemporary lines. 

Finally, we had a plan that ticked all of the boxes - so what now?

1. Project manager:

First up, we employed a project manager - Peter Plunkett from Core Construction. Goodness knows where we'd be today without this man. Not living in a beautiful house where everything works exactly the way we wanted it to, that's for sure. I can't rave enough about Peter and his team - I may have little experience with other companies in the Cayman Islands but I still know that they are hands down the best in the business. You hear horror stories about construction projects all the time and we had none - we enjoyed every step in the process and that's mostly down to the fact that we had an utterly brilliant, patient and professional project manager who only employs tradesmen who know what they're doing and work hard to get the job done.

2. Electrical and plumbing:

So now we had a design and someone to oversee everything. Next up, we needed electrical and plumbing plans. If you think a set of architectural drawings looks complicated, think again. The electrical all but blew my mind. Making sure that we had the right number of sockets, switches and fittings seemed to be an impossible task, not to mention getting the circuits and placements right - how am I supposed to know where I want a light switch in a room I have only ever seen in 2D?! (Needless to say, we got some of this wrong).

3. Swimming Pool:

Finally, pool designs for submission to the Department of Health. We used Mikael Seffer who was affordable and efficient.  

4. Planning Approval:

Then it was time for the planning department and BCU... a few months of frustrating waiting and answering questions and then....

PLANS APPROVED! We were off!

Machines arrived on site and started drilling and pouring concrete into the ground to set the foundations. An army of people started to fill the previously empty plot of land everyday as they worked their way out of the ground and up to the first floor slab. Watching everything getting started was so exciting and nerve-wrecking at the same time. In Cayman nowadays, foundations are usually drilled through the soil, right down to the bedrock of the island to ensure the building won't wash away if a hurricane strikes, and you really have no idea how far away that bedrock is until you start drilling. Luckily we didn't hit any pockets and therefore didn't have to spend any more money on concrete than we'd budgeted - but that isn't always the case.

The biggest unknown behind us, we breathed a sigh of relief and focused on the next phase - floors and walls! 

From there, things progressed fairly steadily, with only a short setback when our windows were delayed after the Hurricane's last summer and a mess up with our internal doors causing a delay there as well (Cox lumber - black mark for them), but all in all things went pretty smoothly and in a matter of months we were looking at our plans in real life!

There are so many decisions to make along the way, and so many things to check and keep an eye on if you are thinking about building a house - to give you a taste here's a very high level list of things you need to think about once your plans are approved:

  • Chose all of the plumbing fixtures (taps, toilets, sinks....)

  • Chose tiles / flooring - indoor and out

  • Decide on light fittings and buy them - indoor and out (including electrical sockets and switches - and dimmers if you want them)

  • Order windows and then double, triple and quadtrouple check the order with your architectural drawings. Windows are a big ticket item so make sure that all of the measurements are correct!

  • Order doors (indoor and out) and door handles

  • Chose all of your appliances including oven, dishwasher, fridge, washing machine etc

  • Design and order a kitchen then pick out countertops and backsplash - Pooleys Cabinets, I love you!

  • Design and order any custom cabinetry and closets

  • Decide on landscaping and pick out trees and plants

And that's just the basic essentials! I'm going to write a number of separate posts about choosing and buying fixtures, fittings and furniture, but my top 5 general tips if you're thinking about a renovation or building from scratch are:

1. Start early. Deadlines tend to creep up on you and although it may seem strange to pick out a tap before you've started on the wall, it saves you a lot of stress in the long run. HOWEVER make sure you double check your selections once you have final measurements for each space - we're had to sell a bath that we ordered without checking the size of the bathroom it was purchased for - and buy one that would fit last minute. Oops! 

2. Compare prices on and off island. Some things are a LOT cheaper if you import them from the US, but in some cases they're actually cheaper on island, plus you get a better warranty and someone to deliver and install for you. Do your research! More on this to come....

3. Budget for everything (and be realistic!) When you're deciding whether you can afford to build a house, factor in things like landscaping - it's a massive cost and you don't want to live in a beautiful house surrounded by gravel and dirt because you didn't budget for grass. Similarly, you don't want to build a pool and then run out of money to fill it with water - that's another big bill! 

4. Pick a good project manager and don't false economize. There are different routes that you can takes when building a house including: General Contractor, Project Manager, or just manage the project yourself. I consider myself pretty organized and Rich and I know a fair amount about construction but OMG I cannot even imagine what it would have been like to try and do this project without having a dedicated manager for the job. He employed all of the contractors and held them accountable, he checked on every little thing happening on site every day, he was there to answer questions and sort problems. A lot of the time he was just there to whip people into shape. He was the quality controller, negotiator and broker. He managed bill payments and deliveries. Basically without him we would have both had to quit our day jobs to oversee the project and we'd probably be divorced or living in a half built house. We came in pretty much on budget, pretty much on schedule and with all of our hair in tact. Scrimping on the project manager would have been the worst mistake we could have made and I'm so glad we had the right advice before we started. I'd also like to think we made some new friends in Peter and his team at Core - they may see it differently, but our experiences were far from the screaming matches you see in home improvement programs on TV. 

5. Stay calm. Our motto throughout the process was "it's as stressful as you make it" and it's true. Whether you're renovating your kitchen or building a house, you're in a fortunate position to be creating a space you've designed, with the features that you've chosen and want - that's so cool! Yes stuff will go wrong. Yes there will be delays. Yes you'll get frustrated and want to shout at someone. Just remember, you're still doing something awesome and whether you get stressed about it or not, is your choice. Nine times out of ten, getting stressed and frustrated won't help the situation, change the outcome, or make you feel better. Take a step back, take stock of what you're doing and appreciate it. Easier said than done I know and I won't pretend that I NEVER got stressed, but adopting this motto definitely reduced the number of times it happened and in the end, we got there, and we really enjoyed the whole process! 

Next up, we'll take a look inside...

Have you ever thought about building, or have you built something already? I'd love to hear about your experiences! 

Building a house essential tips