Manual labour and the incredible self-removing conservatory

conservatory

Now you see it…

There came a point during my time in the Prison Camp when it felt like money was leaving our bank account like blood spurting out of an arterial wound.

This feeling was particularly acute whenever we had work done on our house. I would get back from a long day at the office and it seemed like there was a stream of tradespeople flowing through the house: plumbers, electricians, tilers, painters, gardeners, feng shui consultants etc.

It hurt me to think about the cost of keeping this army fed and watered. They were all lovely people, no doubt, but I felt like I was single-handedly funding a government programme to GET BRITAIN BUILDING.

Unfortunately, work consumed ever more of my time and my brain got ever more frazzled. So my inclination to do physical work myself got ever more limited.  Lets face it, I started off with roughly the same level of DIY skills as Paris Hilton and it was downhill from there on in. Other than my “O” Level Metalwork (Grade D, since you ask) I had never received any training in handyman type activities.

Instead, at school I learnt about assorted horrors of the industrial revolution, the plight of the working class in Eighteenth Century England and the Japanese Army’s treatment of Allied prisoners of war in World War 2.  This all made a lasting impression on me. After that, when people told me that hard work never killed anyone a) I knew that wasn’t true and b) even if hard work probably wouldn’t kill me, why take the risk?

As a soft, middle class professional I somehow absorbed the incorrect idea that manual labour was a “Bad Thing”.  This was partly my own wimpiness and partly a cultural belief absorbed from my fellow office workers.  I’d seen The Shawshank Redemption and the longer I spent in classrooms, exam halls, offices and meeting rooms the more I came to believe that manual labour was a bit like going to prison: an awful prospect for a nice, middle class guy with soft hands.

As a result, I’ve never been DIY minded and tended to take the soft option of throwing money at the problem and outsourcing the work to others.  This seemed to make sense at a purely monetary level. From an economist’s perspective, if I could earn more per hour than the cost charged by the tradesman, then why not outsource the work?

There were several problems with this. Firstly, I was paying a shit load of tax to pay people out of my after-tax earnings.  It felt like I was being cut in for the minority share in the same way that a low level drug dealer has to pay the majority of his earnings up the chain to the Big Fish or get his legs broken.

Second, the economist’s way of looking at the world makes sense if you are talking about lower cost versus higher cost machines but does not apply to real human beings.  Forget about the relative wage costs for a minute, it is good for the soul to be able to use your creativity and fix different things. Outsourcing was turning me into one of the pathetic wimpy people from Wall-E who are helpless when their electric chairs and soda delivery devices malfunction.

It used to seem like the tradespeople had all the power.  We would helplessly tell them about latest thing to break down. They would shake their head, make tutting sounds, suck their teeth and gravely deliver the bad news that this was gonna cost us a shit load of money. I would then slink back to work to try to make back the money we were paying them.

Well, recently I have started to make baby steps to become less of a soft-as-shite middle class wimp.  I started small…my first manual labour triumph after leaving work was…wait for it…changing the brake blocks on my mountain bike.  I know!  You may well scoff but this represented real progress for me.

I always used to have a phobia for bike maintenance so I would hand my bike over to the bike shop to maintain…a bit like a spoilt Princess handing over her polo pony to a stable boy.  Since I quit work my attitude has been…fuck that, its time to man up. So my hands got dirty, the brake blocks got fitted and I now have brakes that really work. If you have not experienced the joy of being able to lock up the back wheel of your bike for a good long skid, then there is something missing from your life.

We recently had a triumph over the tyranny of the tutting tradespeople that I want to share with you.  We had a uPVC conservatory on the back of our house, inherited from the former owners.  It was a bit ugly and when my wife decided that it had to go, her first instinct was to get a quote to pay someone to take down the conservatory and remove it.

The quote was £900 to do this and re pave part of the patio under the old conservatory.  I pointed to my sledgehammer and protested that we shouldn’t be paying for this and that I should have a go at it myself.  How hard could it be?  My wife wasn’t keen. She had concerns that my amateur demolition enthusiasm might exceed my level of competence.

Desperate to avoid me starting to smash things, my wife put her thinking hat on and talked with friends and family about the best way to approach the problem.  This was a great example of using crowd-sourcing to get a solution.  The answer came back from her sister (who is a bit of a frugality ninja)…put the conservatory on EBay and let people bid for the privilege of taking it away.

This was genius. To be honest, I should have thought of this myself.  There I was cursing – if only there was a network connecting computers around the world that could allow people to share information, ideas and trading opportunities with each other. Then someone could invent an auction tool that let you sell stuff you don’t need to people from other towns who want that stuff.

Well, it turns out there already is such a network! Ebay worked its magic and rather than paying Handyman number 1 hundreds of pounds to take down the conservatory for us, we got paid over £600 by Handyman number 2 for the privilege of taking it off our hands.  Ker-ching! In effect, the conservatory removed itself and paid us for our trouble.

no conservatory

…now you don’t!

Although this was a good result, there is a broader learning point for me here.  We need to man / woman up and stop thinking of physical work and problem solving as things that are either beyond us or something to be avoided and passed to “experts” wherever possible.

We evolved in an environment where we needed to do stuff ourselves.  Extreme workplace specialisation is a function of the last 100 years or so, a mere nanosecond in evolutionary time.   If all you do is prepare management accounts, format web pages or write adverts you will eventually go mad. We need natural challenge and variety, overcoming problems using a mixture of brain and brawn.

There are others that can explain this stuff from a position of greater authority than The Escape Artist.  If you want to go deeper, I recommend the snappily titled book: The Case for Working with Your Hands or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good.

As another step on my road to redemption, I’ve recently put myself in the strange but enjoyable position of doing unpaid manual labour.  I volunteered for Surrey Wildlife Trust and have been doing hedge planting, scrub clearance,and other woodland conservation work. The work is really physical – you are working in groups with saws, cuttters etc and do stuff like figure out the best way to take down invasive coniferous trees, ideally without hurting the other people around you.

This has destroyed my preconceptions about what makes rewarding and high status work.  I spent years indoctrinated against manual labour and now I find myself lugging tree trunks and shovelling stuff into trailers pulled by Land Rovers.  Working outdoors doing physical work like this is satisfying and good for the soul.

However, there are some side-effects to watch out for.  You may experience fat loss and get strange lumps appearing on your body.  Naturally I was concerned about this and went to the Doctor but apparently these lumps are something called “muscles” and are nothing to worry about.

Its funny, I escaped the Prison Camp and how do I now choose to spend some of my hard won leisure time? By working outdoors with other people doing unpaid physical work.  Hold on…if I wanted to do unpaid physical work outdoors (like breaking rocks with a sledgehammer), couldn’t I have done that in prison?

29 comments

  1. thefrugalfreelancer · · Reply

    It’s so nice to see other people making the change from wimpy office drone to DIY too… for me, just painting walls in my house was an accomplishment, before I would have easily gotten someone in to do it. In all fairness it’s not the best paint job ever, but you learn through experience and I can only get better (I hope!). Good luck with the Surrey Wildlife Trust, I have a friend that does National Trust Volunteering holidays and I love the sound of it but haven’t had the guts to actually go on one yet!

    1. Great post as always. I completely relate to the psychology at play here when it comes to any job that requires a bit of time to be allocated away from the core (work + baseline domestic). I do the same, pay someone or neglect to complete the task at all.

      I am working towards my own career break of 1-2 years (can’t afford full FI but can afford a long break while I figure out how to make more permanent changes to the way that I earn my keep).
      Whilst sitting in a recent presentation (advising a client how to develop a product for Treatment-Resistant Depression, oh how I will miss that), I came up with a high-level activity list for the break. Item 2, below giving my son “the download” (I thank the Escape Artist for introducing me to Steve Biddulph for that one), is “personal growth”; sub bullet #1 = NT holiday/volunteering. My wife has been on several and loves it, although she is a raving extrovert and I am not! But I’m working up to it as I think the reward will be worth the challenge of working in and being accountable to a larger group. I suppose that also conforms to another tenet of personal growth. That to grow we must push outside of our behavioural norms and comfort zone.

      1. Frugal Freelancer – Thanks! I reckon those NT holidays are a good idea…this also reminds me that working people used to get PAID on their holidays by going hop-picking or fruit picking on farms in the summer.

        Iverpotter – Exactly…I agree its important to get outside our comfort zones and doing stuff in groups can definitely be part of that.

        Re Steve Biddulph – Hopefully you have read Raising Boys as well as Manhood?

  2. Re: Conservatory – Now that is a RESULT!

    On bike repair…. i’ve been trying to get more handy at this over the last few years, so much so that I got a repair stand for xmas 2 years ago (shop around on price, but this one http://www.parktool.com/product/home-mechanic-repair-stand-pcs-10). Talk about a game changer – you can work on your bike so much better – brake alignment becomes a doddle when you have the bike on one of these & you can free-spin the wheels & watch them closely.

    You-Tube is also your friend on bike repair – so many people have posted tutorials on how to do things.

    SWT: remember to pull out all the non-native Sycamore saplings you come across! 😉

    1. LCIL – yes, thanks for the repair stand tip!

  3. Yep, Raising Boys – the book that informed me that if I don’t complete the “download” to my son in the next 3 years (i.e. by the age 14 or thereabouts) then I will have missed the boat! It shit me up a bit and has reinforced my intention to take some serious time away from the coalface to focus on meaningful activities.

    1. Yes, Raising Boys had the same effect on me too…

  4. Shane Hodges · · Reply

    Cracking post – loved it.

    Hope all is well,

    Shane.

  5. TEA, TEA, TEA….you have left the story without an ending. There is a distinct lack of ‘after’ photograph on this post showing not only the missing conservatory, but also the new patio that you have obviously laid in its place?!?!

    I starting doing my own bike maintenance a few years ago. Not only is it great fun but it save a lot too as a visit to the bike shop rarely ends in less than £50!

    1. UTMT

      I refer you to exhibit B….photographic evidence now inserted into the post…annoyingly the patio has failed to fix itself yet.

      TEA

  6. TheTurnaround · · Reply

    Another great article, T.E.A.

    I’ve always been averse to manual labour and as such my body composition is mostly adipose tissue (a nice way of saying “fat”). I definitely want to get into DIY myself some day as it must feel great to fix and create things oneself. I used to think those skills were beyond me, and even though it’s not quite DIY, I used to think similarly about building PC’s until I finally built mine from scratch last year. It was a great feeling watching it fire up for the first time and come to life working perfectly with no teething troubles.

    Grats on the conservatory removal!

    Btw, a quote I was reminded of reading this article is one I’m sure you’ll enjoy:

    “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” – Thomas A. Edison

  7. @TEA, my nephew who was never academic started doing odd building work in his early twenties, then started building conservatories and now builds complete houses & flats with NHBC guarantees. Of course he has become wealthy. He is also very street smart and very happy with this lot. I always note a difference in the happiness levels of tradesmen versus us middle management miserable Excel and PowerPoint junkies. Creosoting the fence I find as very therapeutic on the weekends. Thank god my equity portfolio means I am more or less FI now, but still suffering from OMYS, need to pull the plug soon, maybe next year, move back to the Midlands and do something else.

    1. “middle management miserable Excel and PowerPoint junkies” Great phrase, sadly accurate. And not a great epitaph.

    2. Jon – Thanks! I’m curious…what’s stopping you pulling the trigger?? TEA

  8. Brilliant piece. I found the time between my redundancy and new job phase that getting all those odd-jobs of painting and laying slabs was so theraputic.

    I leave electrical work to the professionals but I too am thinking of doing some NT volunteering when I take that step into freedom and out of the prison camp. I have noticed that I actually want to work outside, I am getting an aversion to working in an office. Wedged into a cubicle with loads of other people who are feelling like battery chickens is enough of a reason to escape.

    Go for it, you will met some great people and learn more about yourself and what you are capable of.

  9. @TEA, I’ve got a work from home-fairly-interesting cushy number. I guess as my motivation decays exponentially like a radioactive isotope and the company management detects a lack of enthusiasm they may ask what’s going on. Makes it more difficult because I really like the people I work with. They are a great employer. But I know deep down its time to pull the trigger soon and spend quality time with my mum whilst she is still here.

    1. If you are serious about wanting to pull the trigger, why not email me and lets discuss…

  10. Mr Tea,

    First off. Good work on the D.

    There is a culture in the office sphere where no one wants to get their soft Excel hands covered in calluses. Perhaps in part because a day staring at a screen can be knackering, but also because it’s easy to spend some free cash getting someone else to do the labour.

    It’s partly time as well, time is limited when you are casting excel spells during the week and trying to squeeze in a bike ride and some time with Mrs Z at the weekend.

    And then there is the whole “a professional will do it better” argument. Which I should hope they do!

    But I am taking the plunge this summer and ripping up the carpet and laying down wooden flooring in our hallway. Can’t wait to hack my way straight through some mains electricity lines.

    Also on the incredible conservatory removal. That is staggering. £900 for someone to remove it and lay the new patio vs. £600 to you for someone else to take it. I assume you will use the £1,500 difference to put down a solid gold patio?

    Mr Z

    1. Well, the streets may be paved with gold in London but we’ll stick with stone slabs for our patio, should be more hard wearing I think 😉

  11. I can’t believe how jammy you were with the conservatory

    Our first house was an accidental “fixer upper” that took four years worth of holidays and weekends to fix. I did pretty much learn how to do everything but you’ve got to know your limitations too. Some things aren’t a matter of time and attitude more a case of day in day out practise. So large area tiling and plastering are out, gas is of course too risky but everything else is fair game.That said, peeing in a bucket and cooking on a Baby Belling on the living room floor is something best left to your twenties without kids.

    When I packed in the day job I did fully intend to strip out and replace the bathroom. After about 6 leisurely months of planning and using the new bath as a coffee table (upside down with a cloth over it) I realised that there were so many opportunities to f’k up in what I’d planned that I bottled it off to Cornwall with the family for a week, leaving it to the pros. Sometimes you just have to put your hand in your pocket and smile, even when the £/m3 makes Tutankhamen’s funeral chamber look understated.

    But I fully intend to do the kitchen myself… sometime 🙂

    @JON – JFDI. I didn’t understand I was free in time to spend more quality time with my Mum.

    1. Ha! Love the line about Tutankhamen’s funeral chamber….as a committed environmentalist, I plan on recycling that gag….keep an eye out for it in future posts

  12. John of Hampton · · Reply

    i really enjoyed this piece, especially the comments about how expensive other people’s labour is. We had a quote to repair our dilapidated garden pond about 18 months ago: £5000 (!). I decided to do it myself. It cost the price of a butyl rubber sheet (£40), plus a few weekends removing old water plants, re-digging the hole, and re-laying paving slabs around the edge. I have always done some DIY, but this was the biggest project I have tackled on my own. It was everything you said in terms of creativity and good exercise, and it had the bonus of a fantastic effect on the bottom line…

    1. Nice work, Sir John of Hampton 😉

  13. Instead of calling a handyman, I recently re-caulked my own tub. A minor task, perhaps, but one I normally would have out-sourced. It took hours to scrape out the layers of old caulk, a task which was oddly satisfying. The new caulk doesn’t have a pristine line. Initially, this troubled me. Months later, the crooked caulk-lines are growing on me. I did it myself.

    1. Well done…although I’m ashamed to say that I don’t even know what caulk is…looks like I’ve got more work to do….

  14. Nice work on the conservatory!

    Can’t wait to see the follow up post on how you laid the patio 😉

    We did a lot of DIY in our first flat and I kinda hated at the time but when it was done the satisfaction of knowing you did all that yourself and having saved a bunch of money was totally worth it. I’m going to challenge myself with the new house and give the plumbing a go in the bathroom. And the kitchen needs a bit of a spruce up as well. Plenty of time to do this (hopefully) when I go part time in July and then start ratcheting down the hours after that!

    Also gave car repair a go the other week. It was quite farcical in the end but I learned a lot, and the story should make a good (i.e. amusing) blog post so there is always that to fall back on. Keep your eyes peeled as should be posting soon 🙂

  15. ProfessorSimonPeach · · Reply

    I once noticed that the boot of my brother in law (one of those Chiswick ‘investment banking’ types) was sitting rather low and after enquiring found it contained six large bags of pea shingle. He added that he was paying a guy £100 to come round at the weekend to scatter the contents on the edging of his front path. I asked him for a knife to cut the plastic, and completed the job in around 20 mins. Masters of the Universe? Gimme a break.

    p.s. Jon, what does OMYS stand for? I checked with acronymsareus and the website only came up with “Okhai Memon Youth Services” – can that be right?

    1. One More Year Syndrome seems more likely!

  16. Austin Allegro · · Reply

    Anything cosmetic around the house – painting, decorating, gardening – shouldn’t be too difficult for people to learn.

    Technical stuff is a bit different. Eg, a few years ago I replaced the internal workings of the lavatory cistern myself, which cost me about £14 in parts and about an hour’s work. Then in a different house, the same thing went wrong, but the fittings were more complicated and expensive (it was a newer toilet, unsurprisingly) After seven hours of cursing and swearing, I admitted defeat and had to call a plumber.

    I do most of my bike maintenance myself as well, but some things, eg, adjusting derailleur gears, just never work for me, no matter how many youtube videos I watch.

    Here’s a tip – if you’re ever taking apart a bike, lavatory cistern, whatever – photograph every stage on your phone so you can refer to what goes where later on!

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