The Wetting

It is tradition to have this ceremony which involves the local fiendishly-strong rum called Jack Iron being thrown on the ground.
This might mean that the land or the build would be blessed with good luck or that your life on the plot would be forever enriched with alcohol. It might have been neither but a wetting is a damn good excuse for a hell of a party on an island that does not need much of an excuse to have a good time, drink excessively and party.
Our wetting was particularly symbolic because conspicuously absent was the recently departed Barba without whom none of us would have congregated at that location that day.
The wetting seemed to go well and most of the friends we invited made it up the hill to join the team doing the build. Most people came in vehicles and we were very surprised we could accommodate about seven without any of them falling off the cliff.
The wetting itself was a bit tricky because it was so windy that most of the rum and water that was thrown onto the ground got snatched by the wind and either ended up on the legs of people standing nearby or got blown some miles out to sea. Nevertheless some managed to touch the ground as it was required to do.
In keeping with island tradition small coins had also been buried in the four corners of the foundations. This would have been done right at the beginning of the build in a wetting that was ahead of our symbolic one since without these tokens of good luck superstition would very likely have meant the builders refused to work on our house.

 

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”……..

Having returned from our 3000 mile roadtrip of the southern US we have hurled ourselves into getting settled as residents of Lichfield and preparing to head off to Carriacou in 3 weeks time.

Whilst this blog is not about our holiday, I must mention a few highlights.  The greatest of these was seeing the eclipse which to use the native vocabulary was “awesome”.  Viewed from a lovely vineyard in southern Illinois it also resulted in one of those strange coincidences which makes you realise how small the world is.  Through a casual reference on Facebook it transpired that a relative of mine in Orkney knew a couple who lived next door to the vineyard!  It was wonderful to meet writer Laura Benedict and her husband Pinckney.  Laura kindly gave me, and signed, one of her books – I am enjoying reading ‘Bliss House’, Laura, if you read this!

Other highlights included seeing Nile Rodgers in Nashville (supporting, but much better than (in our opinion)) Earth Wind and Fire) sitting on a porch in hot and steamy Natchez overlooking the mighty Mississippi and imagining I was Scarlett O’Hara,  enjoying the beauty of Savannah and taking the steamboat out of New Orleans whilst eating brunch and listening to jazz.  But I digress – back to the purpose of this blog ………..

Regular reports and photos from Sky show us that the house is progressing well and he tells us he’ll be up to the first floor by the time we arrive.

We’ve had lots of people asking if the project  has been affected by Hurricanes Irma and Maria but fortunately  Grenada has been untouched and we hope it stays that way, whilst having huge sympathy for those islands devastated by the violent weather.  Grenada sits well south in the Caribbean and the worst of the hurricane systems usually (but not always) steer a course north of there.  In 2004 the islands were badly affected by Hurricane Ivan – I am sure Morgan Freeman was not the only person to help to rebuild Grenada but his recipe book serves also to give me ideas for what I may be cooking out there!  We were pleased to hear from Sky that, following Ivan, all the houses he had built remained standing!

Shortly after returning from our holiday we were shocked and saddened to hear that Barba (John Gabriel), from whom we bought our land, had passed away suddenly.  He was a much liked and respected member of the community on Carriacou and will leave a huge void in the lives of many.  We shall miss him enormously.  Had it not been for him it is likely that our venture would not have come about at all and we hope our new house, when built, would have met with his approval and will be some small tribute to him.

It will therefore be with mixture of sadness and excitement that we will arrive on Carriacou 3 weeks today and see how our new home is taking shape first hand.

RIP Barba

http://http://www.thegrenadainformer.com/carriacou

 

A landmark week

This is quite a big week in the life of this project (and in my life too!).  We received the paperwork from our Grenadian lawyer which confirms that we are Alien Landholders and owners of our little piece of the Caribbean.

Our conveyance looks like something from a Dickens novel

Tomorrow I say goodbye to my friends and colleagues at Cadent Gas, and possibly bring to an end my 30 year career as a lawyer.  I say possibly as there may well be a need to resume it at some point depending on how the budget holds out – so let’s hope the wifi is good enough for a bit of remote working if need be.

Tomorrow we should also be completing the purchase of our little foothold in the UK, being a 2-bed flat in Lichfield, having sold our 4-bedroom home in Sutton Coldfield to fund the Carriacou project.  Three days later we will be heading off on a very badly timed holiday in the US – the only excuse for this is that the timing is out of our hands as we are going out for the total solar eclipse and Martin has been looking forward to this for at least 6 years.  However, a tour of the deep south has also been tagged on, for which I have no excuse except I have always wanted to see it.

So, exciting times ahead – I admit to being a bit scared at times.  This is not a small change in our lives and it remains to be seen how it works out.  But however that is, we can never look back and say “what if”. . . . . .

Utilities

  • Water (from Mother Nature):

There is no mains water to speak of on Carriacou. Although a fancy new desalination plant has been installed fairly recently the roll out of piping to houses has progressed very slowly (at Caribbean speed) and we were told it would likely never get to the Tyrell Bay area yet alone Hermitage a mile further on. So in common with almost every other Kayak (the local name for the islanders) we would need to have a large cistern to catch rainwater.

Although there are only two seasons on Carriacou called the rainy season and the dry season the difference is only fairly slight as it rains all year round in torrential bursts that are typical of tropical areas.

Average precipitation (rain/snow) in Six Roads, Grenada

Some Maths:

Checking the local rainfall (above) shows it to be 78 inches per year which is 6.5 feet. Our roof has an area of 2,183 square feet meaning 14,189 cubic feet of water can be captured per year. This converts to just over four hundred thousand litres. Our cistern is able to hold around one hundred thousand litres when filled to a depth of 10 feet. A typical person uses about 133 litres per day so four people will use about two hundred thousand litres in a year.

This means that even without periodic top-ups from Mother Nature our cistern will hold six months supply for four people or a year’s worth of water for two. But given the roof’s ability to deliver so much water to the cistern during a downpour my concern is whether a four inch overflow pipe is big enough to get rid of the inflowing water quickly enough — but so long as the roof gutters end up in a four inch incoming pipe then the inflow will always match the overflow.

Our hot water we plan to make free of charge using a roof-mounted solar heater which Sky is contracted to do.

Although many people drink their water straight from the cistern without even boiling it first we plan to run our water through an ultraviolet sterilising unit making it safe to drink. Only when the house is constructed and the ‘taint’ from the concrete has subsided will the general quality and taste of the water be known, but keeping the cistern free of debris, mosquito larvae and avoiding ‘dead legs’ in the plumbing that could allow legionella bacteria to multiply are all a big responsibility especially with me doing almost all of the plumbing. But there is always bottled water to drink and a nice warm ocean nearby to bathe in.

Electricity (from Grenlec):

With lots of bright sunshine solar panels are an obvious thought. The trouble is the efficiency of PV panels reduces quite markedly as they get hot …and they would get very hot in this fierce sun. Also they don’t last forever and I don’t much like them. I have considered one or two to power only the lighting for the house by using leisure batteries to store the daily charge and then sticking this through an inverter to make the right sort of electricity. But since we are lucky enough to have the benefit of an almost constant sea breeze, a small marine micro wind turbine seems a much better and more reliable option — especially since the breeze also comes at night unlike the sun.

Around the exterior of the house are planned to be small individual solar-powered lights which means no wiring which is nice a simple. With no light pollution the nights are as black as soot which is lovely so we do not want to disturb this with lots of light. However, small numbers of low-level LEDs should at least make it safe for us and guests to walk around at night.

Internet (from Flow):

Expected to be slow and intermittent and similarly the TV delivered via the same wire, but life used to be good enough before these things so I’m sure we’ll cope.

The contract

With Liz being a contracts lawyer she has enough experience to know that in the UK, building contracts can be like a small book with pages of schedules and conditions and a very detailed cost break-down to ensure the stage payments made during the project are always keeping pace with what has actually been done.

So when Sky’s standard contract (which he has used as the basis for building houses for over 25 years) arrived and had so little detail in it I felt I needed to do some serious work on it before I even let Liz see it.

So after a couple of weeks of emailing Sky to agree the commercial aspects (details like how many outside taps would be fitted, how big the cistern pump would be) I handed it to Liz – she wasn’t very impressed!

In the UK we had signed a longer contract just to get three rooms knocked into one so Liz debated whether to get hold of a typical building contract to use as a template and try to knock it into something that would be more familiar to UK lawyers, but feared this would be entirely out of line with what Sky was used to.  Alternatively we could perhaps engage some solicitors in Grenada to handle it – although getting any Grenadian lawyer to respond to an email within a reasonable timescale also appeared to be a challenge (as we had experienced during our land purchase).  Even something simple like the ’due diligence’ required to check that Sky Construction Co Limited was financially solvent and not about to take our money and disappear was discussed since we were committing pretty much all of our life savings to this venture.

I took the view that things are a bit different in the Caribbean and if Sky had been building houses for about 30 years with a very good reputation using just this flimsy little contract then it must have been okay for all his other customers. Plus how easily can you disappear with someone’s money when you live on a little island of about 6,000 people?

The truth is, on such an island everyone would hear very quickly if you did a crappy job or fleeced someone and you’d likely never get any more work so the tiny island community gave this a kind of self-regulation that we could not immediately get our heads around.

As a further illustration of the different way of thinking, we asked Sky about stuff like responsibility for the site while the house was being built in case say someone goes there and injures themselves and then sues us. We figured at the very least we would need some kind of public liability insurance.

His reply [quote]

“If you fall on the property and damage yourself and damage let’s say the railing, when you get better you have to come and fix the people’s railing unless they tell you it’s ok ( laugh ) this is Carriacou!”

So after Liz worked on the contract herself to give us some small degree of protection without throwing the entire project into jeopardy, we threw caution to the wind and signed on the dotted line. At the end of the day it’s only money.

Building a road

House construction on a hillside poses certain difficulties for builders. They have to scoop out shelves (terraces) from the slope so the various storeys can each sit level. The storeys can then either be staggered backwards to mimic the incline or else each one can be bigger than the one below as each level gets higher up the hill.

Importantly, as we were told, builders like to have their materials kept above the build rather than below so in our case this would mean effectively placing them on the ridge of the hill. Hence the ridge would have to be levelled to provide such an area that was both large enough and flat enough.

But most problematic of all was the fact that none of these materials or machinery could traverse 300 feet of steep scrubby hillside land leading to the plot without there first being some kind of roadway in place. In fact, not only a roadway to the lower part of the house where cars would enter, but also an additional temporary road alongside the house to the ridge for the construction vehicles.

Route of the road (blue) to the house location (red circle)

We had got a good quote for constructing a road from Abraham Pope but we thought we should also get a quote from James Stafford at Sky Construction.

When we got Sky’s quote it talked about culverts and slipper drains and generally seemed to take full account of the intense tropical downpours which would periodically swill gallons of water down the hill side. We looked back at Pope’s quote which mentioned nothing of drainage. When quizzed, he reckoned he had included for drains but the word ‘drain’ was not mentioned once in his quote so we decided to go with Sky for the road as well as the house. This also meant some discount could be given when the machinery deployed for the road construction could be used to prepare the site for building the house at the same time.

One thing we knew about would be the substantial amount of excess earth to be dug out of the hillside. This would cost us to transport away but a builder we talked to early on had suggested these ‘spoils’ could be just dumped over the ridge and into the sea below. We were sceptical but mentioned it to Sky in an email. He reported some days later had a word with the appropriate minister for local affairs on the island and he said ‘That’s fine’ …and his verbal say-so is all our builder needed. We mused that in the UK this would have necessitated discussion at a council meeting, all nearby residents consulted for views, a report evaluating environmental impacts, probably a subsequent public enquiry and somebody somewhere would have needed to be compensated.

Naming the Road

We asked the builder by email if we would be able to name the road. In equally typical Caribbean fashion there was no need for the government or local authority to be involved — it was a private road and we are building it so of course we could name it. Hence in view of my recently departed brother Brian who loved the Electric Light Orchestra and the fact our builder was called Sky Construction we will named it ‘Blue Sky Way’.

Work starts on the road
Work progresses

Heavy rolling

Designing a house

Right from the outset we wanted to have a house with separate guest accommodation we could rent to holiday makers. This would give us a small income, give us something to do and would allow others to find out that Carriacou was a lovely and relaxing place to stay while helping the local economy.

We wanted each apartment to be very private so we would be unaware of guests staying and they would have privacy and be unaware of us …unless we were needed for help or advice.

Initially, I looked at placing our apartment of top of the guest’s place so ours would be like a penthouse. This would mean we could look out both over the ridge at the sunsets and also over to the easterly islands which was arguably a nicer view. Guests would just get the latter view. There would also be a shared small pool area on the ridge.

With design after design this just wasn’t working like this so Liz suggested each apartment should be on two levels but placed side by side. In each there would be an open plan living area and kitchen at the top (having sea views both to the front and rear) and all bedrooms and bathrooms would be on the level below to them keep them cooler. Underneath these, right at the bottom, would be the cistern to collect rainwater and two garage spaces for cars.

Designs on this basis quickly came together and after a few revisions and refinements we were ready to let Sky’s architect do the engineering drawings and send them to get planning permission.

Computer illustration of the design
Architect’s drawing of the front elevation
Small cardboard model created to illustrate the contours.

The design incorporated a large deck area at the back which Liz wanted to be very open. The concrete arches replicated through the design proved difficult to ‘marry’ with this softer and more open look so in the final design the arches were ditched much to Sky’s delight who never like them apparently. We also looked at using stainless steel wire railings that made the most of the views and were less obtrusive than the wooden railing quoted. These in combination I thought might make the design too industrial but when we tried them on the design software we both thought the look was fresh and contemporary.

Final design — version 7C
Holiday flat side of the building (lighting simulated for a sun position at 7:50am on 21 August)

Meeting the builders

When you just communicate by email you can form an impression of someone that does not necessarily square-up with the reality. So it was with our prospective builders Abraham Pope and James Stafford. Mr Pope’s written English was very much the better in a way that was formal and respectful (always starting emails with Good day Mr Grogan) but both builders seemed more than capable for our needs each with a proven track-record of successful projects and happy customers. So we scheduled appointments to meet both of them.

Abraham Pope met us at a site where he was installing a small cistern to collect rainwater for a sea front property in Hillsborough. From the formality of our emailed communications I expected someone who might be slightly ‘stuffy’ with a briefcase. However, Pope spoke very quickly and extremely enthusiastically with such a strong Caribbean accent that it was very hard to follow what he was saying most of the time. His small team were working hard and his elderly clients spoke very highly of Mr Pope when we chatted to them. Pope himself was very proud of his work and told us all about designing and building the tourist information office in Hillsborough and about several other prestige projects which he had finished to a high standard. He suggested we drove behind him on a short island tour during which he pointed wildly at several houses we passed to suggest this was yet another he’d built. Each house looked very well-built and while they may not have appealed to us we were not judging them for their design or the taste of the occupants.

Just before we left Mr Pope we mentioned about how long our alien landholder licence was taking to be approved by the government. Proudly, he said he might be able to help in this matter and marched us off along a back street to a vivid-green wooden office that looked slightly official. It was indeed official, because it was the office for Elvin Nimrod who was the Member of Parliament for Carriacou & Petite Martinique and he was also the Deputy Prime Minister of Grenada.

Elvin himself was not there but Mr Pope spoke for some minutes in his strong accent to a man behind a desk and finally turned to us. He smiled broadly suggesting that either he was on very good terms with, or related to, Elvin Nimrod (we couldn’t tell which he’d said) who would check on our application and progress it if possible. He then asked for Liz’s mobile phone number so he could advise us of the outcome of this high-level intervention on our behalf. We left Mr Pope feeling that this must just be the way things get done on small islands and we headed off for our meeting with James Stafford — the other prospective builder.

We only heard about James Stafford who was the managing director of Sky Construction because of some dealings we’d previously had with Carolyn Alexander of Carriacou Real Estate. While we looking for land to buy, she had mentioned that there was only one builder on the island they trusted and this was Sky. Initially, we were sceptical, thinking perhaps there was some commercial liaison between the two companies but we asked Carolyn for Sky’s contact details and we were duly impressed with the sound of Sky in our email exchanges.

Again the impression formed from written communications did not match up with the person we met. James Stafford had been much more casual in his emails, quickly getting onto first name terms and often being quite careless about writing and spelling — although auto-correct in combination with using dictation occasionally intervened with comical results. Hence we expected a bit of a black version of Del Boy from Only Fools and Horses but nothing was further from the reality.

James was very professional and exuded a calm confidence, doubtless acquired from many years of dealing with building and customers. He looked over our latest design for the house which I had modified from site visits days earlier. He made some suggestions and generally just sounded completely like he knew his trade but he also respected my overlapping experience from being a handyman in the UK for many years. This experience was going to be deployed in many areas to make the house feel more like something I’d contributed to while keeping the cost down.

After meeting both builders both Liz and I felt that Sky would be a better communicator, he would do more likely what we wanted rather than what he wanted to do and generally we could build not only the house together but a good working rapport.

James Stafford —aka ‘Sky’ and shortened from Skylark due, we later learned, to his having once been a ‘somewhat famous’ singer at carnivals all over the world.

The March 2017 visit

When we posted on social media about making an impromptu visit back to the island in March 2017, a friend we’d made over in Carriacou who worked mainly in the UK, messaged us to ask if we could do him a favour — well two actually. One favour was to pay a small debt to someone he knew on the island we’d never heard of and who we never managed to track down. The other was to take a dartboard and some darts across to some other friends we’d met previously. It seemed dart boards were not easy to get hold of on Carriacou and these friends, Dee and Harley, lived without TV or internet and liked nothing more (because there was nothing more) than playing darts which had resulted in them completely trashing the one they had.

So armed with booty for random islanders we set off again.

Having a bank account on the island was obviously going to be useful especially since international transactions are both expensive and slow. So prior to our sudden decision to revisit in March 2017 I had sounded-out one of the two banks on the island about opening an account. The bank I thought I had contacted was the one where we used to draw money at their cash machine on our previous visit. However, when we arrived to chat about the account I had got the banks mixed up and it was the other bank — The Republic Bank of Grenada — who we were scheduled to see and which was just over the road from the one I liked better.

When we arrived to open our bank account with armfuls of ID, references, etc proving we were not international money launderers we were ushered into a side room where a very intense and quiet young man sat us down. He pondered over the very lengthy form we had completed and then painstakingly transferred all this handwritten information into the computerised version of the same form on his screen one finger-press at a time. This literally took over two hours during which not a word was spoken with Liz and I occasionally looking at each other to roll our eyes about his lack of typing speed. When completed, the young man got a rubber stamp from his cupboard which showed the next account number to be dished out. He incremented the rubber stamp by one numeral and stamped some cards for us to sign which he then very carefully laminated with overlapping strips of Sellotape. Finally he explained to us about the wonderful new account we had opened.

It was for deposits and savings only, hence it could not be used to pay anyone else for which a checking account would be needed and which could only be opened after three months of satisfactory usage of the savings account. Also it could not be administered in any way online and there were expensive monthly bank charges.

So having opened the account we promptly closed it and went across the road to the Grenada Cooperative Bank. Here a nice young lady made an appointment for us the next day and by salvaging ID and references we had used previously we managed to get a very suitable account opened in very much less time and we walked away with a shiny new cheque (check) book for our new joint-account.

Buying some land

Although we made arrangements to see Barba’s solicitor on Grenada during that final week of the October 2016 stay, we had no idea the deal would progress at Caribbean speed.

Having set the wheels in motion, we returned home to gather documents together for our Alien Landholder licence which would cost us 10% of the price being paid for the land. This involved letters from our accountant to prove our income since we were both self-employed, character references, bank references and a police criminal records’ check. All these documents had to be notarised which is a costly endorsing/verfiying procedure carried out by a kind of lawyer called a notary public. While notary publics are doubtless three-a-penny in the Caribbean and elsewhere, they are significantly less common in the UK. Nevertheless, we found one, paid her excessive fee and sent off all the required documents.

Meantime I set to work designing a house which had to sit on a hillside. We had a pretty good idea of the size, shape and location of the plot from a previous plan but how steep exactly was this hillside? As any self-respecting cub-scout leader would know, you need a map showing contour lines. Despite the whole of Grenada and Carriacou having once been nicely contoured by the UK’s Ordnance Survey folk, these very old maps were not available or copies of them anywhere to be found. Google, and other more modern digital maps gave some idea of the slope but not with sufficient detail, so we would need a topographic survey.

Plan of the land held at the solicitors

The name Denis Thomas had been suggested as a surveyor to confirm the boundaries of the land. Almost all plots are marked out with iron posts with red tape on them and because these posts can get moved or covered with undergrowth it was vital to establish exactly what we were buying. I emailed Denis to get a quote for the boundary survey and also asked if he could provide topographical detail. But like so many in the area his response to emails was extremely slow, so slow in fact, that I contacted other surveyors in desperation. The others mostly replied equally slowly but we did eventually get agreement from Denis that he would travel to the island from his base in Grenada with a couple of stick-holding helpers and a measuring gadget and do us a survey.

We did hear from Barba that Denis himself stayed at the bottom of the steep hill and only sent his stick-holding operatives up to do the work but at least we’d got a survey done.

Topographic survey data

The drawings themselves arrived in due course along with a report — if you could call it that, because it was all of 63 words long.

Denis’ report [verbatim]:
I have confirmed boundaries as shown on plan.
Actually, the +39% slope as shown on attached file is very challenging to construct normally, a rule of thumb, we use a maximum 31% slope
Generally, the soil is somewhat stable but overtime towards the North Western Boundary there will be minimal wind and water erosion
I have now produced the topographical data as requested

I thought the words ‘very challenging’ needed a bit more clarity since this could range from ‘a bit tedious’ to ‘damn-near impossible.’ But in keeping with his previous very brief replies, Denis clarified only by saying the drawings were intended for the architects and engineers so I should kindly get advice from one of them. Still at least I now had knowledge of the slope for designing the property so hopefully the builders would be able to take a view before we were committed to buying this land.

Early in January 2017 a detailed house design along with all the information we had available about the contours of the land went by email to four builders asking for them to quote for the construction of the house.

Two of these we had met and talked to and two of them we had not met but they came recommended. One guy had only been asked quote for building the road up to the plot but he said he also did buildings, so we thought ‘Why not?’ Three out of four builders quoted and all but one of them overshot the stipulated deadline in true Caribbean fashion. They ranged from a brief description with a total price to a several page bill of materials detailing every last spoonful of cement. The most detailed quote was from Abraham Pope — a general contractor who had previously quoted for the road. We were impressed by him not least because he was the cheapest. The other quote we liked best was from another builder we had not actually met. However both quotes were well over our ideal budget which had become squeezed by the unfavourable post-Brexit exchange rate,  so we needed to trim the design and by quite a lot.

We pressed on getting our UK house ready to sell while things progressed at  sedentary pace across the Atlantic.  As we entered the second half of March it was becoming clear we really needed to pay another visit to Carriacou to get some some loose ends tied up, meet our two prospective builders, make sure we still felt fully committed to this crackpot idea and maybe also open a bank account on the island which was proving nearly impossible to do from the UK without the dreaded notary public.