Grand Designs

A blind trust is a financial arrangement in which someone’s investments are managed without the person knowing where the money is invested.

I had always thought a blind trust was when a blind person put their trust in a seeing person. 😎 What is it called when a blind person puts their trust in blind person? 

“Here’s the amount I have. Here are my account details with pin. I need to move in on 1 June. I don’t need to know the details. If you can do it for that amount and that timing, we have a deal.”

KEVIN TWOMEY:14 March 2009

That would be extraordinarily trusting in any circumstances. But if I said that I needed to negotiate a deal to buy out my investment partners, get a design accepted, work out what it would cost to get the house habitable, get a contractor appointed to do the wet work; and if I told you the house in question was 3 hours travelling from where I lived; and if I told you the amount was quite small; and if I showed you the pictures below of the state of this house; and if I told you the date of this conversation is 14 March; I do believe that you would not think of blind trust but of complete, naive, stupidity of 2 adults that really should know better at this stage of their lives.

My uncle, Kevin, was retiring and wanted to buy a house in which to settle down. Johannesburg prices were exorbitant and he liked the idea of country living, but was already finding that prices even in the dorps were too high. He was looking for a fix-me-upper both to save money as well as mould to his needs and keep him busy.

I suggested he explore Wakkerstroom and he and Sandy came down for a weekend to look around. As one of his options, he looked at a property that we had bought with 2 partners with the idea to refurbish, but 2008 happened, the second home market dried up, and we couldn’t all agree on what to spend on the refurbishment – so the property just sat. Kevin wasn’t hugely impressed with what he saw – how surprising – and eventually opted to put in an offer for another house which just needed a little renovation to make it perfect.

He discovered some small print about sub-division and he felt he would be stretching his budget too far, so that deal fell through. That is when the above conversation took place.

15 March - Measuring up

I went down the next weekend to measure and come up with some design options for approval. Threading my way through piles of rubble and  old kitchen cupboards strewn haphazardly around, left by a previous owner’s attempt at renovation, I began to see the magnitude of my task. Years of watching Grand Design were my inspiration. (You may be aware that most episodes show the completion date and budget slip by large percentages as the starry-eyed pioneers set impossible targets, with grandiose ideas)

There is an old adage about building – “double the price and triple the time”. I just couldn’t allow this to happen, I had two immovable limits.

I came back and spent the next few evenings googling  every aspect of construction. Walls, plumbing, electrical. The how-to and the costs – it is amazing how much there is in a Cashbuild pamphlet. Electrical, plumbing, window and door frames, geysers, paint, brick, cement.

I drew up some plans and Nikki helped to  ensure a practical flow, essentially focusing on open plan living

  • I then looked at some details of cost vs time. What was the cost of dry walling vs brick wall?  How to do dry walling – should I use wooden studs or metal?   Where should I buy materials? What were the logistics of transporting these Wakkerstroom.
  • How many bricks, cement, sand are required per square meter of wall.
  • How many meters of cable, plumbing and what thicknesses?
  • The list went and on

After 3 late nights I had a spreadsheet with a full (hopefully) Bill of Materials  – quantities and costs and a idea that I could do the job on time and budget.

In the meantime, I had a chat with my partners to discuss a deal. They were ecstatic to get rid of this millstone even at a loss. 

I showed the plans to Kevin and Sandy. Sandy wasn’t keen on open plan, so I revised the plan to incorporate separate rooms. This involved a lot more interior walls which convinced me that I would have to use dry walling from a cost and a time perspective. Also they did not want the second bathroom I had planned

Original layout

New layout

I developed a comprehensive project plan covering, every aspect of planning, purchasing, building.

I decided to outsource all the wet work to a builder as I could not spend that amount of time on site managing the work and organising deliveries plus there was still an enormous amount of other work to be done both on site and at home.

I found a builder who would do everything at a reasonable price; and I knew what was reasonable as I knew the quantities and price of all the materials required.

At the last minute Kevin decided he wanted a large patio with the aim of enclosing it at a later stage but luckily he provided extra funds for that.

All the stuff that will not done by the builder

 Alter front door frameGeoff
 Vacuum ceilingPatrick
 Disconnect electricity pointsGeoff
 Mark all brick windows + doorsGeoff
 Attic door 
  Install temporary doorGeoff
  Install louvre doorGeoff
 Fix CeilingGeoff
 Measure oven for unitGeoff
 Check plumbing to septic tankPatrick/Niek/Geoff
 Disconnect waterNiek
 Plan PlumbingGeoff
 Chase and cut holesPatrick
 Install gullyNiek
 Install hot/cold water feeds 
  Cut channelsPatrick
  Install pipesNiek
 Install geyserNiek/Geoff
 Mark elec pointsGeoff
 Cut elec channelsPatrick
 Drywall Bedroom 1Geoff
 Drywall Bedroom 2Geoff
 Drywall KitchenGeoff
 Drywall PantryGeoff
 Electrical points in drywallGeoff
    Remove old bath Geoff
    Install bath Geoff
  Build Shower tray  
    Measure our shower tray Geoff
    Build Brick surround Geoff
    Install Trap Geoff
    Fill with concrete Geoff
    Tile Tiler
    Install Shower door Geoff
    Install Taps Geoff
    Break out new waste pipe Geoff
    Install Toilet bowl Geoff
    Install Cistern Geoff
    Chase and install waste Geoff
  Tile bathroom floor Tiler
  Paint Bathroom Patrick
   Assemble  units Geoff
   Install units Geoff
   Make stove unit Geoff
   Install Stove/Oven/extractor Geoff
   Install tops Geoff
   Install sink Geoff
  Paint ceiling Patrick
  Paint inside Patrick
  Paint outside Patrick
  Paint windows/doors Patrick

2 April - Builder Appointed and Patio started

I went down to Wakkerstroom the first weekend in April to show the plans to the builder and discuss the order of wet work.

I wanted the retaining wall for the patio to be built first so that all the rubble in the house could be moving into it as well as any new rubble that was created by the building process. (it would also save me money for rubble removal).

I approached a local who I knew was always looking for forage for his horses and offered the land so that the knee high grass could be removed.

Left hand window to be replaced with same size as RHS
New patio door
Lawn mowers


I would not have been able to complete this job without Patrick – his tireless help saved so much time and money.

  • He filled 20 black bin liners with the dove droppings in the ceiling
  • Chased all the walls for the electric and water feeds
  • Painted the whole of the inside and outside
  • Glazed windows
  • Provided an extra pair of hands for everything that I did

JHB work

I came back from Wakkerstroom with 2 old cast-iron baths. I had them reenamelled and as Kevin had decided not to have 2 bathrooms, I sold one which covered the cost of the enamelling.

I went shopping with Sandy so that she could choose tiles, taps, bathroom fittings and arranged for the tiles to be delivered from Newcastle.

I designed the kitchen and, in the interests of time, ordered flatpack cabinets rather than build them from scratch as I did for our kitchen.

I worked out exactly what I needed for the dry walls and bought the studs in JHB and arranged for Gypsum boards to be delivered from Amersfoort.

The plumbing was non existent, so I drew meticulous plans for all the feeds and drains, and bought the geyser, and the exact number of  joints (copper and PVC) and pipes needed. I couldn’t afford to buy extra in case.

I bought the electrical sockets and switches only, as I planned  to use the existing cabling and just reroute it.

I made a Louvre door out of wood for the external attic access.

25 April windows and doors progressing in earnest

Bedroom 2. Kitchen door replaced with window salvaged from the lounge

As the rubble was removed and the holes were plastered the house slowly stopped looking like a bomb-site and I could start on the long list of things I had to do.

I climbed into the ceiling to reroute the wiring. After an hour of trying to work out what went where, I gave up. The problem was made worse by the fact that the wiring consisted of separate live, neutral and earth wires. I decided to dip into the contingency fund, buy rolls of cabtyre, junction boxes and rewire the house from scratch. Good decision.

Bedroom 2 to bathroom
New front door

Nightmare bathroom

Hard to understand what the previous renovator was thinking about with this plumbing

A little unexpected blip. Patrick was chasing channels in the wall behind this bath and the whole thing fell down. It was only a single brick wall and really badly made. Contingency fund had to pay for a rebuild – I did reuse the bricks though.

Window moved above the loo so that a shower could be installed in the other corner. New door installed to bedroom 2.

4-7 May - Lightening trip to do the plumbing

I shot down to organise all the plumbing. 

 I designed it and marked it out, Patrick chased the channels and my neighbour, Niek did all the soldering.

I climbed into the ceiling to build a wooden platform to support the geyser and with the help of Patrick hauled it through my tiny, new louvre door.

The new shower starts to take shape.


19 May (12 days to go) - interior undercoat

Nothing like a lick of paint to really make things look better.


The delightful state of the drains. The main pipe feeds into a French drain, but runs upwards. As you know, if you have ever worked in a corporate environment, s@#t doesn’t float uphill, so I am not sure how anybody ever lived here.

The French drain was not in good condition and was falling in on itself. Luckily for all, Wakkerstroom was in process of converting from the Honey Sucker to running sewerage and Kevin’s house was the first to be connected.

21 May (10 days to go) - Kitchen dry wall started

Tiles are in and I can start the drywalling. It really is easy. Bottom channel, top channel, studs, mount and connect light switches, gypsum board, polyfilla. I built all 4 walls in a day.

27 May (4 days to go) - Starting kitchen

Moving in day is looming. I went down for the final week with a schedule that required starting at 6am  and finishing about 8pm, in order to complete the outstanding items. Winter had hit in earnest and we were experiencing freezing temperatures. Realistically it was too dangerous to work with angle-grinders and other power tools too early in the morning as my fingers were literally stiff with the cold. 

                                                   House has been painted!   –>

I had to re-prioritise tasks that could be done less dangerously in the early mornings as time continued to tick on…I assembled the kitchen cabinet flat-packs at home in the evening where I could work in front of the fire and then carted everything to Kevin’s house in the morning, starting at about 9am everyday. 

I installed the cornices throughout; as well as all the electrical switches and sockets; and connected them to the Distribution Board.

30 May 1 day to go

Stove connected. All cupboards installed. Countertops in. Now its just the drawer and cupboard fronts.

Bricks in the sink to hold it in place while the silicon dries.

1 June - D-Day moving truck arrives

A great deal of stuff to be fitted into the house


It’s finished on time – just, and on budget – just.

The snag list

  • Roof leaked – took Kevin years to find the leak after sealing every obvious place.
  • The French drain was falling apart – luckily within weeks of moving in, the house was connected to the new sewerage system
  • One of the light switches kept tripping – I fixed the bad connection I had made
  • The silicon around the sink did not seal and had to be replaced
  • The bitter cold continued (-12 C) and the main water feed burst as I had not chased it deep enough 
  • Dust permeated through the gaps in the knotty pine ceiling – Kevin eventually covered the ceiling with ceiling board and new cornices.

Kevin painted the roof, erected a carport and, a few years later, enclosed the patio to create a wonderful airy entertainment area. He also added an on-suite bathroom to the second bedroom; knocked down the kitchen and pantry dry walls and replaced the kitchen cupboards with a more modern and open plan look and feel.

I enjoyed myself thoroughly. This project combined elements of creativity, design, problem solving, and how to do more with less. I enjoyed utilising my years of project management experience on something so useful and beneficial. I used so many of my home handyman skills as well as needing to learn new ones. It was both mentally and physically challenging.  A very satisfying stretch of my abilities and lots of fun!

Would I do it again?

I don’t think so. I know it is possible as I did it, but 2 months to take that heap to a home required just a touch of luck. 

It was also only made possible by having a most understanding client and you don’t find too many of those around!



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