“Looking back it was an amazing experience, one I will remember for a long time.  Here’s what happened.”

After a chance phone call from one of our contractors, a few exchanged emails and the go ahead from the powers that be at Care and Repair Western Bay, I found myself signed up to donate 8 days of my time to the DIY SOS Big Build project in Swansea.

The project was the biggest ever carried out by the DIY SOS team and it couldn't have been for a better cause. Children In Need were partners to help provide The Roots Foundation in Swansea the opportunity to turn its existing wooden shack into a purpose made building including offices for staff and 4 living blocks for foster children to utilise.  As mammoth tasks go this was right up there, but for a charity that has helped over 3,000 children make the transition from foster care to adult life it would be worth the effort.

My first day on site was Saturday, day 4 of the 11 day project.  Preparation work had started 3 weeks earlier with the demolition of the existing building and preparation of the foundations before Nick Knowles, Pudsey the bear and the rest of the DIY SOS team arrived with the cameras.

I dusted off my old work clothes from my contracting days and arrived on site early, keen, excited but nervous about what to expect. After a very brief induction with other new volunteers, we were asked to join the trades inside working on the floating floor. As I come around the corner it was chaos, there were probably 80 volunteers in the building, all busy with various tasks. I quickly decide there were enough hands working inside so I assigned myself to the outside volunteers working on the landscaping.

As well as the purpose made new building, the plans for the gardens were spectacular; out through the doors onto the decking which would overlook a circular lawn area, with an adjoining music room.  All this with a beautiful stone wall with additional stones making up a rockery, landscaped garden and natural stone paving. The area would include a pizza oven, fire pit, raised flower beds, stainless steel handrails and feature lighting. Looking at the proposed plan and the actual state of the site, this was surely an impossible task.  The work required looked more like an eleven week job, not eleven days. Plus it had rained every day since the start, and a natural spring had been discovered, making the plot very wet; it was very clear that this was a mammoth task.

After a brief meeting with the landscape designer we were put to task, plenty of volunteers all willing to help fetching tools or materials and even the odd cup of tea or coffee to go with the endless donations of cake to keep our strength up. The BBC did their part too with the catering facilities providing three hot meals a day.

After a busy, but slightly subdued Saturday and Sunday, we got to Monday and day six of the project where the pace of the build ramped up, with more volunteers arriving. Over the weekend over 500 plasterboards had been fixed inside, so Monday was plastering day.  It felt like every plasterer within a 5 mile radius of Swansea had arrived. So, an impossible looking task of rendering the complete inside of the building was completed. Outside the weather was still hampering proceedings, the site was a swamp, materials were difficult to handle and we were all getting soaked in the process.  But spirits remained high, relationships were being forged between complete strangers including tradespeople and volunteers, all  bending over backwards to ensure the project ran as smoothly as possible and would get finished on time.

As we moved to the middle of the week a sense of pressure started to hit home, differences in opinion between some contractors, designers and crew meant delays. The project was evolving daily and adaptations needed to be made regarding how the job would be completed.   After more time was lost due to wet weather we found ourselves working our first late shift late into the evening.  Working in the dark and the rain would normally break the spirits of the hardiest construction worker, but moving forward for the cause was all that mattered.  The catering staff brought down the evening meal to us so It was a bit surreal eating sea bass with sautéed potatoes out of a carton in the middle of a building site!  We worked through in the dark, pushing on to finish the frame for the decking until 9pm, cold, wet and tired but not disheartened.  Only three days to go until the big reveal on Sunday.

As we neared the end of the project the rate of progression was phenomenal.  Thursday reached the peak of trades and volunteers on site to up to 250, the place was buzzing. The transformation inside was amazing with all the electrics and plumbing completed, services installed and the rooms taking shape, with the kitchens and bathrooms fitted. The external cedar cladding was almost complete and the scaffolding dismantled. The garden was starting to take shape, the music room was complete and the lawn marked out.  With volunteers forming a convoy of wheelbarrows carrying topsoil and concrete, the laying of the decking started and the front yard was cleared ready for new tar to be laid.

More late nights!  Thursday night, and it was after 9:30pm when we left site, but we were nearly there and we all turned up on Friday, keen to make progress. The weather was still against us and more time was lost sheltering from the torrential downpours that hampered the final push.  More volunteers and trades arrived and spirits remained high, if not a little tense with the deadline fast approaching, another late finish for Friday as we left site at 10pm.

Day eleven and the final day.  I arrived early knowing we would be up against it even with everything going to plan. Task for the day would be to lay the decking and 60m of handrails and wire balustrades. The place was buzzing with 300 volunteers on site and the cameras busy trying to catch the all action. Everyone had a sense of urgency and determination to get the job done.

It was 3pm on Saturday afternoon and disaster; the company donating the handrails said they couldn’t deliver.  After some frantic calls to various suppliers Care & Repair Western Bay came to the rescue. I called Emma, our Chief Officer and enough galvanised rail to complete the area around the deck was found.

We were still making progress, and after supper we knew it was going to be a late night. The BBC crew kept us fed and watered through the night to make sure the project was finished. And it was. We got to11pm and Papa John’s delivered 20 boxes of pizzas for the workforce.  Still plenty to do, it was the final push to complete the decking. We finally finish at 3:45am, tired, cold, wet but with an amazing sense of pride knowing we had completed an amazing project in an even more amazing amount of time, with an amazing bunch of people, who had not only been colleagues over the last 8 days but had become friends.  I was home, showered and tucked up in bed by 5am, but needed to return by 10am on the Sunday so no chance for a lie in!

Sunday was the day of the big emotional reveal to all the staff of The Roots Foundation by Nick.   For me, after working for over 100 hours over 8 days in the rain, cold, mud and mostly the dark, it had been the most fantastic project I have ever been involved in.  And all for a charity that makes such a difference to so many children’s lives in the Swansea area. The Roots Foundation now has a building that will ensure they can continue to help many more in the future. To put it into perspective KIER Construction, who provide a large amount of support to the DIY SOS Big Build team, estimated that a project this size would take up to 8 months to complete. The Big Build team completed it in less than 4 weeks.

Darren Plummer

Technical Officer with Western Bay Care & Repair