International Women’s Day is a demonstration that our modern world fights the good fight daily in terms of equality, anti-discrimination and liberty to transcend gender boundaries. Some areas are making this transition in leaps and bounds whilst others are laggards stuck in their traditional ways with little or no thought towards progression. Thinking about this started a reflection process about our house build and the stereotypes which I unwittingly fought (and still fight) against on a daily basis.
A novice, a female, relatively young (! – when we began anyway) – this list put me on the back foot instantly in the building arena. From the very first tasks of gaining planning permission to hiring a person with a digger, I found either a feeling of reluctance or a learned response from people with regards to speaking to me about these things. Questions were immediately aimed at Dan. It stressed me out completely at first. Then it became a running joke. Then it stressed Dan out. And finally we started to give stock responses to try to break the stereo type:
Innocent bystander: “How’s the build going Dan?”
Dan: “Oh I don’t know…”
Dan (turns to me): “How’s the build going Flee?”
Innocent bystander: *Look of horror, surprise and occasionally shame*
It is not fair of me to say this was the blanket case. But 90% of the time it was. The architect who gave us planning permission automatically spoke to Dan about everything. One chap came to quote for digging the foundations and couldn’t look at me as we walked around the site, and each time I tried to talk about what we technically wanted he just talked over me and directed these interruptions at Dan – I had him rapidly removed from the land (by Dan obviously, he wouldn’t listen to me😂).
Those closer to us were also guilty of it. Small comments about being “impressed Dan’s carpentry skills” (which are very good btw), “Dan’s so practical”, and even the local barman telling me “You have a good man, eh? Building a house for you”, all ruffle my feathers somewhat. I’ve spent a lot of time pondering over the reasons for this. Am I just super sensitive, looking for something which isn’t there? Maybe it is because I take all the photos, and therefore I’m never in any? Does this give the impression that I don’t do any of the building work? I understand that. But the lovely French barman has never seen our pictures and yet defaulted to the assumption that I don’t do my/any share of the building work. Is it therefore the classic societal ‘bag o dust, copy a The Sun’ stereotype? This seems so archaic now that I’m frustrated that I have to even consider it. Is it a physical strength thing? Yes, Dan can absolutely carry more tiles than me, he can sledgehammer hazel stakes better than me, he can hammer in nails quicker than me, but I can still do all those things, just at my own pace. This lower pace frequently results in less hasty decisions and better problem solving.
To my mind, it is the self perpetuating attitude of women towards this which makes women their own worst enemy. Women I consider to be strong feminists, when learning of our project responded with “Your husband must be very practical”. Or my female neighbour beckoning Dan over to her to ask, “Why is your wife doing that?”. ‘That’ being me using a wacker to flatten down the new gravel path and driveway. This was a double whammy; I felt incredulous at my capability being questioned and Dan seemed to receive a thorough telling off as though leaving me to this task was somehow emasculating for him. And all that from a fellow female, who I’m sure intended no ill will.
Despite these more negative experiences I have found self-building to be hugely empowering personally. Eco-building holds quite a lot of the answers when it comes to equality. This could be the result of the general type of person involved in sustainable construction. Often more liberal, people who are involved in this little niche of the building sphere seem to be very willing to create a feeling of empowerment for all.
Within permaculture and sustainable building, the ideology of sharing knowledge is inherent as well as actively encouraged as a way of enhancing societal skills and creating a sense of cohesion. There is a prevalent idea of everything being stronger as a web; for example with energy, it is far safer to create a web of energy including solar power, wind and hydro, covering all bases if you will. This leaves us less vulnerable should one element fail. The same applies to us, communities and shared experience. Through sharing our build experience with many friends and family, I hope we have debunked the myths for some of them surrounding a) self-building and b) anyone’s capability (especially female) when it comes to building.
The prevailing image associated with construction is the geezer with a hard hat. But, as with all things, there is an alternative and so many people possess the ability to do anything they want to, particularly in the age of limitless information, if they can learn and transfer that learning into practice. That does not mean it will be perfect the first time. On average, we did every aspect of the house six times, and by the last attempt it was finally looking good. However, it does mean that the confidence to try as well as the knowledge that eventually you will reach a strong result, is born through this process.
Ironically, when we began this project I was arguably more practically minded than Dan, able to envision the design and then carry out the necessary building. Now, Dan has surpassed me in this, particularly with elements like the electricity system. Having said that, we have made a point of both being able to understand and do each element required, be that building of the structure or implementing the house systems, meaning there is no loss of empowerment on either side. It also means if something goes wrong we both know about the inner workings of each section and can (hopefully) fix it.
The magnificent thing about self-building is the vast increase in self assurance and confidence in your own capabilities. This really only comes from facing up to any misgivings you may hold onto prior to starting a new element and letting go of the fear of trying. There is no way of denying it. When a wall is standing or the roof is up or you are sitting in your dry living room rueing the slightly wonky roof beam; the proof is in the pudding.