just because i love : Saturday Spotlight

Published in just because i love, Saturday 15 September 2012

There are times when I come across someone who is so inspiring and positive it makes me sit back and take stock of my life and what I moan about. James King, founder and owner of Oliver James Garden Rooms, is one of those people.

just because i love : Saturday Spotlight

Today on Saturday Spotlight, I’m talking to James about business success, the Paralympics, how the Government could kick-start the economy and the avocado-coloured bidet of our times!

How did you go from starting out as a brickie’s labourer to becoming the founder and owner of a successful business?

After leaving school, I completed my apprenticeship and successfully obtained my City & Guilds. Then at the age of 21, after experiencing problems with my vision, I was diagnosed with an eye condition called Retinitis Pigmentosa, which began to affect my peripheral vision.

At the time of my diagnosis, I discovered that the mantra, ‘work smarter, not harder’ meant that I could use my strategic and negotiation abilities to employ my colleagues on the building site to work with me. I realised that my strengths lay in my organisational skills and creativity. Less than six years later, I was employing 100 bricklayers and 20 scaffolders.

Eureka moment

With my eye condition worsening however, I knew that I needed to re-evaluate what I wanted from life. I eventually took some time out from work and away from the pressure of running three companies to think about the future. On a cold winter’s day, following a break from the industry, I had what I call my ‘Eureka moment’. I went to sit in my conservatory to make some phone calls. I opened the doors, walked across the cold floor and turned on the portable heaters, turned up the radiators and switched on even more heaters – yet it still remained cold. It made me question why I needed so many heaters plus a set of internal doors in the winter, yet in the summer the conservatory was unbearably hot. I came to the conclusion that regardless of its cost, the conservatory is a concept that simply does not work for most homeowners.

Using my knowledge of advanced design and build techniques, I developed the prototype for an efficiently-insulated Garden Room extension, with a warm floor, skylights that let in as much light as required and doors that open the whole width of the room to the garden. I’m pleased to say that because of my own personal experience, Oliver James Garden Rooms was established. As a result we’ve successfully provided more than forty clients with beautifully functional yet breathtaking spaces – individually designed to cater to their needs.

Where did name for the business come from?

‘Oliver’ from my son and ‘James’ from me – and ‘Garden Room’ because that’s what we call our glazed home extensions – they create a seamless transition between the home and the garden.

Conservatories often have the connotation of being the cheap answer to an extension – what do you think about this?

I think it’s an oxymoron. Certain conservatory companies that aren’t cheap and people can spend in excess of £100,000 on an expensive conservatory – yet it will have the same drawbacks as one that costs £10,000. In my opinion conservatories all do the same thing badly.

It still amazes me why conservatories haven’t been brought into line with normal building regulations. They are too hot in summer, too cold in winter and cost a fortune to heat. A conservatory is not included in the square footage of your home by building surveyors who represent the mortgage companies. Since October 2010 a conservatory is not allowed to connect to any heating system or to be controlled by a thermostat. With no temperature control, how many days per year can you guarantee you will be able to use a conservatory for in our unreliable climate? They are sold along the lines of ‘Oh it’s like you’re sitting in your garden’. But people don’t realise they’ll use it for less than 20 days of the year.

In contrast, a garden room extension from Oliver James becomes part of the official structure of your home and adds value by way of the increased square footage. Unlike conservatories, we must comply with a great many building regulations and we provide calculations for all aspects of structural and heating/cooling performance. As the newest addition to your house, our garden room extensions are almost certainly more efficiently insulated in the floors, walls, roof and glass areas – than the rest of your home.

Our garden rooms still provide that light, airy space that customers crave, but with walls and insulation. You still feel part of your environment and garden, but you can sit there comfortably for 360 plus days of the year because of the way it’s constructed and the glass technology we use. Plus, the infinity threshold details that we use mean your internal floor and external patio can be at the same level and your garden space becomes an extension of your home.

If you have a conservatory that just isn’t functional, what can you do to change it?

We get many calls every week from people that are at the end of the tether with their conservatory. I call them the avocado-coloured bidet of our times! Knock it down. There is nothing you can do to it. It’s a hopeless case – cut your losses and start from scratch with a solution that will work more efficiently and effectively.

How does Oliver James Garden Rooms differ from the competition?

We listen to what our clients want to achieve. We examine their lifestyle and life-stage and then we design around this accordingly. We provide a tailored, personal service – taking ownership right from the start – from initial design drawings, to applying for planning permission, right through to build, décor and finishing. We can provide lighting design and fulfil client’s audio and visual requirements. We’ve even put external speakers into the soffits so clients can have music outside when they barbeque! We’re all about providing the whole package and taking the worry off the client’s shoulders.

How seriously do you take customer service and is this a large part of your ethos?

We’re passionate about going the extra mile. For example, we’ll visit our client’s neighbours to explain what is happening and provide our contact details. We ask them to contact us directly if they have any problems. This takes all the stress away from the homeowner’s shoulders and avoids having any complaints about noise or delivery trucks blocking driveways for example. We’ve even changed the time we start work to fit around the school run. As a parent I realised that it was important to work with a neighbourhood and not against it. There’s no point in us fighting against the flow of traffic when local parents are trying to get their children out to school. It’s just more sensible to adapt our workforce’s arrival and start times. The neighbourhood has to get on with their lives while we’re working in their space – we are sympathetic to that aim.

We’re also keen on attention to detail. We’ve even handcrafted a designer mahogany cat-flap to finish off a homeowner’s dream extension!

With programmes like Cowboy Builders making people more wary of tradespeople, what is your advice when finding someone to work on your property?

I always say, be very wary of someone who says they can achieve something for an amazingly cheap price. Just because they say they can do it, doesn’t necessarily mean it can be done. I would say go and visit previous customers to get a sense of previous projects. That’s what we invite all our clients to do, and we encourage them to make contact directly without our presence so that they can be honest and open about our work and the whole Oliver James experience.

Do you work with local planning departments?

We work closely with the planning departments and we haven’t had one project that has ever been flatly refused planning – touch wood. We create our garden rooms to be functional, to fit in and to be sympathetically designed. We only once had a request to change a design – by 500mm – that’s the most controversy we’ve courted during our planning department experience!

What do you think the Government could do to help kick-start the economy?

Cut VAT to zero for the next three to five years on all building-regulated home improvements. This would bring it in line with new builds that are zero rated. Clients could claim it back on final completion of the house. For self-builders there’s currently a crazy situation with VAT. Curtain rails are zero rated but curtains aren’t. Carpet isn’t zero rated but hard floors are. Home extensions should be the zero rated in terms of VAT. That would kick-start the economy because people just aren’t moving house at the moment and they’d be more inclined to improve their current property.

What is your biggest career achievement?

Since starting Oliver James Garden Rooms, I’ve been proud of completing each and every one of our forty design and build projects – but this year I’m especially proud that we’ve been shortlisted for an International Design and Architecture Award. We’ve also just created and launched a premium off-the-peg range of garden rooms. Our four designs: The Eden, Kew, Rousham and Wisley are named after some of my favourite English gardens.

Has facing up to the challenges of dealing with your eye condition made you stronger?

Despite being sight impaired, I still retain some limited useful vision, but in true Paralympics style, it has made me more determined to show what can be done. 95% of people with my vision impairment are not employed in full-time work. I’m keen to show that adversity should not stop you achieving your goals.

There were some impressive athletes at the Paralympics, did you manage to attend any events?

Yes, we attended the Powerlifting and Sitting Volleyball – which was incredible. We were lucky enough to enjoy a game between Iran, the men’s five-times Paralympics champions, and Brazil. Iran then went on to win the silver medal at the London 2012 games. At the end of the match, the players were rifling through the trolley of stored prosthetic limbs and doling each one out to its rightful owner. It’s an unusual thing to experience, but the bit that made me feel quite emotional was when I realised – they’re just getting on with their lives. For these sportsmen it’s an everyday occurrence. Having to regularly scout around for their legs is not stopping them from carrying on with their dreams.

How do you think things are changing for disabled people in the UK?

London 2012 has just taken the Paralympics to a whole new level. It’s made me realise how special this country is – especially when you compare some of the big sporting powerhouses such as the USA and look how far down the medal table they came. I will always remember how proud I felt and how the British made it work so well. We are the first nation to sell something like 2.5 million Paralympic tickets. That’s coming off the back of just 400,000 tickets sold at the Beijing games in 2008.

I think the crucial legacy will be that the London 2012 Paralympics marks the first time the audience will remember watching sportsmen and women – and not ‘disabled people’. It has kick-started a sea-change in attitudes. Back in the seventies it was all about attitudes towards racial minorities, then in the eighties and nineties people’s attitudes to gay people began to change. Today we’re talking about our disabilities and our back stories. It’s our time to shine.

How would your best-friend describe you?

A ‘positive and cheerful, mad-creative sort’, who is ‘full of ideas’, ‘controversial’ and ‘utterly passionate about what he does’.

What is your life motto?

“He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.” – Mohammed Ali

Great interview, don’t you think, with much food for thought?

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