BBC News: The blind builder with a big vision

Published in BBC News, 21st March 2014

An expanse of smooth concrete, neatly piled bricks and barely a speck of dust in sight – this is not your average building site.

BBC News: The blind builder with a big vision

James King, founder of Oliver James Garden Rooms, has just arrived at his latest project in Milton Keynes.

When the build is completed in May it will house a kitchen and additional living space in an open plan format. Yet, surveying the spick and span surroundings, James doesn’t look happy.

“It’s a bit of a mess,” he frowns.

James is a stickler for tidiness. But there’s a very practical reason behind his insistence on perfection.

“I’m registered blind, it’s a condition called retinitis pigmentosa,” he says. “I basically have 10% sight but with no peripheral vision.

“It’s like looking through a letterbox or a viewfinder in a camera. Because my sight is so poor there can’t be anything lying around for me to trip over.”

BBC News: The blind builder with a big vision

James, 48, has worked in construction since he was 18. He first noticed a problem with his sight in his early 20s.

“I tried to get on with my job on a building site, but my eyes kept getting worse. At night I couldn’t see at all.

“I tried to ignore it but it started to impact on my work. When I was on sites as part of a team, we were paid by how many bricks we laid and I was getting slower and slower because I couldn’t see properly. It was hampering my colleagues.”

He was forced to rethink his direction within the industry and in the end he managed to turn a negative into a positive.

“Because my sight was so bad, my organisation had to be good. I thought ahead, tried to anticipate problems.”

James made the transition from hands-on building to project managing, eventually starting his own firm, contracting out construction workers to other jobs.

Then in 2007, came his Eureka moment.

“I was sitting at home in my conservatory, shivering. It was expensive but inefficient. In the winter it was freezing and in the summer, when the sun hit the windows it was like having a magnifying glass on the back of the house.

“I thought I could do better and that’s where the idea for my business came in. I designed a conservatory with no thermal break – it’s not a separate space and is integrated into the house which allows it to retain heat.”

Unlike a traditional conservatory which has a glass roof and walls, his garden rooms have a solid roof and walls.

BBC News: The blind builder with a big vision

He adds: “We use specially made glass with a gas field and it’s often triple glazed.”

The builds aren’t cheap, starting at around £40,000 and going up to more than £100,000 for bespoke versions.

Most customers come to James because they either want to stay in their current properties or cannot afford to move somewhere bigger.

And this kind of market is expanding. In 2014 the company expects to turn over £500,000, doubling in 2015 and again in 2016.

BBC News: The blind builder with a big vision

As the business has grown and James’s sight has deteriorated, he’s had to constantly adapt the way he works.

Since 2013, he has employed an old friend Paul Allen to act as “his eyes” on site.

“I drive James to sites, help him check over work, pick up building materials from the merchants and so on,” says Paul. “If a ladder hasn’t been propped up properly, or if there’s scaffolding around, I need to warn him.

“If he goes off sick we’re all in trouble!”

Paul also supports James in ways not related to his sight: “We trust each other and he bounces ideas off me for a second opinion.”

In the next couple of years James wants to expand the business but is not going down the conventional banking route.

Instead he’s using existing capital in the business, as well as £50,000 he was awarded for winning the 2013 Stelios Award for Disabled Entrepreneurs.

BBC News: The blind builder with a big vision

Yet James says he prefers to describe himself in another way.

“I think of myself as a para-entrepreneur – different rather than disabled. When you’re in London, the chap standing on the tallest column in Trafalgar Square has got one arm and one eye but we don’t ever think of Lord Nelson as being disabled, he’s just Lord Nelson.”

In 2012 one of the company’s projects was shortlisted for the International Design and Architecture Awards. The competition was open to entrants from across the industry and did not take into account James’s sight problems.

And James believes that when customers are parting with thousands of pounds, they’re not going to take into account the fact that he’s got a disability.

“We’re selling our product in the mainstream and asking customers to spend their taxed income. They don’t get a grant for buying from us,” he says.

“Customers don’t care whether I have a disability or not, as long as we get the job done.”

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