An introduction to the Veteran Village Project
Across Britain, there are tens of thousands of veterans who bare the mental and physical scars of their time in service. What these men need is a community where they can live together, and look out for one another. That’s where DIY SOS come into it! They acquired a street in Manchester, and Nick Knowles and the team swept in to transform several of the properties into homes for veterans and a support centre to help them overcome their post-service struggles. They even had a helping hand from two royal favourites – Prince William and Prince Harry. Walls and Floors were on hand to provide the tiles!
One trades person summed the spirit of the project up perfectly: ‘Anybody who signed up for the forces at any time is one bit of paper away from being posted to a battlefront. And the people we are doing this for have seen things that we will never comprehend, we will never see. And they have to live with that afterward. So if it means me having two weeks off to give something back to those who have given so much to the country, that’s a small price in my book.’
John Borge served in the army for thirteen years in the Queen’s Lancers. As a tank commander, he fought on the front line in Afghanistan. Before he went to Afghanistan, he met his wife Emma. They were very close, and could laugh together at anything. Three years ago, Emma noticed a drastic change in her husband’s personality. Although they didn’t realise it at the time, John was suffering from a mental health illness called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It had been brought on by all the horrifying, gut-wrenching things he’d witnessed in his time with the army. He’s seen friends killed in front of him. He’s seen children hit by bombs.
In his current flat, there is constant noise from traffic, which causes harrowing flashbacks to his time overseas. He feels isolated living alone, and the sound of drunks walking past at night puts him on edge. He’s refined to one room, as it’s the only room he feels safe in. He hopes to re-patch things with Emma, and his son Noah. DIY SOS will give John a place in its Veteran Village.
When planning the layout and design of John’s new home, the designer Gabby had to take into consideration John’s PTSD. With his anxiety, John would never want to have his back to the door; he would always need to see the exit, so the rooms will be designed with this in mind. Upstairs, two bedrooms would be created – one for john, and one for his son Noah, so that the boy can stay over.
For John’s garden, the team called in landscaper Adam Frost – seven-time winner of gold at the Chelsea Flower Show. He says that gardening can be extremely therapeutic, and is sure that tending his garden with help John to relax and overcome with Post traumatic stress disorder.
Meet Jack Lamb
From a young age, Jack knew he was going to join the army once he left school – following in the footsteps of his father. In 2012, he was shipped off to fight in Afghanistan. Sadly, not long into his tour, Jack was shot by a Taliban sniper. He felt a severe pain in his face and heard somebody shouting ‘Lamb’s dead, Lamb’s dead.’
The bullet had bounced off Jack’s arm, and gone into the back of Jack’s eye. Jack says that his brain doesn’t function the same as it had before. It causes him to slur his words, and he struggles to think. Like John, Jack suffers from PTSD and depression, and he’s only able to sleep a couple of hours each night. When his mother tries to comfort him in his sleep, it triggers a panic attack.
As Nick Knowles points out, it isn’t just Jack who is living with PTSD – it’s everyone around him, including long-term girlfriend Jennifer. The mental illness has put a strain on her, but she has stuck with him and supported him all the way. Now, Jack has the opportunity to move into the Veteran Village to retrain for a new career and to get on with a new life.
The team get to work
It’s time for the team to get to work. Nick Knowles made his way around the street’s derelict houses. The windows are barred over, and the innards consist of junk piles; with mouldy sofas, damp rugs and litter bags stacked up in the centre of the rooms. One of the houses had a hole in the ceiling – and through that, Nick could see daylight through a gap in the roof; allowing rain water to come pouring through; rotting all the wood.
For months in advance, the DIY SOS team had been calling for volunteers from all over the Greater Manchester area. On the day the build commenced, an army of skilled tradesmen, and members of the public, turned out in force to begin work on the colossal project. They set to work gutting the street’s various houses; stripping out all the rubbish, debris, and rotten wood; leaving nothing but the brick shells. Everybody chipped in; even electricians and decorators.
Not enough volunteers had turned up, so Nick Knowles put out an appeal for more volunteers, which went out on News channels across the UK.
Meanwhile, the team are also working on the community’s open living centre; where veterans can relax together whilst re-training for their new careers. One of the first residents will be Jack Lamb.
One of the volunteers, Daz, a plumber, was an ex-serviceman. ‘When I came out the army, I had a certain degree of PTSD. There’s always something in the back of your head, like a demon, that seems to just pop up every so often. You could be just walking down the street and something – a bang, a backfire of a car – suddenly, it could just trigger something.’
As the project unravels and the days tick by, the volunteers are still in short supply, and the team grows stressed. Then, as if they didn’t have enough to worry about, the heavens open, and the street is hit with heavy rain. With the wet weather slowing the project down, and the moral low, Nick Knowles calls for a crisis talk. The team decide to extend the deadline by three days (for the first time in DIY SOS history).
With an extra three days to complete the project, the army of volunteers continues its work and finally, Gabby is given plastered walls she can decorate. John’s kitchen is slowly pieced together.
A royal visit: Prince William and Prince Harry get stuck in
Mid-way through the project, and for the first time ever, a DIY SOS project was visited by royalty. Prince Harry and William, the Duke of Cambridge, requested to visit the street, to see all the fantastic work taking place. As veterans themselves, the two princes turned up to see the project with their own eyes. They met with Nick, were introduced to the team, and were shown around the homes as they entered their final stages of completion. Productivity came to a halt as the volunteers greeted the princes.
Talking with a tradesman, Prince Harry pointed out that there are 620’000 empty homes around the UK and that with the housing crisis, it’s time councils look to the work happening there in Manchester, and start to get the derelict houses up and running again.
Nick took Prince William into one the training house, as he was keen to get stuck in. This is the open living space where veterans such as Jack Lamb can live together with others as they re-train for new careers outside of the army. William was given the task of correcting a mis-coat on the walls, and was given a paint tray and a roller. The prince got to work immediately.
Prince Harry was taken into John’s garden to help Adam and Julian lay some paving slabs, so that John and his son Noah will have a patio area where they can sit and enjoy their outdoor space.
The training house reveal: Jack is shown around
Following the princes’ visit, the team finally had two of the properties finished and ready to handover to veterans. Firstly, the training house was completed – the building where veterans can live together whilst training. As you step into the training house, you’re greeted with the living room. With its navy-blue wall and wooden shelving display, it helps create an exclusive, gentlemanly vibe; dotted with fresh greens and trendy cactae.
The team created a stylish wet room for the veterans to wash, relax and unwind in; alive with striking geometric Moroccan tiles.
In the kitchen, light colours have been used to create a refreshing, soothing scheme. For the splashback that surrounds the sink, cooker and work surfaces, designer Gabby chose bumpy square tiles to help create a charming, aged, vintage look.
Jack Lamb, who took a bullet to the head, and suffers from depression and PTSD, is the first resident of the training house. He will live there whilst learning to become an electrician. In Jack’s stylish bedroom, more cactae have been stood on the shelf above the bed, and on the bedside table, a framed photograph of his girlfriend Jennifer waits for him.
Jack, who was taken back by the kindness, dedication and genericity of all involved, said: ‘It feels good that people have donated this. This proves they care. I know I have a brain injury, but this is going to 100% give me the opportunity to make the best of myself.’
John’s house is revealed
John Broge, the tank commander who recently separated from his wife after suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, has also been invited to live in the community. He’s been given his own house; a place where he can bring his son Noah. Moving through the house, we see that the colours are muted, to help with John’s anxiety. Just around the corner from the living room, there’s a study where John can re-train, and his medals are proudly displayed.
Noah, his three year old son, loves bath time; so the team have created a well-tiled bathroom that he can enjoy a good splash in. Marble tiles have been used to help waterproof the walls.
In the kitchen, large white wall tiles have been used as a splashback to help creating a feeling of space, and room to breathe. They help to add a refreshed, rejuvenated feel to the room, and go perfectly with the copper tap.
In the garden, Adam Scott (seven-time winner of gold at the Chelsea Flower Show) has added a water feature, as the soft trickling of water can help to soothe anxiety. He’s also created an outdoor dining area where John can relax and entertain. Earlier on, Adam suggested that gardening might be a way for John to overcome his PTSD. For this reason, he has built raised beds full of plants, for John to tend.
Tucked into the corner of the garden is a play zone for John’s son Noah to enjoy; complete with sandpit and toy JCB.
Upstairs, as John has trouble sleeping, his room has been soundproofed to block out any noise that might make him anxious. Across the hall, a bedroom for Noah has been created, so that he can stay with his father.
John said: ‘This is just amazing. You get to a state where you just neglect yourself, and this will help. I definitely won’t be here. I’ll be happy here. Happy here and I shall be proud.’ And when shown Noah’s bedroom: ‘This is just awesome. Great for him to have his own room. He’s gonna love it here.’