There is something really fun about dreaming up all the ways a space could work for you & your lifestyle. Paint colours, cushions, artwork – those finishing touches that help make a house a home. Often though, there is some construction involved first and if you have never done a major renovation project before, where do you start & what is the process?
This is the first in a series of posts that will help cover the nitty gritty of building work for a relatively small Victorian terraced house with a limited budget. When we first started scoping ideas and researching the stages to get a better idea of budget, we found difficult to find examples of what seemed like a rather common project. We didn’t know the first thing about plaster or flooring or have a clue about how to source the glass we needed. And to be honest, there is a reason no one shows this side to the finished article on Pinterest – it’s not pretty & very, very dusty – but hopefully this is a useful guide for those new to renovations & building work!
The brief: Converting a Victorian Terrace into an open plan dining room & kitchen
One of the reasons I think it’s so hard to find detailed info on renovations is that they are very bespoke & often the ones you see online are the show homes that are out of reach of most budgets – especially if it’s not a home you’re planning on being in forever.
Our house is a typical terrace, with a separate dining room, kitchen & utility/side return. In the side return was access to the smallest loo in the world & a door to the terrace garden. It definitely needed work, there wasn’t a space to put a fridge in the kitchen (it was in the utility & the door of the fridge hit the door to the utility most days) & because of the plastic roof in the utility, the dining room was very dark & the kitchen very cold in winter. That’s not to say it was in awful condition, it was perfectly liveable during the course of the first few years we lived there & saved up, there were some serious bug bears.
When we decided to start the process, we briefed our friends at Robinson Jary Architects on what we wanted. We also specified that we wanted something with a little style which was also relatively cost-efficient. Despite having a small house & a relatively straight forward plan, there is no way we could have completed the work without the architects. You really need the measurements & specifications from the architect in order to brief a builder, obtain quotes and start conversations with a structural engineer & building control.
Planning: What is the renovation process in the UK?
The first stage is to contact the architects. Architects come up with the design and some will offer specifics around fixtures or fittings. When you have the architect plans, you might need to get planning permission (we didn’t) and you can start briefing different builders to carry out the work. This is the area that really held us up, good tradesmen are often booked up way in advance and the quotes can vary wildly – in some cases a difference of £20k!
Things to note about our specific project – it wasn’t a huge project in the grand scheme of things but was also far more complicated than simply taking out a wall or two. I got the impression that this didn’t make it particularly appealing & that might be why we had such high quotes initially. Period properties are often awkward spaces and for us to have sliding doors across the back of the house, we had to remove a huge amount of soil in the garden so that the ground was level (originally, you would step up from the side return out into the garden). The digging of the garden alone was being quoted at £5-12k so we decided to wait.
Nearly a year after having our initial plans, work commenced with a builder who was recommended to us based on a day rate & I have to say, has been excellent. By going for a one-man band who brings in the plumbing or electrical specialists as needed, we weren’t going to get the fixed price quote for when the job was done but it did mean we could do as much DIY as possible with his guidance to help keep costs down. Therefore, we budgeted based on a four month job & then allowed contingency in case it ran over. Spoiler, it has.
Once you have your builder, you will need to consult a structural engineer and a building inspector to make sure the work carried out is done to a high standard & compliant to modern standards. For the structural engineer, we used one recommended by the architects. For the building regs, you can either go through your local council or use someone privately but there’s a fee either way. Depending on the individual, they may visit your site often or rarely. Ours was mainly keen on the steels going in correctly & relevant fire proofing.
Suppliers: Fittings, fixtures & when to buy them
Your builder should be able to give you a rough outline of what they are going to do and when. They will usually manage the delivery of building supplies too but be aware that these can take up a lot of space. You will need to source the items you want to furnish the build with and indicate if you want specific features. For example, you will source the kitchen, flooring (tiles, preferred underfloor heating option) the big things such as the roof or door supplier (although your builder or architect can help) and whether you want features such as an outdoor tap or lighting. Sourcing these things can take a lot of time – longer than you might expect, especially if you want something unique. Make sure you don’t leave this to the last minute & ideally start before building commences so that you have an idea of how it will affect your budget.
Finding the perfect time for delivery of major furnishing items is a balancing act between having them in advance so that they don’t hold a project up & ensuring they don’t arrive so soon that they take up valuable workspace.
My advice is that if you’re buying things ‘off the shelf’ and they aren’t bespoke or likely to sell out of that style, to hold off having them delivered until the very last moment. A mistake we made for example was ordering our kitchen, thinking it would be in before December but due to unexpected plumbing issues, is still in our living room (it’s mid-January). Not only is this totally inconvenient because we had no living room, kitchen or dining room – it also means there’s more time for it to get damaged sitting around in a building site. With so many sales, offers & promotions it can be tempting to buy then & there but most places will honour the discount even if you delay delivery.
While it’s useful to delay delivery, it’s also useful to have as much info as you can early on. So knowing exactly what your kitchen or bathroom layout will be and how that affects plumbing/electrics/storage is key. Same with tiles, you can technically leave this decision to the last moment but if you want a floor level to be flush with a specific door frame, your builder will need to know the exact depth to work backwards through all the layers to get right – the concrete, insulation, underfloor heating, screed, etc. Those millimetres all add up so have some samples ready so that they know what to work with.
So the bottom line is plan as much as possible early on. Plan with your architect, plan with your builder & have a clear idea on the final fittings you want. Don’t start researching suppliers once building has commenced, get to grips with your options early on. Ideally, don’t take deliveries until the last minute. While you can change your mind, it’s really useful to have a clear vision from the beginning. Just be prepared for it to change as you go a long!
Finally, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Renovation work can be overwhelming with the volume of decisions that need to be made on a daily basis and often the high cost associated to each one of decisions so if you’re not sure, ask.
If you have anymore tips for first time home renovations, please add them below – we’re always keen to learn more & improve the process next time!