When we viewed the house we now live in – I shall call it Oakroyd, for that is its name – it was 2011 and I was heavily pregnant and toting a toddler who was determinedly inept at the art of potty training. I’d taken approximately three steps into the house when I’d made the decision we were buying it. By step five, I’d decided that we would also be knocking down some walls as soon as humanly possible. Thankfully, the stars aligned and I had the baby, we got the house, I got an architect round, plans were drawn up, I got some builders to quote…. and that was the end of the fairytale, as my dream of sledgehammering the interior of the house was going to cost a bomb. We were all out of bombs.
We knew we wanted to live here for a long time, and I knew I wanted to wait until we could afford to make the house exactly the way I wanted it, with minimal compromise, before we did any major work. A mere seven years later, and we were ready to start with the sledgehammers.
The plan revolved around taking out a huge, load bearing, chimney breast wall, from the foundations to the roof, which would give us a large kitchen/dining/living space downstairs, and reconfigure the upstairs to improve the space in the two girls’ bedrooms, and enlarge the family bathroom. We were also knocking down the utility room next to the kitchen, and rebuilding it from scratch. Easy! This all affected the left hand side of the house, leaving the smaller, right side for us to live in throughout the work.
This is what I learned:
- Think carefully about your builder. I went with my gut, the place from which all good decisions emanate, and chose the one who was easy going, smiley and who didn’t flinch or start pointing out problems when I talked through my plans. My gut did well. Joe ran the full shebang, project managing, co-ordinating and supplying all the necessary trades. It’s probably cheaper if you project manage the build yourself, get separate quotes from each trade, and organise the timetable, but it was worth every penny to me to not have to do this.
You spend more time with your building team than your nearest and dearest during a renovation project, especially if you work at home throughout, like I did. The happy conclusion is that I really liked everyone on the team, without exception. They were fun to be around, cheerful, and had a can-do attitude. I still liked them, and was prepared to make them tea AND offer them a biscuit, at the end of the project.
- I knew it would be hard living on-site throughout the project. Everyone told me it would be, but I consider myself made of tough stuff (I’m from the North East, it’s in my DNA) and I was confident I’d be absolutely fine. And for the first four months, I was. I’d wanted to have this work done for so long, I was excited, it was summer, the fact there were walls missing from the house was a bit of fun, it was going to take three months (insert Fleabag-esque stare to camera), all was well. By month five, it was November, it was cold and constantly raining, I had absolute decision fatigue, I hadn’t been on my own in the house for months, I was exhausted to my very bones, everything was constantly filthy and I was completely over it. Is it the worst thing I’ve ever gone through? Hell no! Is it hard? Yes. It is hard. If you can afford to move out during the build, then grab that opportunity with both hands.
- Decisions. There are many to be made. I’m the one that took charge of this in our house, being, shall we say, a details person (or control freak, if you insist). The upside of this is there were no arguments. The downside is that it was all on me, from the positioning of internal walls to which colour screws to use in the door handles. Life was one big Google search. A lot of decisions need to be made way earlier than you think they do too, the first fix happens relatively quickly after the sledgehammer stage, so you need to know exactly where you want your sockets, switches and snazzy shower nook whilst you’re standing amidst the rubble.
- Budget. It’s a cliché to say projects generally come in over budget, but clichés become clichés because they’re oft-repeated. And they’re oft-repeated because they’re true. Off the top of my head, we ended up forking out for unforeseen work to the foundations of the house, screeding beneath our under floor heating, plastering of various extra bits of wall and ceiling, and blocking up windows. In some cases, I’d absolutely presumed it was included in the initial quote, but it hadn’t been. In the “living” end of the kitchen, there was revolting textured wallpaper, which I’d assumed would be stripped and the (crumbling, knackered) walls replastered, along with all the kitchen walls. The builders had assumed they’d be somehow blending the two together. No, me neither. In retrospect, at the quote stage, I should have made an enormous, comprehensive list of everything I needed the quote to cover, however obvious it seemed. Surprises will always crop up, so have a reserve within your budget, but I made a mistake in assuming the builders would be on the same page as me about everything.
- You soon find yourself down with the building lingo, and you’ll be casually dropping references to “OSB” and “dot and dab”, and jauntily calling radiators “rads” before you know it.
- The highs are high and the lows are low. The lows included, but were not limited to;
- my 7 year old daughter sleeping on a mattress on our bedroom floor for seven long months (she’s not a sleep loving, order-obeying child at the best of times);
- cooking in a microwave/combi oven and on a camping hob for months;
- everything (and I mean EVERYTHING, including my nasal cavity) being constantly covered in a thick layer of dust;
- washing up in the bath, and the subsequent finding of stray bits of pasta, or perhaps a lone pea, in the plughole when running a relaxing bath to remove the aforementioned layer of dust; and
- memorably, the day I popped downstairs to find four terrified looking men trying to swill out a small lake from my kitchen, which had had a new and beautiful parquet floor installed the day before. Someone had managed to hammer a hole in my new underfloor heating pipes. No-one was accepting blame. I was so tired by this stage, I barely batted an eyelid, and it all got sorted out.
- All of that said, there were so many highs!
- The day the wall between the kitchen/dining room came down and I saw the size of the space we were going to have, for the first time.
- The day we said goodbye to the old, obsolete, temperamental, Aga-style range that we’d lived with since we bought the house. Then we got a normal boiler and a normal oven/hob, like normal people and lived happily ever after;
- The day the Crittall-style doors were installed in the kitchen and the space was flooded with light after being boarded up and resembling a dank cave for months;
- The kitchen going in. So much joy! And;
- Most importantly, every day brought progress and brought me a little bit closer to the finished house. A mantra I repeated daily, sometimes through gritted teeth.
- Every trade thinks they are the most important of the entire project. It is important to emphatically agree with each and every one of them about this, out of earshot of the others.
- A pneumatic drill sounds surprisingly like my youngest daughter having a tantrum. I lost count of the amount of times I hollered “Polly, what’s wrong?” to a confused bloke with a power tool downstairs.
- Tea and biscuits. Buy in catering size and distribute often to the whole build team. They never say no, and there are very few stumbling blocks that can’t be overcome with a cup of strong tea, a Hob-nob and a strokey-chin discussion.