Despite a distinct lack of windows and character in general, Philippa Neilson-Factor and husband Tony took a punt on reinventing an uninspiring Essex bungalow with potential for an amazing outlook
Text Karen Wilson Images ODC Door & Glass / Peter May Photography
Having grown up in an old rectory, Philippa Neilson-Factor’s dream home was a barn conversion with huge kitchen, Aga and open fire. It couldn’t have been further from the characterless 1940s chalet bungalow she ended up buying with husband Tony in November 2014.
“I asked our neighbour, who’d lived there for over 30 years, what the house used to look like because I wanted to give it some character back,” explains Philippa, 53, a freelance PR / marketing consultant and mortgage advisor. “He said it had never had any character! That set the tone to go totally modern.”
Philippa had sold her previous home in the Midlands, and the newlywed couple were renting near Epping while they looked for somewhere to buy together. As Tony, 60, owns an office fit-out, commercial relocation and finance business, the couple both needed space for a home office with easy access to London. They also wanted decent entertaining space and ample guest bedrooms for when Tony’s four grown up children and grandchildren visit.
After struggling to find anywhere they both liked within their budget, the couple extended their search east of London. They soon discovered a property in rural Essex for £700,000 that had been extended in the 1960s and again 10 years ago.
“It felt dark as none of the ground floor windows were south or west facing and I wasn’t keen on the black floors, and tired looking kitchen with granite worktops,” says Philippa. “There wasn’t a lot right with it to be honest, but we loved the countryside location and generous plot of almost an acre.”
After initially deleting it from their shortlist, the couple returned for a second viewing and had a change of heart. “We never intended to tackle such a major renovation project, and Tony isn’t that good at visualising,” admits Philippa. “But he trusted that I’d be able to turn it into something that suited us much better. He didn’t just sit back though – he contributed by doing all the goods ordering, receiving and delivering to site and managing the money side.”
At first the pair had hoped to lived in the house for six months before starting work, but it actually took three years to hone the design, get planning permission and line up a suitable builder.
“The first architect we spoke to didn’t come up with any new ideas, but then a friend recommended Brendon Robins of Spatial Designs, and we loved the look of his past projects,” says Philippa.
As their main aim was to create more light and maximise the countryside views, it made sense to extend the kitchen within the constraints of permitted development rights and open up the previously blocked view of the paddock and fields using large spans of glass. Philippa also had the idea of taking some space from the long and narrow sitting room to incorporate an additional seating area into the new kitchen diner. This would leave them with a smaller but squarer sitting room with a cosier feel, which allowed for a more sociable seating arrangement.
Another bugbear was a somewhat pointless room in the middle of the ground floor that the previous owners had used as a dining room and then a bedroom. “We’d tried to use it as a study, but it was a weird, north-facing, ‘nothingy’ room that just felt lost,” explains Philippa. “I decided to split the room into a walk-in pantry and toilet instead.”
The pair also loved Brendon’s idea of sacrificing the fourth single bedroom to create an impressive glazed and vaulted entrance hall. By moving the staircase away from the wall, they were also able to incorporate a full-height recessed bookcase too. “The only storage we lost was a small cupboard under the stairs but we’ve more than made up for it elsewhere,” says Philippa. “For instance, I still have some empty kitchen cupboards which is such a luxury, and moving the toilet means we have a larger utility room with ample storage too.”
Their main indulgence though was a new six by nine metre garden room featuring a living room/entertaining space and spiral staircase leading down to a two metre deep wine cellar. Dubbed ‘the wine box,’ it’s split into four quadrants incorporating a shower room, bar, seating area and ‘man cave’ with TV where Tony can watch football. Finally, the detached garage was converted into an office where Philippa and Tony work three to four days a week.
Luckily the plans were approved and permission was given to swap the old wood effect PVCu windows for aluminium ones and add white render. Brendon tendered the job out to five building firms, but as there was no shortage of work in the construction sector at that time, they only got three quotes back.
“Mark Hamm at MKH was the only one who came to see the project, which made all the difference,” says Philippa. “He told us later he didn’t really need to see the job to price it, but he understood that it helps with trust. When you’re going to give hundreds of thousands of pounds to someone, it’s nice to have actually met them!”
Despite a wobble when the couple realised their initial £200,000 budget would need to be doubled at the very least, work finally began in October 2017. Brendon and his team project managed everything and Philippa visited the site two or three times a week, while they rented a house 20 minutes away. “My first career was as a civil engineer, so I have a better understanding of plans than Tony and my work is more flexible so it made sense for me to be onsite,” she says.
The 11-month build wasn’t without its challenges. “Building Control wanted more concrete in the foundations, so that was a big extra chunk of money on day three,” she explains. “They also discovered a double septic tank where the wine box was going to built, and we had to upgrade to a full treatment tank which pumps cleaned water to a nearby ditch, as the land doesn’t drain very well.”
Being so exposed was also problematic. “The builder said it was both the hottest and coldest site they’d ever encountered, as they had to deal with the Beast from the East and a heat wave,” says Philippa.
In the end the final cost of works was £450,000, which they paid for with savings, an inheritance and by re-mortgaging. It would’ve been higher still if they hadn’t abandoned their idea of installing steels to create more head height in two bedrooms with sloping ceilings, and saved money on artificial slate roof tiles. “We plan to have solar tiles in future when we can afford it, so we didn’t want to overspend on the roof,” she explains.
Despite these hiccups, the house has been valued at £1.3m, so the couple are still in a good position financially. “The goal was to create a home that suited our needs for the next 20 years rather than solely focusing on adding value,” she adds.
One area Philippa is glad she didn’t scrimp on is the glazing from ODC Door & Glass. “Brendon showed us three different brands, and we chose a good quality middle ground,” she says. “We originally thought we’d have bi-fold doors, but a friend told us you can’t open them fully and you have more of the view obstructed by frames. In the end we decided on sliders, and we’re really happy with the ones we chose.”
She’s also pleased with the Heatmiser smart system, and believes adding underfloor heating and upgrading the insulation has really helped with energy efficiency. CAT6 cabling to all three buildings and fibre broadband has also helped future-proof the property.
Having to decide on lighting for a room before it even existed was one of the biggest challenges for Philippa. She ended up sourcing different designs from a variety of global suppliers, including a wine glass chandelier from eBay, a triple ring pendant from China for the wine box, and Japanese LED wall lights in the sitting room that project the shape of a lampshade. In addition, there are geometric hall pendants from Amazon and track lighting with interchangeable spotlights and pendants from Germany.
Few signs of the old bungalow have survived. “The only thing that stayed was one wardrobe,” says Philippa. “Everything else went, including door frames and skirting boards.” She’s particularly proud of the new kitchen designed by Kitchens from Design in Brentwood. The layout was drawn up before the extension was built so that plumbing, electrics and lighting could be positioned. “The kitchen is my big thing, as I cook a lot,” says Philippa. “I knew I wanted handleless units with marble worktops inspired by our holidays in India, so we found a lovely striped marble which contrasts with the simple pale grey units. Most UK kitchen designers try and put you off marble as it’s supposed to stain and scratch, but I think it feels more lived in and less sterile. It’s not at all uncommon in Europe and further afield.”
Another important aspect of the interior was the flooring. “As Tony’s company does office fit-outs, I went for a commercial quality wood effect LVT , which comes with a 25 year guarantee,” says Philippa. “It’s been used throughout the house for continuity and really pulls everything together.” Outside, much work has gone into creating a level terrace to take into account the raised height of the back door off a new boot room at the side. Keen to recycle materials where possible, the old roof tiles were used as hardcore. Hazel hurdle fencing has also been erected to separate the garden area from the paddock and the boundaries have been planted with native hedging to try and negate the effects of the winds. Philippa’s quite proud that they’ve managed to reintroduce elm trees too, which gives meaning to the house’s name ‘The Elms’, alongside fruit trees and raised vegetable beds.
Looking back, there’s very little she would do differently. “The are only two small things I would change – the back door opens the wrong way for me, and there’s one socket position in my bedroom that I missed,” she says. “That’s not bad for a first project though.”
Some issues were picked up along the way, such as a boiler cupboard earmarked for the bar area in the outbuilding which was moved to a less obtrusive position in the neighbouring shower room. Other issues were resolved afterwards, such as the acoustic panels added in the office when the couple realised the pitched roof excessively amplified their voices.
Having been an avid viewer of TV property shows such as Grand Designs, Philippa was pleasantly surprised by how smoothly the build went. “I was thoroughly expecting to sack the builder,” she laughs. “However the architect and builder were both amazing – they communicated well and really got on. I was happy to go with the builder’s recommendations too, such as the kitchen company, as they’d worked together before.”
In September 2018, the couple moved back in, and are glad they pushed on through with the project. “It took longer than we expected and was more stressful and tougher than we expected, but the result is something we love and every bit of the hard stuff was very worthwhile. Living in a home that’s designed exactly for our habits and needs is just brilliant. It’s not just the way it looks, it’s the way it feels and the way we still smile when we pull into the drive or come down into the kitchen, even over a year after moving back in.”