Renovation novices Claire and Marco were sure they didn’t want a ‘project’ house, but they ended up taking a leap of faith to complete a transformation that realised the true potential of their site
TEXT JESS UNWIN IMAGES PHILIP WADGE ARCHITECTURE & CLAIRE HANDLEY
Claire Handley and her husband Marco initially dismissed their beautiful home in the village of Woolton Hill, close to the border of Berkshire and Hampshire, as “too much work” when they first went to view it.
Having previously lived in new builds and with no experience of renovation, the couple (who have two young sons), quickly turned their house-hunting gaze elsewhere.
Circumstances eventually forced them to reconsider and return to this early 1900s mock Tudor cottage, set on half an acre of land. “We were not intending to buy a project house at all, but we wanted to move to the area, and all the other houses we were interested in kept falling through,” says Claire.
“We took an architect with us for the second visit to get a sense of what could be done to open up and extend the property. The location is so beautiful, and we decided it was worth taking on because of the potential of the place.”
The couple took the plunge and agreed to buy Tile Barn Cottage – once part of an estate with a manor house, stables and coach house, but which was broken up into several separate properties in the 1950s – for £870,000.
However, last-gasp drama nearly saw them fall at the final hurdle. Claire reveals: “On the day the whole chain involved was supposed to exchange the couple we were buying from got cold feet and pulled out.” The couple had half an hour of “sheer panic” when they had to decide to pull the plug on the whole move or rent for a few weeks and try to get the deal back on track. “We did the latter and, thank goodness, it paid off.”
Another potential hurdle – getting planning permission – turned out to be straightforward, and Claire believes this was just one of the advantages of choosing the right architect. The house isn’t listed, but it’s of historical interest and just inside the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. She says, “Our architect had previously worked for the local planning authority, so fortunately he was very aware of the hoops they needed to jump through.”
“That was brilliant,” she continues, “because as we went through the house renovation ideas, he was pointing out things we should – and shouldn’t – do. We were careful not to change the exterior appearance of the house too much, and limiting light pollution was something else we factored into our plans.” It was also important that the extension was in proportion – increasing the footprint by a bit more than a third to roughly 2,800 sq ft.
So what did the couple hope to achieve with their renovation? Claire explains: “We’d fallen in love with the location, but to achieve our dream family home, the challenge was the fact that the existing house was too dark and enclosed inside – and we also wanted to extend the property.”
Central to their vision, says Claire, was the open-plan kitchen, dining and living spaces, with lots of new glazing installed to help bring in the light and make the most of views of the south-facing garden at the front of the property. They also wanted to create a new upstairs master bedroom.
At the same time as doing that, she says, they wanted to “retain some of the original period character of the house and smooth over an earlier 1980s extension, incorporating the whole into one natural-feeling space.”
There’s no doubt, now the renovation is complete, that the couple have made their dream home a reality. At the very heart, literally, of the transformation is the removal of the stairway, WC and store cupboards that separated the front and rear halls. Three walls were knocked down and the staircase was repositioned by 90 degrees to create a new open and light-filled hallway, which allows you to move straight through from the front to the back of the house and also gives access to all the other ground floor rooms.
A two-storey extension to the west side of the house has been added, mimicking the style – including the hipped-roof form – of the older part of the property. Adjoining and connected to this extension, the house’s old conservatory has been replaced by a single-storey glazed garden room with a pyramidal roof lantern.
The resulting increased floorplan at ground level includes north-facing functional spaces such as a utility room, a games/playroom that was once the old kitchen and an office or study for homeworking. Facing south towards the garden is the main sitting room and a wonderful open-plan area that includes the dining room, the kitchen and the aforementioned garden room.
Upstairs, the double-height landing (created by removing the old upstairs bathroom) at the top of the repositioned stairs benefits from a south-facing window. Two new dormer windows have been added to the south facade, flooding bedrooms with yet more light and giving the exterior a pleasing symmetry.
One of the existing bedrooms has been reconfigured into a smaller bedroom and a bathroom to create a hallway link to the new ensuite master bedroom in the west side extension. This bedroom also boasts a new south-facing dormer window which, like all the glazing throughout the building, features PVCu frames with a convincing wood-style finish in an agate grey colour.
PROJECT MANAGING THE BUILD
Despite not having previous renovation or construction experience, Claire decided to take on the project management of this house transformation herself. “That was definitely the right decision,” she asserts. “In hindsight I’m not sure how we’d have done it without someone onsite every day – there were just so many questions and decisions to be made.
“It had its stressful moments but, overall, I enjoyed it. I have a professional background in project and programme management, so I’m quite used to managing people, working to budgets and deadlines.”
She also has plenty of praise for their builder: “When you watch property shows on TV, the builder and the homeowner sometimes argue and the builder walks offsite or suddenly announces costs have doubled.
“There were things that cropped up, but the builder would sit us down and say ‘this is what’s happened, here are your options, what would you like to do?’ It was a partnership, with him walking us through the process in a really nurturing way.
“Our builder was just fantastic – we knew of him by word of mouth and he’d done work for a couple of neighbours and I’d seen it and been impressed. Our architect also recommended him.”
The family decided to live in the house during the renovation – which was “definitely a challenge,” says Claire, but she’s again impressed that the most disruptive part of the work, removing the staircase and walls at the centre of the house, took just three weeks. “We had to get out for that but, credit to the builder, he got it done over the school summer holidays, so we were on holiday for most of that time and then stayed at my mum’s house.”
When extending a property, getting the new to blend seamlessly with the old is always important. “Our builder was clever here, re-using old roof tiles that he had to remove for the extension so that the new dormers and much of the new roof look like they’ve always been there.” The couple’s choice of a new off-white render for both old and new walls also helped to unify the different parts of the project.
The age of the house and old-fashioned construction methods used to build it, such as its single-skin brick structure, limited options for ‘green’ features but highly insulated new glazing and the installation of some underfloor heating have raised the building’s EPC rating from E to C.
Essential construction and renovation at the house were carried out between June and November 2021 but further work on a patio and the driveway, plus interior decorating, continued through 2022 and into this year. Claire adds: “Things still to do include more underfloor heating, putting up wall tiles in the kitchen, and there are lots of windows that don’t have blinds or curtains. They’re finishing touches, but they often take the longest time to complete because there’s so much personal taste involved.”
SQUEEZING THE BUDGET
In terms of budget for the renovation, the couple’s first estimate was around £200,000. Claire says: “We revised our expectations as we went along, and the final figure is going to be more like £320k if you include the new patio and driveway.”
She adds: “That £200K figure wasn’t anchored in reality. As novices at this, you don’t know what you don’t know, so we hadn’t thought of every single detail when we put our first budget together.
“One of the unnerving things about creating something like this is you pay upfront for designs to be drawn up by an architect before you have any idea of the affordability. You only get that when you take those drawings to a builder – and that is the point you know if you can make it happen or not.
The new-build part was probably the simplest bit, says Claire, but with the older bits of the house, they uncovered a chimney breast that was supporting a roof that they didn’t even know was there. Layers of flooring were removed to find rotten floorboards that had to be replaced – these things are all extra costs.
“When budgeting we factored in the lowest estimate for everything, only to realise later that our personal tastes required us to pay a bit more – we didn’t want the most basic kitchen, windows, flooring etc. So, you’re kind of just feeling your way one step at a time and you are taking a bit of a leap of faith that things will turn out the way you envisaged.
“I do feel a bit lucky because our builder quoted for the work and then wasn’t able to start for nearly a year through no fault of his own, but held his price even though the cost of materials had gone crazy. If we were looking to do the job now we’d probably be paying 20% to 25% more.”
A mortgage has helped fund the renovation but Claire’s confident the improvements have had a positive effect on the loan-to-value ratio: “We’ve not had an official valuation, but we know people in the industry and we look at other comparable houses, so we think the value is about £1.3 to 1.4 million now.”
More importantly, Claire and Marco are pleased with the end result of the renovation. Says Claire: “You tend to be more critical of something when you’ve seen it built from scratch because you have a memory of perhaps the shortcomings in the way it was done, whereas anyone else coming into your house would just see the finished product and think it was lovely.”
Claire’s favourite part is the open-plan kitchen area as it’s where they spend so much time with it having great access to the garden. “Our neighbours and friends love it too.” She adds: “Our neighbours have been here 20-odd years, so they knew the old house prior to its ‘rebirth’ and they’re very appreciative of what we’ve done.”
The renovation has also reaped other results too: “It’s given me a completely new perspective on my ability to do something like this,” says Claire. “I recently helped to renovate another property and I really enjoyed doing that.”
The couple are now thinking about buying somewhere as an investment in southern Italy – “We’d buy it as a shell and then bring it to a standard so we could it rent out as a holiday let,” says Claire, “but that’s just an embryonic idea at the moment.” Alternatively, it could be something closer to home – they’re certainly interested in property as an investment, buying something, doing work on it and then reselling it.
Looking back on the renovation, Claire says: “After owning new build properties, it was hugely intimidating to take on this project and I don’t really know how we had the gumption to do it really. My husband has a very can-do attitude and he said, ‘well, if other people can do it, I’m sure we can’.”
They certainly did!