Bob and Carrie Forsyth had very different ideas about their ‘forever’ home until they set eyes on a dated 1950s ‘fixer-upper’ near Leeds, and decided to compromise, including with the planning department
TEXT HEATHER DIXON IMAGES BEVAN COCKERILL
Bob Forsyth was looking for a house with clean lines and big, open spaces. His wife Carrie, having grown up in a Victorian property, was looking for a place with history and character. That in itself was a big ask in the areas between Bradford and Leeds where properties of the size and scale they were looking for are in short supply. But there was an added condition: It had to be within a two-mile radius of Carrie’s parents’ home – ideally to the point where she might see their chimney pots from the upstairs windows!
‘‘I’m really close to my mum and dad, so this was really important to me,’’ says Carrie. ‘‘We looked at more than ten properties before we found one we both liked. It was just outside the radius, but it worked for us both. Well, almost.’’
First impressions were united. The sweeping driveway opened up to a spacious 1950s house set in the middle of a three-quarter acre private garden, flanked by mature trees and not overlooked by neighbouring properties. Over the years there had been two extensions – neither of them particularly complementing the original building – and the interior featured a jumble of disconnected rooms with relatively small windows that failed to take advantage of the beautiful garden.
“We both came away and said we wanted the house, but Bob had serious reservations about the amount of work that needed doing to it and what it might cost, while I was looking at its huge potential,” says Carrie. “We were living in an old police cottage with two teenage daughters and wanted more space, but there was no option to develop it. The only way we could achieve more space was to move house and I knew this one would work on so many levels.”
The Forsyths offered the full asking price of £625,000, and contracts were exchanged in April 2018. To give the previous owner more time to find another place to live, they postponed moving in until February the following year, by which time they had already drawn up plenty of ideas for their new home. They had also approached West Yorkshire based architect James Butterworth, of Studio J Architects, to transform their wish-list into a workable, and inspirational, design.
DESIGN ASPIRATIONS & PLANNING CHALLENGES
High on their list was more light in the property, a better link between the house and garden, more ensuite bedrooms, and an improved room layout.
“A key part of the design was to replan the existing cramped and dated layout to one that worked for modern family living, with generously sized, light and airy rooms that connected to the garden,” says James. “Although often seen as a secondary space, the new repositioned hall and stairs were paramount in making the project work.” His interpretation got the thumbs up from Bob and Carrie.
“James came up with a design which we really liked and included an extension running the full width of the house at the back and an extension upstairs to create more bedrooms,” says Bob. “The previous owner had gained planning permission for an extension which had expired, so she gave us the drawings and James took it from there.”
But as soon as their design was submitted to Leeds City Council planning department, they hit a wall.
“The house is in a green belt area and the garden fence is right on the border between Leeds City Council and Bradford Council,” says Bob. “It was incredibly frustrating because Bradford is very open to development in green belt areas while Leeds were much less flexible. We went backwards and forwards at least three times, making adjustments to the design, reducing the space, restricting the roof height and doing our best to work within their constraints.”
They were informed that the previous two extensions had already used up most of their quota for permitted development, and that any further extension would be granted in light of the permission that had expired.
“We considered bringing in a solicitor to fight our corner, but the architect advised against it and, in hindsight, it was right not to launch into a legal battle, even though it was incredibly frustrating,” says Carrie. “Bob even appealed the council’s decision, but to no avail. We became so disheartened that, at one point, we actually considered knocking the house down and starting again. It would probably have been cheaper and easier in long run, but we knew we wouldn’t have been able to build as much character into a new home. The better internal layout was a good compromise.”
By the time planning permission was granted, Bob and Carrie had the build team ready and waiting. The plan was for Bob, Carrie and their daughters to move in with Carrie’s parents while the structural work was completed – an estimated six months – and then they would move back in when the dust had settled.
THE COMING OF COVID
But no-one bargained for a pandemic and when lockdown was announced all their plans went out the window.
“My father wasn’t in the best of health and we were working for a security company, which involved mixing with others, so we didn’t want to put my parents at risk,” says Carrie. “We had just a few days to find somewhere we could rent so the builders could start work on the house. We struggled to get hold of estate agents or to view anything, but in the end we managed to find a one-bedroom bungalow to rent just a couple of miles from the site. It was far from ideal, especially as we were often working from home while the girls were home schooling. We were often trying to teach, hold meetings and keep family life together from the conservatory. How we survived I shall never know!”
TREES A CROWD
Their frustrations were further compounded by a major problem that came to light very early on in the build process. The original building inspection had failed to highlight the fact that the new foundations for the rear extension would have to be deeper than originally planned in order to hold back the roots of the numerous conifers standing close to the property. Instead of 2.0 metres deep they would need to be pile driven to around four / five metres deep, which involved bigger digging equipment and more time – at a total extra cost of around £10,000 to the Forsyths.
“It made us very nervous because if we were incurring huge unforeseen expenses at this stage, what would we uncover further down the line?” says Carrie. “We had budgeted around £200,000 for the renovation but we already had an inkling that it was going to be a lot more than we bargained for.”
With the foundations in place, the builders started to strip out the internal spaces, leaving just two original walls and taking the rest back to bare brick. The floors were dug up to allow for water-based underfloor heating and new timber and plasterboard walls created according to the new layout. At this stage the builders insulated the walls, floor and ceilings where applicable – including kitchen walls which hadn’t been stipulated by the building inspector but needed doing to future proof the property.
“It was a further unexpected expense, but it made sense to do things properly while the house was in this state, rather than cut corners and live to regret it,” says Carrie.
By switching the location of key rooms and moving the garage from one side of the house to the other, Bob and Carrie were able to achieve their goal of creating a spacious family home which flowed naturally from one space to the next. The original kitchen, which was a long thin room in the middle of the ground floor with just one external window, became part of a new spacious entrance hall. The original garage and dining room behind it became a light-filled, open plan living kitchen, and a series of small rooms – including a living room – became one large recreation area. Planning restrictions meant their dream of extending right across the back had to be curtailed, but they were still allowed to extend outwards in part and install large glazed areas to link the house to the garden.
Upstairs involved greater compromise. Planning limited the height of the roof lines so that their original idea of creating more bedrooms was knocked on the head and they opted, instead, for four ensuite bathrooms and extra storage space in the eaves.
“We changed our minds about things as the building work progressed,” says Carrie. “We added storage in the eaves, for example, and we also decided to install large sliding doors in-stead of windows at the back of the house. None of the changes were huge in isolation, but they soon added a further £15-£20,000 to the overall budget.’
Fortunately the Forsyths did not have to replace the roof or rebuild exterior walls, but they did source reclaimed bricks and roof tiles for the extended and remodelled areas so they matched seamlessly with the original. “James, the architect, and the builders were brilliant and rose to the challenges posed by the pandemic,” says Bob.
“James kept an eye on the build throughout and the builders were really helpful when we were changing our mind about things as the renovation progressed.”
The biggest challenge was getting deliveries of materials. Plaster was in short supply, the staircase and windows were really difficult to get to site and Bob and Carrie had to order everything online without actually seeing it first – including the kitchen units and bathroom fittings – which was a huge gamble. One of the largest windows was delayed by five months and the opening had to be secured with plywood until it arrived.
“Because of the unusual sizes of some windows and the glass dimensions generally, there was quite a delay,” says Bob. “Some of that was down to transport. Everything was affected by the pandemic.”
The bonus, however, was that the builders had no other jobs coming in to distract them from the renovation, so they gave it 110% and finished in four and a half months, instead of the predicted six.
LEARNING ON THE JOB
‘Neither of us had done anything like this before so it was a huge learning curve,” says Carrie. “The hardest part was having to make decisions on every last detail. By the end of it we were incapable of making any more choices, so we agreed to ask an interior designer to come in and take over when it reached the stage of choosing floor coverings and decor. We needed advice on key finishes like floor and wall tiles. I knew that if I chose something that didn’t look right we would have to live with that mistake for years, whereas the designer had the experience and contacts to make sure we made the right choices.”
The family moved back into the house ahead of schedule and before everything was completed.
“It was still a building site really,” says Carrie, “but the kitchen units and bathrooms were all fitted and it was 100% better than trying to cope with life in a tiny bungalow. I made the mistake of trying to get some of the rooms completely finished while work was still going on. Everyone had different footwear for different parts of the house so that the dirt and dust wasn’t getting pulled from one room to another, but it didn’t work. I should have waited literally until the dust had settled before trying to decorate and furnish the house.”
But the pain has been worth the gain for Bob and Carrie, who have now had a chance to really appreciate life in their new-look home.
“It’s definitely been worth it,” says Bob. “We had no idea what challenges we were about to face when we bought the house but it’s been worth the challenges and extra expense to achieve our forever home.”