I don’t normally tend to feature many house projects on the blog these days and the main reason for that is the photography. You may have noticed that I am not the world’s best photographer, which can be a little frustrating for me at times as I need to rely on others to provide the imagery. So I was stoked when I spotted this gorgeous renovation project on a fellow interior writer’s blog and I was even happier to see that there were professional photographs.
Kate Watson Smyth is a freelance journalist who writes about property and interiors and has written for The Independent, The Financial Times, The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Daily Mail and various magazines. What really impressed me about this project is the fact that Kate, despite writing about interior design for years now, has never had any formal training or experience. It’s one thing to make over a room in your house, but to pull together an interior design scheme for the entire house, including such extensive building works, really is an achievement in my book. And if you need any proof of that, Kate’s house has been signed up by House of Locations, an agency representing properties in the UK that provide inspirational and practical locations for photo shoots, TV and film. Not bad huh? So I wanted to find out more from Kate about her experience renovating her home, where she got her inspiration and what problems she encountered along the way.
Have you always wanted to take on a large-scale property renovation project?
I think it was probably always something that was bubbling away in the background. We have always tended to do a lot of work on our houses and flats and each one has needed a little more doing than the last. By the time we were hunting for this house we really wanted to do a complete project, partly so that we could put into practice some of the things we had learnt over the years and partly (perhaps mainly, if I’m honest!) because we couldn’t afford to buy a house that was already “done” when we knew that we wouldn’t like it and would want to change it anyway. It seemed more logical to look for something that we could completely make our own rather than paying for someone else’s dream.
How much work needed doing in your new house?
Oh just about everything! It was arranged as two rental flats – a one bed downstairs and a three bed maisonette on the top two floors. We were able to live in the upstairs flat while the downstairs was done and then we juggled around in the upstairs rooms as they were done one by one.
There was bright blue carpet on every floor, all the walls were covered in magnolia woodchip wallpaper so the entire house had to be re-plastered and painted and all the floors were sanded and painted. The upstairs kitchen had to be converted back into a bedroom. Although we didn’t need a complete re-wire, there was a certain amount of electrical work that needed doing. We had to replace all the doors (which were hideous cheap fire doors) and all the windows, which were aluminium.
There were two separate plumbing systems and boilers so they had to come out and the whole thing was replaced by one new system. All the pipe work had to be redone so all the floors came up. We had to install a second bathroom and downstairs loo, and build an extension to the tiny kitchen. Then we had to take down the partition wall round the stairs that divided the building into two so we could create a second hallway.
We also needed to rearrange the downstairs walls which had been created to make a bedroom and bathroom – in a sense that was more restoration as we put it back to the original shape – but then we took down the wall to create a larger knock-through sitting room. And did I mention all the fireplaces were boarded up so there was that too? And obviously we needed a new kitchen. Oh and radiators. And there was a concrete floor in the existing kitchen. And a hole in the boards in the sitting room that I fell down every time I went in.
How would you describe the style that you wanted to achieve in your new house?
Our last house was very dark and we had needed the lights on all the time downstairs so we were determined that this should be light. When we first moved in, I kept going into the front rooms, which are south-facing and swearing that the “bloody children have left the lights on again” before realising that this is just an incredibly light house. Even at the back, which is north-facing, we have sun on the decking from 7.30am till 8pm during the summer.
In addition to the desire for light, I had been ripping pages out of magazines for years that were all very Scandinavian in style. White floors and walls with industrial style furnishings. It is a style I have always loved and I wanted it here. I felt the large rooms and high ceilings with big windows lent themselves perfectly to that style.
Where did you look for inspiration when researching the products, fixtures, fittings and finishing to use in your project?
I’m an avid reader of Elle Deco and Living Etc so I always take inspiration from there. In addition to that, I write for the interiors pages of The Independent and have done for about ten years so I see a lot of the new products that are coming out and I tend to be aware of trends, styles and what’s about. I am a sort of unofficial shopping correspondent for my friends who always ask me where they can find things and because I’m so passionate about the subject I’m happy to talk about sourcing products and their pros and cons for hours!
What were the main challenges that you encountered throughout the project?
I have to say that thanks to the brilliance of our builder, who doubled up as an expert project manager, it was remarkably smooth. I work from home so sometimes the sheer length of the project – it took eight months working six days a week – felt rather relentless and exhausting.
The main issue was dealing with the local council as they wouldn’t allow us the planning permission we wanted. We wanted to build flat across the back to create a rectangle kitchen and they said no; we had to follow the original line of the back of the building, which in effect still leaves us with a side return. It’s not an issue in terms of size, but I still feel that architecturally the back of the house is unattractive and that with a full width flat wall it would have looked much better. It also meant that I couldn’t have a sofa in the kitchen, which has been a dream of mine for about 20 years.
The other main challenge was also in the kitchen where the soil pipe ran down what had originally been the outside of the house, but by the time we moved in, was encased in the downstairs bathroom wall. We couldn’t afford to move it and so we had to build a tiny utility room around it. Obviously, I’m not going to complain about having a utility room but it was another compromise on the shape of the room and meant that instead of having a run of five or six cupboards I could only have four and I was worried it would all be a be bit tight, but it has turned out ok.
How long did the project take from start to finish and did you experience any major hold-ups?
We moved in in December 2010. We hoped to start work the following January but due to problems with the architect (which I have documented on my own blog) and the lack of planning permission, it didn’t really start until the following April. We did the upstairs shower room in the meantime so that we would at least have a nice bathroom while everything else was going on. The builders then left before Christmas and returned in January 2012 for the last little bits.
Which room in the house is now your favourite and why?
Oh tough, tough question. I was determined on two things: firstly, that every room should have a “thing”, something to catch your eye or that was a bit different from the norm and secondly, I don’t think there is enough wit in interiors very often, so I wanted to have a touch of humour where possible. To that end, I’m very fond of the downstairs loo which we painted entirely in blackboard paint and hung a glitter ball. It always gets a laugh and the graffiti when people have been round for supper is always fun to read. Equally in the spare room we painted the fireplace in bright pink and the wall behind it in nearly black rather than the other, more traditional way round, of having a coloured feature wall and a black fireplace.
I love my kitchen so much. It’s light and bright, it works really well for cooking as everything is in the right place. I can unload the dishwasher without having to move my feet, which makes a horrid job easier. I also tend to work in the kitchen and it’s lovely to sit here and look at the garden too. It’s also the room that adheres most closely to the white Scandinavian principles that I started out with. I also love the tin tiles on the ceiling, which is an American thing.
But then I love the bedroom with the luxurious bathroom and walk-through wardrobe that I designed. I ought to spend more time up there really! My husband loves the en suite bathroom more than anything.
In retrospect, is there anything you would have done differently?
I’m pleased to say that on the whole, no! I have a current passion for white-painted bricks and I have a fancy to strip the plaster from the wall above the kitchen cupboards and paint the brick but that’s a tweak really. I always swore I would have underfloor heating rather than radiators but in the end we couldn’t afford it. I don’t mind the kitchen radiators but the one in the hall still annoys me as it means there’s no space for a table or, my current desire, a row of vintage wooden cinema seats which I think would take up very little space but mean you could sit down and put your shoes on or wait for everyone else to come downstairs.
What advice would you give to someone embarking on a similar project?
Obviously you need to always, always, always watch the budget. It’s very easy when the house is full of builders to say “Can you just . . .” or “Would you mind . . .” and those things never come free so you can easily spend more money on little bits here and there. Also do try to be aware of what you want, in terms of products and styles, as soon as possible. I have seen several projects delayed because people couldn’t decide what they wanted and then there was a hold-up while they waited for things to arrive. We bought our kitchen doors six months before they were needed because they were a good price and the builders were able to build the hole to fit the doors rather than the other way round.
Also don’t be afraid to say what you want. Our builders really didn’t understand what I wanted from the wardrobe on the top floor but I just insisted and kept drawing it on bits of papers and they followed my instructions. They still come back and look at it now and have shown it to prospective clients.
What are the main lessons that you learnt from this experience? And would you ever consider doing it again?
That it can be done! It always costs more than you think it will, but if you want the house you really want it is the only way to do it. Otherwise it will probably always be a compromise.
When the builders left I swore I would never do it again. It’s been nearly a year now and while I don’t want to do it again because I love the house and don’t really want to change anything, I could now see myself doing it again. Perhaps I should start doing it for other people!
I would like to thank Kate for opening up and sharing her lovely home with us!