Navigating budgets creatively: An Interior designer’s story
In this episode, we sit down with Bo Fentum, an experienced interior designer who had to make some tough decisions when faced with skyrocketing renovation costs.
Bo shares her insights on how to pivot a project successfully and create beautiful, engaging spaces without breaking the bank.
Amy: Welcome to Stories from Site, the renovation podcast that digs a little deeper. I’m Amy Dohnalek and together with my co-host Jane Middlehurst we peek behind the curtains of those insta-worthy interiors to bring you the real processes people went through to make their dream homes a reality.
In this episode, we sit down with Bo Fentum, an experienced interior designer, who had to make some tough decisions when faced with skyrocketing renovation costs. She shares her insights on how to pivot a project successfully and create beautiful, engaging spaces without breaking the bank.
Welcome everyone to this week’s Stories from Site and we’re excited to have Bo Fentum with us. We’ve been long admirers of your work.
Do you think you could start with what your project was?
Bo: Yes. So I’m an interior designer that works on residential homes. So I have done lots and lots of homes for other people, but this was my own home. And therefore I’m their worst client. So it’s actually the third renovation of a house I’ve done with my husband. And it was a house that we bought in March 2021.
So right in COVID times that we went to view, loved and thought, Oh, it’s got lots of, lots of potential. We can definitely do this one. And between March, 2021, when we bought it and November, 2022, when we started the renovation, everything changed.
Bo: So what I thought I was going to do to it and what I’ve ended up doing to it are two different things.
Amy: So what did you start out imagining the project was going to entail?
Bo: So the house itself is a 1920s house that has a two story extension on the side, which was built in 1974. So when I came to view it, I thought, Oh, great, it’s got all this space, a huge footprint. And the way it’s a corner house, so the way it was laid out, made it kind of an L shape. And at the back, we have this kind of big gap.
And I thought, Oh, brilliant. We could put a big infill extension at the back and join it all together. Or so I thought, and then we bought the house, we moved in I took my own advice and we gave ourselves time to kind of live in it and see how it worked and where all the light sources were coming from and through the seasons as well, so I really genuinely took my own advice this time rather than the past and we thought, okay, that’s fine, we’re just going to live with it and see how it goes and plan it, look at our budget and work out what we’re going to do, and in the time lapse The budget just couldn’t support doing extension at the back anymore.
So there was a big pivot moment where I just thought, okay. We’re still going to have to do work to this house because we always bought it knowing it needed a certain amount of work going into it. And it just, I had to scrap everything, go back to the drawing board and go, right, we can no longer extend any part of this house.
We can only work with the footprint that’s in there. What am I going to do? And so that’s where I ended up.
Jane: Yeah, just for those at home that are not totally in on the renovation world, the difference that we’re talking about is the massive hike in the cost of doing a renovation, isn’t it? So, material prices after COVID and shortage of labour have just meant that the amount it costs to actually extend has gone up quite a lot, hasn’t it?
Bo: Yeah. And in such a short amount of time as well. And I’m kind of fairly savvy as to what things usually cost. And you know, so I, I, I don’t. I feel like I was stupid when we bought the house thinking, Oh, that’s fine. We’ll just do what we want to do to it. And then suddenly realize how much things cost.
There was just such a genuine shift in that world that took place in that time that at the time, if we’d moved in and done the renovation straight away, The reality is we would have been able to put an extension at the back, but it just was not viable within about eight months. It became not viable at all.
And my view at the time was I can’t see how this is going to change anytime soon.
We had no choice, but to do the work. And knowing that meant I had no choice, but to pivot. So it was bit of a challenge. And it was a, you know, it was a tough one to get my head around initially because you have all these great plans, especially if you’re, you know, an architect or a designer, when you go to view houses, you’re already buzzing with ideas for what you can do with them.
And so I’d already like on day one, when I went to view it, I went home and I did a quick sketch up of, you know, kind of plans and I was like, Oh, can do that. It’s going to be amazing. And. And we were going to fund, I mean we did fund it this way, but we had a flat that we had bought in 2009, so the first place we renovated, that we had at the time very luckily been able to hang on to.
And we were going to sell that to fund doing the the work to the house. And so partly some of our delay was the fact that we had to then also sell on the flat. But, you know, so it meant that we had a really, really finite amount of funds. We weren’t going to be able to pull in from any other source.
And so what we made from that sale was all we had to play with. But I, at the time we got a valuation on the flat. So I had a figure in mind, we should have about X and that’s okay. And that would give us all these things. So I had done all the work. In trying to find the right property with the right amount of potential that we could complete with the budget that we would have.
And my God, then to do all of it, you know, to buy and get in and living there. And then suddenly you go, wow. None of that’s now achievable.
Amy: Can I ask you Bo, was there a little bit of a grieving period where you just had to let go of your plans?
I mean, in hindsight, it’s like, Oh yeah, we did this thing and it’s great now. But at the time, how did it feel to do that?
Bo: It was tough. And actually my poor husband, cause there was a moment I just thought, well, do we just try and sell and move on again? And, you know, and he was like, well, no, absolutely not. That’s not going to be viable at all. So you know, I think there was a real, moment of mourning for the house it could have been and there’s still times now where I think I’m, you know I’m a little bit sad that it didn’t get to realize its full potential because it really did have this potential in it and the reality now is that it’s never really going to be realized because even if we sell and move on It’s a house that’s done now I can’t really see how anyone would want to come in and to rip it all apart again to then do this work and also it costs a lot of money.
Once I got over the period of mourning, it was like, okay, actually, this is a genuine challenge. And this is the kind of stuff that I love doing for other people. So I’m just going to have to get on board with doing it for myself. And yeah, so then I, I spent probably about six months going through various iterations of what we could do and different drawings and still keeping an eye on budgets and stuff because we weren’t quite.
variant in terms of the sale of the flat hadn’t gone through and just kind of working out, right, we are going to do the work, we are going to commit to putting the money into it, so I really need to just eke out every inch of this house now and make it a fully functioning house for, for us and what we need.
Amy: Tell us about the layout. Like what, what kind of changes did you make?
Bo: Yeah, so the bulk of the work basically went on that 70s extension because like I said, insulation was non existent. And it’s really interesting. If I was building now, I would never have built that extension on it because it’s, although it kind of looks quite large and looming, it’s, it’s relatively narrow, much narrower than you would build for today’s standards, I would say.
So that it came with its own kind of, annoying challenges in that way, but the house itself is it’s laid out that the the original 20s end had three bedrooms, lounge at the back really quite big lounge at the back a little lounge at the front of the bay window and then this small kitchen because kitchens were just a lot smaller back then.
And what they had done is they added this big extension at the side, but they didn’t really integrate into the house. They just tacked it on. So the original 20s layout existed. And then downstairs they added this utility room and beyond it a garage. So a garage, not a single window in it, no access from the house.
AndAnd the kitchen itself was left with two little north facing windows, looking out on a bin.
And then one single door to the garden. I mean, ridiculous. So it was dark, it was dingy, it was cold, it was tiled, but the heating was really bad and, you know, so it was just miserable. And then upstairs, on top of that, there was… Two bedrooms, a single bedroom slightly bigger than a single bedroom, and then a double bedroom at the end that were just freezing, absolutely freezing, because, you know, there was just nothing, nothing insulated in them whatsoever.
So what I ended up having to do to it was try and bring it all together as, as one kind of cohesive house. And so downstairs for that kitchen, the idea was to kind of knock right through.
So knock into the utility room and then knock through again into the garage. That would leave us with a relatively long kitchen diner. But to make the most of the space because the original house you came in the front door and there was just no hallway, it was there was nothing, nowhere to hang a coat, a pair of shoes, or anything.
And so we moved the front door around the corner of the house to near where the extended end was. So that we now come in from a different side of the house, but we come into a much bigger hallway, which we achieved by taking away some of the original kitchen.
And the reality is if we kept that as kitchen, it would have been far too long and quite dark at that end as well. So it was okay to kind of. Cut it off a little bit and give ourselves a much bigger hallway, which I absolutely love.
I mean, I’ve got loads and loads of shoe storage now and you know, the kids can hang their coats up and they come in as opposed to just dumping them on the ground.
Amy: I think hallways are often overlooked spaces, but they really, like, so much happens in the hall.
Bo: Oh my god, and everything is there. I mean, literally, they kind of, you know, before we did this, you know, you would go, Where are my keys? Where are my sunglasses? Where’s my coat? I can’t find my shoes, or I can find one shoe. Where’s the other one gone? You know, it was just this ridiculous, every single morning, for not just the kids, for all of us, kind of scrabbling around, looking for stuff, because you’d end up putting something in the kitchen, or the lounge, or…
And now it’s, you know, we’ve got this big space that everything goes into. We’ve kind of created this little nook. And I’m like, everything is in there. Nothing should be anywhere else. So just like, I can’t find anything.
Amy: Oh, it’s so painful. And it’s happening in every household
in the country.
Jane: I was just going to ask I’m really interested to know process for the budgeting aspect. So how you managed what interior look you were going to create and, you know, what, what’s your process around that?
Bo: Yeah. So just for for people who don’t know, my kind of look, my interior design look is kind of bold and bright, I use a lot of color and I like to use a lot of interesting materials as well. And so I had always wanted this house to be kind of fun and bright and colorful.
And when we bought it, we bought from this couple who were much older, and absolutely lovely. And they’d maintained the house so well, but they had done kind of one round of decoration in the nineties and had just looked after it very well. So we literally walked into like a 1995 changing room house with kind of feature wallpaper and,
you know, it really did need quite a big, you know, renovation and facelift on it. And so, with the budget, because it was such a strict tight budget as well, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to go as wild as I would like to in every single room. So instead of spreading it out across the house, we chose to concentrate on the areas that really needed it.
And to know that at some point we’ll just get around to the rest of the rooms. And so we concentrated all the kind of money and time and effort onto the kitchen, obviously, hub of the home, the hallway, and then the bedrooms upstairs of just, I don’t know if I mentioned before, but the two bedrooms up in that extended area have now become the master bedroom.
And the other room was we’ve chopped it in two. So it’s now an en suite and then my little home office. So we Spent all the money on doing that, essentially, so that we could get those places finished. And we do still have some more work to do in other rooms, at a later point, when we can gather up some more funds.
And in doing that, it was just a case of working out, in each space, how much I could allocate to it, and what that would then give me and trying to work out the kind of high low principle of where I could spend and then where I could pull back and still achieve the luck that I wanted to achieve. So when it came to the, the kind of contractors getting the builders, we did go out to tender, we got four quotes in which interestingly, given everything that’s going on, they weren’t wildly far apart from each other.
So I think builders were perhaps being way more realistic about what their
costs are, they know they’re higher than people are expecting and perhaps in, in knowing that And the fact that they, you know, I think they genuinely want the work now as well because, you know, people aren’t doing as much as they were previously.
They are being realistic about costs, so it was, it was really interesting because, you know, there was obviously, you know, with any builders you always get a bit of variation, but in the past with projects I’ve seen wild variations, you know, in costs. And we didn’t have that this time, but the, the builders that we went with gave us a
quote for the work that they’re doing, which they’ve stuck to, which is amazing. You know, in our final kind of bills that came in, we did add a couple of extra things as we went, as everyone does. So we obviously, it’s gone over what the original quote was because we’ve added it, but not because the builders have upped their price along the way, which I really needed that because we had the strict budget.
I needed that fixed price. So I knew what I was dealing with there and I knew what was available then, for the, the interior design elements of it. Yeah, and then it just, I went through room by room, literally room by room, working out all the elements that I was going to need in each room, and then worked out where I was willing to spend, and where I knew I could pull back a little bit, and, and, Just tallied it all up as I went and sweated a lot and panicked a lot and, and, you know, kept changing my mind and things and but, you know, I, I really do feel so happy that we’ve got what we wanted to get.
You know, I kind of walk around it now and think I absolutely, this lives up to what I wanted it to be. I mean.
Bo: Not extended, but it’s still, you know, I’m still really, really thrilled with it.
Amy: Can I ask you what the challenges were, Obviously you do these kind of projects for other people, but this is for yourself. Like what, what challenges did that bring up you?
Bo: I mean, I don’t know about other designers, but I think I genuinely am my own worst client. And I think also my husband as well, you know, he’s not, he’s not willing to sit down and have an hours meeting with me and go through some stuff. So we end up just having this kind of really small kind of quick chats, you know, he’s come back from work and I’ve changed my mind on something and just fire it at him.
And then, you know, so it’s, it’s really hard. You’re not as, disciplined as you would be when you’re working with the client because you know when you’re working with the client you’re going to present something to them. So you have to be really concise you have to have all those questions answered before you arrive to their house. And so, you know you you spend the time and you give yourself the time to make sure Everything is there.
Everything they’re going to require is there. Any question that they have is answered. And I didn’t do that for myself at all, of course. You know, it was kind of the idea of sitting down and putting together a little kind of package of, of information. I just, ugh, it’s on my computer. It’ll be fine. I’ll just look it up when I need it.
And then, you know, there was definitely days where we were doing the renovation all over winter, and it was cold, it was miserable and dusty, and there was days where the, you know, builders have questions for me, and I’m thinking, why have I done this to myself? I could have just had this package done for them and handed over, and you know, getting the constant knock on the door, like, can you just come down and check on this?
Can you come down and answer that? You know, I can look back now and think, right, if I do this again, which I would like to, but if I do it again, I’ll be more disciplined. But the honest answer is I probably won’t because there is a little bit of winging it when it’s your own job.
Amy: for the like firefighting reactive
Bo: is so tiring, you know, it’s all the things that you say to a client, which is don’t put yourself in that position where you do have to constantly firefight, you know, have all your, you know, ducks in a row so that you can feel kind of fairly relaxed. I mean, none of it’s relaxing ultimately, but you can feel a little bit more relaxed that it’s all in place.
It’s fine. but the problem is I was still working on clients jobs as well. So ultimately my time was spent working on them and my own job was, you know, evenings or kind of early mornings were, and then the builders would turn up at the site, you know, eight o’clock in the morning and I’d have a quick whiz around with them going, right, what are you working on today?
What do you need from me?
Jane: I guess that’s really, it’s really interesting because like when you’re paying for a professional, I guess you don’t really think about that aspect. You’re paying for them to do the work and put it together, but also just to run that ship and hold everyone accountable. And, you know, just to kind of keep that structure, which however important you know it is, it’s just really hard to do for yourself.
Bo: Yeah, it is. And also because it’s work ultimately. So, you know, you do day’s work and you think, Oh, I’m tired now. I don’t want to have to sit down and do another half day’s work at my own job. And it’s all in my head. You know, you have that thing. It’s in my head. I know, I basically know what I’m doing.
It’s fine. But then I would change my mind. And also, because I was keeping quite a strict eye on the budget as well, you know, there was definitely times where, it was just a case of I’m going to have to actually pull back in that area because I want to push forward in another area. So I was making changes.
And actually, if I was doing up, you know, drawings and packages for myself, I mean, all the drawings were on the computer, but if I was putting together a package like I do for a client, and I’m specifying certain materials, I kind of, I think I knew that I was making decisions, much closer to that kind of final date of implementation than I would allow my clients to do.
Amy: Jane, I think this is very timely for you because Jane’s on the brink of starting to plan her renovations. So yeah, I think it’s always good to hear, isn’t it?
Jane: I guess I know I’m going to do the same thing. It’s what we did on our last renovation. I’m definitely going to try not to, but yeah, it would be interesting to see if I manage that or not.
Amy: Can I also ask you because you attended our getting started course and I’m curious what prompted you to seek more help
Bo: Yeah, so I think the main thing was because I knew I had this really, really strict budget. And in the past, so we renovated a flat, our first flat that we bought we renovated in 2010. And at the time we were real novices and… I think budgets just weren’t on our minds. So there was, you know, we’ve got the quote from the builder who didn’t really even understand that that’s just the build and then all the extras that go on top.
So that was a real shock and a kind of learning curve. That’s fine. And then we renovated again we moved. Because I had twins in 2011, and that was a first floor apartment with no lift. So we were like, okay, we’re going to have to move again quite quickly. And we bought a, a townhouse nearby. And that was a slow renovation.
So that was because I had quite young children, I, we just couldn’t go in for, anything bigger so it was room by room which was quite painful if I’m honest because as a designer you just want it all finished you know you want to be able to walk in go we’re done and it took years and then we moved just as it was finished
um I know, I’m like, well, I’m done now, next project.
But, so budgets for that was completely different again because we were just going room by room.
Whereas this time, I knew I really wanted to achieve quite a lot. And we just had this pot of money, you know, very fortunately, but there was no more beyond it. And so I needed to be really, really careful with that pot of money and not get to the point where we’ve run out, but haven’t achieved what we needed to achieve with it, because there was just no way we were going to be able to pull in any more funds to kind of get us over the finish line.
So I was, I think I was just, I felt very nervous about having this pot of money. Which, you know, when you look at it, you think, oh, there’s, there’s enough in there. That’s fine. And then you start drilling down. You’re like, is there enough in there? That’s the, the, you know, the big question is, is it actually going to do everything it needs to do?
And it was so tight. You know, there was, it was down to pennies at the end. It was really that tight. So you know, one of the things we knew we were going to have to do to that extension was put a thermal wrap, an external thermal wrap on it, and we clad on top.
you know, it was just, there was no insulation in it whatsoever.
And, and that was going to pull out a big chunk of that pot straight away. So I felt nervous. And I just really wanted to, know that I could manage that as we went.
So it, it was really, really helpful in that respect because I think You know, when I’m working on clients projects as well, I don’t project manage and I don’t often get involved.
You know, they tell me what their budget for the interior is. I’ll stick to that budget, but I’m not looking at the full build. I’m not across what they’re spending in terms of all the little bits with the builders. You just tell me what you’re spending on the interiors and I’ll work with that.
And do you think it, do you think it helped
Absolutely, Yeah, yeah,
I mean, it, you know, it, partly because it meant I was thinking about budget before we’d even started, because I did the course before we started the, the renovation, just before, and it, it meant that budget was always in my mind, so every time I sat down to do anything at the computer, I just had numbers floating around in my head because there was no point in me doing up all these kind of really fanciful drawings if they just weren’t achievable, you know.
Every time I would kind of sit down to do work just thinking, okay, for example, the bedroom, right? Well, you know how much you’ve got to spend on this bedroom. So there’s no point specifying, you know, gorgeous built in wardrobe. You don’t have the budget to do it. So you’ve got to just know that before you, you know.
It’s like the kind of grand designs principle of they get these amazing drawings of what it could be and then there’s just a white box at the end, you know, there’s nothing left for, for being fanciful. And, and the big thing for me was I wanted the interior to really pop, you know, so I knew my focus was to get the look that I wanted to get.
And the kind of challenge was just to. to work out how to achieve it from, you know, budget range up to kind of higher end.
Amy: I think that’s so key because I think I think people are really good and at creating their budget and kind of, in, in the beginning, it’s like, of course, everyone knows that they need a budget, they need to know how much everything’s going to cost. But I think what’s interesting from hearing you talk, it’s, it’s actually Bringing that budget with you every single step of the renovation and, keeping it updated.
And then when you make those changes or want to do a little tweak here or there, putting that back into the, the overall sum. And that’s the only way you can really keep on, on
Bo: Yeah, The minute you lose sight of it as a kind of per room almost, it becomes a little bit unmanageable. And, and also, you know, we can all fall in love with. You know, a big ticket item, you know, and it’s not to say don’t have it, but if you’re going to have it know really early on, for example, I want this, you know, beautiful big sofa in the lounge Well, great But put that in straight away because you’re gonna have to pull back somewhere else then to make that achievable And there was a couple of things as well along the way which you know It’s always the way with the renovation that builders come in and they start kind of chipping away at walls and things reveal itself So there was a little bit of a contingency built in which we’ve ended up using.
I mean, it was there thankfully to do, but there was a couple of extra things that came in towards the end where our old hot water tank we’ve upgraded. And that was a relatively late addition for us. And it came at a point where, you know, just as you’re kind of starting to get all the interior stuff arriving and there was a little bit of jiggery-pokery to try and, and manage that.
But you know again and then just kind of going back to drawing board, you know, right? What can I lose for now? What can I take out?
Amy: It sounds like you really had a goal and
you really did it.
Bo: I would say, because I work in family properties a lot, and, you know, most of us don’t have these endless budgets, but, you know, as lovely as it would be, so I am used to working with quite tight budgets as well, and, and And that kind of high low principle of just, there’ll always be something you really want, and then there’s another area that you don’t care about as much.
Well, if you don’t care about it as much, then we can probably do it lower end, just make it look lovely. So, you know, I’m, I am used to doing it and I do genuinely believe it to be a good way of designing. I don’t think most of us can just go completely high end all the time
You’ve just got to work with
Jane: that, it’s a beautiful project. I was just going to say just to build on what you’ve been saying for anyone wanting to do a very budget conscious, but interior focused project, are there any final top tips that you can give people to do what you’ve done?
Bo: Yeah, I think know what you want to achieve quite early. So do take time to kind of establish the look that you want to achieve. And keep it in mind, so figure out the ways of achieving it within your budget. So, you know, like I say, working with an IKEA kitchen, but it’s the detail and the elements in the kitchen that are really going to make it pop.
And so, Taking, for example, Ikea carcasses and having new doors put on them is a great way of really elevating your kitchen like that. Worktops, because they’re tactile and they’re quite a big surface area piece as well, so you will, you know, really enjoy them. And then look at the smaller details, like we had offcuts from our worktop that the fabricators were really helpful in that they just cut us these lovely little shelves with them with a kind of curved edge on them.
And we got some brass, what are they? Shelving brackets, there we go from Corston Architectural, and they We put them up over the sink area and they look absolutely beautiful, but you know, it was an off cut. It didn’t cost us anything. The brackets, you know, were relatively inexpensive as well. And then you just dress it up.
You know, we’ve got plants on there. I’ve got vases. So you’re bringing in lots of lovely elements onto that. But it was an inexpensive way of kind of elevating the kitchen again a little bit. Our tiles, for example, are just tops tiles, but they’re fluted. And so they’ve got some texture in them and and we get tiles behind the kitchen island as well.
So where you sit on the bar stools has got the repeat of that kind of fluted element from the kitchen as well. So, but you know, they’re really inexpensive tops tiles. The idea being longer term, if I decide I want something different, I can just take them off and redo them on something else. So it’s elements that have the flexibility of change that mean you don’t have to necessarily fire a load of money at it. If you fancy changing something five, ten years down the line, but the bigger stuff that’s going to stay in the kitchen, so the hot water tapyou don’t want to be changing that
Amy: Amazing. Thank you so much. It’s been great to talk to you today.
Bo: Oh, you’re so welcome. Thank you for asking me.
Amy: If you would like to see pictures of Bo’s project, head to our website at homenotes.co/storiesfromsite. And do check out Bo’s Instagram account, which is full of her interior projects, offering loads of inspiration. We’ll put a link to that in the show notes. That’s it for this week. See you next time for another story from site.
Our closing thoughts:
Bo’s style and character shines through her newly renovated home, and the fact it is a budget conscious interior makes it even more incredible!
It shows that thoughtful design and intentional spending is the way to make a beautiful home on a budget.
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