Balancing home and garden: when sustainable retrofit meets design

with Christian and Faye

This week we chat to Christian and Faye, an architect and garden designer who became each other’s clients when they decided to renovate a studio flat with a generous garden.

Using their own professional skills the two project managed the works, and got hands on in the build to reduce costs. The project became a case study in how to retrofit a small flat to make it more energy efficient while achieving their design ambitions.

We talk to them about balancing the project between the inside and out and their strategy to manage costs whilst pursuing a design led and sustainable build.


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.

After 10 years as architects renovating homes, Jane and I set up HomeNotes to teach people how to take on their own renovation journeys. We’ve met so many inspiring people on the way, and now we want to share their incredible stories.

This week we chat to Christian and Faye, an architect and garden designer who became each other’s clients when they decided to renovate a studio flat with a generous garden.

Using their own professional skills. The two project managed the works and got hands on in the build to reduce costs. The project became a case study on how to retrofit a small flat to make it more energy efficient while achieving their design ambitions.

We talked to them about balancing the project between the inside and out and their strategy to manage costs while pursuing a design led and sustainable build.

Can, can I ask you about how you work together? And how did both your skills and professional life play into the project?

Christian: Yeah, I think it was very much a, a split between sort of the home and the garden and, you know, I kind of took on the main role of, of the home and Faye definitely took on the garden. But I think, you know, we, when we first visited the property, it was such an unusual kind of arrangement of, of space really.

The existing footprint was 40 square meters where the garden was 120 I think it was. And it was just this really kind of unusual split between the indoor and outdoor and I think, you know, immediately we both looked at each other and thought this is such an opportunity, not just architecturally, but I think also within the garden. And the landscaping, obviously there was a lot of challenges with north facing garden lots of neighbors. Relatively poor access. Only from the street going through the property. So yeah, it was I think it was a really healthy split and I think it was also great to be able to bring in that voice for the outside really early on. And I think, you know, in terms of my own kind of client work as well, you know, I don’t think I’ve ever had a brief that’s not included, “we want a better connection to the garden”. And I think with our project especially, it was, yeah, it was definitely an opportunity to have that conversation really early on and that really informed what we did.

Amy: So were you each other’s clients for the respective bits?

Christian: Yeah, pretty much.

Faye: Sounds about right.

Amy: How was Faye as a, as a client, Christian?

Faye: I think I was great. I said yes to everything. I mean, he got everything he wanted. All I asked for was a window seat and I got that.

Amy: It does look very comfy.

Jane: And the other way around?

Christian: Yeah, I mean, I mean Faye was actually a brilliant client. I think the ability for us to push the brief was also really important. We had an ability to have four or five months at the property before we did the work, so again, we were constantly thinking about it then. And yeah, I mean my input in the garden was, was actually quite limited really. I have, a bit of a love affair with acer trees. So we got quite a few acers in there.

Jane: I think that’s so lovely because You know, for most people it’s a staged process where they do the house first and the garden second. But as you say, everybody talks about this greater connection with the garden and then at the end of the project, a lot of people are left looking out at a a mud bath

and something that isn’t very pleasing.

Did you do both the sets of works at the same time? Was that a logistical thing that you had to do because of the access?

Christian: Yeah, exactly that. I mean it massively informed the design. You know, when we first submitted, we actually submitted a brick building because we thought that’s what the planners would want, given that the entire built environment, you know, was all brickwork. And quite quickly the first conversation we had with the case officer, they sort of said, actually, we feel that this should be something other than brickwork.

And we actually ended up going down the timber route very quickly, which is something that I always wanted to do. And it actually became a sort of extension to the garden. Rather than an extension to the

home. And that was, that was really a kind of turning point in, in the whole design process. And it all started falling into place really. Ring fencing that part of the budget was also really important for, obviously, especially for Faye. A lot of clients love to have that bit of planting kind of put in at the beginning, but it’s the first thing that gets culled. And I, and I think in a way, you know, especially with a small property it, it is a very much a, a another room for us.

We both work outside. In, in the various seating areas that we have, we, we, you know, we work from home, we have friends around. It’s, it’s a huge part of it. And also the lighting as well. We, we spent quite a bit of time putting in external lighting, which again, at night and during winter. There’s that kind of visual extension of you have the ability to look out onto something, which is like another room rather than just, you know, pitch black, which was, which was a really nice thing.

Amy: I have to say the garden, I mean, not to undermine the amazingness of the architecture, but the garden is so beautiful. Um, yeah.

Do you think you could tell us a bit about the house and what drew you to it and what your vision was at the beginning?

Faye: Yeah, I think Christian had much more vision than I did at the start. We came in, there was actually someone else, very much a, a property developer that we came to the viewing. He was there as well in this big expensive Canada Goose jacket, and we were there, kind of slumming it in our little boots and thinking, oh my gosh, he could buy it.

Flip. and then move on. We want to buy it, live in it, improve it, you know, and enjoy the property. But it was, it was gonna take a lot of work and it was, you know, smoke stained walls and black mold ceilings and, and one room and a large but cold bathroom. And that was it. And, you know, we were coming from a rented property, which was a comfortable, warm, one bed.

And so initially that was very frightening. The thought that we were going to suddenly have this place that was gonna be smaller, that was, you know, gonna be like sleeping in the kitchen. But we knew that the generous garden, that was all ours, that felt quite rare. And in

this area we thought that no matter what we were to get at planning.

And obviously that was far more in Christian’s head than, than mine. I didn’t really know what we could do, especially given it was a conservation area, but, we had a plan A and a plan B. And we are really grateful that our Plan A worked and we got, you know, such a generous space out of it. But yeah, it was just that initial, this garden is all ours and it’s a wide plot as well.

But it was all so overgrown. It was hard to really even know how large it was. Like there was a plum tree and is a plum tree at the end of the garden. But we didn’t know it was there when we moved in. We only knew it was there when our neighbors came around and said, your plum tree has fallen over onto our shed.

So yeah, it was, it was kind of looking past the sort of wreck that it was and knowing that it could be something lovely.

Amy: Obviously doing the project for yourselves means that you can be a little bit more adventurous or, or do things a little bit differently. And I was just wondering whether you were looking to push what you did a little bit further?

Christian: I think the sustainability was a huge element. We wanted to improve the fabric as much as possible. We had firsthand experience having lived there for the first few months of how a completely uninsulated, unventilated house can, can deteriorate to the point of black mould everywhere. It was really quite horrendous and we, we wanted to have this as a case study of how do you improve a, an Edwardian home in the conservation area when you are a flat.

Amy: So what things did you do as part of the kind of sustainability agenda?

Christian: So I think one of the biggest things was just the amount of insulation that we put in. Obviously originally there was zero insulation on any of the external fabric. We improved the, the thermal performance, but it was also the air tightness.

Being completely airtight was, was again a huge you know, a huge design decision that we made that affected the design.

So we have mechanical ventilation with heat recovery throughout the property, which. Was quite astonishing cause we first moved in and we were still doing a bit of the joinery and finishing off covers of things. So we actually didn’t have it on cause of all the dust that we were producing. And it was so stuffy and the air quality wasn’t great.

And the minute we turned it on, it was just amazing. And, you know, we, we cooked a, an eight hour Christmas dinner with all the family round in, you know, very cold weather and there wasn’t any condensation on all the windows. You know, it was, it just really works. And it was something that, it, it’s so nice to now be able to speak to my clients and get them to come round and, and say, look, it does work.

This is what you can do even on a small property. You know, there is a cost to that. However, the, the comfort, I think is something that’s not really talked about in sustainability.

It’s about reducing energy bills. It’s, not about that. It’s about, you know, being able to have a window seat that has really high performing glazing, that it’s not cold when you sit there, there are no drafts, there’s no cold spots.

And that’s, I think that is something, especially in London where the air quality is not great. That is something that is a real benefit to sustainable architecture that is, that is often kind of overlooked.

Amy: And can I ask you a little bit about the cost? I mean, how much do you think. , you spent on that part of the project, if you like.

Christian: Yeah, so we so we looked at an air source heat pump. We looked at mechanical ventilation and then insulating as much as we could with, with warm materials. They were the three main things. The air source heat pump was too expensive for a property of this size and the lo location it had to be in, given a terraced property and where the extension was going. So that I think, came back at around 6 or 7k, which was well over double the price of a highly efficient new boiler. So we

we did want to go with the air source heat pump, but we just, we just couldn’t justify that cost on such a small property. We did do the MVHR, which me and a friend actually installed ourselves. So we had it designed by a proper sustainability consultant. And they provided all the kit and we installed it, which is super simple. He then came round and did a visual inspection, signed it off, balanced it, and commissioned it. So, which is a very important step given that it all acts as one ventilation unit.

So that’s really important. So yeah, that was a big saving, which meant that the actual total design supply and install cost was around, I think about 3.5k, something like that.

And then in terms of the insulation values, that was, it’s really hard to, to, to quantify really.

We, we wanted to go above and beyond building regulations in every element, which we did. Obviously the actual insulation is a little bit more expensive given it’s a recycled wood fiber.

So there was a higher material cost. But there’s also having a contractor who had never done it before and contractors kind of, they price risk and if, if they don’t know what they’re doing, whatever that is, there is a higher cost involved there. And again, I think it was the ability to have great communication with a small contractor who was able to set aside the risk because I was helping them on a daily basis, you know, if they ever had questions, I was right there to, to allay those fears.

Jane: Looking back. What were the things that you learned on the project?

Christian:   I think one of the biggest things was. Keeping a contractor and the guys on site motivated when money is running out and something that was the hardest challenges we faced. And you know, I think it really was about being completely honest with them. And, you know, getting them to sort of buy into the idea of, you know, we’re producing something amazing here. And you know, it really worked and, you know, everyone was, was great and it was just such a good relationship with everyone.

Amy: And Faye, can I ask you kind of the same question? what were your highs and lows of the process from your side?

Faye: Yeah. Um, does it count to say that the high would be living here afterwards? I know that’s after the process.

But it’s just nice to be here.

Amy: You can definitely have that.

Faye: Not that I’ve been through labour, but I imagine it’s something similar where you are like, oh, this is wonderful. It wasn’t such a painful process. You know, we sort of dreamed up these lovely ways that we would use the garden and the home and how we would have this continuous space from the kitchen and dining and out into the garden, then back again. And we use it in that way, particularly in summer when the garden gets full sun. You know, it’s, to be able to use it how we always hoped we would is, is amazing.

The low would probably be, I mean, We had some knackering days. Actually,

so right at the beginning of the process before the guys came in, obviously we are one of those little stories where Covid happened and you know, so our, we had this lovely plan to get started with the builders in spring, to then be in by Christmas and miss all the horrible weather that didn’t happen because. Covid happened instead. It came with some advantages cause we were at home more so we could do more ourselves, but it meant the builders started in July rather than in April. But that then made us, well, you know, we want to get going, so we started lots of digging ourselves and yeah, tons of digging and getting rid of this heavy clay. And then it was also bringing bricks that we’d got from someone else who didn’t need them anymore. And so we were bringing them from their site to ours.

In our mini, we have a tiny mini and it served us well. We would put, you know, materials through the sunroof and take them to here or whatever it was. It worked wonderfully. And we were cycling a lot this time as well because we didn’t wanna get on public transport. So I remember cycling to work and then coming back and I was so tired. And then we had to bring loads of bricks from the back of the mini down the flight of stairs and down another flight of stairs into the back garden.

And I was getting so tired, but I just, you know, I, I’m a girl, but I, you know, won’t be told that I’m a girl and I can’t lift bricks. So I will take the bricks and try and take as many as Christian will. And I sprained my ankle coming down all these steps and I just clattered. I mean, it was kind of blue, massive and immediate ankle sprain. And I was just like, here we go. Here’s, here’s me out of action for, you know, a few weeks. And so it was, that was a real tough moment as well. That was, you know, a sign of us just being tired and pushed and trying to do a lot ourselves. Yeah.

Amy: It sounds, I mean, it sounds so physical, like I’m just imagining you in, in the trenches, literally , you know, digging

the mud out.

Faye: I know, and we had to dig down quite a long way as well. So, and there were times when, you know,Christians work because he was at a company at the time, he was working a lot more sort of strict hours, certainly in the early days. And I, my job working for myself, I was a bit more flexible, so it was often me in a kind of rain mac out in the garden just trying to dig through this clay, which you couldn’t dig if it was summer and dry, but you had to deal with it when it was wet and heavy and sticky and like orange. It’s fascinating, but it was tough.

Jane: You know, your soil types now,

Faye: Oh we do. Yeah, it, yeah, you see all the kind of different gradients. It’s amazing. Like a guiness.

Jane: So you said it w it was probably a little bit longer than you expected. How long was the project and how long was this like really intense physical bit for you as part of that?

Faye: Well that initial bit. So the digging, I suppose when we look at the project as a whole, we probably don’t really count that, those initial couple of months where it was just Christian I digging when we could because that was a slow process. But you know, we probably started in april, perhaps ourselves. Builders came in July, end of July, and then we were in the following spring. So it was a year’s process, but it wasn’t a year project. We were probably, out of the house for maybe nine months, I think.

Christian: Yeah, it was august to March was the kind of official time, but we got hit with so many delays,

But you know, the irony of the pre-fabrication was that we actually chose that to be quicker. But the timber got, came all the way from Canada, arrived in Ireland, and then got stuck in Ireland and couldn’t make it to Devon because of Covid. But from the, from the sort of concrete shell in the ground to absolutely everything apart from the lime plastering was five days. So it was super, super quick when, when it arrived. Exactly. So it was a bit of a shame. And I think, like I say, it shouldn’t have been that long. If you remove all the, all the delays, it was probably only, four or five months. But yeah, definitely it was, we were out of the property for nine.

Amy: Can I just ask you about the budget side of things? Did you have a clear budget that needed to be kept to?

Christian: It, it certainly evolved through, through the project.

And, the, the good thing we had was that it’s such a small property, we kind of bought one of everything. We have just one bathroom, just one bedroom, and you know, going to the more expensive manufacturers like Vola and, and things for sanitary wear and for you know, that, that kind of thing, we could justify that beacuse it was on a smaller scale. In terms of budget yeah I mean, we were absolutely constrained with, with what we could afford.

We weren’t too concerned about the end value, which was, you know, obviously for some clients that is a big consideration. I think it was, for us, quite quickly it became what was the most amazing project we could achieve on a, a relatively small budget. And we quite quickly realised that to, to, to deliver that, we had to be really involved. And yeah, I mean, we. ended up come in all up, 125,000 pounds, 125,000 pounds, which was, we actually never did a full kind of calculation of everything. It was very much, cause we were buying all the materials and obviously we were still earning at the time, but we, you know, we knew what we had at the beginning and how much we had earned in that time.

Every single process we wanted to assess, for example, how do you insulate a solid masonry wall in the best possible way from the inside for the least amount of money while still looking great. Yeah, again, with the concrete, because we were digging down, we had to drop the floor. We therefore had to have a ground bearing slab, therefore we needed a screed. And in again, instead of instead of putting another floor finish on top of that, we then put a bit more money into the actual screen itself and polished that.

So I think at every turn we wanted to, to use the materials we had, you know, our towel rail is made from offcuts of cladding from outside.

Faye: I was just thinking as well from, from my perspective with the costs, you know, not being an architect and really knowing the costs of materials and labor and everything like that, it was pretty frightening at the start.

But it was really something that I had to get on board with. And, and you know, you do understand that when you buy a property, you have, you do have an, an idea of this end value and to even just making sense of the project, you know, it’ll work because you hope you’ll improve it so much that it’ll be worth this amount at the end. And we were very fortunate that it was in such a poor state when we first got it. We knew we would, no matter what we did, we would improve it and therefore lift the price of the place. But then it’s just amazing to see how much money goes into the ground that you don’t see. And that is just a necessary evil and it’s something that, you know, I wouldn’t realise, you know, I just see sort of the surface value, beautiful wood, and like Christian said, the lovely taps and it’s things that you use every day that you do want to sort of put money into.

And um, the mechanical ventilation was something that I had to be persuaded about because it’s not something you see, when you have never used it before, you don’t understand what the benefit is. But now we have it, it, it really is an amazing thing to have that, that ventilation and that kind of just quality of living that we could have.

And now for both Christian and I it is a place that we are proud of and that we can bring people to, to come and see the house and the garden together. Even now, we know that the money we invested in it and the time we invested in it is, is still, you know, benefiting us now.

Christian: I think, just to add to that, I think one of the biggest kind of conversations that Faye and I kept having was the difference between cost and value. And I think with, with, you know, using expensive materials and, and digging down when we didn’t really have to, it was, it was about the value to the project.

It, it is a small flat, but it, it doesn’t feel that because it has that generosity in the height and the materials. And I think again, with Faye’s expertise, we were able to buy smaller plants knowing how they will flower and that they will grow at certain rates. And I think that is, you know, real credit to Faye it’s not about spending loads of money, it’s about spending money, say on bigger trees. the acer we have is, probably 50 years old where we have some plants that have rocketed up and, and have grown really quickly and are therefore much cheaper. And you can buy small. So yeah, it’s about not spreading the money too thinly.

Amy: It is really nice to hear because from in both parts, the garden and the home, I feel like it’s the same strategy. I guess because you could take that time to investigate the processes you chose where to spend the money and I mean it just sounds like there was no wastage at all in any of the processes.

Christian: Absolutely. Yeah. I think, you know, there’s also the embodied carbon issues as well, and I think, you know, for example, we, we told the joiner in Devon to bring every single offcut. That we, that they had, and we still have them above our bathroom. We have a, a wood store, that was, that should be for other things, but it’s, it’s still full of timber that you know, we’ve made, you know, various bits of furniture out of we have kind of plans for them for, for, for little, you know, projects down the line. So I think it’s, you know, the reuse of things is, is really important for us. Yeah.

Amy: Obviously retrofit is a really hot topic at the moment and we’re getting lots of questions from people wanting to improve the energy efficiency of their home, and I just wondered if you had any advice or recommendations for people on this process.

Christian: I Think. it’s about understanding the goals and what you want to achieve really early on. I think that’s really important.

In terms of the sustainability goals, there is a cost, you know, there, it, it does become part of the budget constraints it as you do in every project.

I think speaking to someone who has that knowledge and experience is really important.

Jane: There’s a really kind of interesting and link there, obviously, between the technical skills of having an architect who has that knowledge and the communication with the contractor. Because, there is a bit of a

skills gap right now out there. You know, this is new and it’s progressing and there is learning to be done. And I think that can be sometimes a little bit of a, a, minefield when people are out there not really understanding . what their contractor can do for them and what they need help with.

Christian: Absolutely. And I think that it, it also directly relates to cost as well. I think there is, that skills gap is a huge problem in the industry and will hopefully only get better. But for a client, the issue that that kind of gets resolved, by having an architect who, who is, who has gone through that, I think is so important because, it, it does reduce cost dramatically.

And yes, there is a, a cost for me to go through that with the contractor, but you know, it’s also using the contractors who are willing to talk and willing to look at new, new technology. And, I guess there is a, there is a responsibility there that is taken on by the by the architect.

There is a leap of faith by the client to, to trust in the architect and, and trust in the process. And I think, you know, talking of Faye as a client, it was, we didn’t really know, you know, we’d never really pushed our relationship in that way. You know, it was a real emotional process and you know, I think for us being in the kind of industry was, was really helpful. But I think, yeah, it’s about having the right people on the right project is, is, is so important.

Amy: Thank you so much for being with us today and for chatting to us.

If you’d like to see the photos of the finished project, go to homenotes.co/storiesfromsite.

Thanks for taking the time to listen to this episode. Renovating can be a rollercoaster and if you are at the beginning of your renovation journey, come and find out about our Getting Started Course at homenotes.co to make sure you get the best value from your project. Finally, if you’ve enjoyed this episode, then please do follow or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, as it will help us reach as many people as possible and all learn from these amazing experiences.


Our closing thoughts:

The balance between cost and value is an interesting one, and one that we explore in this episode with Christian and Faye.

Their strategy of making every process count really paid dividends and it’s a wonderful reminder as to what can be achieved with big ambitions.

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