Prioritising positivity: Converting a bungalow with separate trades
with Claire and Dan
This week we talk to Claire and Dan who renovated a 1950’s bungalow in Poole.
With construction costs rising, they reduced the scope of their project, lived on site through the build and managed the project themselves – hiring the different trades they needed on day rates.
We discuss their ambition to keep the process a positive one, and how they organised their home to meet the needs of their family.
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.
This week we talked to Claire and Dan, who renovated a 1950s bungalow in Poole. With construction costs rising, they reduced the scope of their project, lived on site through the build and managed the project themselves, hiring the different trades they needed on day rates. We discussed their ambition to keep the process a positive one and how they organized their home to meet the needs of their family.
So welcome to Stories from Site, Claire and Dan. Great to have you with us. Do you want to start by telling us where you’re based in the world and yeah, the beginnings of your renovation journey?
Claire: Yeah, so thanks for having us. We’re really excited to be here. So we live in Poole in Dorset. We’ve both grown up here. It’s our, you know, it’s our place where our homes have always been and our families. It’s a really lovely place to live. So we bought a mid-century, 1955’s bungalow.
It was a house that had a lot of potential because it’s on a really big plot. It’s south facing at the back and it backs onto a nature reserve. So, In an urban area, it’s actually very much like living in the country. It’s a very quiet neighborhood. The bungalow we bought was really in desperate need of, of having some attention. But we could see that there was potential. But it took us seven years before we could do the renovation project. So we lived with it like that and really got to know the place.
Amy: And did it change what you initially started out thinking you were going to do? Did it, did that change as you lived in the space?
Claire: Yeah, massively. And I think that although it can be frustrating to live in a home that, you know, is not necessarily working that well for family life. It does give you, you know, that house intimately. And we, we really did. We knew how to follow the sun. And we knew the kind of views that we wanted to capture.
It also really gave us an opportunity to assess how much volume perhaps we did or didn’t want to add. When we moved in, our children were about 16 and 14. They’re now sort of 21 and 19. They must have been slightly younger than that. I don’t know. It seems like a long time ago, but they were little, they were little people and now they’re sort of adults still living at home, still studying.
So actually perhaps what we would have done when they were younger and the way we used the home then is It’s not how we live now and I think what we’ve managed to do is to create a home with enough space for everybody but without just adding lots of extra space that probably we won’t use, and especially moving forwards when the children move on it feels like a nice house also just for Dan and I and then friends and family coming to stay.
Amy: Cause Dan, You’re actually in the, what was the hub of the renovation, right? Tell me um, where you are.
Dan: Yeah. So where I am at the moment jokingly when, when I’m on work meetings with camera on people say, oh, you’re in the sauna. But no, this is this, which actually does feel good. It does feel like it sometimes when it’s when it’s beating down with sun and some of these hot days we’ve had.
It does get very hot in here. But it’s nice. It’s nice. But yeah, so this is our our log cabin that we have put up initially on this plot where it’s placed was a was a block built garage very ugly horrible thing. So at the start of the renovation. We knocked that down and we put this cabin up that allowed Claire and I to move out from the upstairs of the house into here.
So we lived in here, I think end to end about seven months. So with us moving out from upstairs that obviously allowed the build to start with knocking out for dormers and new stairs, et cetera.
So, yeah, that was that was the plan for this obviously storage as well. So we had some of our furniture in here and then when we finished in here, moved back into the house, we could then move both the kids out into the cabin. So they shared the space for about four months, three or four months.
And then that allowed us then to finish off the downstairs and their rooms. And now it’s, it’s all kind of guest room. There’s a toilet in here and a sink and or day to day it’s our work desk area as well.
Amy: So I have quite a lot of questions. I want to ask you I guess the first one is that you guys approach this project quite differently to a lot of people and you project managed the whole thing. Do you want to explain kind of you know, why you wanted to do that in the first place and how, how it kind of,
Claire: So I think we went into the project very naively. It’s not something we’ve ever done before. Probably greatly underestimated all that it involved. And I think if you don’t underestimate it, you probably wouldn’t start it in the first place. We set a very clear intention at the beginning of the renovation that whoever came to contribute, whatever contractors turned up, we wanted them to want to be here.
We didn’t wanna create a renovation environment, particularly as we were living through it and on site where we had contractors turning up who didn’t wanna be here or there was ill feeling. So that was the only really, really clear intention we had. And actually, looking back now, that is what carried us through because we did probably everything that you shouldn’t do. We signed no contracts, we paid every single person on a day rate, and we trusted our people skills. We trusted that we could build relationship with those contractors and they would want to show up the next day and the next day and the next day. And even when complications or difficulties arise, it can be so stressful and your immediate response to that is, Oh my God, you know, and you want to kind of sort things out.
And, and actually it was a case of us just stepping back and treating the situation from a kind of balanced perspective where rather than pointing a finger of blame at anyone, we were able to just have conversation and work through anything that needed to be worked through. And I think that’s what really got every trades person on board with our vision, because ultimately nobody else cares about your home and what you’re trying to create in the way that you do. And I think the reason that was so important to us is I really believe that I wanted people to come and show off their skills because they’re leaving their legacy and what they put into the home is what you’re left living with.
And I didn’t want to look at corners or spaces in my home and have memories of things being, you know, with bad feeling. And actually, somehow we managed to carry that off and I think that was our, that was our real strength because we certainly didn’t have knowledge or skills or any training to do this whatsoever.
We’re, you know, we’re complete novices. But actually it’s turned out really successfully in the end. So that did carry us through.
Jane: So just to clarify, you didn’t have a main contractor and you just, went out and you were like, let’s find an electrician, let’s find a plumber. And they turn up on site and you say, this is the job that you need to do today, or did, did any of those people speak to each other?
Was there any kind of communication? Were they willing to interact?
Dan: Yeah, so our, main builder who did the extension, obviously a lot of the construction. He’s, he’s a good friend of the family. So he gave us some kind of contacts other friends and people that he knew. There’s other people that you know, we know through the family as well, that we’ve engaged in this and they, yeah, I mean, they were talking, you know, when they’re on site together, they’re talking and communicating or if they’re not on site together, you know, it’s through us and they’re saying, Oh, can you, can you get the chippies here to, to do such and such, or, or, you know, or the chippies will need the plumbers in to do a piece of work before they can box something in.
Jane: I guess that’s about that feel good thing of having people willing toyou know, have a good, a good relationship with everyone else on site.
Claire: I think the most challenging thing was we didn’t know which trades. It’s, it’s like tag team, isn’t it? It’s, you know, a contractor will come and do something and then they need somebody else to come and do something. And so we really did learn from the contractors, actually the order of things.
And our, our builder was in the background. He came and went. And we could always pick up the phone to him and say, look, we’ve got to this point. Can you just give us an A, B and C of what order we need to do things? I think for me, that was one of the most stressful things as I felt very out of my depth with regards to the order of how things are done.
But actually, if you break it down into what needs to be done today or this week, or what materials do we need to get to site to enable that next part to be completed We somehow just managed to break it down like that. And it was through communication, I think that, and, and, and then willing to help us, I think they saw how passionate we were about what we were doing.
And they, they kind of wanted it to succeed as well, which was really lovely. I didn’t feel that anyone was working against that. So yeah, they were very good natured. We even had our carpenters here worked all of the bank holiday weekend over Easter. And I ended up babysitting one of their little girls for the day so he could work.
So, yeah, I mean, they were, they were fantastic.
Jane: I love that.
Amy: Going back a little bit, you explained your initial brief for the home was movement and stillness. And I thought that was such an amazing brief to, to kind of come at a project with. Can you explain a little bit where that came from?
Claire: Yeah. So so my background is in, I was a human movement analyst for many years. And so my background is in the physicality of people and, and, and how that feels. So I think everything I do in life creatively, I really approach from the inside out. And also knowing our family, we love to get together. We love to be sociable, but we’re also individually real hermits.
All of us need to withdraw and have space on our own and quiet space to really feel good and, and, you know, to do life. So. Initially, we had a set of drawings drawn up by a London, quite well known London based architect. And actually, we didn’t proceed with that project because it was a very open plan space.
The construction was too big, really, and I felt like it was going to be too big an investment for the property. The initial issue we were trying to resolve was the positioning of the downstairs bathroom. And that… eventually became the thing that actually got the project we’ve built kind of to, to be in the form that it is, because actually we had a light bulb moment.
So what if we just leave that bathroom where it is and we work with it, rather than that being the problem, why don’t we leave it exactly where it is? We changed the glazing for sure. So we had a sight line down the garden, which is lovely. And that allowed us to create a broken plan space.
There’s enough open space and communal space that we can really get together and, and, you know, have a lovely time with either just ourselves or other people, but there are breakout spaces and quiet spaces where we can sit and enjoy the view from the garden or sit and read a book or just, for us to retreat and, and that’s actually how we live in it day to
day, a lot of the time.
Amy: I I love that, we’re, we’re always advocating for getting rid of the open space because you end up using your furniture to be the walls and kind of to try and create that segmentation so that you can have space to do, you know, different activities. And I love that you recognize how your family was operating their kind of emotional needs, their physical needs, and, and work that into the plan.
I guess I also wanted to ask about the budget side of things. Maybe how did you, did you have an approach to that?
Dan: I think the budget has kind of evolved as, as the, as we’ve gone through the project, obviously we, we had an initial amount of borrowing. But where, obviously with, with COVID and Ukraine war pushing prices of everything up, it has, it has meant that, that budget is not stretched, obviously, as far as as we thought it might.
We have also done some changes along the way.
So. I think it was just a case of keeping a close eye on the budget and cutting costs where we could. For example, throughout this whole project, we never even had a skip on site. So there was a lot of, a lot of materials were reused like when we knocked down this, block built garage. All of those, all of those blocks have been reused in retaining walls and different parts of the project. We’ve used some of the other materials for, you know backfilling.
You know, we, we, we’d spend every weekend doing.
Trips to the tip, loading up the car, just taking things away sticking things on gum tree. You know, quite often we’d have a pile of old wood out the front and we, there was a local guy that would come and take it and he’d use it in his, in his wood burner or something.
So, you know, we managed to get things off site without having to, having to pay for a skip.
Amy: That’s really
Jane: That’s something that you wouldn’t be able to do if there was a main contractor,
Dan: Yeah, immediately they just get a skip in.
I think another, another good way that we’ve managed to stay within our budget is with our storage costs. So obviously there’s, we’ve had to move all of our stuff out of the house rather than rent a storage space. We actually bought a large storage tent marquee and we put that up down the end of the garden.
So that’s been used, I mean,it was used for certain materials, you know, if we had a load of wood being delivered, we wouldn’t want to store that outside or inside in the way of people working. So it went down in the storage tent, which meant it was here on site ready for when people needed it.
And then we got a storage tent at the end of it that we can, that we can hopefully sell on.
Amy: I love that because you’ve picked two things that really add up in any renovation. We should get onto the kind of time scale of this, because I guess what you’ve, what you’ve used is the fact that you are living on site, that you have got, you know, this time to kind of organize these things, because I guess that’s part of it when you’ve got a builder on site, right?
The skip is, you know, get it in, get it out. You want that speed because you want to get the builder out as well as fast as possible. But I like that in a way, because you’ve taken your time, it’s given you the time conceptually and design wise to establish what you want to achieve. But also like you haven’t just left those principles there.
Claire: You’ve used that with your build. And I think that’s, that’s really coming across as a real powerful tool. I think also with regards to timeline, we could have moved out completely and rented off site. But what we chose to do, we chose to invest that money into building the cabin because one, it allowed us to be on site throughout and that meant we had a closer working relationship with the contractors when they were here and we were always available to make those small decisions about where does this light socket go and how long do you want that cord to be on the light or whatever, you know, all the millions of decisions that you have to make. So we were always here instantly available, which I think really helped the project along.
We actually went from a four bedroom property to a three. So we reduced our bedrooms, which from an estate agency point of view is probably madness, but actually the quality of space we have is fantastic now.
And we prioritized that because it’s going to be a long term home for us. So where we lost a bedroom within the home, we’ve now got this beautiful cabin space.
And so whether or not we slowed things down by living on site, I’m not entirely sure. I don’t know, but it probably took a bit longer, but I think for us, the, because we were so naive with the process, being close to it and being available and being able to take advice or have conversations from contractors on a daily basis felt really, really important to us.
And do you feel like that kind of commitment from your side has led to more appreciation of what you’ve made? For sure. You know, it was a complete back to brick renovation. We rewired, re plumbed, re plastered. Every surface has been touched.
there isn’t one part of this house I don’t think we’ve seen the bare bones of. And, and if you’re disconnected from site, I don’t think you would really appreciate that, but we saw each stage and, you know, sometimes you come home and you think, Oh, not much has happened today, but actually it’s been quite an intricate piece of work and it’s required a high level of skill and you, you’re seeing that,
kind of go on. So yeah, I feel like we know this place inside out and back to front really, which is, it’s a nice feeling when you’re living in it to kind of, to, to have seen that process through.
Amy: And can I ask, how did you guys work together?
Claire: So Dan, I’ve been together a long time. We’ve been together for 33 years. So we, we work well together in the sense we’ve got very complimentary skill sets. And in a way I sort of always feel like Dan’s the adult in the relationship and I’m like the excitable child.
So a lot of the kind of creative, drive and those decisions about materiality and space layout and things like that. I’m really, really passionate about. I always have been right from being a small child. I was that small child who’d moved their bedroom around sort of, you know, four times a month.
And, so it’s always been something that I’ve loved. I’ve, I love home. I love making a home. So all of that, I feel like I am obsessive about researching details and took a long time, you know, for instance, with the, with the kitchen, we, we drove, we got in the car and drove six hours to Norfolk to go in spend an hour with the kitchen makers and then got in the car and drove six hours back on a really cold, wet February morning.
And everybody thought we were bonkers, but actually just, I needed to feel and touch those materials and see the colors rather than on a small sample and things. So, and just obsessive researching about, seeing if we could get a look without compromising on quality on a better budget.
And it’s amazing when you do put that time in how much cost saving you can make. We didn’t buy anything from the high street at all. Everything came online. So all our sort of bathroom fittings and everything.
And we just bought stuff and stored it in the sale. As Dan said, we had the storage tent at the bottom of the garden. So lots of things went in there and then it was months before we saw them again.
So from that side of things, I feel like that’s really my passion, but Dan is an incredible spreadsheet whiz and he’s very, very good at keeping an eye on timelines and budget. And
Dan: yeah, I suppose the the, the logistics of it all. So with working from home I think at the time you, for the majority of this, Claire, you were, you were working actually at the uni, weren’t you? So you weren’t here. So I was, I was here. I was the, the face on site with all the trades. So I was kind of like go to person, you know, logistically sorting out what materials do we need on site,
when? You know, do I need to get hold of one of the other contractors to come back? So, so that side of things you know, the, the practical. And then, yeah, although, you know, Claire’s obviously got the design flair, I was more on hand liaising with the electricians around plug socket set placement thermostats, all that kind of technical side of things.
Amy: And did you turn your the space you’re in at the moment, did you turn that into your kind of foreman’s office? Did you have
Dan: Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, so my, so my, my desk was actually just over the other side of the room directly opposite the door. You know, unless it was chucking it down with rain or absolutely freezing cold. Then the door was wide open. So, you know, and there’s people working out there. Many time I’d be sat here on a work meeting and there’d be a cement mixer going behind me.
Dan: So how long do you think it took you in entirety from getting your drawings to finishing and feeling like you were done.
Yeah, it was about 15 months. And, you know, while we were lining up Tim, our main builder we were doing things like knocking down the garage here because we knew we wanted to get this cabin up first. So obviously we were sourcing that and, and then out here another, friend of the family, we know that that does a lot of sort of landscaping and groundworks type things. We, we had him in and our son was out here with a sledgehammer enjoying himself smashing the garage down.
Amy: That bit is fun, I have to say. Whenever we’re on site with the builders demolishing something, you do just want to join in, yeah.
Dan: yeah, yeah. So we were able to get, yeah, we were able to get that started. Then while we’re waiting for Tim, our builder to start coming in and you know, digging out the footings and, and things like that.
Claire: You just have to wait for that window. We knew we wanted Tim. We trusted Tim and, and we just had to wait for him to be available. It was about March 2022 where he actually sort of started digging footings and things. So yeah, we, and then everything just evolved from there.
We did think we had carpenters lined up for the for the whole project, but on the first day that our carpenter arrived, it was him and his brother and he said, I hope you don’t think I’m going to be a magic bullet for this project because I’ve got four days or we’ve got four days and I remember my stomach hitting the floor and just a blind panic descending.
Because actually we thought that he was going to be available for the whole project, but he had so much work on he just couldn’t commit to it. So him and his brother did the first dormer, which is quite a complicated one because it’s it goes over the hip of the house. And so that one he put up the structure for that but coincidentally at the time we were having our stairs replaced which we’d gone to a local firm for and there was two fitters here fitting the stairs tiz whilst thinking, oh no, our project’s not going to proceed, I don’t know what to do, we don’t know any carpenters, and our builder Tim said, why don’t you ask, the chippies who are doing the stairs, if they want to take the project on.
And I said, well, I don’t know them. I don’t know what that, and he said, look, anyone who can fit stairs like that, they’re beautiful. They know their stuff. If they can do that kind of carpentry, they can do carpentry. And so that’s how it happened. We just asked them, would you be willing to take it on? And then, yeah, there was four of them in the end that kind of not all four of them all the time.
Sometimes it was one, sometimes it was two, but they really became like family. There were a very lovely, cool team, young team of carpenters. And actually they took on, they did all the plaster boarding for us. They did all the soffits and things. They did a lot of stuff that’s not traditional carpentry.
And I think cause they just love being here. They sang all day long. They made us laugh. They’re a real motley crew, but really highly skilled and we’re willing to just, do whatever needed doing. And we were incredibly lucky to have kind of, you know, captured that rather than dropping the ball. Cause I think the whole project would have ground to a halt had they not stepped in and, and, and seen it through.
So they’re sort of the unsung heroes of this really. Cause without them, I don’t think we’d have got it done.
Amy: I love the way that you have such respect for all the trades, because I think sometimes, like you say, there’s a, there’s a distance between the people who are making your home for you and, and yourself, but when you actually see it up close, I mean, you can’t have anything but respect for them. Cause it’s just, it’s hard skilled jobs, you know and that really comes across as well, that you really showed appreciation for what people are doing for you, which I think is, is really great.
Dan: I think as well when, when you’re, when you’re renovating a place it’s, it’s, it’s a lot more difficult than if they’re building something new because when they’ve got a blank canvas, you know, they’re building their frameworks, whatever, but when it’s a renovation and they’re, you know, taking tiles off, looking to see what’s there already, what they’ve got to work with, there’s a lot of, you know, there’s a lot of unknowns and a lot of things they have to try and overcome and, and, you know, work out day to day.
Jane: Okay. My last question is what Actually, there’s two more. I’m so sorry, I feel like I could ask you a zillion questions, but um, I guess one, what was the most challenging part of the whole renovation?
Amy: Was there anything that kind of caught you by surprise?
Claire: I think the low point was, all of the holes in the house where glazing should be. So, you know, when talking back to the budget, we could have done this project, on a more modest budget had we chosen different glazing and probably different kitchen, but we chose black aluminium glazing from a local Poole based company and of course, they don’t like to estimate openings at all.
So the timeline was about 14 weeks, something like that, between all the openings being prepared and the survey, you know, coming from them. And that took us right through till I think November we had the glazing in. So a lot of the time, you know, the holes are boarded up with hardboard or, you know, we’d lie in the cabin at night and there’d be high winds and rain and we just hear tarpaulins flapping and tiles flying off the roof.
And, you know, at one point upstairs, I think we must have had 50 or more kind of buckets and trugs and things just catching rain and it would just run to the downstairs. And it’s, it’s just, you’re worried when things are going, being put in place, that then things are going to get ruined by water damage.
So I think that, that was a challenging point because you just don’t really settle until you’re watertight. It’s, it’s just the unknown. And. You know, the couple of days before the windows went in, we just had wall to wall rain continuously and high winds. So that yeah, it was a real challenge and,
And I would say the other thing you might want to chip in here, Dan, but the other thing was not knowing the order really looking back, we weren’t really sure of the order that things were going to be done in. I’m not sure that anybody really was in, in fairness. I think we just worked it out as we went along, but that can be,
quite unnerving because we didn’t want to be the single point of failure for the project. We wanted to make sure that if contractors were turning up, they could actually do what they’d come to do or the materials were here on time. And that is a constant. You, you’re juggling so many, you know, spinning so many plates, making sure that you’re not the point of
failure. So that I found really hard.
What about you Dan, what was your low point? Yeah, it was definitely a big, As Claire said, definitely a big, challenge having all the, holes open in the house. I think, keeping an eye on the budget as well was, was, was quite a low point. I mean, particularly as Claire said, the, the windows that we went for.
We’ve gone for high quality glazing from a local company. When we had the original estimate, when they priced it up for us and that, and that quote came in we were like, oh yeah, great. You know, we hadn’t a bit of an idea of what it, what it might cost. And then it came in, it was there or thereabouts what we were expecting.
But for one reason or another, neither of us saw the plus VAT on the bottom of, on the bottom of it. So all of a sudden we had to, you know, our budget was, was then shrunk by that. By that missing v a t. So,
Amy: it is an eye watering number, isn’t it?
Dan: it, it, it is, but we know, you know, we’ve bought right, you know, by once they, they, they will last us.
So in the, in the long run it is, it will definitely pay off. But we’ve, you know, throughout this, we’ve had to, we’ve had to go back for, for borrowing a, a, a couple of times to get us through to the end. I say, and we’re probably about with 99 percent of the way there’s a few little finishing off bits for us to do.
But it’s, it’s everything is fully functioning and livable
Claire: We like to call them pottering jobs now. We’ve just got a few pottering jobs to do, but it’s really weird by the time you get to the end of the project and you’ve been kind of full steam ahead for so long, those pottering projects seemed it’s quite difficult to raise the, the stamina to, to do them.
So, um, we are, we are still going. We’re just emptying the tent at the moment completely so that we can sell it on and we just want to achieve getting the tent down at the bottom of the garden.
My last question is what piece of advice would you give other people who are about to renovate?
I think if you don’t have experience of renovating before, before you set anything into motion, really just check in with yourselves or each other. What are the important things, for you and hold on to that. So our initial brief that, you know, the, the movement in stillness might seem quite abstract, but actually it for informs the layout and the materiality.
Particularly when we, you know, we look to the materials we’ve, we’ve laid cork flooring throughout the entire plan, downstairs, upstairs in bathrooms and kitchens, we wanted that cork floor because it’s noise dampening.
And also, you know, we have a great garden that we, we spend a lot of time outdoors we’ve got two little dogs and a cat, you know, and it’s, it’s a really tough flooring that we don’t have to be precious about. So. You know, that movement and stillness brief actually kind of had quite a ripple effect and, and, and I can see it in the finished renovation.
And the other thing was our, Dan and I just trusting our people skills. You know, we, we try and be good people in the world and, you know, nobody’s perfect, but I think that we treated our contractors in the way that we would want to be treated and we respected their skill set. You know, bottom line is if we could do something ourselves and we did, you know, we laid the floor and we did all the decorating, we, we labored, we cleared site, you know, we, we did a lot of hands on, we were really hands on with the, with the project.
But there were things that we couldn’t do and that requires training and it requires expertise and we very much respected those skills. And I think too often, you know, builders can get a bad rep or trades people can, but I do think it’s a two way street and you know,
So maybe we got lucky, but I, I think it was setting that intention and,
if you’re not clear about what you want to create or why you’re creating it, I don’t think the contractors have a clear vision and they don’t really have anything to get hold of and work towards. And everything then breaks down into everybody being quite separate. Whereas I feel like, our Contractors were able to communicate with us, but also each other, because we were at the center of that.
And, you know, where we didn’t, as I say, where we didn’t have skill, I feel like we were probably in one way, the nerve center, the communication, but also the glue that held everything together.
Jane: I love that.
Amy: Amazing. Well, thank you so much.
Jane: And if you would like to see photos of Claire and Dan’s. Project then head over to our website at homenotes.co/storiesfromsite
Our closing thoughts:
What a difference your outlook can make on a project . . .
When we’re the ‘client’ or the ‘customer’, it’s easy to fall into expecting a service or a particular end result.
But Claire and Dan show the power of seeing themselves as part of the team, and of positively facilitating their tradies.
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