A joyful renovation: You just need the right people

with Elesa and Steve

In this week’s episode, we talk to Elesa and Steve who found a run-down house that needed a complete back-to-brick renovation. 

We discuss how they successfully pieced together a range of professionals to offer advice where needed and benefitted from a great match with their contractor who was there to guide them through the process. 

But maybe it’s also their great positive attitude that is perhaps the key to a very happy renovations story? 


Stories from Site – Elesa and Steve

Elesa: It just gives you that confidence when you work with people that you can trust and you know that they’re not going to let you down.

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.

In this week’s episode, we talked to a Elesa and Steve who found a rundown house that needed a complete back to brick renovation.

Amy: We chat about how they successfully pieced together a range of professionals to offer advice where needed, and benefited from a great match with their contractor who was there to guide them through the process.

But maybe it is also their great positive attitude that is perhaps the key to a very happy renovation story let’s find out.

I actually remember Steve, you telling me that, after seeing the house for the first time you vowed, never to go back there again what changed?

Steve: What changed? So Ele will basically talk me into it really. I mean it was pretty awful when we went there, the only sort of original feature left was a pine panelled attic, you know, the parquet was tiled over it was the plastic windows and panelling, and there was loads of damp feeling downstairs as well as which we later discovered was a sink leaking underneath sort of green mould.

And, part, the reason why we actually went for this house, was we were viewed number 10 around the corner which is also up for sale, that came onto the market.

A sort of later version of doesn’t have the house that we eventually bought. This had lots of original features and it was really beautifully designed and looked after and presented, but it just sort of what it brought home was this sort of extra cost of, you know, it had do it as original features, how will we actually do renovation and work around those and kind of bring it out to the modern standards we wanted to really, because I just wanted to live in a house that’s up to modern living standards, I’ve grown up in period properties, you know, and always been a little bit cold or it’s been a little bit damp and I just didn’t want that really. I, you know, I’m getting old, I’ve got all bones now. I don’t want my kids to grow up in that. Do we go for the dreadful house? Where we have to rip out and start again, or do we pay slightly more for something that’s got all those lovely original features and have to work around them.

Steve: And we figured that it would probably be even more expensive to renovation job on the property like that and to get it to the standards that we wanted to get it to while retaining those features. That’s kind of what, that’s how we came round to actually go for the house in the end.

Amy: So when did you start working with your builder?

Elesa: We had about four viewings with our builder here at the house, he was recommended by a friend of Steve’s. Literally every time he would tell us, yeah, there’s nothing to keep.

Steve: Yeah, he just sort of turned up and pushed his finger through the wall, he just said, everything’s got to go, everything’s got to be replaced. The thing about Rafal is he wasn’t phased by anything. that’s the thing he just turned up and he just had this amazing confidence.

We knew that we were going to work with him to be honest, if he’d have us. So, you know, it just kind of get that feeling don’t you? He wasn’t phased by anything. And did you meet with any other builders as well?

Elesa: Yeah, we saw another three, I think. And I mean, the, the feeling that we got from Rafal is that, you know, this guy won’t let us down and we have been extremely lucky with, with all the people that we worked with apart from the window company, which was quite unfortunate. But I have to say we were very lucky. And it just gives you that confidence when you work with people that you can trust and you know that they’re not going to let you down.

And what was your team? I know you had some professional advice from a great interior designer called Bo Fenton, um, who’s a friend of yours. Who else did you work with? Um, local architects, which was very helpful. They gave us some ideas about the layout downstairs, which we didn’t follow actually. But they were very useful because, when people present you with something, you realize that it doesn’t suit you, but then again, it makes you think what you want more. So they did, this design that they kind of hid all the black areas of the house, like storage, toilet in the middle of the house. And we realized that we didn’t want that. And we kept, the original layout, what we did is we moved the toilet at the end of the house on the left side.

And on the other side, we put a picture window. We didn’t want to have, a little storage area. We just wanted to have big windows at the back and have a view to the garden. So it kind of went from there.

Jane: So they did your concepts and did they do detailed design for you as well?

Steve: Not really just, we just did a consultancy with him actually. It wasn’t a huge cost and it was useful for that sense as Ele said for us to work through the layout options and things like that.

We knew we had, we wanted to put a water softener under the stairs, the manifolds for the heating as well. So, it was useful for that cause we sort of work those things through, I guess, all the different scenarios because we weren’t changing the footprint, but we just knew we wanted to make sure what we ended up with was the best way we could possibly live within that space, I guess.

So, so it’s all those things. I think that’s, that’s why it was useful. I think really. And also we did a course with you as well. it’s not a paid plug by the way, to anyone who’s listening, it was really useful because, you know, we’ve never done a project like this before.

It helped with our understanding of what the process involved, how the budget worked. And the importance of having a contingency fund as well, controlling the budget and also, yeah. Getting the right team together as well. We also worked with Mark Barnard Architects, he just lives around the corner from us in forest hill. He helps us with some, designs for the back garden as well, making sure we had the steps came down at the right angle and at the right height and things like that. He provides some drafts, drafts, sketches, and measurements and things for our builders to work off.

These are some people we worked with temporarily, we did work with Bo , as you said. So, Bo Fentum, do you want to talk a bit about that?

Elesa: We just wanted it look like a mid century house, but not like a museum. So she was great finding the right color combinations and sourcing. In Nina’s bedroom, we have the loveliest wallpaper and giving us ideas about the layout in the bedrooms. She she has been absolutely great. And also, Michael, her husband helped us.

He is a sound engineer and, friend of Steve’s, that’s how we know them. And he kind of helped, because they have renovated several houses and, I was against this initially, but Steve was very much in favor and Michael persuaded us to do this, zone the heating in the house, because when you have different levels, you can’t have the same temperature everywhere.

And of course, when you hear that, okay, this will cost this much. You’re a bit, shall we do it? Or maybe just leave it, but at the end you realize that it was totally worth it. Yeah, so it was great.

Amy: And I remember you saying that you employed a garden designer.

Elesa: That was the best decision ever. So I don’t think that the house would be the same if we hadn’t done the gardens, the front and the back one, because it’s such an integral part of the house, and we were very lucky. We were introduced to Mark O’Neill.

He is the loveliest garden designer and we told him our experience in the past.

We fell in love when we were still just us as a couple with the Derek Jarman garden at the Prospect Cottage. So we tried to recreate this in our old property,of course unsuccessfully because the soil was completely wrong. And when we told him this story, he was like, you can have that in the front.

And he did it for us and it looks absolutely brilliant. No, nobody believes that this was a parking space at the front and we have privacy now and it’s just, it just makes us so happy looking outside. You realize that when you work with people that have this expertise it’s totally worth the money.

Steve: Yeah, it’s just, it’s just, when you sit there in the morning to start that view, to front and back, you know, just lift the blinds slightly. It really does set you up for the day, and I’m glad we didn’t delay it.

Amy: And can I ask, did you ever consider having a project manager or an architect to run things on site? Did you go into the process, like with your eyes open thinking, we’re taking on this big amount of work.

Steve: I’m not sure we quite realized how big it was, but I think, we did think about getting an architect in. I took, cause we weren’t changing the footprint. I think that’s, that’s kind of what swung it for us in a way. I think, you know, if we’d been changing the footprint and changing a layout would have been different.

Looking back. Which I think we maybe got a little bit fortunate with our builder, to be honest, because it was always sensible decisions being made. And if he needed to ask us, you know, he always run things past us that he thought might be, might become an issue, or it might be irreversible. The way we saw it, is we wanted to put everything into the finishes on the home. We had not a limited budget, but we knew that this is the money that we have. And we got some quotes from architects and I was a bit scared and I was like, I’m not sure we’re going to be able to pull this through working with someone.

Elesa: And, I mean, from all the shows that you watch on telly, it goes over the budget, when you work with architects and they do the most amazing work, but it kind of scared us. So we decided not to go down that route.

Steve: I think also that we did make some changes that we felt confident we could manage ourselves as well.

So I think upstairs, for example, we moved the wall slightly to make, to make the landing more generous because the landing was quite tight. And also moved the wall between the bedrooms, to make them a more equal size. So they were quite minor things, but there are things we wish we had used an architect that we there’s a couple of tiny things that we think we didn’t get, right.

That we probably would have got right. For example, the windows company and they were pretty dreadful. The surveyor was only confident working with existing openings. And also they sent us the wrong threshold measurements and things like that. So it was a bit ended up being a bit of a, down to our builder to kind of make everything fit when it came.

What we really wanted was to have that one level between the um, the bi-fold doors and the sliding doors, which we don’t, we don’t really have, that would require a lot more concrete, but, and we might well fix that by, by putting some decking there, but there was just things like that.

Steve: And also if you open our top kitchen cupboard it infringes on the, on the storage space a little bit, it was just, which is fine. You know, we’ve still got plenty of storage space, but it’s just, I think there’s tiny little details things, a good architect would have picked up, I guess, but that quite minor, I think overall.

Jane: I think what seems really successful about what you’ve done is that you’ve managed to piece together the team individually and connected with all these separate people and the way that you’ve done that has been really successful.

And I, that was one of my questions. Are there moments where the parts of the different people’s jobs where they meet, was it all through you? Perhaps where those kind of different teams met that would have been where the architect would have smoothed those joints. If you see what I mean.

Steve: I think so. Yeah. I think also, when builders come into contact with trades people that they don’t work with regularly as well.

That’s quite an interesting experience. Uh, the guy that fitted our floor was very skilled, but it was a bit of a, of a pre-Madonna, you know what I mean?

It’s just like, you know, hey, I, I expected this to be clear guys, do you know what I mean? It’s like, you know, um, you know, how can I do my craft? And it’s, and he was very good, but, uh, but honestly there was quite a, quite a lot of antagonism between obviously for Rafal who was running the site and this guy coming on site, you know?

So there are those elements.

Amy: Yeah.

Jane: Yeah. That’s really, really common.

And do you think, that you would work in that way again?

Elesa: Um, I think we were quite naive because we did work in our previous property, but not to that extent.

But on the other hand I would do it again.

It was such a lovely experience. And I think for me and Steve, what worked great is that we can work as a team. I’m quite good at visualizing things and imagining how, how it would look and Steve is great with all the details all the technical stuff.

Steve: Measuring, measuring, that’s one thing I do a lot of.

Elesa: The measuring and all the technical details and all the reviews and everything that we bought, he goes into a great deal of research and yeah, we didn’t skimp on things, but then again, when you do something and when you go into all this, not trouble, but this is going to be the house that we’re going to spend a few good years here.

Maybe forever, I don’t know? We don’t know, but you, you don’t want to rush it. You don’t want to make decisions, decisions that you will regret. I was going to say, how did you, manage that time when you were making all those decisions? Did you make a lot of them before you started work on site or was it all whilst you were on site and how did you make time for that?

It is a proper job I have to say. And I also think it’s not for everyone because I was pregnant, it was lock down, we had a three and a half year old and we were both working from home in conditions humanity has never lived before, like the lockdown in the pandemic. It wasn’t great. That focused there, you know, made us, helped us to make through the day because we, we were unlucky, but on the other hand it was blessing in disguise because our purchase took absolutely forever.

And we were literally, we literally didn’t know whether we’re going to end up buying the house or not, but while we were waiting we were doing all this research, we were getting samples, we were contacting all these companies and we had, Rafal on hold. We never told him, oh, it’s never going to, it’s not going to happen.

Or we don’t know whether it’s going to happen. We were like, as soon as we complete, we’ll let you know.

Steve: We were very lucky as well. I mean, it took so long that the day that we completed the stamp duty holiday kicked in. So we got all our stamp duty back that we had sent to the lawyer. So, so that was quite jammy. So suddenly we’ve got an extra 15,000 to put in, which was, it was just quite which is quite handy.

So, you know, and we, and we, and we needed it in the end cause we stuck to budget as best we could, but, it was quite quite quite difficult to stick to budget. Yeah, but it depends on what you want to spend it on. So we were quite careful, but then on the other hand on things that we want them to last.

Amy: And what areas would you say, you did kind of prioritize your budget on.

Steve: The ensuite. Do you know? Because that’s the adult space, which we keep the kids out of it as much as possible.

So, you know, we spent the money on it and everything up there the fixtures and fittings really, really top quality up there. And the kids aren’t allowed in there. The family bathroom is for them. So yeah.

Elesa: The kitchen, I think it was great, they did the most amazing work because the carcasses are from Ikea, they cost nothing, but the fronts are really lovely and they do make a difference and we bought not the most expensive, you know, fridge or oven, but we bought things that we know that they will last because at the end of the day, you don’t want to be changing these every few years.

Amy: Absolutely.

Steve: For the slider and the bi-fold we went with Schueco, which is the bulletproof, German brand, because we realized that, you know, it’s all very well getting very slim kind of technical window, you know, sliders and bi-folds, but ultimately we want something that’s going to be really robust and it’s going to take family life aswell.

Steve: Lots of pieces that we bought over the years that we, we also designed around as well, I’d say so, you know, we had, we have a beautiful dining table and chairs that we never really had a proper home for. You know, we knew that was going to be the centerpiece for us to eat and drink.

We’d never wanted a kitchen island or anything. We just wanted our family to sit around this table, and we had the space to put that in, you know.

Elesa: And I know it sounds boring, but it really helped us having a spreadsheet. Because when you see how much you spend and how much you have left, it just completely, your mind was completely. you know, how much things will cost. Steve is amazing like that.

Steve: Yeah, we do. We do have a spreadsheet. Every, every single thing is accounted for. Yes. Yeah. What we paid out, so, um, yeah, everything down to even doorstops and everything. So I’d advise, I know it’s really boring if you’re not that not way disposed, but I think that it’s worth doing, um, and toughing it out if you’re not that type of person, because it’s just um, just been that, knowing how much you’ve got left.

Um, and just keeping on track. So, yeah, but having said that, yeah, we went, we did go a bit over budget, so,

Jane: But did you do that knowingly? So you knew where you were at and you made the decision to go over budget rather than not knowing where your costs are and ending in a pickle.

Steve: Yeah, it was a decision. We kind of knew where we are and we knew we had enough to do, you know, the essential, the core stuff, but as extra things we wanted to do, like the garden and things didn’t factor in in originally. So, um, that took us over.

Amy: But I think what you’ve done is, is so key because I think a lot of people, kind of set their budgets at the beginning and then they get on with the renovation. But I think having a budget that you’re keeping track of the changing costs and the extras as you go is just what makes the difference between,staying on track and not.

Jane: How long was the build from start to finish? Because we’ve spoken a little bit about spending the time to get the right finish.

Elesa: I think,I think it was a year, but towards the end, they were not here every day, like working eight hours a day. And also it was quite, we were quite relaxed at the end because, we moved in and there was, there was only one room that it was ready, but then at the end we were like, okay, whenever they want to come, they can come.

It’s fine. We’re not going to push them. We were very happy with what was going on. So,which is a very long time. But then, then last two months were the garden, so it was outside the house.

Amy: You were living on site with a newborn. I mean, that’s, that’s, sounds difficult.

Elesa: But then the cost of renting and paying mortgage was so much we just couldn’t afford it. And I was literally locked inside a bedroom for two and a half months. But yeah, don’t even think about that anymore. I mean, look what we have now. We’re so happy and we couldn’t be happier.

So it just, it was totally worth it.

That’s what I have to say, that it was totally worth it. And, the kids don’t remember it. We forget as well. You just enter the house every day and you’re like, oh my God, this is so nice. And you just go it’s great.

Amy: So what would you say, looking back, what, what do you think you learnt from the process?

Elesa: Oh my God. So, um, renovating, if you survive a renovation, it means that you have a very good marriage. I think it’s, it’s a huge task, isn’t it? And you know, it just, it can be very enjoyable. Because you work on a budget and it’s not that we had money to spend without thinking. So yeah, it can be very stressful, but, we loved it.

We absolutely loved it. We would definitely do it again. I don’t know if we’ll get the chance. It’s also a full-time work. You realize that when you have, when you’re working and you have kids, it can be very, very difficult to manage all this. So we’re very lucky that we had Rafal who was always a step ahead of us.

And without him, it wouldn’t be possible to have the the finishing that we have right now. And, I will always be grateful because he gave us this home that we have now, if it was someone else, I’m not sure it would be as successful as this renovation has been.

But not just him. I mean, we, we have been very, very lucky to work with people that wanted the job and were very happy, to work with us and they just delivered, which is not always the case. I hear people renovating and having huge delays, having problems. I don’t know if it was us? Or if, if it was just pure luck? You can’t just rush into things. I mean, you, you making something that it will last for so many years ahead that you need to be patient and not just, you know, stress everyone and create this tension.

Our next door neighbours, I mean, they put up with all this noise and disruption.

They were absolutely amazing, that played a huge role as well.

Amy: Amazing.

Steve: What I learned is having, having kids is far harder than doing a house renovation, to be honest, I mean, that is everything. And that was the easiest thing we did during that time. You know, I think lockdown it was tough. I had a completely full on situation at work and obviously we had Frankie being brought home from the hospital to two rooms in a, in a building site.

But yeah, I’d say that. I think we really enjoyed it to be honest, we liked the challenge. And also because we got ourselves in a position where we felt we could spend, to get the best quality we possibly could afford.

I think doing that was really enjoyable, you know, who doesn’t like it just picking beautiful floors out. And watching that go down and you know, it depends, it’s where you live. It’s where your family is. And what you’re trying to do is provide the best possible place for your family to grow up.

So who doesn’t enjoy to create that space for them. You know? And I think we have a house which we love living in now and you know, and I’m sure the kids will appreciate it one day. I was not sure they really get it now. but yeah.

Amy: On the same theme, what would you say,was your high and low moment through the process?

Elesa: Low moments, we had our gas meter stolen, day after they’re installed it.

Jane: Oh, my goodness. That’s unexpected.

Steve: I didn’t know there was a market in new gas meters, but we found out that it was apparently cause it was there less than 24 hours.

Amy: Wow.

Elesa: But it was, it was stressful. The waiting, you realize all this, the logistics, like ordering things, the delays that we had. I don’t know whether it was a pandemic or Brexit or whatever, the reason. I mean, we had to be on top of things. We had to have everything here delivered for the builders to work with.

Steve: I think the lows was probably the windows thing, I think just waiting constant delays, and then it reaches the point where you just feel everything going off track a bit because there’s certain jobs they can’t do until the house is weatherproof, right? And they can work around it to a point so that that’s quite stressful. Um, I think that would probably be a low just to just the window situation. I’d probably do that differently.

Jane: And any highs?

Elesa: The highs. I don’t know. I think when we, when we had everything done and we started unpacking, oh, I forgot about that. All our stuff was in storage and you realize that you don’t really need many things, but when we had all our stuff delivered, that was a big high for me because it was, it finally brought it home that, oh my God, this is it.

We’re in now. We’re nearly there. It took a few months after that, but yeah, it was, it was great.

Yeah, it’s just seeing it done and actually enjoying it, I think really, it’s a team effort really. I don’t really sit back and think, oh my God, we did this.

Steve: You know, I think our team or our contractors did it, but you know, it’s still, it’s still lovely to stand back and go. Yeah, well actually, you know, we, we went from here to here and now we’ve got this amazing house to live in and we kind of ended up hitting what we wanted to achieve at the start of it, I think and a little, probably a bit more actually, to be honest, it’s better than I think we could have hoped for which I think is a good outcome. I just feel you both, have got such positive outlook on all of, what you’ve been through.

Elesa: We are, but, I think we just, well, we didn’t fall in love with the house at the beginning, but we saw the potential and. We were also pragmatic about it. And I always felt that we can do this and it will, it will be totally worth it at the end. And it did.


Steve: yeah.

Amy: It sounds slightly like you’ve got the renovating bug though. Would you, would you do it again?

Steve: Yeah, we don’t have any money though. That’s the thing I’d love to do it again. I think we really enjoyed it. And, um, I think we had the right division of labor between us. I think it kind of worked quite well.

Jane: Massive congratulations to you, both for doing such an amazing job.

Amy: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today.

And if you want to see pictures of a Elesa and Steve’s renovation, including photos of their beautiful Dungeness inspired garden, head to our website at homenotes.co/storiesfromsite where you’ll find more information about the project and the people that made it happen.

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:

Renovating is hard, and it takes a lot of energy and planning and careful budgeting – and then some. But, it is possible to have a great experience, like Elesa and Steve.

Taking the time and care to plan everything – especially planning your team and making sure they are the right fit is key to a joyful, positive renovation.

Are you struggling to find your team? Join the conversation over on Instagram!

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