Race to the finish line: A design and build loft conversion
This week we talk to Ella who chose to work with a design and build company to create a loft extension for her home.
We talk to her about the hurdles she went through to get to the finish line and the pros and cons of the renovation route she chose to take.
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.
Amy: This week we talked to Ella who chose to work with a design and build company to create a loft extension for her home. We talked to her about the hurdles she went through to get to the finish line and the pros and cons of the renovation route she chose to take.
Amy: welcome to Stories from Site You have a bit of a whirlwind story. Do you want to dive in and tell us?
Ella: yeah, where do you want me to start?
Ella: To go back to the very beginning. So we, we bought this house in 2020 and that was a quite a whirlwind process as well because it was in between the lockdowns. We only viewed two properties in person. We did most of our searching remotely and but we had quite specific search criteria.
Ella: So when we saw this house, we knew it ticked all our boxes in the right location for us. And it actually had planning permission already granted at the time for a loft conversion and an extension to the kitchen. The previous owner was actually a structural engineer, so he had got all out with his plans and you know, had proper architectural drawings and you know, 3D renders and all sorts of fancy stuff that he, they were very happy to, to hand over to us.
Ella: So that was definitely part of the appeal, that it was, it’s a sort of smallish three bed house, but it had this, potential to expand and it was in an area that we, you know, we could see ourselves staying in at the garden for the dog. Then, because of the lockdowns and everything else, we moved in, didn’t really get round to doing anything else with, with the house beyond starting to do a little bit of research and, and doing some sketches and talking to you guys, doing your course in early 2021.
Ella: But the planning expired in 2021. And so we hadn’t kind of got ourselves together to sort of utilize that before that date. But having said that. The plans especially for the loft that the previous owners had had put through we didn’t like we we sort of thought they were quite complicated.
Ella: They were going to be very expensive We’re in a conservation area and I don’t know how they got the planning approved because they you know They had to have done this quite fancy design for a very big kind of glass box type dormer window you know, that you’d have had to sort of crane in this massive pane of glass.
Ella: And my brother in law is actually used to be a building surveyor. So he was really useful in kind of being like, Oh, I think that’s going to be quite tricky to do, and that’s going to be expensive.
Ella: So we thought, well, we know that we should be able to get planning. There’s plenty of other properties in the area that have quite decent standard loft conversions. So let’s just go back to the drawing board and do our own thing in the end.
Ella: so Life then got in the way.
Ella: We were planning our wedding you know, lockdowns, jobs, Fast forward to the end of 2022. And we were starting to think more seriously about like, right, okay, now’s the time to start sort of seriously looking at doing the loft extension and we had basically decided at that point to go with a design build company to do the loft conversion because what we wanted to do was Fairly straightforward, like I said, wasn’t fancy architecturally and having done some small scale projects in the past in my old flat we redid the kitchen and the bathroom, you know, relatively small project.
Ella: But. I had project managed that all myself. My, my granny used to be a kitchen designer and my parents have done a few renovations in the past. So kind of, we could keep it in the family and I could do the drawings, you know, we work with a friend of a friend who is a builder to sort of do that all ourselves.
Ella: I think
Ella: I just knew this time around I, I, I didn’t have the time to kind of project manage in that level of, of detail and that actually going with a design build company who would sort of just do the whole thing from start to finish would be simpler.
Ella: So before Christmas, I had started to get some quotes. I think I contacted three companies in the end who. And gave us quotes people that I’d found literally by looking at, you know, the scaffolds of other properties in the area who were having their lofts done and which companies they were using and then looking them up.
Ella: So I knew this company had done other other very similar projects in the area. And so. Yeah, we got three quotes and theirs was kind of the mid price one but they also did extensions, We knew that if we wanted to do the extension further down the line, we could come back with the same team.
Ella: So they gave us quotes for both. But ultimately we decided just to go ahead with the loft conversion for the time being.
Amy: And Ella, what was,your reasonnot to do both the parts of the project at the same time?
Ella: Well, it was partly a financial thing to kind of spread the cost over a couple of years rather than doing it all in, all in one go. It was also a timing thing because around the same time, you know, like I said, I think it was the end of November, we’d sort of been getting these quotes. And then I found out I was pregnant at Christmas.
Ella: So that kind of ramped up the… the time scale and the need for the space and everything else but it also meant that realistically we realized counting backwards from my due date, which was mid August that even if we kind of got our acts together and, you know, Sign a contract with this company straight away, got the planning in straight away, everything went super smoothly.
Ella: We wouldn’t have time to do both the loft and the extension.
Ella: We thought, let’s just get the loft done first. That should be fairly quick. We can get it done before the baby arrives and then, do the extension, separately, hopefully next year.
Amy: And who won the race? Did it, did the loft arrive or, or the baby?
Ella: The baby won the race because the baby came three weeks early. so, yeah that was, that was an interesting,part of the process. so yeah, we went back to SimpleEasy in January and said, Okay, yes, we want to go with you.
Ella: And by the way, I’m expecting a baby in August, can we, can we get a move on? And and they said, yeah, that’s great. You know, we’ll do our best. And we spent about a month kind of doing the plans with them.
Ella: They got the planning permission that took longer than expected because we were a little bit cheeky.
Ella: You know, the designers to give them credit, had done these, these drawings with a slightly smaller dormer and we went back to them and said, can we make the dormer a bit bigger? Can we have a, you know, a Juliet balcony? Can we have three windows at the front? And this was all based on the fact that, you know, the previous planning permission we had the drawings where we could see they’d had permission for three VELUX windows at the front and this big glass box,
Ella: you know, dormer. So we thought, well, there’s no reason why our very much more stylistically in keeping with the conservation area, but slightly bigger dormer shouldn’t get permission. We can see a house literally from our window that has a Juliet balcony in their dormer, you know, all these things it’s felt.
Ella: It’s very logical that it would be granted and the designer did come back and say, well, are you sure, like the planners can be quite strict about these things, you know, and we were like, no, it’ll be fine, like it’s on us. So obviously then the planners came back to us after, you know, I think we chased them after about six weeks and said, how’s it looking?
Ella: And they said, well, as it currently stands, we’re not likely to approve for X, Y and Z reasons because it’s too big. The dorm is too big, basically. And, you know. We only want you to have two windows, they’re not in line, all this kind of detail. So we argued back and we said, well, look, here’s all these other properties in the area that that have similar things.
Ella: You know, this property had permission granted before for a different, you know, a scheme that was less than keeping. I think, you know, there’s leeway here, but we did have to compromise. They did allow us to resubmit drawings under the same application rather than withdrawing and reapplying because that would have obviously then we’d have had to wait another two months for planning and I just needed to get things done fast.
Ella: So so we resubmitted drawings, which was basically the drawings, the, the designer originally suggested. So, you know, we were like, okay, you win, you were right.
Amy: How did you feel about that? Did you feel frustrated
Amy: I mean, it seems arbitrary, doesn’t it?
Ella: It was incredibly frustrating. It felt very arbitrary and, uh, you know, uh, wanting to be overly critical of the planning department in my local borough. But it, you know, there was some of the things that they said where they were basically like saying like, Oh, well, previous bad precedent doesn’t count and I was like, well, that’s not, you know, it kind of does, you know, this.
Ella: This previous permission was only granted in 2019. It’s not, you know, I think they tightened things up in 2021 and started to be a bit stricter about things. But I’m like, you can literally walk around the area and there’s a house around the corner that’s got four VELUX windows on the front and they’re all higgledy piggledy.
Ella: but it did just feel like, you know, come on guys none of our neighbors objected. Nobody cared. They were very supportive and enthusiastic.
Ella: so it was really frustrating, yes, especially because it then delayed us further and, and, I really think those kind of 10 centimetres can make all the difference in a, Space like this, but we got there.
Ella: They finally granted permission for the revised scheme and then the way the design builds Team work was that they wouldn’t do the structural drawings until that permission was granted, but then they did that within a week and they sort of, they have like a rolling kind of schedule where as soon as permission is granted, they can start on site within two to three weeks, which was one of the you know, main bonus reasons for going with them that we knew they could move quickly.
Ella: So,They were due to start on site then on the 15th of May. We had our pre site meeting with the project manager who was fantastic, Antanas. I’m going to give him a shout out. So the design build company contracted with A brilliant team called IC Solutions, Inspired Construction Solutions, I think that was the name of the company.
Ella: They were really, really brilliant builders and Antonas was the project manager and yeah, he went above and beyond. But we had our pre construction site meeting on the 10th. of May and he was looking around and everything. Bear in mind, you know, we’d had a survey when we bought the house.
Ella: The designers had obviously come and done all the measurements. He came on site and he looked around the loft and he immediately went, you’ve got asbestos. And we were like, oh no, that’s just the worst, worst thing. And. And he also spotted that the designers had not quite accurately done some aspects of the structural drawings because of the way the chimney flue comes up through the loft, we couldn’t put a structural beam into the chimney breast, and they’d missed that on the, on the structural drawings initially, so, you know, just goes to show that the builders are the ones that really know what’s going on, so they then had to revise the structural drawings to put in an extra beam extra expense in order to get around that.
Ella: So we’ve already lost a month to the planning taking longer than it should have.
Ella: And now we lost, another month to the asbestos because we spent a week getting a proper asbestos survey, getting all the tests back. And then we had to give the council two weeks notice that we were going to remove the asbestos because the type that was in the loft did require the kind of full hazmat approach.
Ella: And then it took a week for them to do all of the asbestos removal. So it meant that they couldn’t get on site to start on the actual loft work until mid June in the end, so it did delay that a full month.
Ella: But yes, we’re now mid-June. I’m due, mid-August. It’s a 12 week project and we’ve basically got like 10 weeks max. And I was very much you know, hoping as a first time parent, a first time mum that, you know, the baby is more likely to be late than early.
Ella: But yeah, so we, we moved out, we went to stay with my parents. We live in South London, my parents live in North London. So we weren’t that far away, but it was, you know, on a, depending on the traffic, depending on the trains, it does take over an hour to get between the two. So that was quite challenging once the, the work actually started.
Ella: You know, we, we couldn’t be on site every day. I was still working and I was, you know, getting more heavily pregnant every day. My partner was still working. He works from home. He was quite flexible. But, you know, we had a lot of stuff going on. And… So, yeah, so that was quite, that was quite tricky.
Amy: Did the design and build company, did you feel like they needed your input or were they quite happy to get on with it?
Ella: They were quite happy to get on with it, but there was still a lot of, a lot of input that, that happened. Yeah, and I was, Speaking to the project manager pretty much every day, either on the phone or on WhatsApp.
Ella: But there, you know, there were just a lot of small decisions and, the way it had worked with the design builders, they’d given us the quote for sort of fixed price for a sort of a basic, you know, This is up to this level of basic stuff and, you know, when we had that site meeting in, in May, he had gone through the quote again with us and said, you know, this is exactly what, what you’re getting.
Ella: But then any extras that we wanted, if we wanted their team to, to do things like installing the floor, doing the decorating, actually doing the tiling and the installation of the bathrooms. That was all kind of extra to the original quote, which was just for the the basic build, and because we were time constrained, it made more sense for us to just go with them to do all of that stuff rather than trying to save money
Amy: And commit to DIY,
Ella: Committing to DIY or, you know, finding other, other contractors to do those, those bits.
Ella: You know, there was a lot of back and forth with them about like, you know, asking their advice on how much, what’s the minimum width I need to allow between the bath and the wall to fit a toilet in and you know, but all of those decisions were mine, you know, picking the tiles, all that interior stuff, obviously and, you know, ordering stuff to be delivered to site.
Ella: And that was where it got a little bit chaotic, to be honest with you, because we weren’t on site ourselves every day.
Amy: And it’s
Amy: a lot of work, isn’t it? I mean, when you actually list out how many things go into a bathroom, it amounts to quite a lot of different decisions. Mm
Ella: Yeah, absolutely. And, in a, in a way, the fact that we were, we were constrained for space was helpful, because I was like, well, I can only look at sinks that are this, you know, I think our sink is 420 wide, because that was the space that we had, you know.
Ella: Most details we got right, but there’s still a couple of things like
Ella: I regret the tap choice. Not because it doesn’t look great, but because it’s actually, the spout is too short the tap doesn’t come out far enough. So you’re sort of washing your hands right up against the edge of the sink. And that’s kind of really annoying.
Ella: So. There were some details like that because we were trying to do things in a rush. But one thing I did just to try and make it simpler was, I basically, we just picked everything from Victorian plumbing. And I was like, that’s the supplier we’re going to use. Tops Tiles, Victorian Plumbing.
Ella: I’m not going to spend ages kind of looking at too many different options because they can generally deliver stuff within three to five working days. And they’re the fastest, they’ve got huge stock, and, you know, I don’t have time to sort of pick my dream bath or dream shower if it’s going to take three weeks to be delivered, you know, that’s going to hold us up.
Ella: So it was always about, like, how fast can we make this happen? And, but yeah, you know, and obviously every decision, you know, when it comes to aesthetic decisions we are wanting to make as a team, wanting to discuss with my partner but with everything else going on in our busy lives, like finding the time to have a conversation about tiles over dinner when you’ve had a long day and you’re really tired and your feet are swelling up because you’re six, seven months pregnant.
Ella: You don’t always have the energy for that conversation.
Ella: If we’d given ourselves more time to kind of plan out all of those choices beforehand, then we’d have been ready to order and, and sort of go when, when the decision came. But, you know, Antonass would say, don’t worry, you’ve got time. I don’t need the decision. I don’t need to know what tiles we’re getting for a couple of days.
Ella: And I was like, a couple of days is not a long time. Like that’s still, you know, so it was a lot of stuff happening very fast.
Amy: So now that you are in and you’re enjoying the space, how do you feel about the choice of prioritizing time? Do you wish that you had given yourself a bit more time?
Ella: Yeah, I think if we had had more time to give ourselves It would have been better, and I think there are certain small details that And this goes back to the design process like I said With the design build process when we first started talking to them they sort of said yes, we handle all that and then and they obviously did the exterior drawings, but like, you know, the drawings you have to do for planning permission are fairly simple and there wasn’t a lot of detail on the inside stuff and Antanas said, our project manager said,
Ella: you know, owners get confused because then the only measurements they get given on those layouts are the external measurement. And actually it might say it’s, three meters wide, but once you’ve got all the walls and the insulation and the plasterboard and the skirting board and everything on, you’ve lost 20 centimeters or more.
Ella: to that. And I think it would have been good if we’d had more time to interrogate that internal design. And that was partly me not knowing that that was something I would need to advocate for. And partly a time thing, because I did ask about it and they sort of said, Oh, your project manager will go through all of that.
Ella: But because we were so fast off the mark to get things done. I think those conversations kind of got a bit rushed or things got missed and there’s things like,
Ella: When the electrician came around and sort of said, okay, what, what electrical points do you want? Where? And it was, again, it was kind of a thing where pre included in the price were sort of 15 electrical points in the room.
Ella: And then if we wanted extra sockets or lights, that would be additional. That’s absolutely fine. And we had had it in our minds on the drawings, like, right, the bed is going to go here in the dormer window. So you’ve got lots of space when you come in. And so we were going to have two wall lights and we said, okay, and, but this was the thing, they were on site at 8am, I, you know, I had, had a really bad night’s sleep the night before, I just wasn’t well enough to get up at 7am and make the journey down to go round the site with them and say, yes, this is where we want the sockets to be.
Ella: So we had to do it over a video call. So we were sort of going in the room going yeah, yeah, socket there, socket there. And then that weekend when we came and they’d already kind of done part of the first fix there was no insulation or anything yet, but they’d put the wiring in. And we looked round and we measured and we said, hang on, this is not wide enough for a bed.
Ella: We can’t fit a bed in this space. The only place we can fit a bed in this room is now under the sloping roof. And it’s going to have to be a queen sized bed, it can’t be, can’t be any bigger than that.
Ella: And… And that means we don’t want those wall lights where they are, because we’re going to end up using that wall for something else. So we then had to go back to them and say, actually, can we change where those sockets are going to go? And that, you know, that’s, those kinds of compromises that we had to make where if we’d had a little bit more time to really interrogate the internal layout and the plan to say, right, what are the internal measurements are going, you know, what are they going to be?
Ella: You know, where do we want all these? Electrical points. You know, all those design decisions we were making on the on the trot as we went along, and it was frustrating because we had those wasted months where we were waiting around for the planning permission and waiting around for the asbestos.
Ella: And I think I completely appreciate and understand why they don’t get into that level of detail until they know the planning permission has been granted. But that doesn’t then leave if you’re then starting on site three weeks after that very much time To be like right.
Ella: Okay. This is this is what it’s actually going to be like internally and and this is the exact sizing.
Amy: I think what’s interesting is I think your experience really sums up both the advantages and the disadvantages of design and build because I think in terms of the speed and efficiency of the process I mean the fact I think you said 10 weeks shy of 10 weeks they they made your That’s, that’s incredible.
Ella: Yeah, I just did the math and that 10 weeks included the week of asbestos removal and the week that they were only working on the bathroom so the actual loft work including the decorating Was eight weeks, which is
Amy: It’s incredible. Yeah. But then on the, on the kind of flip side of that, it’s, it’s frustrating that you haven’t been able to have those conversations, but I think it illustrates that those conversations need to be had and it can either happen early. And it takes longer, the process, or they happen on site and
Amy: you’re reacting in the moment to the thing that you’re being asked and, and there’s less proactiveness,
Amy: to the process.
Ella: And even if those conversations had been happening on site, but we’d had the full 12 weeks or 14 weeks to, to do the project and we’d been able to be on site more regularly, like, you know, two, three times a week. Ideally, I’d have liked to be, be here and looking around and seeing what was going on and, and sort of measuring for myself, you know, still being a little bit more hands on.
Ella: The whole convenience of the designer build, the cost certainty. And the speed is all around the shell. It’s the shell, like you said, it’s just this external structure of this loft or extension. And I think sometimes there’s a misunderstanding that,the extra prices for fitting tiles, fitting flooring, you know, for fitting the inside of your project was additional in cost to that, upfront price that you got and it’s as you said like it’s totally understandable why that happens because that’s within the company’s control And they can predict the materials for that Whereas they don’t know what flooring you’re going to choose or what bath or shower. I know that you had said that you wanted less on your plate, but it’s good for people to know up front that that internal work all reverts back to you again, so in a way you’re doing more of the legwork for a design build contract on that interior space than you would potentially if you had an architect that did the shell and interiors.
Jane: You’re going to pay more obviously, somebody has to work it out, but once you have somebody drawing up those internal drawings for you, that’s very different from that basic drawing at planning.
Jane: having somebody check that everything fits and, and work before you’re on site, it really does help in that way. So I guess it’s really interesting just to hear your, your process, because it could help people decide which route is going to be good for them or how to be proactive about asking somebody to work out that internal space with them.
Ella: And the cost thing as well, again, we could have spent a bit more time really interrogating, right, what’s included and then what extras are we definitely going to need?
Ella: although they were very clear about what they were quoting and they went through the quote with us multiple times, there was no, you know, they weren’t trying to pull the wool over our eyes or anything. But there, you know, it was things like then, you know, oh, okay, by the way, you need to replace all the doors on the first floor because they’re not fire doors and Those are You know, however much 300 pounds, I think each or something like that, you know, so suddenly that’s an extra grand of costs to replace three doors that we didn’t anticipate. Obviously the asbestos removal in the survey, that was, you know, that was several thousand pounds of unexpected costs.
Ella: Obviously that’s exactly what you have a contingency port for. And that wasn’t any fault of the builders that, that we had that. But you know, We knew from the beginning that we were going to do the rewiring. We were going to do the decorating, you know, that we prefer them to install the floor and all this kind of stuff.
Ella: And I think it did feel a lot of the time, like we were kind of being told, okay, it’s going to cost this much to do this next thing. And we had no choice but to go, yes. Okay. Let’s get on with it. Let’s just do it. And you are then kind of, forced to accept that cost. We don’t have that much negotiation room because they’re already on site, they’re ready to go.
Ella: the final cost of the whole thing was probably twice,
Ella: what the original quote was by the time that all those extras were sort of added on.
Jane: Like you said, you’re not being taken for a ride It is just simply the fact that, from a client perspective, receiving extra costs as you go through and not being able to verify or check them, you know, it’s just stress inducing, isn’t it?
Jane: Nobody’s necessarily doing anything wrong, but the process itself is maybe not set up for feeling good about the situation and what’s
Ella: And it and it was a thing of our own making because they were only after all doing what we asked of them which was please finish this build before my due date, you know, and they were pulling out all the stops to get that done fast.
Ella: For me mentally I was like, I can’t even think about the baby arriving until I have my house back, you know, and. And at first, obviously, originally it was meant to be, it should have been done two months before the baby had come and it would have been great.
Ella: And, that window of it’s, you know, I, I just want two months back in the house. Oh, I just want one month back in the house. I’ll be happy with two weeks. Just get me in there before the baby arrives. Oh, well, the baby’s here, like. I guess, you know, and as it, given that that happened in the end, like, maybe we shouldn’t have put that pressure on ourselves.
Ella: I guess you’re thinking still to do the ground floor extension at some point. I wonder what advice you would give your future self and others in similar situations?
Ella: I mean, don’t put that pressure on,
Ella: give yourself a break and, and, you know, just don’t make that deadline a really harsh one because, you know, you don’t do yourself any favors by it. And I think, you know, do really interrogate if you’re using a design build, like how much input are you going to give me on working out the internal layout.
Ella: And, you know, can you run through with me in advance what all those extra costs are likely to be? Because if, even if we’d ask them in advance, okay, well, can you quote for doing this X, Y, and Z? There might have been some stuff they couldn’t have quoted for in advance. As you say, they don’t know what tiles we’re going to pick,
Ella: but like we could have got more ballpark figures out of them and had a better idea of what that final budget would have been from the beginning if we’d known to ask.
Amy: I think that’s so key, isn’t it?
Ella: I think I thought a design build would be more of an all in one package than it, than it was.
Ella: And to do the kitchen, I think I am definitely like planning on trying to do more of that. Planning of like, okay, what splashback do I want? What floor do I want? All those kind of details that I could make the decision of in advance, make it in advance, you know, potentially we are going to work with an architect or an architectural designer to get more.
Ella: Sort of of the basic package even if we then go with the design build company again. I definitely feel like we need more more input on that side of things.
Ella: So yeah, take time if you can and if you’re gonna do it whilst pregnant then start as soon as possible and, don’t be too greedy with your planning permission. Yeah.
Amy: Thank you so much
Jane: I loved it. thank you so much
Jane: If you would like to see pictures of Ella’s projects, then head to our website homenotes.co/storiesfromsite.
Our closing thoughts:
We say it all the time, but there really isn’t one way to renovate.
The key to success is choosing the right route for you and your priorities.
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