Renovating remotely: Transforming an old school on Anglesey
This week we talk to Gemma who renovated an old school building on Anglesey whilst living in Manchester.
We talk to her about managing a remote renovation, the pros and cons of working directly with a larger contractor. And differences in renovating a holiday home as a business.
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 Gemma who renovated an old school building on Anglesey while living in Manchester.
We talked to her about managing a remote renovation, the pros and cons of working directly with a larger contractor, and the differences in renovating a holiday home as a business.
So welcome to Stories from Site. Today we’re going to be talking to the lovely Gemma, who has done our course and has been a member for about a good year and a half, I think.
I feel like we really know your project and I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed seeing seeing on Instagram it almost to the finish line. But Gemma, welcome. And do you want to start with what your project was? And cause it’s a big one, isn’t it?
Gemma: Thank you. Yeah, it is. Well, it is for us. Yeah, yeah, it’s it’s a school on Anglesey. We’d been looking for um, a holiday home project for a while. And it is bigger than we’d, we’d thought we’d, we’d go for. But because of… It being so neglected, it was a good price, although the costs have gone higher and higher with the, with the build and probably the timings haven’t helped with that.
But yeah, it’s, it, it drew us in straight away because it’s a gorgeous old building and we loved the bare bones of it, but it’s, It had not been touched for a really long time, so it did need a lot of work.
So we actually bought it off a couple who had planned to renovate it themselves, but the building has got an order on it that it has got to remain a commercial property, so we’ve got to run it as a business. It can’t just be ours. To live in and unfortunately for them they couldn’t afford to not have it as their primary residence as well.
So they were forced to sell it but they already had planning permission on it. So it was, it’s an old schoolhouse, a small school and they had planning permission to do it into three separate properties. They wanted to live in a third of it, and rent out two thirds. So when we purchased it, instead of doing a complete new planning application, we did an amendment on the application so we kept one side as a, as a holiday let, as it was. And then we’ve got quite a big family and we wanted it to appeal to different people, so we decided to combine the other two so that that’d be a bigger side.
So we’ve got a five bedroom in one side and then a two bed in the other side. So yeah, it’s, it’s been, I think from the beginning we did kind of see, we’ve swapped rooms about slightly from what we first envisioned, but it’s kind of remained as, as we imagined really from the beginning.
So we did have quite a clear vision of what we wanted it to look like.
Jane: You had plans already. Did you just go back to the same architect that had done the original plans and just say, can you change it slightly?
Gemma: We did yeah,
we stuck with the same architect because all the drawings were in place and he knew the building, he knew the project, he’d worked with the planning people on it, we didn’t want to it.
You know, mess things up too much and alter things, so we stuck with it, with him.
Amy: He’s a really nice guy. The only thing he’s very laid back and probably not as, as assertive or as um, modern as we’d have perhaps liked. His drawings were very basic and quite old fashioned and it just gives that space for the builders to blame the architects all the time, but we didn’t want to pay him to continue, you know, with project managing it for us because we weren’t confident, but at the same time, we have missed that, we did need that, definitely.
Gemma: Did you
Amy: take that on yourself?
Gemma: Well when we originally started it, we spoke to the architect and we, we put the tender out to three or four different builders. And the majority of them did say on Anglesey, you tend to let the, builder, they, they run a complete team, so you let them project manage the, the build and then you kind of work alongside them, so we did end up doing that, but in hindsight, I think it’s definitely delayed things.
Jane: And do you feel like if you had had the architect there, do you think that that would have pushed things along a little bit?
Gemma: Yeah, yeah, I definitely do. I think if we’d have had an architect, a professional to be having the regular meetings and pushing the deadlines. I’ve been going over really regularly but I think if someone was there in a professional capacity it’s a different, a different set up, a different relationship where obviously I’m trying to keep the relationship as good as we can with the builders and.
You, you kind of, you want to be their friend and you want to, to work in a really positive way with them, but then I think you need that professional input as well to, to keep things moving and, and keep pushing that side of, of the project along.
Amy: Yeah. You need the good cop, bad cop, really, don’t you?
Gemma: Absolutely, yeah, I think that would have helped, and a few times, like my husband’s quite happy to play the bad cop, I’d rather stick to the good cop.
Jane: I guess
you don’t know what’s, what’s a delay, or what’s an excuse, or what’s legitimate, or what’s not, and how can you argue the case when you don’t, have that extra knowledge, I guess.
Gemma: Yeah, definitely. And at the beginning we did like we have a friend who’s a quantity surveyor and we spoke to him about possibly looking at managing it. And then another our friends who were involved at first, we had somebody through them who was going to project manage it, but then he got a different job.
I contacted a lot of different architects as well that I’d found through the RIBA, but they didn’t get back to me or I did, or I just got a standard, you know, we’re not taking anything on at the moment. I did really try at the beginning and then because the builder and the quantity surveyor at the time who were working with us had said, you people don’t tend to do that on Anglesey anyway, I just thought, oh well, we’ll.
We’ll carry on and we’ll stick to it like this. I can go up regularly I work part time, so I’ve been working it in between my work hours going over. But I do think it would have been better if we would have had that professional on our side.
Jane: I guess the other factor is just the distance, isn’t it?
if that was your home and you’re literally living in it, then the contractor’s like, Oh, they don’t have a roof, or they don’t, you know, there’s a certain aspect of urgency that maybe there wasn’t if you’re not living in the building.
Gemma: Yeah, absolutely. Plus, you’re not around the corner for any decisions or any mistakes or, you know, if I’ve kind of realized that you can’t take anything for granted, you can’t assume anything, there’s been things that we’ve Discussed, and I’ve, I’ve wrote lots of emails, I’ve, every time I’ve been over, most of the time I’ve been going over weekly, and then more recently it’s been two or three times a week, but it’s just over two hours to get there, so it’s around about a five hour round trip with traffic and things, so it is
Gemma: Thank you. Yeah. so, it’s, it’s been quite intense in that side of it but I’ve been trying to, to go as regularly as possible but it’s inevitable that there is going to be times where decisions are made on the spot and you’re not around the corner to be called upon.
Do you feel like, because it’s not your home, it’s easier to make those decisions anyway? Because you’re like, okay, it needs to be functional, it needs to like, last a long time, it needs to look good. Like,
Amy: what were your kind of criteria for choosing things?
Gemma: I think, yeah, like you say, we wanted it really functional and But I still didn’t want to compromise on the, the overall look and the design of it, but inevitably we’ve had to find other ways of getting a look, but without spending quite as much. So things like the kitchen, I’ve probably chose a kitchen that I wouldn’t have wanted at home.
I’ve gone more minimal and really simple so that it’s easy to clean and easy to keep nice. And then I’ve gone for a cheaper kitchen but used quartz worktops so that it’s really practical and so we’ve spent more on the worktops but kept the overall kitchen cheaper. But now that it’s in, I actually prefer it to, to home.
It’s just really clean and simple looking and I think, I think it will be quite nice that it’s It’s, it’s not cluttered and pared back a bit really.
Amy: I mean, it looks amazing.
Gemma: So what was the most kind of surprising thing? Do you feel like there was something that caught you out, or you didn’t expect to be difficult?
Initially we had a builder who,
He was a really nice guy, an older guy, but unfortunately he got really poorly and he just went really quiet, we didn’t know why, we just thought that he was busy with other projects and things, and then he, he became very ill, so he had to pull out of the project.
So that. That was difficult, it was a surprise at the time, and obviously it changed things, but then we did end up going back with the builders that we’d originally looked at and they took the project on instead and they’ve been really good. But then down the line because they came into it a little bit after, they kind of came into it running a little bit, and we’d probably not done the initial work that we would have done had we…
Both come into it originally together. So we had a few complications at the beginning. There was a problem with the roof where from this was an issue that kind of ran into the architect thing as well. The builders said that they thought it was a repair job. The architect said in his notes it was clear that it was a new roof.
So when they initially quoted it, they quoted to repair the roof, which wouldn’t have been possible anyway because of the roof height space, because we’ve gone from a single story building to adding a staircase in and an upstairs. So that ended up adding quite a considerable cost onto it when we figured that out.
So that was a big shock at the time and, and made things really difficult, but we’ve, we’ve got there, we’ve worked through it, and, and it’s obviously been difficult then because we’ve, we’ve had issues financially with it, but it, it has worked, worked well, and we’re really pleased with the quality of the work that they’ve provided for us.
Jane: So it has meant a big jump in our, our budget again because of that. But, I think now that we’re at the end line and we’re, well, we’re not quite there, but we’re, we’re approaching the finishing line. We can see how much has been done and although it’s cost a lot more than we thought.
Gemma: I think you can see the value in it and when you’re walking around you can see that it is going to be hopefully a really good investment and, Originally why we wanted to do this was my husband has a really busy job and we’ve got four children. We are busy a lot and we wanted an option for more downtime as a family and to do things together.
So hopefully we’ll, it’ll really, really help. And the fact that it’s, it’s being run as a business as well. It’ll start to pay off at some of, some of the costs, hopefully we’ll see, but, yeah, it’s it’s been interesting.
Amy: I mean, you sound so positive, even though you’re saying, this was difficult, and this, you know, it sounds like it was really tricky for quite a long time, and I just wonder, how did you navigate all of that in real time?
Gemma: It has been really difficult, the juggle side of it, I think because I wanted to do it so much, and I had such a clear image of what I wanted it to look like at the end, and we’re kind of getting to that now, like I really fell for the building, and I love old buildings and what they have, but I also love the the modern aspects as well.
I was so passionate about bringing the building back to life and, there’s been times where I found it really difficult, but I think that’s always,
been bigger than, than the difficulties if you like, so it’s been worth it. So I’ve, I’ve been happy to, to carry on with it, but it has literally taken over. It’s on my mind all the time. When I go to sleep, I’m thinking about things that I need to buy or things that I need to do. And when I wake up in the morning, it’s, it’s all the time, it’s constant.
So it will be quite nice to, to not be having it as kind of prevalent all the time soon. But, but I’ve, I’ve enjoyed the process. It’s been great. And then it has been really nice because it’s, it’s been a part of the community, that building for such a long time. The people on Anglesey are lovely, whenever we go, they’re so welcoming, and really kind to us. We was a bit worried how people would feel about somebody who isn’t local doing the work on the building and and coming in, but we have used a local team, we’ve used local builders and it’s, it’s really nice to see how many people are stopping and saying, oh you know, it looks so good, we’re really pleased to see that something’s happening with it, because it’s sat derelict for a long time.
And… We’ve had the stonework cleaned up and it’s really, like, highlighted the workmanship in it and it looks really lovely now that it’s, it’s brought it back to life and it, people have been really positive and saying, you know, oh my mum went to this school or my, my grandma went there and it’s lovely,
that it means so much to so many people in the area, it’s really, really nice that it’s kind of bringing it back to life, it’s lovely.
That’s so nice, that joined like your vision and a positive reception. I think that, that really doesmake it feel like a positive experience.Yeah definitely, it’s been, it’s been good, it’s been nice.
Amy: So in terms of the budget then, like, obviously there’s a few things that happened that were unexpected and threw that budget off kilter. Did you have a system for your budget before or, yeah.
Gemma: So we had the builders they’ve got a quantity surveyor that they employ. So we had a guy originally who was, was working on that, and he was kind of the right hand man to the builder, but then… He did leave down the path, so there has been a few changes along the way but he set up so that on a spreadsheet when we got the initial tender, it was really, really detailed, it had everything on there and then some of it was PC sums so we did have Bits of things with that were obviously due to the rising cost of raw materials and we’ve, we’ve had to just accept that it’s a really strange time at the moment and costs have gone up and it’s been inevitable really.
But then we did have quite a lot of fixed prices as well. So the labor and things like that. So that’s all stayed consistent and each month when they give us the valuation, they send a valuation through, so it’s, it’s the same format and it shows the percentage of work that’s been done on that part of the job at that, that, during that month, how much that costs, and then it goes into like the final costing.
So it’s been really easy to track in terms of that. So we’ve always known that we’re, we’re on track for paying for work that’s been done. So we’ve felt quite confident with that along the line and, and they’ve been really good in terms of any questions we’ve asked.
They’ve, they’ve got back to us and, and explained why. that’s gone up or why that’s not there anymore and, and try to help us as, as much as they could do with that. And we also did manage to get, because it’s an old building that’s been derelict for quite a long time we could get a reduced VAT payment, so we’ve been paying 5 percent VAT on things you know, that are directly involved with the building, rather than the 20%, which has, has made a difference.
That’s really helped. So, yeah, but overall, the budget has gone up. You know, I’d be lying if I said we’ve managed to keep it all on track because we really haven’t.
Amy: No, but I mean, it’s understandable given, you know, all the external things that have been going on,
Jane: You, you fight and get on two sides, aren’t you? Like the thing, the troubles that you had with the builders, the roof, the things that happened on the project. Just this, yeah, the worldwide situation with costs and things, it’s, you’ve really been a bit unlucky really with both of those aspects.
Gemma: Yeah. I feel like in terms of that, it’s been impossible to keep it on budget really. And I do feel a bit silly cause you watch grand designs and you see them, really naive at the beginning saying oh no we’re going to stick to our 50 pounds budget or whatever and you think that’ll never happen and I think oh gosh I think that’s us now but we’ve, we’ve done what we can to try and keep things on track and in terms of the interiors obviously we’ve had to furnish a full house from top to bottom.
It’sIf we were doing a renovation project for us to live in, you’d be taking a lot of your, your existing things with you, wouldn’t you? So but I’ve found auction sites and I’ve been traveling all over picking random things up from different places. So, I think if you, if you’re willing to kind of put the time and the, and if you’ve got the time to do, to do that, then there’s other ways that you can cut, costs a little bit I was keen that obviously because it’s a holiday let we want everything to be of a good quality because we need it to stand the test of time, but then we’ve not got the budget to pay for the, you know, the more expensive items and I’ve tried to keep it balanced where obviously we’re not buying designer chairs and different things like that, but we’ve, we’ve wanted them to be of a, a decent standard.
So I’ve been looking on eBay and different auction sites and buying things from say, I don’t know, John Lewis or Loaf or Nkuku, but from auctions rather than from the existing places. So they’ve been quite a bit cheaper.
Amy: Well done. I mean, to, to manage such a massive project when you’re not on site, you know, just that alone is such an accomplishment.
Gemma: Thank you. I’ve had a lot of help with it. The builder that we took on, he does have quite a big team, so he’s given us like a, a main point of contact and a main builder. It chopped and changed a little bit at the beginning, but then Neil, who’s been working on it, we’ve had him for a long time now and he’s been amazing.
He’s really experienced. He’s worked with all different trades for years. Anything that I’ve, like, said, oh, I quite like this, or, you know, I’ve shown him a picture off Pinterest, or, and straight away he’s said, oh, yeah, that’ll, that’ll be fine, and explained, like, the technical side of it, or, or you’re probably best avoiding that for whatever reason.
He’s been really helpful, and I think it’s helped that, obviously, I’ve not got the building experience, or I’ll see something that I want, but… I don’t necessarily know the in between bit to get there, so that’s, that’s been great that, that I’ve had that kind of support from him and, and then he’ll deal with the different trades that are working on site and kind of be a middleman.
So I’ve not been man, like, micromanaging the different people and things like that, so that’s really helped.
Jane: That sounds really good, like, just to have that knowledge base to tap into, because obviously if your architect had done quite outline drawings that weren’t super detailed for you, you didn’t get to have that conversation early on. Did the contractor, like, when he’s advising you, is he… managing the budget as you’re talking through the different options for how you wanted to do things like floor or, you know, different fittings that you had.
Gemma: so, Neil would kind of give us a bit of a, oh, you know, that will cost more, or that will, he’s never gone into detail about the cost, because he doesn’t get involved with that side of things. The builder employs a quantity surveyor, so he’d then say, oh, I’ll pass it on, and I’ll see, you know, I’ll get him to email you with that, so then we’d get a cost.
We’ve just recently been planning the garden, because at the beginning we said, we’ll just do really basic garden for now, and then when we can afford to… improve it, we’ll add improvements, but we’ve, we’ve got to have decking and we’ve got to have an area for people to sit and things. So we have ended up adding some slight things that I’ve spoke to Neil and he said, oh, that, that won’t be, that won’t be too much more expensive.
So it, that’s helped really. We’ve got that middle ground, I think. And obviously he hasn’t given us the detailed costings, but then we’ll get that off, off the quantity surveyor and then we can go into more detail then and, and add, add elements.
It’s things like the fencing that you don’t think about, like I’d sent some fence panels that I really liked that were handmade, like latted ones and, and as soon as I showed them him, he said, they’ll be really expensive and they’re not very sturdy. You’ve got to remember that we’re by the sea, it gets really windy.
You need something a bit more robust. So I’ve, I’ve obviously then had to compromise on that, but, but he’s told me, you know, get. The hit and miss panels, because the wind can flow through them. Just things that I wouldn’t have known about, that they’re kind of advising us on. But also, he knows that we’ve, we’ve got cost implications, and we are having to keep, keep costs down where we can do now.
So, so he’s bearing that in mind with what he suggests as well.
Amy: Yeah, that’s so helpful.
Because it just makes it feel like a collaboration, not just like a, you know, you’re going to the shops and you get what you’ve asked for kind of thing.
Gemma: yeah, yeah, yeah, no, they’ve been, they have been really helpful and obviously they know different people on the island so when it came to choosing the internal doors or, you know, they’d say, oh, go there, they’re really good and price wise they’ll be okay and they’re quick and… You know, they’ll have that background information and, and we’ve, where we could, we’ve used local businesses and local companies for like the tiles and things like that.
We’ve tried to, tried to use local people where, where we can do.
Amy: I would be interested to know like, because it sounds as if, if the contractors are usually doing schools and kind of bigger projects, even though yours is a big, you know, is a big Resi job. It sounds like they had the kind of infrastructure because they’re a bigger outfit So they had you know The fact that they’ve got a quantity surveyor is and they’re different to the main point of contact like did you enjoy that level of
Admin and administration, that kind of, did that add to the project or do you feel like if you had gone for more of a residential, smaller builder, do you think it might have happened faster? Like, what’s your take on it?
Gemma: I think they’re kind of in between really, that they, they work on bigger projects. So in that respect, they’ve got a team and the bigger. So they’ve, like, they do do like the schools and, and hospital projects and things but then they also do quite a lot of the holiday lets so they know that, that area as well.
I do think that that has… Cost us with time as well a little bit because over the summer obviously they’ve got more staff on holiday and things but then also because they’ve taken schools on our project should have been finished before the summer which Inevitably things have dragged on and it hasn’t been finished but then that’s meant that we’ve been put on the back burner I feel a little bit over the summer so when I’ve been going down there’s not been as many people on site that I’d have wanted and things and I think they’ve been focusing on the schools because obviously they’ve got to have those finished and they’ve got to get that done in time for the schools to go back in September where ours, although they’ve got a bit of a, obviously they’ve, they’ve made a commitment to us I feel like it’s a different type of commitment that, you know, contractually the schools have probably got things in place
there’ll be a penalty for them if they don’t finish the schools on time, whereas for us… We did look at doing that initially. We spoke to a family friend who’s a solicitor who’s, as a family, they’re involved in building work, and he did say, you can add in a penalty at the end, he said, but a lot of builders won’t sign it anyway.
And then it can, alter the relationship at the beginning if you’re going in like that. So he kind of said, I don’t think I’d advise you to do that. so we didn’t
Amy: Such a hard one because I think at the end of the project to turn around and start penalizing the person that you want to finish the thing. It’s just like a really difficult thing to manage, you know, just, on a kind of human level, I think, you know, it’s easy to write it in a contract, but yeah, to enforce it is quite tricky.
Gemma: Exactly. It’s, it’s, it’s changing things again, isn’t it? And, and a lot of it as well. They employ their own joiners and plasterers and things like that, but a lot of the electrical and the plumbing work has been subcontracted and, and that’s been a bit delayed, you know, trying to get people to come back.
Touchwood now, it seems to be going really well. Last week we were on site, I went three times last week and it was really busy every time we went, it was really bustling, there was loads of people there.
Jane: I love that bit.
Gemma: Yeah, it’s brilliant. It’s been really good. We’ve all been, like, under each other’s feet and trying to get things done together, but it’s been really good.
It’s been great. So, I’m hoping that now, the school holidays are over and, you know, builders and different tradespeople have had their holidays, I think it should be just a big push now and hopefully we’ll be able to… get it all, all fully furnished and, and ready to, to get photographed and let out.
Gemma: Oh, that’ll feel amazing.
I know, I can’t wait for that, and I’ve been collecting. When it very first started I started buying like vases and cushions and my husband was going mad He said what are you doing? So I said I know at the end of the project. There’ll be no budget left for Interior accessories,
I’m buying them now because You won’t let me buy them at end the end.
So whenever there was a sale on or any, you know, if I saw, saw anything I’d buy it quickly while I could.
Amy: that is that’s really clever I have to say
Jane: You’re going to have to have a, like a ceremonial placing of these items when they get revealed
Gemma: So, well I won’t be able to remember half of them, they’ve been tucked away for so long in storage boxes and things but yeah, so I can’t wait to have a good rummage through it all and, and find what, what I’ve been buying for about two and a half years.
Jane: that sounds amazing.
Amy: Thank you so much Gemma for your
Gemma: Thank you for having me.
Jane: You can see pictures of Gemma’s amazing project on our website at homenotes.co/storiesfromsite and you can even go and stay there. Gemma’s holiday listing is now live and you can find the link in our show notes.
See you next week for another Story from Site.
Our closing thoughts:
We love how relaxed Gemma sounds throughout our chat with her, despite having been through such a lot!
We reckon it was her laser focus and determination that got the newly finished Anglesey Old School over the line.
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