41.

Building dreams together: Lessons from a family-run builder

with Irene

This week, we sit down with Irene to explore her personal renovation journey—a beautifully woven narrative of life, love, and architecture. Irene shares the story of meeting her husband Peter, their decision to start an architecture practice together, and their journey into family life.

In our conversation, we delve into the architect-client relationship, the importance of empathy in the challenging process of home renovation, and the unexpected joy that arises from working within constraints.

Stories-From-Site-Irene

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PROJECT PHOTOS:

Amy: Welcome to Stories from Site, the podcast for renovation enthusiasts. I’m Amy Dohnalek and together with my co host Jane Middlehurst, we chat with home renovators about the roller coaster that is renovation.

This week we chat to builders Sian and James who shared their inspiring journey from purchasing their first terrace home to transforming a 1930s semi detached for their growing family.

They share their insights and tips for navigating renovations efficiently, including the importance of budgeting, phasing projects, and working with trusted builders.

Welcome Sian and James to Stories from Site we’re delighted to have you and, actually I think it’s the first time we’ve had builders as guests on the podcast. So we’re particularly excited. I think we’ve had people who have taken on the main contractor role. And we’ve definitely had people who have upskilled their DIY to kind of high levels, but I think we’re quite excited to delve into your story today.

Do you want to start with what you did and where the project originated?

Sian: Yeah. So, um,first one was a house that we bought together when, well, quite new into our relationship really, wasn’t it? Our daughter was eight months old 1930s terrace property, that we got pretty sweetly cause the lady’s trying to get rid of it quite quickly.

I think it took us about two years did it overall to get it going just cause we had a young baby. We’re doing things quite considerably on a budget, had quite a lot of things come from other people’s houses that then we put back into our house, which is nice. James has got a little eye for stuff when he rips stuff out of people’s houses and reuses them.

So that was, our first one, I think overall we were there for four years and probably by the end we’d just finished it. And then, I got itchy feet. And our family had grown in it as well. So we ended up with one child and then we ended up with three children by the end of moving out.

So we kind of maxed out our ability to make it bigger. and then just needed to build a bit more space, really.

James: As it was a terraced house you can’t go sideways or you can only go back and up so we’ve done the rear extension And the loft conversion and that was kind of it. It was a three bedroom house when we first took it on, but the bathroom was downstairs.

So we took out that bathroom, made the kitchen bigger, and then went upstairs and put a bathroom upstairs. But when we put the loft on, we took it back up to a three bedroom house. But it finished off as quite a nice sized three bedroom house.

but it still then, I think, because we’ve got three children, it become quite small quite quickly.

 

James: Sian moved us off to the next place.

Jane: What was the requirements for the next place that you were looking for?

Sian: Initially, I think we were looking for somewhere almost semi done that we didn’t need as much work doing to it. But obviously, you guys will know it’s really hard to find a house where it fits all your tick boxes and doesn’t require much work. and also budget wise. We’re not ones that we want to spend out on a house and then have to change it.

So I found this house, and it was on the market, but James actually refused to come and look at it. Cause he was like, I don’t want to live in that area. I don’t want to go here. so we were really struggling to find it and then it disappeared. So I was like, well, it’s gone now anyway. And then it actually then came back because it hadn’t been touched since the seventies.

And I pushed for James to come and see it. And eventually we came over and, it was another big, a much bigger project, wasn’t it? Then our last house, it wasn’t livable. we had three young children also about to get married. And so we were like, Oh, but we’ve got a really good deal on it.

The requirements were another house that we could make bigger. but predominantly now with three young children, the garden was quite important for us to be able to have more space in the garden. and a bit more space for them really, wasn’t it?

James: Yeah, it was a, uh,semi detached, so it gave us opportunity. We’ve got a garage on the side, and we put a, a studio at the back. The last one took some time. And I think the only reason we finished the last one off is because we were selling it.

This one because we weren’t living in it, and we was renting while we were done it out, it motivated us to get it done quicker. And now we’re on the last sort of stretch of the loft, and I think we’ve got another couple of months and we should be done.

and James, when you did finally go and visit The property, Did you already have what kind of idea of what you would do, or it Sian? Are you, are you the ideas? person, how does it work between you?

Sian: I, yeah, I find the nice stuff. And I know what I want it to look like, but James will tell me what’s possible. I think James initially walked in and he knew exactly what Needed to be done to it, and then plus what he could do to it, I guess.

James: I think I’ll do the main outline of a building and Sian will fit everything into it, if that makes sense. So I’ll do the

Jane: Shell and interiors.

James: Yeah,

Sian: we do a lot of drawing, so I’ll get the Pinterest and the drawings up, and then James will quietly go off and sketch how that would look in size wise, and how it would fit in, and adapt it to how he thinks it will work, versus what I think. I actually want in the house. So, kind of a little duo.

 

Amy: I guess people listening must think, having a builder as your partner, you kind of can just say, Oh, I want this. And then it gets built. Does it feel like that? Yeah.

Sian: Kind of look at me, think I’m extremely lucky to have a builder husband. but on the flip side, it’s obviously there is the lag time. And then there’s also the snaggings that, you know, when he gets to a stage, he’s come home from work and he’s like, I’m not doing that. I’m not putting the kickboards on the kitchen for a while.

Which is fine, you know,but I’m, extremely fortunate that in two years I’ve got this house And I just continually add to it. There’s never a time that we’re not doing something to it, but it’ll be putting paint colors on the wall or, and I’m lucky that we can live in it for a while and then I can tweak stuff and it’s quite easy for us to do that.

Jane: You’ve got that working ability to jump ahead in the process, whereas I guess most people have to follow this very linear path of doing drawings, going out, getting them priced, and then having to readjust, whereas you can do that all at the very early stages. Do you want to tell me a little bit about how you work that efficiency and how you work with budgets when you’re, when you’re planning?

James: Um, I think initially, so we, we knew that we wanted to extend and we wanted to go up and extend the side and build a summer house because the garden’s quite big.

I don’t know, this side of COVID seems to be everything shot up. So a lot, a lot of things got a lot more expensive, you know, from when I first started building,

Sian kept a kind of tight lead on the, um,interior budget and how much we were spending, which was creeping up and up.

I think trying to do things efficiently and together so that we’re not, you know, I’ll try and tell customers this, think about what you want to do and what you want to achieve.

The sort of small scale stuff like, you know, spending a bit more money on paint or something that,that can come later, but getting the crux of your build done

and making it slightly livable. I mean, one of the big things we’ve done, we learned from the last house is just to paint everything the same color and then you can live with it and work.

Actually, we want, we don’t like this color. We want this color. We all want this room to be light or we want this room to be darker, you know.

Amy: And

How is it from a kind of client seat. Do you think you tackle it in a different way Because I guess When it’s your personal money, I think there’s just a different relationship to the whole process, isn’t there?

James: Yeah, I think you, uh, when it’s your own, your own budget, You’ve got time to figure things out. you haven’t got a customer to wait on their decisions and sort of deliberate. And it’s Generally, we don’t have a customer.

We have two customers. It’s a husband and wife, usually arguing out with each other what they want to achieve or which one wants what. and I think without that, we’ve just got each other where we’re going now. And I’m usually quite easy in terms Sian, if you want something, okay, that’s fine.

Pretty much stick to I think I’ve got my barbecue area and that’s it. that’s one thing. I was adamant about.

Amy: Yeah.

James: But I mean we are quite amenable. we do work a lot of stuff out together

Jane: Do you work this stuff out ahead of time? Are you pre planning and by the time you’re like starting on site it’s like, right, we’ve got everything sorted and we know exactly what we’re doing. Or is it more like you’re working it out, you’re having these meetings. diagrams and drawings as you’re going through the process.

James: Definitely, I mean we had the drawings sort of done before we’d completed on the house with Trevor or waiting So we’re kind of yeah, we definitely planned this one out a lot more than we planned the last one out

I

Sian: think the interior stuff, I just Pinterest things and then I’ll just say to James, this is kind of the vibe that we’re looking for. And then I guess it’s also then just being in the space when it’s being built to make sure that what I’ve got in my head will work.

We get a lot of ideas from customers as jobs go on, which is really, really nice. And we really benefit from seeing how other people’s homes look like. And the joys of London is that a lot of homes are very similar because they’re all, you know, either Victorian or 1930s.

So we can kind of see what’s worked in other people’s houses.

James will come home with quite a lot of ideas, all like, Oh, I like this.

They did this on, they have got this flooring in and, you know, and then I’ll look at the cost and go, nah, they’re not paying for that.

Jane: I like the to and fro, that the ideas are, and the cost is going both ways, you know, it’s getting sent between you, for double approval.

Sian: And I do like a bit of marketplace. So I hunt stuff. James will say, Oh, we need this. Like he did the porch Christmas and we needed a new front door, but I didn’t want a PVC one or a composite door. I wanted it traditional looking. so you found, I think, was it a marketplace for like 80 pounds for a new front

door? And then, yeah, just refurbed it up and things like that, where we could have spent a better grand on it, but actually just a little bit of research. He just tells me what we need, what size, and I’ll just go out and look for it. So

Jane: What kind of tips would you give homeowners going into the process?

James: I’d certainly say, um, probably engage with a few builders first and find the builder you like. Not the cheapest, not the most expensive, but the one you like or the one that you think you can sort of connect with because it’s quite a lot of trust both ways, between the builder and the customer or the client.

and then once you’ve done that, speak to the builder and just, or the builders and get some sort of hints and tips on what their, architects they want to use. and again, you know, some people don’t need fancy designs because, you know, most of the majority of people have another box on the top of the house or the box on the back of the house.

That’s not grand designs. It’s just a simple design that you need. And yeah, as long as you’ve got a good relationship with your builder, you can iron out most things. Okay. You know, budgets and stuff like you can talk through stuff and soon as you get a quote to them, you can have a to and fro actually, can we take this out of their budget or, you know, what do you advise?

You know, sometimes we can do a load of stuff and then we can prep stuff for the future and then come back and do it when, sort of budgets back up.

And certainly having one sort of person to talk to. So if you’ve got two customers, one point of contact, because a lot of times we kind of fall short is when we’re talking to both and then you get in conflicting views from both, both parties,

So there’s too many people in the mix. We tend to have a project going on and I’ll put on a project manager that will be there consistently from the beginning to the end. I’ll pop in and just advise every now and then, but they kind of run the job and they’ll be the foreman, so they, guide them in ways and they’ll be their point of contact.

Amy: Cause I think some homeowners feel like, you know, You don’t want to kind of mess with the momentum that the builder has on site. And so you feel kind of like, that’s not quite like I want it, but I don’t want to stop, work progressing. What’s your opinion about that?

Do you feel you just want to have those conversations early on? And then everybody knows where they are and you’re on the same page, or are you happy to have that kind of more collaborative approach, I guess?

James: I think so. I mean, we’re quite fluid. I mean, everyone should be able to adapt to, certain things come up and we can’t do that, or we can do that.

But I think that happens quite a lot and I say to them, it is your house. So, if you want to just have a bit of time to think about what you want to do, but we kind of lead them up to that. uh, we generally have a site meeting once a week.

So at the beginning of the week, we can talk about the week coming and the week gone. and they can sort of prep themselves in the weeks coming up. Like if they need to get anything in or they need to make decisions. Decisions are big. Usually, I mean, the biggest one that affects is electrics.

Believe it or not, where they’re placing sockets and, it’s a difficult one because you’re like, well, most of these sockets, they have fancy sockets. Most of them are going to be behind something. You never have, there’s only light switches that are on show really. So yeah, we’re all pretty flexible, so it works.

So you can chat through things. I think the only breakdowns when you’ve got more than one person in a communication, you

know, you can’t base.

Sian: We had it the other day, didn’t we, in our own bathroom upstairs with the where the toilet and sink were going to go and the soil pipe was coming in where the plumbers had put it. But they had chatted to James and then I walk in and go, well hang on a minute, that’s not going to work with the toilet and sink suite that I’ve got.

So we had a bit of to and fro with that, didn’t we? But it was important at that point and I saw, I walked in and I was like, no, that’s That can’t come in like that and I could have flexed on it, but actually I was like, no, it’s on the phone to James quickly getting the soil pipes in the wrong place.

And he’s like, I’ve told them. And so it was a, it was, but it was good that we stopped it. And that was a difference for them talking to James and then not actually speaking to me. Who’s the one that’s bought the items and know how’s how they want it to look.

I probably would have looked at it every day going, I regret not saying something about it.

And I think like James is right, this is your home and you want it to be how you want it. Although equally he gets annoyed if I walk in and I go, Oh, why are you doing that? And is that how it’s going to look? And he’s like, I haven’t finished. Can you just butt off until I finish the job? And I’m like, sorry, I’m just, I’m intrigued. I think cause I’m involved in it. I’m like, I want to know the processes, but actually he’d rather me just leave him and then I’ll come back. And more often than not, he knows what I want it to look like. So it’s quite nice that I can just leave him to it, but I still have that little inkling in me to go and get involved and annoy him, which I think customers can do as well to a little bit, can’t they, but I think it’s just more of a fascination and people just want to know the process, I guess, of how things are going.

Jane: I guess it’s just that feeling that, like you said with the toilet, that you might, see something and you think, oh, I’m not sure, is it going to be okay? And you don’t want to then come back in a few days time and be like, Oh, I should have said something and I didn’t and now it’s progressed.

I guess that’s the thing about site is that it’s such an interesting process because you know, it’s a train, you’re on a train and it’s going ahead and, it needs to have that momentum otherwise nothing would ever get finished and everyone has their place but also I guess as the witness when you’re seeing these things happening it is hard to look at things before they’re finished and you do worry about where is it heading, where is it going, and I guess that is why clients want to know the steps in the process just to make sure that the train’s going the right direction, that it’s all going to be okay, but from a contractor’s perspective, when you just need to get the job done, that’s quite a lot of handholding.

And, helping the client through that process whilst trying to manage a team and manage deliveries, you know, there’s just so much going on in the process that it’s a juggling act.

Sian: I feel for James, it’s got easier now that he’s not on site as much. I can see it from an outside view, he can tap in, have that really like, nice, friendly relationship with a client and then feed down the line to the foreman who then will just carry it on So I think he’s got more time to listen and absorb and, then put it into a building perspective and then translate it down to the team again, which actually works really nicely.

I think, cause then he can step away and not be involved and then come back into it, which is quite nice. And I think we need to sell that more as from our company perspective is his project management involvement. Whereas I think people just see him as a builder and rather than actually doing the project management side with the foreman

involved

it’s management, uh, marriage counselling,

Amy: Communication.

Jane: you know, it’s all of those things, isn’t it? You’re trying to hold it all together for these people who’ve maybe never done something like this before. it’s a lot of pressure and, I guess that’s what’s the difference with making a client feel like they’ve had a good experience or a bad experience is, having that ability or space to just carry them through, and make them feel okay about, having their house taken apart.

Sian: yeah. And it’s stressful for them because their whole house predominantly has been turned upside down. They’re living in confined spaces on top of each other, you know? and they’ve got all these extra people in their house having had it in our house that they just walk in and out like they own the place but actually they cause quite a lot of life disruption and it’s managing that around children and then work but it’s all that stress That I don’t think is appreciated from a builder’s perspective because they’re just coming in to do their day to day work, which is fine.

but it’s managing that with the customer and the client to appreciate what they’re going through, I guess, and everything else that life throws on you while renovating. But

 

Jane: I’m assuming that you were using your normal, core team for your own project.

James: doing a lot myself, but yeah, I’d havegenerally there was two of us on it at one time.

Jane:

James: I think with our last house, we kind of tried to do it weekends and that just become quite hard work. It’s quite a long process. Whereas this one, we run it as a project. and then I put people on it. One or two people here, most of the time,

which I think is why we’ve got it done in such a short amount of time.

Jane: Yeah.

James: cause we haven’t really got many snaggings So it’s, uh, it’s pretty good.

Amy: got a smile on her face,

Sian: I’ve got a long list in the book that he doesn’t know about and I just pull them out every now and again.

Amy: drip feed it,

Sian: Yeah.

James: That’s just, it’s not snaggings. That’s just other jobs.

Jane: adding to the list, yeah, that’s scope creep,

Sian: Yeah,

Jane: um, what’s your kind of most rewarding part of your job? Is there something that stands out for you as like, yeah, I really enjoyed that

James: As a, like, I don’t know if I’m talking about your mental health, every day, even all of the guys on the team kind of will start a project and finish a project, you know, either within a day or two days. So you’re, you’re sort of, there’s a sense of satisfaction in your, you can start something and finish it.

And, you know, no one else is coming in to take over it. You’re completing something and you stand back. And I really noticed it when we got the younger guys coming and they’ll do something for the first time, you know, whether it’s put up a brick wall, or do a bit of bricking, and, or doing some tiling, and they complete it, stand back and you look at your job and think, Oh, that’s really, that looks really good.

And they’re proud of it, you know, and that’s, we’re all pretty much enjoy the work we do.

and certainly at the end of a project, especially now, I’m going in and I’ll price it up, and then the guys go in and they’ll do the build, and then at the end of it, I’ll go and have a look, and you’re talking to the client, you think, oh, well, we’ve, transformed your house here, and it’s been a long,these are long processes, and it’s, like Sian was saying, it can get stressful for people, and, you’ve got people in and out of your house, daily and it’s for them,

it’s just every other day, you know for you. it’s massive It’s like a big project that’s costing you loads of money and going on causing loads of grief because you you know had a house and now you’re in half a house because they’re taking up everything else But yeah, I think they’re at the end of it you’ve to remind them that you what you had and what you’ve got now and how nice it looks You know, a lot of the customers are designing themselves, from Pinterest or what they’ve seen online or from other people’s projects and a lot of them know what they want straight off and it’s nice to see that their visions come to life at the end

Sian: I think also you I can see that they find the satisfaction, especially when they get to know families is that sometimes you really transform a place that transforms lives and it really does that.

We’ve had a few recently, haven’t we, like I think one last year that literally transformed a whole family’s setup. And it, you can see that in them. It seems like it’s really simple like putting a loft on, but actually what it did for that family was create such a different way of life for them and a much easier life.

and that’s quite a nice thing. And sometimes they’ll invite both of us back for a coffee to sit in their new kitchen and stuff. And that’s a really nice aspect of it. You’ve really helped someone create something they probably never thought that was even affordable until we got on board and helped them out.

Amy:

Jane: I was just thinking, you know, obviouslyeverything’s getting more expensive it is hard for people to manage their budgets, with getting the work done, have you got any tips of how to manage that from a contractor’s perspective?

 

James: I’ll definitely say phasing. So, Work out what you want and then talk to your builder about how you could phase it, because it costs what it costs. So how you can phase it to make sure that you can then get some new funds in a year’s time and then do that, you know, but future proofing.

So a lot of, a lot of places we’ve been doing, if we’ve done a renovation and an extension and they want a loft later on, we’ll run the pipe work and sort of things up for the loft.

So you’re not having to do too much undoing work when you start the next phase, if that makes sense. The other thing I sort of guide is not to try and scrimp on the last 5 percent of a project.

You know, like decorating because there’s a, there’s a big difference between professional decorator and, and putting some paint on yourself.

You can make a job go from looking like, you know, amazing to, Oh, what happened there, you know, and there’s a lot of tricks that a decorator can do to make, you know, things look really good, even old stuff.

So definitely try not to scrim on that last sort of 5 percent of your project, but just manage your project so that you’re doing it in phases that work for you.

I mean, pick your builder and then just discuss with ’em really, and what works and where you can save your money.

There’s certainly lots of hints and tips we can give them with, you know, saving the money on the actual material purchase, because, you know, that interior stuff can cost quite some money if you let it get, get that train go.

Jane: I just think it’s so interesting that you said that the 5%, the decoration, because that’s quite often the thing that people will, pull out to save themselves, but you’re saying, you know, it’s the difference between, you know, making a project shine and just, really seeing the value that you’ve put into your home with that last 5 percent versus, you know, spending that money on an extraa slightly more expensive kitchen.

 

Amy: Yeah, absolutely. I think they’re worth every penny, to be honest.

Jane: And also the momentum, you know, once the contractors have left and you’re left with a house and you’re saying, yeah, we’ll get round to doing this X, Y, Z. it takes another year to get the energy up to do those things or more.

it’s nice to just push through and get that final bit done.

James: Yeah,

Jane: Advice or comments that you have for our, um, audience out there?

Go for the builder you like, and the one that you think you’ve sort of got a connection with, and the one that you think, you know, because these guys are going to be in your house. and one that feels right, if that makes sense.

James: Certainly don’t go with one that’s half price of everyone else. And then just keep it simple.

There’s loads of different stuff you can look at that you can design yourself. Cause the funny thing is we pull out kitchens that are 10 old, but we don’t knock down buildings.

So your extension is going to be there forever. Your kitchen will last 15, 20 years. You know, some people are doing it even quicker than that, you know, and you’re replacing it same with a bathroom. So just be clever with what you get and there’s deals to be had when you’re buying stuff like that You know a new bathroom suite or a new kitchen and also windows and doors.

there’s a lot with that, you know, and they can be expensive or they could be you can get reasonably good prices pick what’s right for you.

Jane: Well, you’ve done a beautiful job, your house is gorgeous, are you going to, stay in that for a while now, I’m assuming, or you’re already itching for the next project?

Sian: There’s a lot of beautiful houses out there, but they, don’t fit what we’ve created here for our family.

And I think also, I think we’ve just tired ourselves from renovations ourselves for a little yeah.

Amy: a rest, I think. Mm.

Sian: Once we’ve done the loft, I feel like we’ll just, just enjoy, not that we don’t enjoy life now, but we’ll enjoy it a lot more and have a lot more time for family and friends and.

And things,

 

Amy: Oh, thank you guys. It was so lovely to chat with you this morning.

Jane: Yeah, really lovely to get your perspectives.

Sian: Thanks so much for having us.

James: Thank you.

Our closing thoughts:

What struck us when talking with Irene is the deep understanding and empathy she had for clients going through the renovation process.

It was incredibly validating and if you’re in the midst of it right now, remember to show yourself some kindness!

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Stories-From-Site-Lauren-Front-Cover

27. Halfway there: Reflecting on the journey so far 

This week we chat with Lauren, a first-time renovator, whose partner’s electrician skills are coming in handy as they tackle the ambitious task of updating their 1970’s home.

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Stories-From-Site-Ade-Cover

26. When perseverance pays off: A rural barn conversion 

We listen to the self-build journey of Ade who transformed a dilapidated barn into a dream home for his family in the picturesque Kent countryside.

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Stories-From-Site-Bo-Front

25. Navigating budgets creatively: An Interior designer’s story

We sit down with Bo, an experienced interior designer who had to make some tough decisions when faced with skyrocketing renovation costs.

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Stories-From-Site-Gemma-Cover

24. Renovating remotely: Transforming an old school on Anglesey

We talk to Gemma about managing a remote renovation and the differences in renovating a holiday home as a business.

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Stories-From-Site-Barbara - Front cover

23. The doer-upper: A journey of renovating, diy and maternity leave

We talk to Barbara about falling in love with a fixer-upper home and the joys of undertaking DIY projects during maternity leave.

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22. Prioritising positivity: Converting a bungalow with separate trades

With construction costs rising, Claire and Dan managed the different trades they needed on day rates to renovate their 1950s bungalow.

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