The uphill struggle of getting that ‘architect look’

with Kat

This week we talk to Kat who’s renovation started from a developer-finished home.

Kat shares her gradual process of transforming it into her dream space, and the challenges encountered working with her contractor to get those design details right and achieve the considered look she was after.




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 talked to Kat, whose renovation started from a developer finished home.

Kat shares her gradual process of transforming it into her dream space, and the particular challenges encountered working with her contractor to get those design details right and achieve the considered look she was after.

So Hi Kat. Thank you so much for being with us this morning. We wondered if you wanted to give us a bit of an intro into what you’ve been renovating.

Kat: Well, it’s been a slow renovation really actually, because we moved in six and a half years ago it had been done up by a developer when we moved in, so I’d love to say that we’re, you know, one of these couples that came in and,

did all the DIY ourselves and everything, but we’re not, we moved into a house that had been all freshly painted and had brand new kitchens, brand new bathroom.

So it was all lovely, but kind of the downside of moving into something that had already been done up was that it wasn’t exactly what I would have chosen. And so it was great at the time because we had a small baby. Over the last few years, we’ve been able to slowly put our stamp on the place, which has been a really nice way of doing it, actually, because it’s only when you’ve lived in the house for a while that you start to realize how you need the house to work for you as well.

So we did a loft conversion about three and a half years ago, which gave us a fourth bedroom, which is such a luxury to have. I’ve got two small children, so to have that lovely spare bedroom for when my parents come to stay, which they do a lot and to have friends around is just lovely.

And we’ve got a really large bathroom on the top floor which again is just such a luxury because. Before that, we just had this teeny tiny bathroom for our growing family and you literally have to squeeze around the door to squeeze in between the bathtub and the door to get in there. And so like, you know, when we had our daughter, bathing her in there.

I had to sit on the toilet because there was nowhere else to be in the room. But then when my little boy came along there’s just no way that all of us could have been in that little tiny bathroom. So it was lovely. Now we’ve got this huge, huge space and literally, we dance in that bathroom sometimes because there is that much space, but it’s really nice to put the music on and just have that lovely area, but it’s also great because when we’ve got guests, it means they’ve just got that top floor to themselves.

They’ve got their own bathroom up there as well, And so, yeah, we, we finished that just about three and a half years ago and the plan was then to extend the kitchen and we paid the deposit. I was pregnant with my son at the time. We paid the deposit to the builder. And we were all set, we were going to go in about six months time, so we were just going to have this semi break in between building projects.

And yeah, that six months turned into about three years. So my little boy, who I was pregnant with at the time that we paid the deposit, he was three by the time we started the building work, basically. Because we just had so many issues. With planning permission and The drawings that we had, which we just went back and forth, back and forth, and it was just a bit of a logistical, crazy nightmare.

But yeah, in the end, three years later, we managed to do our kitchen extension. And in a way, I’m just so glad that we didn’t do it three years ago because.

Amy: Mm.

Kat: We would have done it completely differently So when we originally planning to do it, we were going to keep our existing kitchen because it, it, it wasn’t very old.

And I feel really awful saying that we got rid of a kitchen that was only six and a half years old. But so, you know, three years ago, we were going to keep that kitchen and just extend around it. But actually by the time. The six years had passed, the kitchen was actually starting to fall apart in different places and it just wasn’t working for us.

It didn’t have the storage options that we needed or the layout that we needed. So yeah, that extra bit of time meant that we did end up replacing the kitchen units as well and just, it became a much bigger project than it was originally supposed to be. But yeah, it’s all worked out.

Amy: What do you feel like, time wise, you know, you would have been doing a rear extension and a kitchen replacement with a small baby. Does it feel more manageable now, or do you think it’s just as hard with a toddler?

Kat: Yeah, I guess there’s, pros and cons because if we’d have done it three years ago, it would have consumed my maternity leave and it probably would have spoiled my maternity leave because I could, you know, I wouldn’t have been able to focus on my baby. I would have been. Cause it just takes up so much of your brain space.

It’s unbelievable. I mean, I really wasn’t prepared for how much energy and time it just. It was just an all consuming nightmare having the work done in the first place. But on the, I guess the plus side of that would be that I wasn’t in work, so I would have been more available. Whereas in the end, while I was juggling work, children, and a building project, that was also a nightmare.

Amy: Yeah. That’s intense.

Kat: I’m not sure there is a perfect time to do something like this. I think whenever you do it, there’s always going to be sacrifices but. You know, I, I feel like I’ve watched so many George Clark and grand design programs and it’s such a cliche, but it is true that at the time it was such a horrendous process to go through.

And now we’re like three months down the line and I’ve forgotten about it all and it was all totally worth it. It is true, but there are some days when, you know, we didn’t have the A fridge for about six weeks and the, the kitchen didn’t have a roof on half of it. I kept saying it’s like a garage out there because it was just tools and rubble and everything.

And we were still trying to use what bits we had of the kitchen, trying to keep my littlest one out of here I think what I’ve learned about, I’ve learned lots of things from this process, but one of the things is avoid building work in the Christmas period, if you can, because everything just stopped.

So basically from like. Early December, everything stopped because people were saying, well, there’s no point. The doors aren’t going to arrive in time. The windows aren’t going to arrive in time. Therefore we can’t do this. And like the knock on effects of all those delays around Christmas. And then again, after Christmas, it just took so many weeks to pick back up that I think we lost about four, four or five weeks, really, where nothing was that we were making no progress in that time.

And the kitchen units had arrived. So we used Ikea units, but we used bespoke doors. And so, oh my gosh, I don’t know if you’ve ever ordered an Ikea kitchen, but the amount of boxes that arrives is just something out of this world. So we no longer had a kitchen because it was a garage with, you know, no roof on half of it.

No functioning appliances, we were washing dishes in the bathtub and we’re keeping milk in the boot of the car, because at least that was the, that’s like the only plus side of doing it around Christmas, at least it was cold. So we had a sort of fridge in the boot of the car.

And all, and all the IKEA boxes arrived and they just took up the entirety of the downstairs floor space and even at one point we had, like, boxes piling up on our sofa so, like, the entire downstairs was out of bounds, which we only have, like, the one sort of living space and the kitchen downstairs. So we would just go and pick the kids up from school or finish work in the evening and just walk straight up the stairs because, you know, downstairs was out of action for about five weeks.

That was, it was tough, but yeah,

Jane: All over Christmas as well, where everyone else is getting snuggly, and you’re like,

Kat: Exactly. And actually, we put a Christmas tree up at the start of December, just before all the boxes arrived. And I was like, I’m a really Christmassy person, but I was just like, I’ve never been less inclined to put a Christmas tree up.

We, we wouldn’t have, if it hadn’t have been for the children. Cause it was just like this horrible, horrible space with a Christmas tree taking up even more of the space that we didn’t have at the time. But luckily we escaped to my parents for Christmas. So yeah, we definitely couldn’t have done Christmas here that, that year, but then this year it will be absolutely amazing to

have Christmas here.

Amy: Absolutely. So can I ask, that three years, just going back a bit you said there was some to ing and fro ing about the, the drawings, do you want to kind of just unpack it a bit?

Kat: We did get planning permission really early on, but we basically just had some issues where we realized that the drawings weren’t exactly what we’d asked for the drawings to be. And so we’d have to go back to the council and say, actually, we’re, we’re putting a slightly amended version of the drawings.

Of the drawings in and then that would get approved, but then the builder would say, actually, I’m not available anymore. You’ve got to wait another six months. And by the time the six months came around, unbelievably, we would notice that actually there was something else in the drawings that wasn’t quite as we wanted.

So we just had slight sort of communication issues going on. And Yeah, you know, that, that waiting time for planning permission to be approved. I think we were looking at, I think it was like eight to 12 weeks each time we put the planning permission in unbelievably, we put planning permission requests in, I think it was about six times in the end.

Anyway, yeah, in the end we got there, but it, It was a really painful process and it’s just one of those things that the builders come to give you a quote, but they say, have you got your drawings done yet?

So many of them ask for drawings before they. You know, before they can give you a quote, which now I understand that because of course, they can’t price something up when they don’t know exactly what they’re building. But it’s a bit chicken and egg situation where you don’t know if you’re going to go ahead with the building work until you know how much it’s going to cost.

So you don’t want to start paying for an architect to do the drawings yet. But yeah, I think. I mean, the architect that we used was I, I don’t know what the sort of the technical term for it is, but, you know, he did us the drawings that went through for planning. He didn’t do the sort of architect designing side of our kitchen.

So again, like the pros and cons, of that, we saved so much money because we didn’t have any designer, you know, I would love to work with an architect and if we ever do something like this again, I absolutely will. Because to get that project management involvement as well would have been so, so helpful, but we, we saved an awful lot of money by not involving an architect in that side of things.

And I think it’s worked like I look around and when it was, when the kitchen was first finished, I did feel wow, it looks, it does kind of look like an architect was involved here, which makes me so happy. I’m really proud of that. But I think, yeah, if, if budget is an issue for people, if you really do have that clear vision of what you want, if you’re someone like me, who’s got thousands of screen grabs on your phone of beautiful houses that you’ve seen on Instagram.

Yeah. You’re constantly looking at houses and you can, you can visualize what you want, then it is quite a good way to save money. But yeah, if you’ve got loads of money, get the architect because yeah, I’m sure they’re worth their weight in gold in terms of looking after project management as well.

Amy: Yeah, but I think you’re right. I think it just highlights that someone has to do that work. And if you haven’t got an architect on board, it means that you’re doing that work. And actually, just that’s, that’s totally fine and good. If you know that that’s what’s going to happen. I think sometimes it catches people out that it’s like, Oh gosh, I’ve got so many decisions to make and it’s really overwhelming and then I’ve got to organise that and make it all happen.

Like that’s, that’s challenging, which is great if you’re up for it, but I think it can be really a big, big juggle.

Kat: So one of the sort of horror stories from our kitchen extension was I think, you know, if there had been that architect, this wouldn’t have happened. But we had an issue where the builders put the side return roof. So the pitched roof down the side of the kitchen on at the wrong height. So they spent like 10 days putting the roof on and the window guy came to have a look at fitting the windows and said, This pitch is like virtually flat.

You’re going to have loads of water coming in here. This can’t be right and we were totally confused. And then we had a look at the plans and we thought, yeah, what is going on here? They’ve gone about a meter too low on the highest point of that pitch roof. And so that was like the lowest weekend of the whole building project because.

We’d suddenly realized that the last 10 days had all been wasted,

and we were going to need to ask our builders to sort it out, and we had a real dilemma of Shall we just live with it as it is, because for ease and for not wanting to like cause any conflict with the builders. And then we just realized, no, we’re spending a lot of money.

Of course, we don’t want a roof lower than it’s supposed to be. Of course, we want like the higher the ceiling, the better. And just for the sake of, you know, maybe an extra couple of weeks of pain, it’s going to be worth it in the long term. And absolutely it was, it was the right thing to do. But at the time we really considered, shall we just live with it like it is?

So yeah, then they had to spend like the next 10 days taking all the roof back down again. And then the next 10 days after that, building it again. So, yeah, and that was just a total mix up on communications, which I think had there been a proper project manager or architect, I can’t see that that would have happened.

And then one of the other issues that I had was that the builder was very, very, very good. Really diligent, knew what he was doing, took a lot of pride in his work, but he wasn’t. Sort of design minded. And again, like, I think if you go for those sorts of building companies that offer more of that design aspect, you’re going to have to pay a lot more money for that sort of thing.

So We were on a pretty tight budget to do the kind of project that we were doing. But I had this vision for the type of skylights that I wanted. So I’d seen it, you know, on all these lovely Instagram accounts where people have like a window and then a beam and then a window and then a beam.

And it sort of looks like that lovely. row of kind of like unbroken glass with only the beams in between them. And I realized at the last minute before I ordered my glass, which was like due to be fitted In like four days or something, I realized that the glass that I was buying had to have, like, I think it was like close to a meter of space in between them.

And I, and I was saying to my builder, Oh no, I wanted my glass to be sort of really, really close together. So And he didn’t know what I meant and I was just showing him pictures from Instagram and going, look, like these people’s windows and he’s going, yeah, that’s great, but I don’t know how they’ve done that.

So luckily I use I don’t know if you know, the Facebook group, house, house talk by house folk, which is a really fantastic Facebook group for anybody who loves houses. I mean, it’s probably. The only reason that I still use Facebook is you get loads of lovely inspiration on there and people are really helpful.

So during my renovation, I would turn to that group so many times to say, help, I need some advice. Has anyone seen this or that? So I said, What is the secret to how these windows are so close together? I can’t seem to find anyone who knows what to do. And then anyway, somebody recommended me the type of windows that I would need.

I don’t think it was exactly like the types that I’d seen before because actually what I’ve now got is essentially like four windows combined. Completely joined together and just broken up by a small sliver of aluminum. And I thought, well, that’s great. That works. They’re nice and close. And then I can just put the beams in between them, breaking that up.

But actually when I, when we had the windows put in, I thought, Oh, these are actually quite wow in their own right. And we didn’t end up putting the beams in, in the end. So that kind of worked out for the best but yeah, that all those difficulties that you just don’t realize when you see these lovely pictures online it’s just all that stuff and you’re not a builder.

So I didn’t realize that this was a certain type of window, you know, and it’s that, it’s that sort of thing that an architect could really have helped out with. I think.

Amy: And I think often the client, you’re paying so much money, to the builder to get this thing, but it does feel really difficult to advocate for yourself in the process because you need it to carry on and have this momentum. And I think sometimes having that third party, it’s just really helpful because obviously it’s your home, it’s emotional,

and having someone who can kind of just bridge, the parties, it can be really helpful.

Kat: Yeah, that is a really interesting thing because although I had a good relationship with my builders, but, but equally I found myself treading on eggshells a lot with them because I, because I had that clear vision of what I wanted. And I had these three burly blokes, like almost eye rolling some of the time when I’m saying, Oh yeah, but I don’t want that because I want the windows here.

And they’re like, Well, it doesn’t matter whether the windows are here or down here. I’m like, it does to me. And I kind of was conscious of being like renovation equivalent of a bridezilla of not wanting to just sound spoiled sometimes by saying, no, I, I really want it here and it’s really important that it’s symmetrical or whatever it was.

When. And they just want to get the job done and they didn’t have, they didn’t see why, because they weren’t design minded, you know, and so, and you just, I was genuinely very conscious of don’t sound spoiled, don’t upset them, don’t annoy them, because actually it’s a quite, you know, the, the power balance really.

Lies with them, if you do upset them, then they might not come back tomorrow and then you’ve got to live with a garage out your kitchen for until you can get your next builder. I mean, luckily there never was any, any problems like that, but I was really mindful of it. yeah,

Jane: It adds a lot of pressure, doesn’t it? I feel like,

the type of architect that you had, we would call, a permissions architect, which is like, they get your permissions for you, They make sure, you know, that they’ve ticked all the boxes in terms of what absolutely has to be done, but

there’s a whole nother piece of work which You know, that’sthe next stage in technical design, which is finding those windows and drawing the exact details of how your roof lights are gonna meet the wall and where these beams are and things.

And I guess that’s a big job in itself, to sit down at a computer and draw all that out. But at least you have the tools and the facilities to do it. But you were actually trying to do that, verbally, and that’s hard.

That’s a hard thing to try and do. And, you know, kudos to you that you’ve pushed that through and managed to make that happen. But it’s an, it’s an absolutely an uphill battle because, you know, you’re trying to communicate something that is a very technical and visual thing without any drawings.

So you want, it, it will be really hard and because again you don’t have the language and the technical aspect to actually say the thing that you want as well that makes it double hard.

Kat: Absolutely. They, it, it did feel like we were talking different languages a lot of the time. So they would try to explain to me why something couldn’t go where I wanted it to go, but they would use, like, they’d say like, Oh, you can’t do that. Cause you need a 16. I’m like, what’s a 16, a 16 by 16. What’s a 16 by 16.

Oh, you know, 16 mil, 16 mil what? And then it materialized. They’re talking about I don’t know, a timber or a steel. And they’re talking about the dimensions of the steel that needs to go there. But instead of saying, you’re going to have a steel here, they’d say to me, you’re going to have a, you’re going to have a 32 there.

I’m like, a what?

Yeah, and I, I just couldn’t visualize it and all I’m saying is, yeah, but I want it to look like this Instagram picture.

Jane: Yeah. But I mean, even as an architect to try, if we were stood on site trying to piece all the different pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together in your head, you know, like, okay, so the steel is going to be here, then that’s going to go on there. And that’s like, it’s really hard. So I just think you’ve done an amazing job.

I guess you were having to be there, I’m imagining, almost every day, were you? To talk them through, those finer details.

Kat: Yeah, I mean, luckily I work from home, so I was able to pop down between my meetings and I was there if they needed to ask questions. So I think, gosh, I did think to myself pre COVID, pre working from home, how could we possibly have got this done? And there would have been so many more mistakes because I would come down and say, Oh no, no, not there.

Or they would say, Oh, we’ve just thought, do you want this or that? Yeah. Oh gosh, it’s bringing back all

these sort of,

I’d forgotten about. all this. And it’s amazing because I think we’ve now been finished for about three months and that the building work went on for about four months, but it, Feels like it’s been no time at all that we’ve been living here.

And it still feels like the building work went on for so much longer, but actually we’re nearly at that point where we’ve lived in it for as long as it went on for, but it doesn’t feel like that yet.

Amy: It’s also interesting about the eye rolling. I think we’ve definitely experienced that, you know, even in the architect’s role when we’re wearing that hat, the kind of like here she goes again, kind of mentality. And it’s like interesting I mean, especially if you’re the client, you are, you’ve paid for a product that someone’s building for you.

It’s just like an interesting thing that I just don’t think in any other industry, there would be such a reluctance to engage with the person who’s like paying for the thing. Do you know what I mean? It’s just, but it’s, it happens all the


Kat: Absolutely and I, and I, and I don’t want to do the builders down because we did have a good relationship, but they did do a lovely job for us, but also my mum came a few times during the build and she would comment on, Hmm, I’m not sure that they would talk to Toby the way that they’ve just been talking to you and that sort of thing.

But yeah, there was, definitely that tension, which, and I would think to myself sometimes, but hang on, you’re, you’re here to do what I’m asking you to do.

That is your job is to build what I’m asking you to build. So why is it such a problem when I’m asking you to do it the way I want you to do it? Because that’s the deal. That is what we’ve both signed up to here is for you to do my job for me, please. But yeah, and then the other thing is that Toby, my partner really didn’t have a clue what this kitchen was going to be like.

I mean, he was absolutely not involved in this project at all. I think he just, he wants an easy life.

He didn’t care enough about having a bigger kitchen to go through the work. So. The deal was kind of fine. Well, we can do it, but I, I don’t really want any part in this. So he would just, he would just let me crack on and I, you know, I was the one with the vision, but it would be funny that some days he I’d hear him saying something to the builders and I’m like, no, no, no, Toby, that’s not what we’re doing.

We’re having this here. We’re having that here. So it was lovely to, to be able to just do what I wanted to do and not, I didn’t have to compromise with him in any way, but also probably like another difficulty was that I took it all on. I did it completely by myself really but he loves it. He loves it now and he knows that he knows that he knows that I was right.

It was totally worth it.

Jane: You’ve delivered, you’ve absolutely over delivered on your extra space. You’ve got a beautiful kitchen and those extra details that you’ve really pushed hard for, they do make all the difference. It does elevate the space to being beautiful as well as functional and I guess you enjoy that every day because you know that you created that.

Kat: Yeah. Thank you. That, that’s so lovely to hear. It means a lot that someone else would say that because that’s exactly what I hope that someone would say at the end of it. It makes it all totally worthwhile.

Amy: Oh, thank you so


Jane: It’s been lovely to chat with you and hear about your project.

And if you would like to see pictures of Kat’s project, including her beautiful rooflight and plywood kitchen, do you head to our website at homenotes.co/storiesfromsite

Our closing thoughts:

Achieving that ‘architect look’ when it’s just you and the builder is tough. 

Trying to describe a detail or aesthetic verbally, that your builder then needs to work out how to build is not easy.

But Kat is a living testimony to the fact it is possible, just be prepared for it to be a bit of a slog! 



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