Holding on to the vision when your builder disappears

with Katie

This week we talk to Katie who started a loft extension of her victorian terrace house only for her main contractor to disappeared after taking her roof off leaving her exposed to the winter weather.

With the help of a stellar team of carpenters who stepped up to complete the project, Katie took up the lead in the renovation to ensure the vision she had started with got realised.

We talk with her about the journey and how it feels to have got over the finish line.



Stories from Site – Katie Rowe

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

Amy: to bring you the real processes people went through to make their dream homes a reality.

After 10 years as architects renovating homes, Jane and I set up HomeNotes to teach people how to take on their own renovation journeys. We’ve met so many inspiring people on the way, and now we want to share their incredible stories.

This week we talked to Katie who started a loft extension of her Victorian terrace house, only for her main contractor to disappear after taking her roof off, leaving her exposed to the winter weather.

With the help of a stellar team of carpenters who stepped up to complete the project, Katie took up the lead in the renovation to ensure the vision she had started with got realised.

We talk with her about the journey and how it feels to have gotten over the finish line.

So welcome Katie, I’m excited about talking to you today because your renovation story is quite a story. But first up, do you want to tell us a bit about the house you bought? What drew you to it and yeah, a bit about it.

Katie: Yeah, sure. Yeah, it was a little bit of a drama, the kind of how we got to where we are now. We’ve actually been in the house for such a long time, almost a decade. I think it’s nine years this year. So it’s been, quite a long journey. Yeah, so we were renting in actually southwest London, totally priced out, trying to look for a house, nine month old baby in tow, the whole kind of story, all that stuff.

We just kept moving further out of London until we got to Southeast London.

Back to where I’m from, actually. And I remember adamantly being like, I don’t wanna go back home. It felt like a real big, like step backwards. Obviously my husband was a bit more practical and a bit like, it’s good schools, it’s a good commute, you know, all that kind of tick in the boxes.

But the house I remember coming around and I didn’t really like it. It’s a Victorian property, late Victorian slash on the verge of Edwardian property, like the kind of bones, but it was so dark and every room I felt like needed redecorating and they had the bathroom downstairs.

Looking, you know, at what was around at the time, we were like, no, okay, this has got potential so at least we can put our stamp on it. And it was within our budget and everything, like we’re actually I suspect we got it a bit lower than our budget cause we made a kind of cheeky offer.

And they actually had a previous buyer which fell through and when you have your mortgage offer, it was running out for them and they were panicking.

They were like, we need a buyer. So, from the day we made an offer to get the keys was 28 days.

Jane: Wow.

Katie: We did it so quick.

But obviously at this point we had not even given notice to our landord . And we just thought we’d go even more for broke and do some work on the house.

Jane: So in the six weeks we opened up, yep, some of the walls and stuff, new floors downstairs, ceiling roses in, cornicing, cleaned up the fireplaces and redecorated, top to bottom white, just white, didn’t do any kind of, heavy work. Moved the gas box.

Katie: And that was because I had the vision that I’d always open up the kitchen area. And when we brought it, it had the old water tank and the boiler was on the internal wall.

So we had all the gas pipes run down the external side of the house.

Just kind of a bit of future planning as it were. What we didn’t plan for was that I would get pregnant after two months of moving in. So that sort of put a massive spanner in the works cuz obviously we’d sort of pushed ourselves buying the house having to pay mortgage and rent and then doing the works up.

So that sort of put life on a bit of a hold really. Cause in our heads we thought, right, next year we’re gonna start doing all the house up and it’ll suddenly, like no gonna have two under two.

And at the time I was working full-time up in like up in the city and I just completely changed our lifestyle and how we approached things. Cuz suddenly it was like one minute with have no family living nearby and both of them under two. It’s like full on nursery fees. So I just stepped back from working for quite a while because it just wasn’t really feasible. So when I was pregnant with Sophie the, the only thing we did was landscape, the whole garden.

Katie: and I’m so glad we did because then obviously the garden was done. We’d made the house like a real fresh, clean pallet, although it wasn’t as we wanted it to be, our dream house. It was all white, nice wood floors, just really clean. And you know, I’ve always collected vintage furniture and stuff, so it just had a lot of kind of personality in us and actually for a long time we lived with it like this.

So then, so that kind of like couple of years went by and then covid. So that was all fun for everyone, wasn’t it? And we thought we’d got through and then we had the first Covid lockdown and everyone came out of it and was all living freedom.

We then, at the time got an architect which was quite hilarious because the architect kind of did some drawings and I was a bit like, It’s not kind of what I was thinking. So, I did an interior design degree but I’m not very good at computers, but I can draw. So, I basically redrew the whole house on paper though.

He hated me. And I was like, can you just make sure that doesn’t fall down? Talk to the structural engineer. Is that feasible? And they, made sure the calculations were right and stuff.

So, so that was it really, like going forward.

Amy: So you didn’t extend, but you did the loft?

Katie: So what we wanted to do was downstairs in the kitchen.

It’s very long at the back. And so rather than paying for a absolute full side return, we wanted to keep a kind of small courtyard and then just make the end part, which is our dining area full width. So just so you’ve just got that little bit of extra space for a dining table and stuff. But our local authority were a nightmare.

Like we’d put planning in six weeks later, they’d be like we’re not sure about that. And you’d have to go in again. And they did it with the loft and they did it for the downstairs, and we just couldn’t figure out why they kept doing it. And initially we thought, well, we’ll just do the loft first and then next year we’ll tackle downstairs anyway.

Cause we obviously we’re living in with two kids and we obviously got the obligatory like lockdown dog.

Yeah, so when, so we had the first lockdown came up that, so we were very hesitant, some people did stuff from straight away from even the first lockdown, didn’t they?

But I think we were very much like hold up. Suddenly husband’s working from home. We’re all in the house, all doing homeschooling, And so we got through that phase and we thought, oh, the world’s opening up again. This is more feasible, getting builders and stuff.

And obviously everyone had the same idea. So trying to secure a builder was a nightmare.

We had some neighbours though, who recommended a builder and he was like, well, I’m too busy. It’ll be another six months. And we were like, okay, fine. Don’t worry. So went and got the dog just to make life more difficult. And then, I’m not kidding.

I think we got the dog and then two weeks later the builder rang me and was like, oh, my job’s falling through, I can start next week. And we’re like, what? Literally the scaffolding rocked up. And so this is now like the 1st of December, 2020, and we’re like, okay, we’re doing this.

And Initially it was just a loft, and within a week like the roof had gone, wraparound scaffolding up the works, the worst storms I think ever we had that winter. We had a chimney nearly collapse and fall through the ceiling, so that was fun. Yeah, so he was doing well and it all started off really well.

And then mid-January he just started disappearing and not coming back and we were like where have you been for the last week? Two weeks. Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m coming. And basically just went AWOL. And then we went back into a second lockdown , so suddenly we’re all in the house with no roof, scaffolding, a dog that was a nightmare. A puppy and a dalmatian, by the way.

Not the cute cockapoo. We had to go for something a bit extra, didn’t we?

Yeah, so that was really tricky to navigate. And actually, that’s one thing I think, talking to you about some of your questions, it’s so tricky trying to find trusted contractors, isn’t it?

You are always taking a risk and we had a contract and everything, you know, it’s not like we went in there blindly and actually contracts just don’t mean anything. We looked it up, we looked up legally what can we do? And, pretty much there’s just no resources out there to help you. They can just disappear.

Jane: Did he disappear and that was it then?

Katie: I think it got to about February yeah, end of February. We hadn’t seen him for about three or four weeks, and it got quite stressful.

Cause obviously everything had been ripped out. Then, Um,kind of weirdly is that, the builder that we’d had, had some guys who had come and done a lot of the um, carpentry, you know, all the wooden joists and stuff.

And they were incredible. And I’m so grateful now that I took their business card. And I kind of rang them like any chance you’re around, please.

Kind of told them the sob story and they were just absolutely disgusted with what our builder had done and like left us in the lurch, especially with the kids and stuff. And they couldn’t help us immediately, but they were like, right, okay. We’re around from April. So we can come back and help then.

Jane: But you started in January.

Katie: Yeah, so we had no roof. All the steels were in, in the loft, all the joists and stuff, the wraparound scaffolding. The boiler did go in luckily cuz I’d found a subcontractor to put the boiler.And we put the boiler in the loft.

So luckily that was all running, but it’s all a bit high risk cause obviously your boiler is out in the elements a bit. You know, It should really be all like in a cupboard and safe and stuff.

Yeah, so that was weird, like going up there and just walking around in this, it was just freezing, right? Cause the whole top of the house was open.

And the reason why we ended up doing downstairs is because we really wanted to secure them and basically sweeten the deal. We just said to them, look, we are looking to do downstairs as well. and sort of used that as a bargaining chip.

Cuz no one wanted to touch it. We had about four builders come around and because that, it had already been started, just no one wants to get involved. Some of them were like, they wanna rip it all down and do it again.

Katie: And I mean we obviously it did all meet regs and it was all fine. The reg guy came, checked it all again and I had to make sure everything was absolutely fine after this guy, you know, I was a bit paranoid that things hadn’t been done right. But yeah, so our guys from MD Works who ended up doing all the house were incredible because they finished the loft us on a day rate, which is like unheard of.

But it did us a massive favour because also they weren’t just, oh, we’re doing it on a day rate and like faff around. They were working like machines and they, and then in a way we had to do it like that because it wasn’t like, oh, it’s this room that’s unfinished.

It was like bits and pieces and all different stuff. And then having to find the subcontractor that our builder would already bloody engaged, had to come back and do the roof. You know, We had a different electrician, a plumber, and the roofers.

It was all really messy. And I was like trying to manage that and homeschool.

Basically he hadn’t paid anyone.

Jane: Oh, so they came knocking on your door?

Katie: Exactly, and, and you were in a point where when we worked out, I think we lost about 30 grand, to be honest, of money, because, what are you going to do? I can’t have someone disconnect my boiler when you’ve got two kids, you know, you’ve just you just had to sort of suck it up, Um, so that was a lot of stress.

Jane: So,were you paying everybody just individually for the jobs that they were coming in to do?

Katie: Luckily they’d already done quotes and I’d been copied in the emails in what their quote was for the job.

Amy: And what about the builder? I mean, cause they obviously still are in contact with him, probably did he sever ties from them as well?

Katie: He just went. completely AWOL.

Amy: Wow, did anyone have any ideas what happened?

Katie: No idea. I just, I feel really bad for my neighbours who they recommended. So I had one neighbour across the road they recommended and then like someone around the corner who recommended him and they just like, feel really bad about it. And then they heard that he did it to someone else as well. So he was kind of tagging jobs and doing this.

Amy: Yeah. It sounds like he got just completely in trouble.

Jane: But that’s the, tricky thing, isn’t it? There aren’t many people out there who are, absolute cowboys. Like he was pretending to be a contractor and he actually didn’t have any of the skills.

He obviously had done a good job for your neighbour, and you just can’t tell when the pinch point’s gonna come.

Katie: One job to the next can be totally different because of the circumstances which they find themselves in. Yeah, I just think he just didn’t have the management skills.

And I mean, he didn’t come in as the cheapest contractor. We weren’t like going for a bargain here. You know, he came in middle of the road, which I always think seems fair enough, doesn’t it? He had recommendations.

Afterwards, we’d spoken to a company, you know, that specialize in lofts, you know, those big companies and, but they’re super professional, aren’t they? And when they send you your quote, it’s so itemized. They know what they’re doing and they know ,how to kind of bang them out. He came like middle of that and I actually went with him cause I thought, oh well he’s more of a local guy.

He’s more of an independent business. Maybe it’s slight rookie mistake on our part, but it did mean that we got to meet our guys who now are like my favourite people in the world, honestly.

They’ve now like, worked on three or four of my friends’ properties and done amazing jobs and, and are always there for us. And that’s really important, isn’t it?

I mean, these people are in your home and around you and your family and stuff and and they were just so lovely and caring and it made it, yeah. I’m gonna be emotional.

Amy: I’m sorry that we are taking you back to such a stressful time.

Katie: But I think it just shows. There are some really decent people out there.

It’s a messy job for them, right? I mean, they didn’t make any profit really on the loft that much, you know, cuz they’re working so hard. And they did a fantastic job, but a, as you say, because then I took over, well, completely managing it anyway, everything was separate, right?

I had to go and find a glazing company, and just everything was, I had to look up and source.

Jane: You were basically now the main contractor organizing everything.

Katie: Yeah, and having to problem solve and stuff. I mean, luckily like my dad, what was a fireman slash builder that happened a lot back in the eighties, . And and I mean, so I think I’m quite practical, quite logical, so it, that helps a lot.

And obviously with my interior background as well to question things is so important. Luckily the second guys were not the kind of guys who’d be like, oh, you don’t wanna do it like that love. Luckily they weren’t condescending like that, but you do get that in the industry a lot.

You know, that people don’t really wanna maybe make the effort or try something new. Especially with Victorian Terrace, there’s a pretty much of a, a standard of what you’re gonna get and what’s gonna happen. And um, lots of companies, you know, they have the windows that they always use cause they’ve probably got a contract with a certain company and they’ve, they’ve just always done it like that.

So when you start to want to do things a little bit different, people kind of get a little bit nervous, don’t they? Or, or they realize, oh no, this is gonna take me a few more days. So it worked really well having our guys, because obviously if I’m getting ’em to do more work, they’re like, okay, it’s a few more days.

But they were really on board with kind of our creative vision. And I had it all like stuck around each room, kind of like my mood boards and you know, what, what I wanted and the finish and stuff. So for example, in the loft, we’ve got reclaimed floor boards.

Because I wanted it to look like original Victorian flooring. It was quite important to me to make it look like it was the top of the house rather than a loft conversion. So our staircase is continuous as well, so that it feels like it’s always been there.

Jane: That’s such a lot of work to push against the system, especially when you’re in that very precarious situation, I’m really amazed with how you pushed it all through, not only to get yourself a roof, but to make it what you wanted to. I just think that takes such guts.

Katie: It was so difficult to try and keep like a creative vision because don’t forget, we’ve been thinking about what we want to do to the house for seven years. Right? We, we haven’t just brought it and gone, oh, I’m just gonna bang aloft conversion and move out.

Jane: You said it started January. When was it when you felt like you were finished?

Katie: The, so our guys strictly do not work in August. Our builders, they never will work in August and they leave the country. They go, you know, they go and so they literally kept saying to us, it’s 22nd of July we are off. And it pretty much just finished like the 21st of July.

What we didn’t have were the back doors and the side window. But you know, that wasn’t really to do with them, that was the glazing company, so they just left it with a big, massive chipboard, sealed. So it was quite a massive reveal, you know, like in the August or something when the doors finally turned up.

That was amazing, right? Because we’d opened all this up, but it was darker than it had ever been. And then suddenly we were like, oh, like you can see me now. I’m blinded by the sun right now. So they were incredible. And they, they were on schedule.

Jane: There’s nothing better than a hard deadline.

Katie: A really funny day actually is that we were, my husband and I were working upstairs. The dog was upstairs. Kids I think were back at school at this point.

And and the guys had said, oh, we’re gonna be doing the stairs and stuff. I’m like, okay. And this is how efficient they were. I’m, I’m not kidding. They had like a few bangs, whatever. And then I came out the room and There’s no staircase like there’s.

There’s no staircase. I’m just upstairs and there was no staircase. And I was like, the dog needs to go out. And they were like, oh. So there’s us like airlifting a dog down in a bedsheet with these like all our builders, like trying to catch this really like, you know, dogs are really like front heavy, aren’t they?

And I think he like flipped up at one point You know, just, just all the comical stuff. And then they were like, oh, we’ll get you a ladder so you can go up and down. We. Oh my goodness. Like, oh, we are living like this.

But they were so quick. Like the actual downstairs took six weeks max.

Katie: It did mean I had to make a lot of decisions quickly. So I think, you know, I, I mean, I would be there researching and researching, researching. Like, I think I ordered about five different kitchen taps, you know, trying to make a decision cuz you suddenly just feel like, oh, this is permanent.

This is what we’re gonna have. And And actually sometimes your decisions are made for you because if you have got a time restraint, you might want that dream thing. And then they’re like, oh, it’s not coming for 12 weeks. You’re like, oh, well, that’s out. So that’s the only thing that, if you are embarking or making your absolute dream, dream home, I mean, I think just buy all your stuff before or look into it because it’s all those detailed things that you don’t think you need to think of.

And actually, I feel like some of the tiny detail things almost had to be thought of before we even built the house. You know, like to make sure they can be incorporated or they can be planned for. So having a really clear vision is important because it’s stuff like, you know, the first thing a contractor does is all your plumbing and your electrics.

And if you don’t know where you want your plug sockets or if you want to have wall lights or additional ceiling lights either you’re spending a lot of money afterwards cutting your walls up, or you’re just having to compromise from a real finished put together look. And I guess that’s where interior designers come in making sure that’s, that’s kind of in the forefront.

Jane: We were just chatting to someone the other day actually who was like, when do I make those decisions? A lot of people want to stand in the room to see what it feels like to know where they want stuff. And yeah, we were trying to say by that point it’s probably a bit too late.

Amy: So I mean, it sounds like you have experienced high highs and low lows and everything in between. But I guess I would like to know how does it feel now? How is your enjoyment of the space, I know know been using it as a location house.

Katie: Yeah, I mean that’s a massive compliment in a way, isn’t it? Having your house as a location house. It’s so weird having like brands, like we had like Wagamama here and Nike and, and then, you know, seeing your house as a backdrop, that’s, it’s pretty cool, you know, when you’ve put so much effort in.

It does mean it has to stay quite tidy though, at least that motivates that. I mean, it, it’s, it’s such a useful space for us now.

It’s not completely open plan. But because we’d lived here for seven years, we were like, no, kids are really noisy, we need, we need a room that we can close the door on and we, you know, there’s certain things you suddenly realize that your lifestyle actually dictates.

And lockdown probably helped us with some decisions because suddenly realizing how people were having to now work, you know, previously none, neither of us were working from home. So we all suddenly need like a home office or at least a space that you can use as a home office.

And it is amazing to think we didn’t actually even extend downstairs that was just reconfiguring and I mean, I, I drew and redrew and redrew the downstairs, you know, over and over again to try and get that to work.

So no, yeah, no the sense of achievement’s great. And, but it’s weird. It’s very quickly became just what we’ve got used to. It just felt very quickly like our home. I think dreaming it up for so long and it coming to life was fantastic. But I think also the way we’ve done it, you know, the way we’ve done the staircase and the continuation, it just, I can’t even now envision how the house didn’t ever have a top floor cause it’s just seems to be so like, organic to how the house should have been.

And I mean, you’ve gotta look at the silver lining I guess all the delays we had. It did mean, you know, I spent forever planning that bathroom upstairs cuz no one was around building anything. So, and you know, I wanted a brass towel rail and I dunno if you’ve ever tried to buy a brass towel out that they just don’t exist.

You can get brass plated or you can get the ones that are kind of plastically looking fake and that it’s just, It’s not a good look. So I found a company that makes him, I mean, at this point, we hadn’t spent all our money, so it was a pretty penny, the most expensive towel rail in the world, but at least I’ve got a very nice towel rail in the loft bathroom.

Jane: I like the vision of the boiler just sat on its own. Like with all the flapping things, it’s just like, but there’s gonna be this towel rail and everything’s gonna be okay.

Katie: Exactly, I was just like endearingly tucked it on my way past out the bathroom. But yeah. Gosh, when I think back then that, that’s all I was focusing on , I was un unaware of actually all the stuff that would be going on.

I mean, there are a lot more serious things in life than this. I mean, it was a lot, but you know, there are a lot more serious things going on in the world and I guess it is how you adapt with it and how you move with it.

Katie: I guess that’s the only advice I would have. It’s not gonna be forever, right? Nothing’s gonna be forever. I mean, luckily we found people that we could trust, I don’t think we would’ve happened without them. And they liked our vision. They weren’t mocking or you know, they wouldn’t roll the right.

I mean, I was tricky at some point There’s, there’s a bit in the kitchen where we have like a slight post. I mean it’s a slight post the tantrum I had about that, you know, cause I had a vision where it’d be nice and clean and they wouldn’t be a slight post. And I remember being so upset about it and they were doing everything in their power to try and fix this thing and make it as small as possible.

And I mean, I had a complete dummy out the pram moment. and now it’s done. I’m like, it looks absolutely fine. Like what was I even making such a drama about? But at the time, it felt like the most important thing. And I think that’s what happens when you are doing a renovation.

You become extremely insular. You know, you’re very focused, aren’t you? And what you are doing and what’s happening. And in the grand scheme of things, it’s gonna be fine. And I think you have to be a bit humble and, and appreciate. It could have been nothing. It could have really gone like tits up right. And not happened at all.

So I think we just take that we’re quite fortunate.We’re all very privileged, aren’t we really in our lives? If you’re managing to own a house and then spend money doing it up.

Jane: You’ve explained the experience so well, and I think it’s gonna be really useful for people because it’s a reality that a lot of people face and perhaps if you are in the middle of that, you wanna know that it’s possible to come out of the other side.

Katie: Yeah, it’s gonna be okay.

Amy: Thanks so much for your time, uh, today and revisiting your experience with us, and it really just makes the finish home even more incredible when you know the story behind it, . And, uh, for anyone who wants to see Katie’s finished home, take a look on our website at homenotes.co/storiesfromsite or I’d a hundred percent recommend following Katie over on Instagram, and we will put her link to her profile in the show notes below. Okay, that’s all for today’s episode, have an amazing week and we’ll see you next time.

Thanks for taking the time to listen to this episode. Renovating can be a rollercoaster and if you are at the beginning of your renovation journey, come and find out about our Getting Started Course at homenotes.co to make sure you get the best value from your project. Finally, if you’ve enjoyed this episode, then please do follow or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, as it will help us reach as many people as possible and all learn from these amazing experiences.


Our closing thoughts:

Being left in the lurch is one of the greatest fears for anyone renovating, and could even put you off starting a project!

Our top tips? It’s essential to do your checks and references on all your team, and it’s good to remember there are good people out there.

If you would like to be a guest on the podcast, we’d love to hear from you! Get in touch with us here.

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4. A joyful renovation: You just need the right people

We talk with Elesa and Steve who who found a run-down house that needed a complete back-to-brick renovation. They had the best experience renovating, and not a lot of people end up saying that! Find out the secret to their success in this week’s episode!

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3. The self-finished renovation with Lydia from Fettle Studio

Today we’re chatting to Lydia about the extension and renovation of her one bedroom flat in London. Lydia is an architect and ceramicist with her own practice Fettle Studio. Together with her partner architect, Dan Ruddick, they wanted to wholeheartedly get involved in the build process.

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2. Taking on the challenge of being a main contractor

We recently caught up with Nick and Dawn past clients of ours and reflected back on the project we did together. With some experience in construction project management, they took on the role of being the main contractor and employed separate trades to help them complete the works, all while juggling full-time jobs and having a baby.

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1. Project managing a renovation during lockdown with Kirsty

This week we talk to Kirsty about managing a renovation direct with her builder while home schooling and a full time job.

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