Project managing a renovation during lockdown
This week we talk to Kirsty whose site works started just as lockdown number 3 came into force.
We talk to her about managing a project direct with her builder while homeschooling and working. The highs and lows of personal relations on site and what happens when you part ways with your builder.
Kirsty: I walked into the house and I mean, there was nothing that resembled my house anymore. Every internal wall had gone, the stairs had gone. There was like almost a gaping hole in the ceiling
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.
What worked well for them? What went completely wrong, and what did they learn from their experience?
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 Kirsty whose site work started just as lockdown number three came into force.
We talked to her about managing a project while homeschooling and working, the fundamentals of communication and personal relations on site and what happens when you part ways with your builder.
Amy: So today we’d love to talk about your renovation and I wondered if you could, start with the vision you had for the project?
Kirsty: The vision, it sort of grew. So we bought a really weird house that had like loads of extensions and had corridors and dark rooms and a front facing first floor conservatory. Yeah. So, um, I suppose the vision was just get rid of the conservatory and try and create a bit more continuity in the house, but we didn’t really know what we could afford what was possible or anything.
So we knew the conservatory needed to go and be rebuilt properly. And we had the odd plan of like moving a wall, but I suppose it’s more conversations with some of our lovely architect friends, and it sort of made it spiral after that, cuz it was like, oh, well you could move the stairs or we could move the stairs, we could do this. And then before, you know, it we’d like moved every single internal wall and done everything. But all we really wanted to do was create a house that felt one house that was built rather than a house with a series of extensions and dark corners and corridors and stuff, we just wanted a nice family house.
Amy: How many rooms did the existing house have? Like, did you add any, any bedrooms?
Kirsty: We actually, we got rid of rooms really I suppose. There was, there was lots of little rooms, like I think it pitched itself as a six bedroom house, but one of those rooms had no external windows. Like what?
Amy: It’s actually a cupboard!
Kirsty: Exactly. It was, it was ludicrous and like the like little box rooms that, you know, if you’ve not got a nursery, you’re never gonna use for anything.
So, um, yeah, we got rid of all those little rooms and the rooms that had no windows became like bathrooms and things that made a bit more sense. So yeah, we went from, what was pitched as a six bedroom house, but never was to, a five bedroom house that’s just a lot more open and nice and feels now like a family house rather than a weird little chalet bungalow that’s been extended and doesn’t work.
Amy: So can you tell us how you got, to that point? You said you worked with an architect, what did they do for you?
Kirsty: I suppose we started off, would’ve been your guys’ HomeNotes course. going there and just getting ideas of what was actually feasible because all I’ve ever done before is like, oh, we’ll redo a kitchen.
And you just kind of think, can that wall move and do that? And it just opens you up to thinking about it. And, then we realised that we needed an architect to come in and tell us what was sensible and what wasn’t. And then we spent a long time trying to get the design right.
COVID happened and a delay of the year made us look at it all again, so much more at that point, we’d lived in the house for two years and we really knew what we didn’t like about it and what we wanted it to be. So, um, our architect, Pete, who was lovely, also a good friend, he put up with me being like, I just had a thought last night that maybe the kitchen could be there instead. Should we just draw that out? And he was very patient with me. I have to say yeah. I was probably an absolute nightmare client. So if you’re listening, Pete, sorry. I just wanted the layout to work, and he was very patient with us.
Amy: And what happened next?
Kirsty: So we finally agreed and everything with the layout and then the wonderful job of finding builders. Again, the architect was wonderful for that. He had people who he’d used previously locally, and other people that he’d heard good things about. Cause you try and get recommendations from people and no one will recommend their builder.
Jane: For what reasons? Why are people cagey about that?
Kirsty: Oh, they’re just like, oh, could I have the number of your builder cause your house looked amazing. You could, but you probably don’t want to use them. It wasn’t like kind of I’m reserving this person. It was more like God had a nightmare. Everyone seemed to have a horrible nightmare of it. I had one person who would recommend their builder, but their builder was like, oh, I’m really sorry I’ve just retired. So that was a bit sad. But yeah, he was very good at tendering out the project. And then getting all the quotes back and comparing all the random things and then being like, we can’t afford anything, like they’re asking us to pay, what can we cut? And, yeah, he was brilliant going through all that costing process and finally, um, going for the cheap one that may or may not have been a good decision.
Jane: So how many prices did you get back?
Kirsty: I think we had four in the end.
Pete had a lovely sheet with everything broken down, like the schedule of work almost came from it and where all the costs were for everything. And so we could say like, well, actually we can’t afford to fully decorate everything. We’ll do that ourselves and chopping bits and bobs out until we got to a price that we could work with. And then, yeah, once it was decided, then we, we went for it and it was ridiculously fast then as soon as we’d said, okay, that price works.
When’s good? They were like, well, we can start in about a month or so. So we had to move out cuz there’s only one room in the house that didn’t have a wall knock down in it. So it was a mad rush to find somewhere else to live. And find somewhere to store all of our stuff, cause we moved into a little, two bedroom flat down the road.
It was the beginning of January, 2021 and you were like watching it going just don’t close the schools, just don’t close the schools. You can close them in a week’s time and they closed the schools.
Kirsty: So yeah, the mad rush to try and get everything sorted whilst home schooling was a little bit crazy, but we did it and it was all fine. When you started on site, did you have your architect to help you manage that process?
Yeah, absolutely. So we had, a wonderful plan for how it was all gonna work on site and, we had weekly, Friday meetings with the main contractor see the progress, all that kind of jazz.
We had a lovely plan that was all gonna work really smoothly. And then almost immediately, it just went out the window. They like started of the week early. And the demolition stage was just ridiculously fast.
Kirsty: Like on that first Friday I walked into the house and I mean, there was nothing that resembled my house anymore. Every internal wall had gone, the stairs had gone, there was like almost a gaping hole in the ceiling. It was like, it was so fast how far they did it. And so the next thing, you know, like we’re a few days into it and all the steels have been ordered and so it was like, “could we maybe have the payment a bit early.” So we broke the payment schedule within three days. My house that we rented was, literally five minutes walk down the road. It was nothing at all to be like, “can you just pop over and look at this?”
So the Friday morning sensible things quickly turned into almost a, I was popping up and down a lot of the time. And yeah, whether that was, that was beneficial in some ways, but in other ways it was like, am I just being in the way, do you, do you need to ask me this now? Is this important? Um, so yeah, so we still kept up with the sort of Friday meetings for a while, and then the contractor stopped coming and of course locked down hit we were all homeschooling. The architects was homeschooling as well, and so it just sort of became a bit more, less organized and sporadic. But yeah, I had help whenever I needed it Pete was always there on the phone and answering emails and coming help with all the big things. He was brilliant.
Amy: But you were managing the kind of day to day stuff and the day to day decisions?
Kirsty: Reluctantly, yeah.
Jane: So, so just describe the setup a little bit. So you are in, in essence, you were project managing with the contractor with support from the architect, but at more of a, a distance.
Kirsty: Yeah, definitely. So, if there was ever any like design structurally questions, anything like that, he was always there.
But, um, things in terms of, I don’t know, organizing the window fitters to come and things like that was all sort of me. So how do I put this? Um, the contractor sometimes wouldn’t really be there and very helpful. And there was never really one person on site sort of taking control of everything. To start off with I felt like there was, but then when things started to slip or they got a new job, people would be moved around and so there wasn’t really a kind of project manager or a main contractor on site at any point in time. So, um, sometimes there was a bit of repeating and the drawings would go with someone else.
And so it was a bit chaotic, which is when I think I started like just popping in every day on the way back from the school run in the morning. And, and sometimes it’d be a “yep, we’re okay”. Sometimes I’d be there for like an hour and a half and thinking, what am I doing here? I’ve got a job to do. And in those long meetings, were you having to tell people what to do? If there wasn’t really a, a main person that was seen to be in control on site?
Not so much in terms of telling people what to do. No, it would been more like they’d be asking me questions and like, well, when’s your bathroom stuff coming? What are we gonna do here?
Things like, where was your sink gonna go do your pipes run here? Like that sort of stuff was a bit lost in translation. So you’d have the conversation with the contractors and then the plumbers. So, it would’ve been really good if there was one point of contact here who could sort of manage it from that side.
Kirsty: And so there was a bit of ad hocness that was not ideal, but also positive in a sense, because it meant that, because I was always on the other end the phone and not far away, or they knew they’d see me again soon. I could have like a we’ve run into this problem, Kirsty, what would you like us to do with this? So we dealt with a lot of things really quickly rather than if we had been waiting for the Friday meetings or so. So in the sense it was really good. But, other times you were just like, really, do you need that tomorrow? Do I need to go to a tiling shop three miles away to get that for tomorrow? Can it not wait till they can be delivered?
And of course it could, the amount of things that had to be done at a drop of a hat and then would sit there in corner of a room for two months time not being used and you’d think God.
Jane: I guess if things are disorganized, they want everything to be sorted, but actually then they get pulled somewhere else.
Kirsty: Definitely, that was happening. Yeah, I know that there was the contractor was rather chaotic in where he pulled people. And I saw it from my way as well, when I’d been like, no, you need to get the scaffolding down because the windows would coming tomorrow. Like, and I’d see that he’d pull everyone on site, but that would be at some other jobs detriment wouldn’t it?
So there was, um, definitely a lot of juggling going on and things like the, the program was always quite in these weeks, we’ll have this done. It was never very like specific. It got to this stage halfway through where you realise there isn’t actually a plan. They’re just gonna do what they can do with people when they’ve got it here.
And I mean, it worked, we moved into a house and it’s almost finished and it was almost on time and almost on budget, so.
Jane: Talk to us about timings then, how long did you think it was gonna be at the beginning and, and what happened?
Kirsty: It was a 30 week program. I didn’t think it, we would do that. So I, I gave myself an extra month in the house regardless. They wanted us to be back in beginning of August. I gave myself the beginning of September and we ended up coming back in at the beginning of October and it wasn’t finished, but it was like, you know, totally livable.
Not all the rooms were painted, but it was my kitchens, my bathrooms and bedrooms, my main living area, it was done. So yeah, we were a little bit late in terms of timings and it’s still not quite finished, but, um,
Considering the description you’ve given of how everything was working on site, I’m surprised it wasn’t actually more delayed than, than what you’re saying. I, always, kind of seesaw around with this house and I’m like, well, actually, oh, we did was a bit of an internal refurb, we didn’t really do all that much. It was quite small project to be like, oh my God, it was massive. We did everything.
Kirsty: And so
depending on like my mood of the day, it’s either like it was total chaos and was absolutely terrible. Or do you know what? We’ve got an amazing house and it was a little bit late and it was a little bit over budget and I may have fallen out with the builder, but who cares? It worked.
it’s definitely down to perception in this house I think.
Amy: Did you notice that when you had moved in, did things really slow down in terms of getting the builders back to finish the last bits? Like, was that the, the main problem really?
Kirsty: Well, it slowed down before.
Kirsty: Definitely slowed down before and we were at the stage where the builder was asking for like a completion bonus and all these things, and I’m like, you’re not finished. I’m not paying you anymore money until you’ve actually got to the stage where these three things that I need doing are done. And so I think it slowed down partly because he was like, I can’t send people to work there cuz Kirtsy’s not paying me. Um, but also he had other projects which were probably at that super fast demolition stage where he was getting it all up front. But yeah, once we moved in, I had the decorator in who was working for me then rather than the contractor and no one else really turned up for the first few days afterwards. Then I got COVID and had to send everyone away so that didn’t help. Then it was really hard to get people back in and when they’d come back, you’d be like, brilliant, we’re getting someone in and it would be a day and then they’d be offsite again.
Amy: Mm, that’s so frustrating. Do you think it just came from his personality of maybe being a bit disorganized and that was like a natural extension of his personality? Or do you think he was trying to grow his business maybe from doing just one at a time to multiple ones at a time and he just wasn’t quite, at that point where it was working.
Kirsty: Do you know, I’ve been, around the houses with what I think was going on so many times and to start off with, I was definitely like, do you know, his heart is totally in the right place. He’s a bit disorganized, maybe he’s taken on too much, this is all gonna be fine.
Let’s just keep going and all will be wonderful. Um, and the additional bills come in for things and you kind of go, okay, maybe you’ve got some financial troubles and you kind of start thinking, is this all coming from there? Are you feeling really under pressure and stressed? I very much started on the I’m feeling sorry for this person personally, um, to be in like actually, no, he’s just a complete chaos merchant and really disorganized.
Amy: And were you able to have those conversations with him? Like, were you kind of enquiring what was going on or did you not really have that relationship?
To a degree, yes. I think as things progressed further on it, it became definitely more via email than picking up the phone, and got to the stage where he just wasn’t returning my calls or answering anything. Um, and I mean, I’m like communicating via WhatsApp with joiners and stuff. All the guys on site were amazing.
Kirsty: They were so lovely and kept me abreast of everything that was going on. And you could see that maybe things weren’t ticking over as lovely as they might have wanted to at the builders. Um, generally, but, yeah, it went from being, oh, it’s just him and he’s a bit disorganized to actually he’s in trouble to actually, maybe just doesn’t care. Maybe this is just his MO he gets to the end of a project and then holds the finish to ransom almost like I felt like I wasn’t gonna get anything done until I paid him completion. I’m not paying completion until it’s completed. It sounds
obvious. Doesn’t it? Um, and then maybe I was just being a bit silly because the actual fact we’re talking about a very small bit of money in the grand scheme of things, but I don’t want to give into those sort of tactics, so maybe I’ve just been a bit silly and stubborn.
I don’t think so at all. I think the end of site is just notoriously difficult. I mean, everybody’s been pushed to their maximum, you know, and there’s very little money left in, in the contract and there’s things that haven’t been foreseen and, you know, that last 10% takes 90% of the effort.
Jane: I think, those finishing details are actually the hardest, like you said, demolishing a house is fairly quick and the results are amazing, but making sure that all the paint finishes are sanded down and, and good, and you know, that is a lot of hard work.
And I think it just comes at that stage in the project where everybody’s fatigued and money’s tight and, you know, it is just a battle getting to the end. And I, I think you were absolutely right not to hand over the money because then what have you got? You don’t have any guarantee and you didn’t have any track record to go off to say, that will work out okay. Because if you don’t have the communication there as well, you know, you have no idea whether that’s gonna come to fruition or not.
Well, hopefully it’s worked out, okay. And the money that was in the retention was enough to cover for a different joiner and a different electrician, and then last little bits to finish. So hopefully, um, I won’t be more out of pocket than I imagine, but we haven’t quite finished yet, so I’m not sure.
Amy: And can I ask, coming to the end of it all, what would you say was the most unexpected thing about the whole process?
Kirsty: The general level of chaos took me by surprise. I kind of thought, you know, these are professional people who do this for a living, and I just thought there would probably be a bit more of a plan and organisation generally.
Amy: Looking back if you had to do the whole thing again, what would you do differently? I would pick a different builder. When we went out to tender, there was one person that I really, really, really, really, really liked. It wasn’t like a typical contractor where, you know, you signed up to a contract and there was this amount of money.
Kirsty: He, he worked it more like a project management way of having, well, if this is your budget, I will get it done to the budget and you will pay the builders directly. And if it’s additional costs, um, we’ll deal with those as they arise and everything. And, but. He just seemed really on it. I just really liked him.
And I liked the idea of that. And considering that no one would recommend a builder that worked in the normal way. I quite liked that it was something different. But the architect was like could be really risky. You’ve got no protection, and so we didn’t go with him, but looking back on the whole process, I kind of always think to myself. “I wonder if Michael would’ve done it differently.” And, um, yeah, I kind of wish I’d given him a try. I mean, it might have been bloody awful and I might still be in a two bedroom flat down the road, but, um, yeah, I kind of wish I’d given that a that try.
Jane: It’s a really interesting concept. Isn’t it? Cause it’s like just working open book. But it’s transferring the risk to you rather than the contractor.
Kirsty: Which was exactly the architect’s point and yeah, and I get it. It’s a massive thing to do. Other things I would’ve done differently? Um, I would’ve taken personal out of it from the beginning. I would’ve stuck blindly to the contract and the payment schedule and the schedule of work and everything like that and documented everything. So I could be at every stage, here is where we are here is what you think you’ve done here is how much money I owe you. Just kept it purely professional and moved any sort of personal feelings aside.
Amy: And, what would you say is the best bit of the process?
Kirsty: Loads of it loads of it silly things like the first time that you walk in and all of a sudden there’s like a massive gaping and hole in the middle of the house. You’re like, this is how it’s gonna look. And the windows look amazing.
So you’ve got all those wonderful things of, of that. The people who you meet, like even the main contractor who obviously I fell out with at the end. Like, we had some lovely moments, but all the, the joiners doing pop master at 10 30 every morning with them, it was ace. Silly little things. I loved the people who were on site and the stories that they all have for you, the decorator who was a bodybuilder and was going through all the crazy dieting while he was decorating the house for Christmas. Like, they were just lovely. I loved the people who we met on site. And yeah, seeing it all unfold was brilliant, absolutely brilliant. And having a house at the end where, it’s just, I didn’t know it was what I wanted, but it’s exactly what I wanted.
Kirsty: It’s yeah,
Amy: I just got goosebumps with you saying
Kirsty: You wanna do part master it’s 10 past 10, you know, it’s coming down in 20 minutes, Amy.That’s so nice that you say about all the personal aspect of it and how rich that was, because in a way you were saying, well, that was kind of the downfall, that’s the thing you can’t extract your emotions and you know, the personability of being on a team with all those people. And of course you care about them and of course everybody’s human. And, I guess in a way, if you had that other person in between you and them, to do that communication with the contractor and say no to the bills when you didn’t have to, then you could have been as personable as you wanted to, but it didn’t play into the structure of the contract and how that played out. But I just think it’s really nice to hear that, that that is a real positive for you at the end of it. The guys were lovely. And now when people say to you, would you recommend I can go, yes, this, this decorator is amazing, these joiners are lovely.
And like, yeah, it, it’s nice to be able to do that.
Amy: And Kirsty, has it made you, want to do it again?
Jane: I think you’ve asked too soon Amy give her another, give her 10 years and then see what she says.
Kirsty: I can’t be bothered to hang pictures on the wall. I’m not doing this again.
No, I shouldn’t say that. No, it, it has been ace and I would never say like, never say never, but we didn’t buy the house to do it up and make money and move on and start again. We just wanted somewhere nice to live and now we’ve got somewhere nice to live. There’s no desire to do it again. Yeah.
Amy: And you definitely get to this like fatigue stage. I remember just before Christmas and the decorator had done like one coat of oil on the stairs. And there was a few of the little bits of bobs and I was just like, mate, it’s December, can we just like put a tree up and not do anything for another month or so? And you just, yeah, it’s doable now when I can start finishing off and you can see it’s all very plain and white. I’d love to have color on the wall, I’d love to do so many more, little bits of decorating homeliness but yeah, Yeah, you need a holiday I think.
Jane: Yeah, give yourself a year.
Amy: Oh, thank you so much Kirsty for being with us.
Kirsty: Ah, my pleasure. And, um, you can come back and see it when it’s actually finished.
Jane: Can’t wait.
If you would like to see pictures of Kirsty’s completed project, then head to our website, homenotes.co/storiesfromsite.
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:
Finding yourself project managing a renovation unexpectedly like Kirsty can be super stressful.
There are so many moving parts to a renovation, and so many different people playing a role!
This story from site shows how key communication and personal relations are – with all parts of the team.
Are you planning on project managing your project? join the conversation over on Instagram!
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