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. 

The pair arranged with their contractors to self-finish their works and complete the final parts of the project themselves, including decorating, laying flooring, fitting the kitchen, and installing Lydia’s 414 handmade ceramic tiles onto the exterior of their new extension.


Stories from Site: Lydia

Lydia: There was some torrential rain, at three in the morning, we just had to get buckets it was just water everywhere. So we basically had a small, swimming pool downstairs yes, that was a bit of an experience.

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. After 10 years renovating homes as architects, we’ve set up HomeNotes to support people on their own renovation journeys. And now we want to share those stories.

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. The pair arranged with their contractors to self finish their works and complete the final parts of the project themselves, including decorating, laying flooring, fitting the kitchen, and installing Lydia’s 414 handmade ceramic tiles onto the exterior of their new extension.

Although practicing architects at the time of this project, the pair were new to home renovation. Having grown up with a dad who was certainly a serial renovator, Lydia was keen to take up the mantle and try it out for herself.

Amy: Hi, Lydia, how are you?

Lydia: I’m very good. Thank you? Good to be here.

Amy: Okay. So I’m going to jump in with our official question, which is can you tell us a little bit about the house you bought and the vision you had for the house.

So Dan and I were looking in Leyton area, you know, got friends here and just love the area green space et cetera. And we found this one, which is opposite a park, which we love anyway. And it was basically a proper project and we knew we were looking for a project, something that we could work through ourselves, put a bit of our sort of stamp on and exercise some of those skills that you develop as an architect and play around with it a little bit go through the whole process ourselves.

I don’t think anything had been done since the seventies basically. And yeah so we, we saw it, we went home, tried about sort of 10, 15 layouts, you know, that evening just working through to see what potential there was. Because it was a one bed flat, where the garden and, the neighbours had done an extension as well.

Lydia: And it had it’s a bit geeky, but it had a really good width, side return. Which we knew we could basically fit a room into, which have a lot of Victorian terraces they’re quite narrow the side returns. So yeah trying out in plan and then literally the following day, put the offer in, Yeah.

So we wanted to add a, we added a bedroom to the, to the one bed flat. So that was, that was the plan. And also it’s that typical situation where it has the bathroom at the back and it’s a south facing garden. So the bathroom was getting all this lovely light, tiny little window and nothing into the kitchen or anything. So we did want to flip the plan and open up to the garden and just, you know, make it a house and a home that we wanted to live in for quite a while, so.

I remember you saying that you had a limited budget for the project. So do you mind telling us a bit about how you went about making the project happen?

Lydia: Yeah, I mean, it took us, I think probably a theme is going to be time. When we bought the, when we bought the place, we, we had about two weeks overlap with the place we were renting before, and this place needed so much work. And the front room in particular needed just stripping of every single surface ventilation through the whole place and just a complete freshen up.

You know, sort of sandstone, tiles on the wall or rather the chimney, the fireplace and, wood paneling on the walls. And we stripped all of that back, had the gas capped to this sort of old fire place. We had an asbestos survey done so that we knew we were doing things, you know, in the right way.

And then we found the original Edwardian fireplace behind. So it was discoveries like that, that were really wonderful. We started sort of scratching the surface of this place, but then we took about a year, before we actually got planning for our proposal, just sort of living in it and enjoying it.

And we did change some of the original layouts that we’d been thinking about just because the proportion of the front room is so lovely. and things like that. So yeah, we kind of took our time. And we also wanted to save you know, try and save a bit of money that was also overlapping with the pandemic and just the chaos of that.

Lydia: So it just all kind of made sense. And then it took us another year, really from getting planning permission to actually starting on site with a builder. Kind of working out our scope, really, you know, in light of the budget, and what we thought we could do ourselves really, or what we wanted to do ourselves.

Cause that’s the other aspect as well. We’d wanted to take on a project and sort of get stuck in. And then it was a process of finding the builder who was recommended via various contacts, that we could work with who would be quite accommodating of things like that.

And also we would be living in the flat at the same time. So Yeah, we had these kinds of early discussions with Bob the builder, before starting work.

Lydia: So, yeah, I guess we took the time through that first year of COVID to really feel like we knew what we were getting into.

Amy: Yeah. And I remember you saying that, one of your biggest concerns when it came to budget was the cost of having to rent another property So, tell, tell us about, about that, that made you

Lydia: Yeah.

Amy: Decide to stay in, in the property, how did that go?

Lydia: Yeah. I mean, it is, uh, it’s a bit mad when I think back on it, but, I mean, I had, we had a brilliant time if I’m honest. You know the build program can be something that is, you know, slightly unpredictable and especially with us our self-finishing route, you’re not exactly sure where you, you know, you try and set the line as clearly as possible, but there are often ad-ons and, and things like that. You know, for example, we thought we were going to keep the original kitchen and just repurpose the carcasses and then get new doors. By the time it came to it, we thought, no, we really want a new kitchen.

We’ve done all this work and there, there are things like that, that, just pushed it on a little bit, not, not too long, but you know, in some projects it can go on a lot longer. And it was just that unpredictability, also with, with COVID, and our jobs and things like that, which we were both working full time.

So it was just that unpredictability and the outlay of rent that we really wanted to stay in the flat. And so we made it work. We managed to store a few things at friend’s houses. And we basically lived in the front room, the middle room, which is the the other part of the original property, the front, was sort of storage room, occasional workroom and temporary kitchen. and then the builders made us this little cubicle, where the kind of new bathroom would go, but sort of tucked in, in an area that they weren’t doing too much work in. And that was just sort of toilet and sink. So we, we did go for four months without a working shower, which I think is it’s a bit mad.

But you know, we had good friends around the corner, you know, local leisure centre or going to the office or whatever it was. So. Yeah. we, we made it work.

Amy: You suddenly were at the gym every day as that’s a good motivation.

Lydia: Yes. Not for, not for the reason normal reason people go to the gym. Yeah. Yeah. and I think I sort of was going to touch on this later, but with us, both being architects as well, there was a kind of mutual understanding of what we were, what we were getting into. And also, you know, we’ve been together a long time, you know, I’d done little projects here and there.

And, so we kind of, we were both prepared, which a lot of people I think are maybe not so we were quite sort of balanced in that. And also, I feel like I’ve sort of always grown up on a half a renovation project. My dad is a sort of serial renovator you, you might say so. Yeah.

I mean, I was just very used to being around building sites. I suppose.

Amy: Yeah.I guess, because normally you’re working in residential architecture, how was it being the client versus being the architect.

Lydia: Yeah. I mean, at that time I was actually running a community centre project because I was, I was still working in practice and it was after that, that I then took all of the kind of things that I’d learnt, and, I’ve been doing yeah, small, very small scale, private resi for, for a long time alongside, my sort of main work.

And now I obviously do it full time and also other things, But yeah, it was a real balance. It was client, architect, also project manager. And yeah, to be honest, the project managing is, is the biggest thing because, you know, there’s not such a demand for you know, overall drawings and, and things like that.

Lydia: It’s more just decisions, literally decisions on-site or, you know, where’s the light fittings for this we need to install them tomorrow or we’ve got delay on the radiator or something like that. So, yeah, that was, that was interesting, but all kind of came together and I think just good communication and sort of, Yeah, collaboration, mutual respect for each other.

And we, we really did get on with the builders really well. And then I think in terms of the client side, it’s, it’s the managing costs, you know, we had this big spreadsheet, got to love a spreadsheet. And yeah, everything was going was going into that. And if we made, you know, different decisions or tweaked a product that we were going to add in the kitchen, for example, you know, it just had to go on that, on that spreadsheet.

And then some things get pushed down, down the line, you know, a new, sofa, it’s not going to happen, we’ve got a perfectly fine sofa, for a while things, things like that, really.

Amy: Yeah. So would you say that you managed to stay on budget?

Yes, I think so. Our cost, plan allowed for this whole build, which we’re now we’re still doing really. And you know, we’ve done a bit more on the garden than we would have done because you start to finish the house and you’re like, well, you know, I can, I’ve got this beautiful windows.

Lydia: I can, look outside and see this, building site a of a garden. And, so there are things we’ve, we’ve added, but also time has, has gone on. And we’ve sort of, you get more comfortable with the process and your outgoings and what’s within your control. I think that’s the main thing. Yeah, Is control. And to feel like you’re in control of the decisions of where you’re putting the costs.


Jane: I gathered that the way that you organised the build with your contractor was budget related. in the, in the sense that you knew from the beginning that you wanted to take over the finishing of the interior of the project, is that right?

Lydia: Yes.

Jane: Can you explain how you came up with that and how you communicated that to contractor.

Lydia: Yeah. Yeah. so I guess actually to start off with that, we are leaseholders, and we don’t have share of freehold, so we needed a license to alter, and as part of the license to alter, obviously there’s requirements for insurance and, you know, a professional contractor to be appointed et cetera.

So we knew that the builder had a certain remit and we were not going to go anywhere near you know, doing the structure, the shell, the waterproofing, all of that kind of stuff. So we wanted to prioritise them, delivering us a shell. I mean, it’s more than a shell. It’s a sort of full envelope. and any of the kind of key rooms inside, like the bathroom, the, the boiler, you know, the kind of little laundry room and things like that.

So the, the key envelope, and then anything we felt was obviously beyond our skills. At the time sort of plumbing, electrics, obviously, and they all need the certification as well. So there’s a sort of key list of kind of contractor items, but then when it came to, finishing, like laying the floor finish, actually doing the tiling, on the splashback or the outside, because I was also supplying the tiles and the timeframe for making that was unpredictable.

So, we also installed the kitchen ourselves, built the kitchen and installed it. The other thing, I, make light fittings as well. So there were some of those things that, we, we knew we wanted to do and the painting and decorating. So, you know, that was sort of labeled up as such.

On our details and our drawings and our finishes schedule, essentially. and then in the scope of works, when we discussed with the builder, he gave it very good itemised, cost plan. And then, you know, it was literally sort of zero next to the finishes. And there were some elements that we did end up bringing in. So for example, we’ve got a kind of plywood lining around our doors. And we were going to do that along with the plywood skirting and any joinery. Because we could take our time over that as well.

But really to finish their works, you know, the junction between walls and doors, the kind of frame, really that needed them to do that. So. Yeah, we added that in, for them to do. It’s kind of hard to see at the beginning, but you try to draw that line and it may shift slightly.

but Yeah. I think we did, we did quite well in the scheme of things.

Amy: How did you learn all the, DIY? Is that something that you already had the skills in or was there a lot of Googling YouTube videos?

Lydia: Oh, yes. yes, a lot of time on YouTube. And I think also the approach of Dan and I maybe as Dan will watch a lot of YouTube videos and feel like he’s fully equipped and I will sort of get on my hands and knees and give it a go. So between the both of us, and I think I get that from my dad, really, to be honest. Between the both of us.

Yeah. We kind of learn and develop and, you know, to lay the cork flooring, it that’s quite a knack to this interlocking kind of boards that they are. But, you know, so it takes you twice as long to do the first sort of row or actually the second row. And once you’ve got it, you’re, you know, you’re, you’re flying. Tiling the bathroom, we had to take the toilet off the wall, sort of two or three times, to kind of get that right. Or, yeah, there’s, you know, I think it’s just practical learning and building it up with the kind of knowledge or asking people, and getting people around. If you know, we’ve got friends who are doing similar things, maybe not to the same extent, but there’s good sort of camaraderie to it I think.

Amy: And does it feel extra, special having been the ones who have contributed to the actual building.

Lydia: Yeah, I really, yeah, I absolutely love it. I mean, I think I would have loved it anyway, but just that sort of sense of fulfilment that, you know, we’ve made our home and also the confidence that I know what went behind that plasterboard or where the wiring’s going in the wall, or just, you know, if we need to change the plug in the, in the sink or something, we, we can do that.

You know, the number of times I’ve been underneath that sink and changing all the bits. it just sort of got confidence in and things like that. So yeah. Yeah. It’s good.

Jane: I think it’s really just nice to get to know, your house like that in an intimate way.

Lydia: yeah.

Jane: And kind of part of you both.

Lydia: Yeah. Yeah. We’ve still got bits that we’re doing in the front two rooms, because they’re the ones that we definitely didn’t prioritise. They’re just real sort of finishing elements. So basically we’ve got a baby on the way.

Amy: yay.

Thank you. and you know, with the whole energy bills and everything, we decided to insulate beneath the floors cause it’s a sort of a typical raised timber floor.

Lydia: And that was part of our original brief, it’s just, we didn’t give it to the builders to do so yeah. We’ve sort of had the confidence to be pulling up the floorboards, and laying breather membrane, putting down the mineral wool, vapour control layer, putting down the floorboards again and hey presto, it’s not quite as quick as that, but, yeah.

Jane: Talking about time, from the builder’s section of works and then your section works, how long has that been?

Lydia: So the builders, originally they were going to be from May until August. so that’s 2021. And they went on till September because yeah, we added a few bits in, and then, basically since then, it’s been, it’s been us really. And there was a sort of big push till Christmas to get the floor down and get the kitchen in.

Obviously when you have family arriving, which we did, then you want to obviously enjoy it to its best. and then yeah, this spring has been concentrating in particular on finishing the tiles. And then obviously now it’s going to be installing the tiles, but also getting the middle room sort of ready. And yeah, finishing up bits and bobs in, in this room. But I kind of have to say, it has to be a process that you have to enjoy, if you’re going to go through this sort of length of time, it has to, for me, there’s, there’s the builders works, which is a sort of finite amount of time.

But for me, it can’t be sort of before renovation and after renovation because you have to enjoy life at the same time. Sometimes, you will obviously prioritise you know, the bank holiday weekend will be really important in terms of installing the tiles and that’s the priority.

Lydia: But on other weekends you just have to prioritise, you know, going to a friend’s birthday party or relaxing going on holiday, like things need to happen. And I think the key is to take the pressure off. If, if you’re going to sort of do it like this, just need to take the pressure off because things always take twice, as long as you think they’re going to.

So you can’t beat yourself up when that happens.

Jane: I think I remember that from our own place. Just finally thinking, wow, I just, I can’t wait for a time when the weekends aren’t just thinking about that to do list and it did eventually happen. And I forgotten about You just reminded me that feeling of finally getting the weekends back, but you’re right.

You know, if it’s a long-term commitment, then you need to inter-disperse that with fun things well.

Lydia: Yeah.

I think it’s part of what, I mean, certainly I enjoy doing it and, you know, my, my dad’s still sort of tinkering with his thatched cottage in, in Dorset, you know, it’s a hobby as, as well. The same way I sort of make ceramics, it’ll be thinking up a, you know, a window seat or a, you know, a shelving unit or, they’ll just get smaller scale in scale.

Jane: It probably won’t end. There’ll be other projects that are coming up.

Lydia: Definitely the garden, for example, as well, you know, want to build a pond and things like that, but all in good time.

So what would you say was the best bit? The best bit, gosh, I think the moments when so the steel’s coming in, that was really exciting. I mean, yeah, like four guys carrying these steels through and just seeing it go through the hallway and then being installed. That was really exciting because you know, the whole building is no longer on acrow props.

I just think the layering of it, we, we got to see the construction of our extension through every layer from the steels to the timber frame to then, you know, it being weather boarded and, and insulation going in and plasterboard and then the doors that was, that was really exciting thing. Yeah, those kinds of stages.

And once the builders left. Then just having that space

Lydia: And the kind of light coming in and things, you know, you, you plan it as much as you can, but to actually experience it. The way that the sun comes in and, you know, you’ve got the right sort of spot for morning coffee or kind of evening drinks or whatever it is.

And it all kind of all kind of works that’s yeah, I think, they were the best bits really.

Amy: Your best bit was like the thing.

Lydia: Well, I mean, I’m, I’m, I probably have forgotten some of the, some of the pain, but, no, I really don’t think, you know, I think we managed really well as a team. The builder’s team I think were really accommodating and really good guys. I do a lot of work with Bob, on, projects as well. I, you know, I don’t want to shine too much of a shiny light on the whole process. Obviously it was living in that one room. You know, some of the unexpected things where and maybe the, the sort of low points the amount of dust, you know, I, I cannot express enough if anyone’s going to do this.

Just the dust gets gets everywhere. Even if you’ve got closed doors and protected areas and things. And then, there were times where we chose to build in summer, spring, summer. So that was a kind of planned, to try to make the best of the year and the weather.

But, you know, there was some torrential rain, and I think our lowest point was basically our lovely timber beams going in over the ply boarding or deck and They’d done the insulation. They’ve done the single ply membrane, but they were just finishing the flashing. and hadn’t quite and they had sort of not quite protected it enough and just torrential rain.

And basically at three in the morning, we just heard, you know, all streaming down through this room. And yeah, we just had to get buckets and I mean, we had the DPM down, so we basically had. a Small uh, swimming pool downstairs and the, uh, you know, the roof was filled with water as well. So it was just water everywhere. And just had to try to sort it out and then let it, let it dry. But luckily it know, all looks fine and lovely. But that was, that was, yes, that was a bit of an experience. And I think that was probably our lowest, but yeah.

Jane: Looking looking back on the things that you’ve learnt now that you’ve been through all this, would you set up the project in the same way and make the same decisions that you did? Or is there anything that you might do differently if you were going to do it again?

Lydia: I think if it was up to me, then yes, I would do it the same way again, because it does feel like a, a pursuit that is more than just delivering an extension. A bit like ceramics, it’s the kind of process of making, and crafting and understanding the build and, and, what what your home is. I think if it was up to Dan yes, to a certain extent, but you know, if there’s a bit more cash available, just pay someone to do it. So I think the outcome will be somewhere in between.

Amy: He’s done his learning.

Lydia: Yeah. He’s much more sensible than I am.

Jane: Which of those self jobs, did you find the hardest?

Lydia: Gosh. So we had, half of the bathroom tiled, because to be honest, that’s the availability that our Tyler had in this time where, you, know, no one has got any availability at short notice and stuff. So we had our tiler Rooney for two days he did half the bathroom. And so we did the other half of the bathroom.

And if I’m honest, by the time we cut the last tile, that’s when it was like, oh, this is how you cut a tile in the most, you know, the best way, but it’s not until you get to the last one that you really learn that. So I think we would have, paid if he was available, paid him to do the whole lot, having said that, we are now about to tile the outside of our building and the splashback. So with the skills that we learned on that, we can now do these.

Amy: How much savings do you think you made through going down this route?

Lydia: Oh, gosh, I don’t actually know in terms of, in terms of saving because also, you know, to get a builder in say the tiling, for example, it would have been much quicker than us. So, I can’t sort of quantify our, our time on the labour side of things. So it’s really hard, I would have said it probably another 20% on top, something like that.

Jane: It sounds as if the message is It shouldn’t be solely a cost saving exercise because there’s just so much more to it than that. You know, I guess if people are looking at a project like that and thinking, oh, we’ll let shave off these things and we’ll do them ourselves. It’s kind of a life, a life choice isn’t it?

It’s a lifestyle choice for you.

Lydia: It really is,

yeah, definitely. If that’s a choice you’re going to make in order to, assist your budget or cost management, yeah, it, it has to be for the, for other reasons. Otherwise it’s just going to be painful, um, when you’re trying to finish it or install that kitchen or yeah. Even doing the painting. There’s, there’s a mist coat that you need to do, and then you need to sand that down and then you need to do the painting. It’s not just literally lick of paint. I think, I mean, ideally it would be that the builder does do you know, as much as possible if not all of it. And that’s what most clients would prefer, but I think then, budget does come into it.

Or your eyes are bigger than your belly kind of thing. Um, you fall in love with the, with the vision, but, you need to balance the books as well.

Amy: Yeah.

What would be your advice to any homeowners thinking about going down this route?

Lydia: We were quite lucky that we were obviously both architects, both knew kind of what we were getting into. A lot of people maybe don’t quite have that, or there’s a bit of an imbalance into what the expectations are. So I would recommend preparing as best as you can beforehand, taking your time to understand your own building and what you want out of it. And try to, make that line really clear if you are self finishing. Also make sure you’re having good conversations with the builders and that they’re prepared for what you would like to do, before you get to that point. and then enjoy it. That’s the key thing.

Jane: That’s such good advice.

Amy: So I guess, final question. Do you think you’ll do another one or is this your forever home?

Lydia: This is definitely not our forever home. And yes. I mean, if I’m honest, I think we would always look for a project, to put our mark on something, and use our skills to kind of, yeah, add a bedroom or extend it, or sort of tweak it in our own way. And because we’ve got the kind of creativity and the design, but also a little bit more of the physical practical skills, now it’s lovely to be able to apply that to something else. and yeah, it’s a bit of a way of life really, but you know, slightly addictive, you can’t help, but look at the potential of somewhere and want to improve it. So.

Jane: What does your dad think of your way of life now? He is super proud, and yeah, my sister having done hers as well. He, is he so proud that we’ve both sort of followed in his footsteps.

Amy: That’s so nice. Well, thank you so much for your time today, it was a real pleasure to talk to you.

Jane: It’s so lovely hearing what you’ve done. And yeah, seeing the amazing results as well. And we can’t wait to see those tiles go on .

Lydia: Good. Good. Yes, no, I’m loving it. And look forward to updating you and, celebrating when it is finished.

Amy: Yeah. And with the new arrival as well, that’s, that’s going to be amazing.

Lydia: Yes.

Amy: You’re glad you’ve got that second, second bedroom.

Lydia: Exactly. I mean, you could say it was all planned.

Amy: If you want to see pictures of Lydia’s renovation, including photos of her beautiful handmade tiles and also works in progress, head to our website at homenotes.co/storiesfromsite where you’ll find more information about the project.

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:

Self finishing a renovation project, like Lydia and Dan have done is an amazing way to add your own love and value to the project. We love the sense of pride and joy that’s they got from the whole experience.

What also shines through is how renovating needs to be a process you enjoy for it to work!

Are you thinking of self-finishing your project? join the conversation over on Instagram!

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In this bonus episode, we round up the top tips we’ve learnt from the guests of this series of Stories from Site.

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13. How communication can get you the home you envisage

This week we talk with Temi and Eugene about their process of creating the perfect home to suit their family life, both now and in the future.

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12. What to do when your contractor becomes insolvent

We talk with Alex, a client from the early years of our architecture practice, who despite undertaken lots of preparation work to ensure the project ran smoothly, faced their contractor becoming insolvent just 6 weeks before completion.

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11. Balancing home and garden: when retrofit meets design

This week we chat to Christian and Faye, an architect and garden designer who became each other’s clients when they decided to renovate a studio flat with a generous garden.

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10. An eye for detail: And why you shouldn’t leave it all to chance

This week we talk with Jess who didn’t have the budget or even find the interior fittings she wanted, so set about making them herself.

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9. Taking the leap to retrofit your home

This week we talk to Stewart who together with his wife Fiona relocated to make a forever home, only to begin on an epic retrofit journey.

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