The secret garden flat: A self-build extension

with Nic

This week we talk to ‘Don’t Move Improve’ winner Nic who, together with his partner, self-built a garden studio and extension to their one bedroom flat.

We talk to him about his decision to take on a self-build project, the process they went through and what he would do differently next time.



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.

This week we talked to Don’t Move, improve. Winner Nick, who together with his partner Self-built a garden studio and extension to their one bedroom flat.

We talked to him about his decision to take on a self-build project, the process they went through and what he would do differently next time.

So hi Nick. Welcome to Stories from Site. We’re excited to have you with us this week, and I wondered if you could start by telling us a bit about your project.

Nic: Yes, it was a kind of one bedroom flat that we originally bought probably over a decade ago. And we bought it because we were looking for somewhere to live in the local area. We’ve got lots of friends who live here and we came across this flat, which had a garden with it. But when we went to view it, it was quite odd in a way.

It had a flat above which had a balcony and a set of steps that came down, and then a huge 25 meter garden. But the garden was completely overgrown with kind of six foot high weeds. And we were asking the estate agent how much of the garden belonged to the flat below because of the steps down.

And they explained to us it was only the little patio area that came out and the stairs to above to the flat above were access stairs to the garden. But we thought this was a little bit weird that no one was using, this garden. So I kind of immediately went off to work after I’d viewed it, downloaded the land registry and realized that the whole garden belonged to the flat, the ground floor flat.

So at which point we, we bought it. It was also a kinda slightly odd set of circumstances in that it was a repossession, so it was a bank that was selling it and, we subsequently found out there was a clause in the lease that meant it couldn’t be sold at auction. So we felt that we stumbled on this kind of bargain where the bank were just looking to reclaim the money that they hadn’t recuped from the mortgage.


Amy: And did you know at the beginning exactly what you wanted to do with it?

Nic: No, we knew that it had a kind of very poor relationship with the garden. We knew that that was the first thing that we wanted to do, was to try and open up the flat. And the flat was in a very poor condition. It had huge holes in the ceiling from historical leaks and things. So that, that was the first thing that we did was to put in the wide open door, which, resolved the awkward levels to the garden.

And then I guess the extension and the studio came about because we essentially wanted to expand our family. And we were doing that through the process of adoption. And in order to do that, the requirement is to have a home that has two bedrooms, kind of one for yourselves, and then obviously one for kind of children.

And as I said before we couldn’t afford to move. We couldn’t really afford to pay anyone to build the bedroom extension and the studio that we built, which we knew we needed to build in order to make it a long-term family home and have space for us to live as a family.

Jane: So the pressure was on a little bit.

Nic: Yeah, yeah, the pressure was definitely on and the process to get consent, was probably the most stressful part of it. Not not planning permission that was relatively straightforward to achieve. It was more the consent from the freeholder, which took us two years to achieve.

Yeah, that was quite, quite a battle. Yeah. It also sadly the freeholder died halfway through the process as well, so that delayed everything whilst their kind of estate and things were being sought out. Yeah. So it was, that was quite a kind of stressful time where we kind of, uh, I guess we were getting to a point where if we couldn’t gain consent for it, we were gonna have to think about moving or doing something else.

Jane: Because your life’s pretty much on hold while you are trying to iron all this paperwork out.

Nic: Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. I mean we ended up ultimately having to write handwritten, personal letters to everyone involved just saying, look, we’re trying to do this. It was agreed, but we don’t really understand what the holdups were at the time. And eventually doing that to, to manage, to force everything through.

And yeah, we were able to get the consent

Amy: Wow. That sounds.Very stressful. And can I ask you was the plan always to do a bit of self-build yourself on the project?

Nic: I think probably subconsciously or, I think we’ve always spoken about ultimately wanting to build our own home at some point. And I think I always knew that it was possible to do that, just finances dictated that we had to build it. I mean, we, we did tender the project and that came back at it was well over 150,000 pounds which was just way out of our budget.

And we knew, we knew that we could probably do it for a lot less and, and we ultimately did. And I guess the rule of thumb of kind of a construction project being, probably two thirds labor costs meant that we knew that kind of applying that to it, we could Yeah. Afford it within that.

Amy: Amazing.

Jane: That’sinteresting, so you worked backwards from the full calculation and then deduced that, your materials plus your labor would, would make

Nic: Yeah. Yeah. And I think also doing it yourself, you know, that. You are probably gonna put more love and care into it than someone building it. So it’s almost, I guess if you have the ability to do it, you are probably gonna end up with a building that in some ways is probably more than you you could ever achieve by getting someone else to do it.

Jane: What came first? Did you make a the plan for what you needed to do and then think, oh, how am I going to build this?

Or did you come about it the other way and think what, what’s possible for me to do myself? And then design a project that was suitable for you to

do yourself?

Nic: I think it, it is always been designed in a way that is very simple to construct and I, I think that was, that was always the aim of it and having, I guess, worked at that point in practice for 10 years or so as an, as an architect. I was always aware of designing in a way that was economical with structure and materials and less waste.

And that really helped us because the nearest place you can unload materials is a hundred meters down the road. So we had to be really careful and mindful that the construction was lightweight, that we could easily carry in things or whoever was gonna do it could easily carry in things.

And I think that’s probably one of the reasons why when we did tender it, we did get really high costs for things because just the access and the logistics of getting rid of things and bringing things in. I mean, I, I probably spent days just carrying a kind of sheets of plywood and, and things.

It’s also kind of simple timber construction,

everything is. Just a straight cut. And I always say to people if they can use a chop saw or a drill or a rail saw, there’s no reason why they can’t build what, yeah, what we’ve built. It’s just, you just have to take the care and be methodical with it.

Amy: Wow, it’s so inspiring. Just in terms of building it yourself, how did you manage that from a time point of view? Did you take time out of work or was this like a weekend thing? LikeHow did you manage that side?

Nic: So I, I was able to fortunately do it alongside the practice I worked for at the time. I was able to work less, days a week. So I was doing three days a week in the office and then four days the rest of the time building this, it, it probably did mean it did take longer than it should do.

And if I was to ever do something, like this again, I wouldn’t want to work alongside it. It’s just to, I, I found it too difficult. You would get fully involved in something you’d get the momentum of, of doing something, and then if you hadn’t finished that, you, you’d find it really frustrating that you had to go and spend three days working and before you could get back on it.

And it is just even simple things like you’re in the kind of midst of, of doing something. You’ve set up all your tools and then you’ve gotta pack it all away and then that just eats into your time and things. So yeah, if I was to ever do this again I just feel you’d have to do it in one continuous stretch of time.

It would just be much easier and yeah, less stressful to do that. And probably less tiring as well.

Jane: Your team on site, did you, was it just you or were you bringing in other people or other help?


Nic: So I guess the first thing we did were the groundworks and the foundations, and that’s one of the things that we did employ someone else to do. I didn’t feel particularly confident building kind of form work for foundations and things. And one of the scariest kind of moments, I guess at the project was at the start, when.

We’d already done most of the work to the flat. And when they poured the foundations, the concrete truck parked a hundred meters up the road and this big pipe came all the way down, all the way through the finished flat and then pouring concrete through. And I was just terrified that one of those joints would burst and the whole flat would be, that we’d already done would be ruined.

But that was the case. So that, that was one of the things. We did I guess electrics and plumbing would be the only other thing really where we employed people to come in. But the rest I guess, was. Kind of friends or people that I’d worked with or knew how to do things.

And I guess I was lucky in that I had a few contacts from projects that I’d worked on for instance there was a glazer from one of the projects I worked on who I managed to get him for a day, and we he helped me glue all the kind of glazed panels into the building and things.

So But yeah, mostly, mostly myself, my partner, and yeah, friends to build everything.

Amy: And can I ask you how you manage the budget side of things? Because obviously you know that you’ve, you’ve already decided to put your kind of sweat equity into it in a very big and profound way. But how did you manage the material budgeting?

Nic: Loosely I would probably say I don’t, I, I, I don’t think we ever had a real kind of exact handle on the budget. I think we were roughly knowing what things were cost and when you were kind of where the limit was. And I think when we were getting close to it. the finite amount of money we could spend, we realized we had to make savings.

I mean, for instance, there’s a lot of painted plywood and, and things in, in the kind of studio and in the bedroom. And they almost came about by accident in the fact that we had lots of kind of spare materials left over that we knew weren’t good enough to be used by themselves. But we knew that if we painted them, we could save a bit of money and not have to buy more materials and things.

And then actually in a nice way that I guess became more sustainable. Cause you see lots of projects where they’re throwing out these types of materials. But we, yeah, I guess when we were getting towards the end and not having as much money left, we started to realize that we could reuse these materials or use them in the project.

Jane: And so you just mentioned your partner there.

Nic: Was it a joint effort? How did you split tasks and and also were you, were you both living on site as well? Was was this fully immersive situation?

So we, we didn’t live on site right at the beginning. When the kind of groundworks were done, that was just, clearly gonna be too difficult when kind of bag, huge bags of earth had to be carried out to, to get out the foundations and things. But yeah, as soon as that was done, we did move in.

We’d corden off the kitchen to so that was usable, but it was pretty, yeah, I, I wouldn’t recommend living on site when you are trying to do this and most of your flat is taken up with kind of storing materials and. But in terms of how we divided work, I guess, I’m much probably better at building things and working out how things are put together.

I’m not hopeless, but I don’t have the patience for finishing things. And my partner used to be an art technician, so she’s well used to building stud walls and finishing them. And so yeah, she’s much better at the kind of finer kind of details and, and finishing that.

So I guess as a team, that probably works yeah, quite well to have those two separate skills.

Jane: Yeah. And do, are you having team meetings in the evening, how do you both work through the jobs that need to happen?

Nic: I think it probably happened fairly organically doing that. It is quite difficult when you’ve not done anything like this before you, you don’t really have the knowledge to understand exactly how long each task is going to take you.

So I dunno whether having done a program, I think it could have, had the, the effect of actually being quite a negative thing in the fact that you keep realizing that everything’s taking you longer and things,

and it’s, it’s nice not to have that kind of pressure in a way. So, yeah.

And how long did it take you?

It, it too long, I would say. I think it probably took, I would imagine, the majority of it probably took about a year to do and we probably to get it to a point where we could comfortably live in it. But then there were little bits that we would be finishing off.

And I guess it, it’s nice in a way that because we built it almost, not that we’re not precious with it, but it, I think it allows the freedom to alter and change it in a way.

And because we built it, we know we exactly know how it’s all gone together. We know what we can change and how we can adapt it and things, and. Yeah. I guess now with the family, it will change again and we will make alterations as to how how we live. So, yeah, isn’t, isn’t, I think it’s really enjoyable to have that kind of freedom in the home.

Amy: Are there any surprises of how it feels to be in the space now?

Nic: It, yeah, it’s, I’m in the studio at the moment doing this and. It’s just an amazingly quiet, it’s because the garden’s 25 meters long and surrounded by four roads that with all the gardens that back onto, I and no one really inhabits their gardens in the way that we do around here.

So I feel like I sit here and I’m in this little kind of quiet, urban oasis. The views are framed in a way that you can’t really see people’s houses, but you can see all the trees and things. So, I don’t think I ever realized it would be. So, yeah. Secluded in a way. And it’s but then I guess if I walk out kind of 40 meters away, I’m onto a busy main road and it’s a completely different world.

And when you’ve spent a whole day working out down here, it can be a bit of a shock to go back out into the, the real world. So I, yeah, I don’t know if I really anticipated that. That would be as contrasting as it is.

Amy: I can hear the birds

Jane: Yeah, I was gonna say, I

Nic: Yeah, so I mean the next door garden has three sycamore trees.

They must all be like at least 15 meters high, so, and they kind of overshadowed the building. So it is, yeah, it’s a really nice spot to be. Yeah. Yeah.

Amy: I, I was gonna ask if you would have any recommendations for people thinking about getting their hands dirty and, and trying this method.

Nic: Yeah. My recommendations on that would probably be to know what you are not capable of. I think there are, there are just tasks that if you try and attempt them, you’ll either do very badly or they’ll take too long and they’ll become increasingly frustrating. I mean, I, I think one of the darkest days in the project was actually when we had both the foundations done.

I think the, the timber frames for both the bedroom extension and the studio were up and we decided that we would dig the drainage channel between the two ourselves. By that point, we’d been walking in mud between the two. And it was starting to get just pretty, difficult, I think, or not easy to, to walk around our site.

And we started to dig the drainage channel and, half a day in, we’d made about two feet of progress in the, the ground. And then just realized that was too much for us. So we managed to find a landscaper who did all the brick landscaping and, and he was able to see the, the drainage channel, and two of his guys did this drainage channel.

That must be what? Kind of 15 meters long, took them half a day to dig it. And it’s just there, there are just some jobs that you, yeah, you shouldn’t attempt because it’s gonna be too demoralizing to do. Also on the opposite side of that is to know your skillset or know what you know, what you’re capable of, or know what you think you can learn as well. So, so one of the things that I did was I became a qualified flat roofer. So I went on a training course to do that in order to learn how to do flat roofing.

And I read about it and, knew it’s a fairly simple process through watching YouTube videos and was able to understand that that’s a skill that I could probably learn and acquire. So yeah, I think it’s know, know your skillset and know what skills, you’ll be able to acquire or, or learn and, and then can employ in what you’re doing.

Amy: I love that. I love that you went and got yourself qualified on


Nic: Yeah, I don’t know whether I’d ever do flat roofing ever again. We did have like a couple of leaks that it took me a while to find and whenever it rained, I’d be really stressed out as to if it was gonna leak again. And I, I found that, I think I found it really difficult because having done it myself I almost took it personally that if it leaked and it’s, I’ve only got myself to blame.

Amy: But then you have to realize that if you’re doing something for the first time, you’re never gonna get it completely perfect. And you are gonna have to probably, correct some things that you’ve done, but I think that’s all part of the process. Yeah, but it also just makes you appreciate all the skills that go into making a building, doesn’t it? I mean, we had someone, we were talking to someone about how they learn how to tile a bathroom and they said the last tile they realized, yes, this is the best way to cut tiles, but you know, they’d finished the whole bathroom.

Nic: So, yeah, it does make you appreciate all, all the trades Yes. Absolutely. like I was saying earlier, there are some skills that are just gonna be really difficult to, yeah. Get absolutely spot on.

Jane: I guess we’ve talked about your lows. Are there any highs that you remember from the whole experience where you were just like, yes, this is, this is great. We’re doing really good stuff here.

Nic: I think when we probably started to see the timber frames emerging from the ground, and there are, there are parts of the building that are made from just ordinary, treated kind of structural timber, but the majority of the timber is exposed Douglas Fir, which has this amazing grain and we probably spent a lot of time sanding that and playing it and getting it look really crisp.

And then I guess when that was starting to be assembled and put into the building, that was the moment where you could, start to see it emerging and and what it would actually look like. And then when it was the plywood that was added to that, then you got a real kind of sense of what the spaces were gonna be like.

And so that was probably, yeah, one of the really exciting moments of it when you can start to see it emerging out of the ground.

Amy: And has it influenced your architectural work now that you’ve built a house?

I feel like you should get a badge of honor, like in the as well.

Do you know what I, mean?

Nic: I, I I always think that all architects should at some point build something in their career, whether it’s something small or, or big. I think it, it just gives you a real appreciation of actually how difficult it is to build things. And. It’s I think, I think it’s quite good to understand exactly how materials go together, the process.

And because I, I think architects can be guilty of drawing things that they want to be built and not really understanding kind of how a contractor’s gonna put them together. And then contractors almost getting annoyed that you’ve drawn something that they find impossible to put together.

So I think it’s, it’s really helpful for that. I personally, through my own practice, would like to probably explore self building more and, and helping clients to do self-build as well. So I th I think especially with the cost of construction increasing and almost maybe becoming unaffordable for people who wanted to do quite simple additions and modifications for their homes, that might be, Yeah, it might be a way that more people can afford to adapt and change their homes for how they’d like to live.


Jane: I think that sounds like such a, a fruitful and exciting prospect of people getting those skills and, and really making a difference

Nic: Yeah, it’s just, it is just really nice to live in something you built with your own hands. It’s just you yeah, appreciate it. You know, every day that, you walk through it or walk down the garden to the studio.

I mean, there are also still things that annoy me a little bit, but you Yeah. Get, I’m getting over those now, so.

Jane: There’s always that period of time where you just have to adjust and try and forget, isn’t it? But I think it, it does happen a bit. Doesn’t it? You stop seeing the, the, the things that went wrong.

Amy: And just in terms of your partner, how how is she enjoying the space?

Nic: Yeah, she, I mean, she, she loves it. I mean, our bedroom is essentially in the garden, so it’s like a, it almost feels like a little pavilion in the garden. So I, I think that’s, that’s probably what she would say she enjoys the most. you kind of wake up in the morning to all the birds singing around here, you open,

blind by the bed. And yeah, just look out upon the garden and can’t, you can’t really see any other houses, so it feels, yeah, quite, quite magical. So I think for her, that’s probably the, what she would say that she yeah, en enjoys the most.

Amy: Amazing.

Jane: Thank you.

Amy: Well, congratulations about the, don’t we improve cuz you, you are the overall winner, aren’t you as

Nic: Yeah. Yeah, that was yeah, that was a huge surprise to get that. I didn’t really expect it to win the overall thing when I entered it. Mainly cuz there are just so many amazing projects that get submitted for, for the awards and.

Amy: I dunno. I, I think if I was a bookie I definitely would’ve put money on it. I, I really, yeah. I loved it.

Nic: And all the best. I hope that the second bedroom and the start of the journey of this project, I hope that that continues to yeah, to be positive for you guys going forward.

Amy: Yeah, I’m sure it definitely will be. Thank you so much for your time today and we’ve really enjoyed talking with you.

Nic: Thank you.

Amy: If you want to see pictures of Nick’s award-winning project, then head over to our website at homenotes.co/storiesfromsite.

The reality is most people don’t get started on their renovations for years because they can’t answer this simple question. What can I afford to do with my budget? We are here to help. Download our renovation budget guide in the link below to understand your whole project costs.


Our closing thoughts:

There’s certain romance to building your own home, and a sense of pride that comes with physically getting involved in your build.

But it’s not for the faint hearted.

Remember to take time to analyse your skill set – and get help to fill the gaps!

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