Taking on the challenge of being the main contractor

with Nick and Dawn

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. We talk to them about the challenges, the joys of courtyards, and the emotions of settling into your finished project.

And now with their next move in mind, we also find out what they would do differently next time.


Stories from Site: Nick and Dawn

Nick: Lorries would rock up on the road, block the road, people are bipping their horns and it’s like, you know, you just gotta unload a pallet full of stuff.

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.

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.

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. We talk to them about the challenges, the joys of courtyards and the emotions of settling into your finished project.

And now with their next move in mind, we also find out what they would do differently next time.

Jane: Hi, both, welcome to the podcast. Um, it’s been quite a few years since we worked together. So can you take us back to the beginning of the project? I know it began with you purchasing your house. So can you tell us a little a bit about that?

Dawn: Yeah, When we first saw the house, we saw it only once before we put an offer into it on it. When we walked in, we just got this great feel about it, this beautiful big house with really high ceilings and the space and the light. I mean, it, wasn’t in great condition in all areas, but you could just see and feel the potential of it. It’s not just about what it looks like.

Nick: I think it had good bones.

Dawn: We always look for good bones. I think that the most important thing to us or to me anyway, was light.

I wanted something that was bright and light and great to live in. And so we started like then thinking about how we would go about it. Thinking about it, architects, and obviously started got in touch with you. And just started to sort of imagine all the possibilities of what the house could look like.

And I mean, I know Nick you sort of said there’s only sort of certain number of things that you can do with a house like that. But I feel like, just going through that process with you was, was fantastic understanding and like the different ways we could do something. And I think you gave us little pushes in certain directions.

So there was one particular piece which was around the courtyard, the little inner courtyard that we got. And at the time when you proposed it, I was just like, I don’t understand why we would do this? This is, this is very unusual. Why would you have one? And you really kind of like pushed and nudged and said, you know, you really need to think about this.

You need to think about breaking up the space because this was new for me. I didn’t know. I just like more space is better. And you said, no, you’re going to need to think about when you have kids. Obviously not something we thought about. You’ll want to be able to sometimes shut things off, but you also want to break the space up.

So it feels like you’ve got different areas. And I always look back on that courtyard, that courtyard is one of the biggest joys I get from the house because of the light that it brings in, because of the green wall that we’ve got there, which I just sort of love to potter around and, and sort out.

When we thought about the house, you know, we had this vision for it and it was definitely, you challenged us with that, and you know, I think real estate agents talk about the square footage, the more square footage, the more money you’ll get for it.

Nick: And the courtyard takes away from that. But actually what it does, it adds so much more to the house then, like, I don’t know, whatever that is, nine square meters, not even that four square meters or whatever it is. It just adds so much more to the space. It is the feature of the house I think, you can see through different ways, it brings so much light into the house. It is quite amazing design feature and it’s something we wouldn’t have done without your help. So, yeah.

Jane: Well, it brings us on nicely talking about the process and how much help you had from us because the project wasn’t a full architectural service was it? Partway through the project we were talking about who was going to manage this on site. I was going to have a baby, and so I wasn’t available to be there on site.

And then you, Nick have experience with, built projects through your work don’t you? And you can remind me if this is correct, but I think we had the conversation and you were saying actually that would be preferable for you guys that you manage the works on the site.

Nick: That’s exactly right. So, Yeah.


I have, I have a bit of experience through work of managing construction projects and, Dawn and I have always talked about like, having the opportunity to build our own place. Um, you know, this was that opportunity to, you know, there is, there’s so much potential with it,

we really liked the the vision. It it’s like, okay, well, let’s, let’s try it. You know, if looking back at it, it was at a time where Dawn was pregnant, had a baby, we just bought a new house. It was quite a big commitment, like in terms of costs, it was pushing us a little bit. And I think we underestimated the cost of the build as well, you know, like everyone does. And also I started a new job. So like it’s those three factors all within the space. All in, in the same few months, really. But we definitely learned a lot. Yeah. I think, you know, the, the, the idea of like construction managing it is like a big consideration for people and there’s so much risk in these type of projects, like who’s best to help manage and mitigate those risks? And, you know, you’ve got the spectrum of at one end, you’ve got like a main contractor, you can allocate most of the risks to, for them to manage, or you’ve got the self-build and you do it all yourself.

Nick: Um, and there’s pros and cons with that. And there’s obviously different versions out in the middle. And I think we were, somewhere in that middle, more down to this self-build. Cause I was quite hands-on in certain things, but there’s elements where it definitely needed specialist contractors, you know, say for like plumbing and electric, gas and all of those things.

But structure was the main one. When we had to do the rear extension, you know, there was a bit of underpinning and it’s like, well actually I’m going to package that up, give it to a contractor to manage that risk. Because I don’t want the neighbour’s house falling down. Cause it was on the party wall we had to underpin.

There was all these different complexities, I was like like, okay, well they’ve got insurance, they’ve done it before. I’m going to get them to do it and package it up. And then the rest of it was just like finding contractors that we, kind of connected with more than like their, their flashy brochures and all of their marketing stuff it’s like, can I actually rely on you. One to turn up, and two are we going to be able to have it like a working relationship together? And that was the most important thing for me.

Amy: Can I ask you, did you spend a lot of time before you started on site planning it out? Or did you do one bit and then wait do your research, do that bit and

Like we had a phasing plan, like the sequence of activities and, we had that as a rough kind of guide of like the direction we were going so like the map, but on the way, obviously things change, um, unexpected things come up and, and you just have to react to it.

One of the biggest challenges that we had on this particular project was, it’s quite a constrained site when you’ve got a terraced house in a terraced road. Like where do you store stuff? Where do you store materials? So this like just in time process of like you order something and it’s gotta be there when you need it.

Nick: And if it’s not there, when you need it, there’s delays. And then it has a knock-on effect down the chain. And I think that was the most stressful thing about this whole project was the logistics. Getting materials to site when they’re needed. And also the flip side of it is like, I dunno, you buy some plasterboard or something, and you have to buy more than you need. So you’re spending more money because there’s wastage and then you have to pay for someone to take that wastage away. So you’re paying twice. And then where do you store that waste? The amount of money we spent on skips and waste removal, we did not plan for that.

And I think that was one of the biggest learnings is like just the logistics around it, like you know, in lorries would rock up on the road, block the road, people are bipping their horns and it’s like, you know, you just gotta unload a pallet full of stuff. And it’s like, oh, I think that’s, stressful. Your neighbors are getting agitated because of it, you know? And sometimes they rock up at seven o’clock in the morning, wake the whole street up, that kind of stuff.

Uh dear, I was reliving the moments here.

Jane: That’s the life of a, a main contractor, isn’t it? Because essentially that’s the job that you were doing was main contractor, you know you were sub contracting all the different people. And I guess, when people sometimes are like, why have I got this main contractor when really we’re just talking to the tiler or the plumber, I guess it’s that thing that you’ve just described, which is the job, isn’t it.

Nick: Yeah. It’s a really good point.

Amy: Can I ask you, what was the kind of most, unexpected thing that happened during site or that you learnt?

I mean, we talked about there’s unexpected kind of good so there was the courtyard that was unexpected and good and great. Um, I think some of the things that I didn’t expect was we had, different contractors for the kitchen, like the core kitchen and different contractors for the worktops.

Dawn: And that was just because I had gone around like trying to find the best deal for various sort of bits and pieces. And what I didn’t expect is how much work it would take to get them to work together. Nick actually had to step into to kind of like, uh, calm things, mediate, calm things down because the, the, the situation became so stressful.

I was just like, but you’re all working in the same area. Like how would you, not like, know how to work together and that was a real learning for me is that, um, sometimes I guess buying everything from one place will be actually quite simpler.

So I think that was one thing for me. What about you, Nick?

Nick: I think that for me the tiling was like just how complex tiling is, it’s that is just a minefield. We had to sack our first tiler because it was shocking, and the cost of wastage, it was just unbelievable. And then the second tiler just was very particular. He was very good, very good quantity. But, unless it was perfect, like the walls, you know, they were, had to be like within a tolerance of one mill plumb, like plumb, he wouldn’t do it. He would be like, no, it’s not good enough. it’s going to impact my, the finish. So the preparation work that went into to make the walls square and plumb was unbelievable.

And I think that just took so much time and effort, and then obviously that has a knock on effect on everything else. Cause I had keep going and come back and get the others to do that work. Um, Yeah. I think that was probably the biggest surprise

Dawn: One more thing I thought of is that when we, when we were ordering all the bits and pieces for, for things in the house whether it was for the bathrooms or for the kitchen, a lot of the things we ordered in advance as well to make sure that it was there and ready, but I never opened the boxes to look at them.

Because you just assumed that I’ve got a sink, great, cool, I will just stick it over here. But learning for me was, you’ve got to open the box. You got to check that the sink is actually okay. Because there were a number of occasions where they’d arrived broken, but because I’d never opened it because I just assumed it was going to be okay.

That caused a problem down the track. It’s like sometimes the little things that you just got to keep an eye on.

Jane: How did you find working as a team and obviously in this quite pressurised situation, it’s putting a lot of strain on you guys, right? And it sounds like you both had split up your tasks and you were both working hard to pull it together.

It was hard, it was really hard. And I felt there were many things that I’d never done before, which is why conversations with you Jane was so helpful because I hadn’t thought about laying out tiles in a bathroom before and all the different bits and pieces. Like the fact that you had a list of things, go and buy these things.

Dawn: It was just like, oh, like, thank goodness you did. Otherwise, like it would have just been chaos. Like I would never have known what to have bought, but I think, you know like because it was also the first time that we were both doing this in earnest. There were definitely moments of tension, like serious tension, because I’d be obsessing over tiles, Nick would be trying to obsess over like, how’s the house coming together. You know, we’ve just got different perspectives on things, but, you know, we made it through.

Nick: Yeah, you hear it all the time, but the money thing is quite stressful, you know, and just the cash flow around it. And, you know, when big bills come in and that you just realise how much more you’ve still got to do. I think that was a real, that was a real tension throughout, uh, cause we were trying to do so much on such a tight budget and you know, the scope grows a little bit and we did a little bit things extra and I think that was some of the hardest things was making those decisions around spending the money now, because we got this idea, that’s going to be great, but like the pressure of that.

Amy: Can I ask you to, do you have, um, a strategy for managing that, that side of it? The budget side?

Nick: Yeah, so we had a very long spreadsheets. Every bill that came in, um, we jotted down, how much it was. And then there was a tally at the top. This is our budget, this is our running total, and this is how much we got left. And we try and forecast like some of the biggest spends, uh, you know, it’s like easy to do with like the windows for example that was a huge purchase really quite scary one as well.

Cause there’s so much glass in the back. And like the, just the fear around, like they come to site and it’s the wrong size or something. There was definitely some sleepless nights there. So we try to forecast these bigger spends.

Nick: I think the hardest things, were all these little bits that just added up quite you know, you spend 500 quid here, 500 quid there then you only do that a few times. And like before, you know, you’ve got a few thousand pounds that you haven’t accounted for. Um, and that just happens pretty much every week.

And then by after like, you know, a few months you just suddenly spent like 20 or 30,000 on these little stuff that you can’t really, you can’t really plan for. So yeah, so that was just a spreadsheet. That was kind of like how we did it. And you had to be quite on it to keep updating. Cause you know, sometimes you get like a whole dozen of invoices coming in and you just got to remember to put in the spreadsheet.

Cause before you know it you’re, all out of whack with what you’re spending.

Were you guys living on site at the same time?

Dawn: No, we, we had a flat just down the road. It was actually quite easy for, for us to get to site if we needed it. And that was, that was actually quite fortunate.

Um, but about six, six to eight months into the build.

We did need to move in just because there were like cost pressures and we couldn’t afford to be living in the flat while also trying to pay for all of this. So we did end up living in a building site, I think for quite a few months, I might even say years. Um, I think it was, it was a good chunk of time where we couldn’t afford to go and buy the shutters. So we just had this period of time, like where, just like there’s these sort of bits of plastic waving in the windows, but once it was in, it looked amazing, but it was, it was almost like, what can we deal without, um, for now.

And where did your daughter arrive in all of this?

Nick: We started in January and she arrived in April. So we moved in, I think it was like November?

Dawn: September.

September. Was it? Yeah, so she was like four or five months old. I think we talked about that a lot, you know, moving into a building site with a young baby in the dust because the dust just gets everywhere and we tried to manage that as much as possible. I don’t think we could have finished it if we hadn’t done it the cost spending in the two places was you know, something was going to fall over. So we had to make that call that trade off. Yeah.

Obviously when you’ve moved into a project and it’s not finished, you don’t really get that clear finish point. Was there a moment where you both sat down and you thought, yeah, we’ve done it. Like, here we are. We’ve finished.

Nick: I think that’s different for both of us. You know for me, I still see all the problems. Uh, and I remember the problems and, and compromises we had to make, there are moments where I sit in there and I go, well, this is amazing, especially on a nice sunny day and the amount of light. But just being in the house, I see all the problems I like, we should do this, or wish we’d done that. Yeah, but I think for you Dawn it might have been slightly different? so yeah. So we had the shed, which you helped us with when that was done. And then the green roof went in on, on top of the house. Then I knew we were done. I was like, we don’t need to do anything else. It’s all complete. And I felt like that was, that was the point for me. Um, Yeah.

Dawn: And I remember just sort of looking out over the green roof, which is spectacular by the way, especially at this time of the year. Cause you watching like all the little bees and the, the birds come down and sit on the roof and like they kind of pick through what’s whatever is there. And, I just sort of thought to myself why this, this house is, is absolutely amazing.

Like, it’s just, it’s just perfect. I know Nick, you feel differently, but to me, like, I was just like, this is it. We’re done. It is it’s in a really good place. Yeah.

Jane: Do you feel like those two different reactions are because of how you were involved with the things that happened or is it personality based? Because I have things in our renovation, which took me a long time to get over. The fact that it wasn’t quite, as I had hoped it would be or imagined. And it does go down with time. But I think for me, I’ve thought maybe that’s a bit of a personality thing. What do you feel?

Nick: I think I’m at a place now where I look back and like, there are things that niggle me now. But I couldn’t have done anything different back then, you know? And so I’m kind of accepting of that. Um, I still think about them and like, you know, that annoys me, but it’s not like I keep wish that I could read like regrets of going back to change anything.

Cause it couldn’t have, you know, it might have been financial, it might be time issues. Whatever it might have been at that time, it’s just that we couldn’t have, couldn’t have done it. Maybe in the future could think about that and learn for the next next time. But at the moment in the time it was just like, oh, that is, we’ve done the best that we can do. And I mean, I’m okay with that. I think part of your job as well, like your actual job, is to, to look at building defects right.

Dawn: Oh, it was. But something I think you’ve just built into you as well. So when you’re walking around you just still see building defects.

I think for me, like, there are definitely things that if I was to do it again, I wouldn’t do, but that’s more for next time than it is for, for right now.

Nick: Um,

Amy: So, can I ask you, in terms of budget, how much do you think you saved going down this route and did you stay on budget?

Staying on budget’s a hard question because the scope grew a little bit. We saved significant amount of money. You know, I think we went out to some main contractors at the beginning just to kind of like test the market and, the scope of works was quite significant, you know, we had this rear extension, reconfiguration of the internal space and the loft conversion. And when we went out to the market, we just went with the, the internal reconfiguration on the first and ground floor and the, and the rear extension. And I think we got like quotes back at like half a million. We haven’t got that kind of money so maybe we can’t even make this happen. Um, it was about half that to do the whole thing. Including the loft, the extension, which, you know, and that’s with like a huge chunk of the cost was on the windows. That was probably a fifth of the budget, just on windows.

But yeah, like, it is significant savings. Yeah.

Amy: How, how long did it take, would you say from start to finish?

Nick: I think if we exclude the garden and the landscaping works. I think it probably took about 14 months, 12 to 14 months something like that yeah. Cause we started in January end of 2017, we moved in in September, we went away for Christmas and when we came back, the kitchen was pretty much done. And then, I think it was just like a few bits and pieces after that we just need to finish off, and then it was kind of pretty much all done.

Jane: Can I just say that, you know, we’re not talking about, a kind of bog standard project. I mean, people will see if they look at the photos, but it’s an absolutely beautiful job like the technical detail that has gone into the build, and when I came to see it afterwards, I was truly amazed yeah, it’s a truly lovely space to be in.

Nick: Amazing. Well, thanks Jane for that. Yeah. I, you know? for me, I think what we’ve built is very true to the, the original design, you know, and I think we talked about this that sometimes things change because of costs and stuff, but we, I think we, we were so bought into the design that you did.

We wanted it to be a true reflection of that. And they, and, and without that, you know, you spent hours every night just looking at them, trying to understand what you drawn. So I could figure out like how that actually translates from this two dimensional line drawing to like this space that we’d like this physical thing.

And we’re all these different things connecting and all these different parts. I’d be like sitting there and I have a drawing, sketching things on another note pad to try and figure out, what does that actually mean? Like where, like, and what does that dimension? What is that and like, yeah. I just spend hours pretty much, most nights just looking at the drawings.

And so

Jane: It’s quite a scary experience as an architect, because I think when you’re designing something like that, that was, you know, it has some technical detailing in there when you know that you’re going to be there on site, it’s kind of like, you’re still overseeing your design and picking up on things and, you know, you’re there to add the extra drawing or extra explanation if it’s needed.

And you know, it was quite scary for us just handing it over and just like, oh, we hope we covered everything. But you did amazingly well to interpret all our drawings like that without us to add any extra explanation, which is what we would usually be doing.

Nick: Um, I think on that, I would say, if someone’s doing this, that’s what they need to understand the drawings, because that is that’s the key to it, to actually think about it, really interrogate them and try and understand what do these lines actually mean in real world, you know? Um, and I think that would be the biggest tip, because if you give it to a main contract, they kind of look at it and kind of understand it like you do, you know, you have this knowledge about what you’ve drawn and how that actually ends up being into something real. Um, and I think that’s what a main contractor can do.

They look at and go, you know, interpreting and go, oh, I understand how that is. But for me, it’s like, I actually actually had to understand it in a deeper level. Um, so then I could figure out that if there was an issue on site in these two things didn’t work like, how are we going to resolve that based on this drawing that I’ve got?

Dawn: Can I ask you, um, do you feel that the effort and energy and work that you both put into the project, do you feel like that has added to your enjoyment of the space? I mean for me, absolutely. I think I often think about the houses is like made by us for us. Um, and that’s an incredible feeling, right? Just knowing that everything in here was, you know, created thought through designed by, by us. Well, you know, literally like this, this group of people, I think it’s, I think it’s just wonderful. It adds so much more enjoyment to it.

Jane: And now that you’re looking forward and looking towards your next project, what are the things that you’re going to take from this going forward?

Nick: Budget more for skips and waste removal.


Amy: It sounds boring but it’s so key isn’t it?

Jane: But you’re up for the challenge again?

Nick: I think it’s been enough time that’s passed for that I am. I think I said at one point didn’t I Dawn that we’re never doing this again.

Dawn: Oh, yeah, but I know you, we were always do it again. There’s just no way that we would ever just move into like a normal house and just exists there. It’s um, you, you have the bug. It’s definitely, I think a part of you. And then the vision part, really matters as well,

I think it’s quite funny. We shared some of the photos with one of our friends and she’s just looking through it and she was like, “Is this what you’re buying?” And I’m like, “yup, it is”. And she’s like, “okay, and are we keeping all of this?”. And I’m like, “yep, we are”. She says she couldn’t see it. And I get that right.

I would totally get it, but you’ve got to be able to go in there and just like, re-imagine what it could look like. Even with, you know, lick paint and be able to see that the bones are there. Okay. But I think, in terms of your question around what we would do next, I think for me, the value of, of a good architect to work with you, someone who can listen to what you’re saying and what you want, but also challenging you on whether that will really work. I mean, I’ve talked to Nick about this. I think, I think it’s incredible to have that because like I said, with the courtyard, I just didn’t understand it when it was suggested, but it is hugely valuable. So I think just somebody who can think about those things, challenge you and explore different ideas. It’s just really, really important.

Jane: Would you do the main contractor role again? I’m interested to know.

Nick: I don’t know. My, my role is very different now and I don’t know if I’ve got enough time. I don’t know. I think there’s elements, like maybe it’s like packaging up into, in slightly larger packages of work that make it attractive. But then the other side of it is whether the market’s even interested in that, you know, it’s quite competitive out there I hear, you know, material shortages, labor costs all these different things, and maybe it might force us down a route of me having to do, um, more and more hands-on I don’t know.

Jane: The jury’s out at the moment some more investigation needed.

Thank you so much Nick and Dawn for talking to us about your project. It’s really helpful to get the inside track of what it’s really like taking on, uh, such a challenging role in a renovation.

And if you want to see pictures of Nick and Dawn’s renovation, including photos of their joyful courtyard, head to our website at homenotes.co/storiesfromsite. 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:

Taking on the role of main contractor is not for the faint hearted!

You can’t help but listen to this episode and realise the complexities of running a renovation on site is plain hard work.

Your reaction might be thankfulness for the existence of main contractors, or are you ready for the challenge?!

Let us know if you are planning on taking on the role of being the main contractor over on Instagram!

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15. Room by room: A DIY Renovation

We talk to Sharn about DIY renovating her Victorian property room by room. We discuss how both her partner skilled themselves up, and the power of making renovation transparent and accessible through social media.

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14. Our takeaways: End of series round up

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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