Grabbing an opportunity: developing a garden site

with Siobhan and Joe

A serendipitous chain of events led Siobhan and Joe to quickly move from a finished flat straight into a building site with development potential.

Over the next 6 years they worked together in their spare time to renovate a 60’s house and build a new property in the adjacent garden plot.  Joe, who is an architect by trade used his skills to input into the project and Siobhan took advantage of maternity leave to over see the build.

We talk to them about grabbing an opportunity, the difference between doing a house renovation and a new build development, and the hurdles of receiving planning for a new build project.



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, a serendipitous chain of events led Siobhan and Joe to quickly move from a finished flat straight into a building site with development potential.

Over the next six years, they worked together in their spare time to renovate a 1960s house and build a new property in their adjacent garden plot.

Joe, who is an architect by trade used skills that input into the project, and Siobhan took advantage of maternity leave to oversee the build.

We talked to them about grabbing an opportunity, the difference between doing a house renovation and a new build development, and the hurdles of receiving planning for a new build project.

Amy 1: Welcome to Stories from Site Siobhan and Joe, great to have you with us today. I wondered, I’ve, I’ve heard a bit of your story, which is an amazing story. But Siobhan do you want to explain the start of your renovation journey?

Siobhan 1: Yeah. So let’s go back, I guess. It was probably how many years ago now? Four years ago, Joe. Four, five years

Joe 1: Longer than that, I think it was 2017 wasn’t it.

Siobhan 1: So, yeah, 2017 we had just finished renovating a two bed Victorian flat in Leytonstone. We were really happy there, weren’t looking to move, and then Joe was out cycling around Leyton, Leytonstone. And saw, a plot of land that he was interested in. I think it’d always been a bit of a dream of Joe’s, obviously, to, to try and build a house.

And he went and knocked on the the door basically of the house next door to the plot of land and showed an interest. Just asked them if they were interested in selling the land, what their plans were, and the lady living there. She’d been in the house since 1960 when it was built, basically. So she’d brought up her family in the house.

It’s an ex ex-council house, the kind of flat roof old houses. The area had been bombed and there was a, a, a plot of land. So they built 20 of these ex-council houses. Anyway, the, the lady living there wasn’t interested in selling just the land, but she was interested in selling the house.

Obviously with the land, the garden attached to it cuz she wanted to go move somewhere in Essex with her family. Kind of said she’d think about it and then I think a couple of days later Joe wrote her a letter just popped it through the door, just telling her, telling her a little bit about us, what we were thinking.

Um, And then a few days later, her daughter called Joe and said, you know, that. Her mom, how they were interested in selling the property. And it kind of went from there really. So we, yeah, we ended up buying it wasn’t for sale, no estate agents, just all direct. Yeah, not what we were planning to do.

We weren’t really looking to move. And yeah, the plan was always to do that first and then treat the plot of land as a separate and look at that later on really. And yeah, that’s how it all started.

Amy 1: Joe, I wanted to ask you how you broke it to Siobhan about like “Hey, there’s this bit of land. I know that we’ve just spent all this money doing this flat up.” Like how did you uh, persuade her?

Joe 1: Basically what you just said there, it was like found and what, what do you reckon? And it was um, yeah, I think Siobhan basically said, that sounds great, but we’re obviously not doing it, I think was the exact words. So I had to then tread carefully for a day or so, but in my head I, my head was spinning.

I was like, we, I think we need to do this. There’s an opportunity here, like to build a house. And I liked the house as well. I liked the, the current house. Like just that alone was exciting to do our next project. But then with the potential opportunity of building something extra. For me, I was like, all systems go.

But yeah, it was almost speaking with Siobhan on that. And then from that point onwards, I was under a bit of pressure. I think once we sort of agree, once started happening, happened within two or three weeks probably, you know, buying it basically, um, probably less actually,

So getting your head around it was quite a lot, I think at the time,

Siobhan 1: We sold our flat really quickly, and I think that surprised us. We put it on the market and thought, let’s just see what we get for it, what happens. At that time, I think Leytonstone, Leyton was going through a bit of a, lots of people wanted to live there, move there.

And it just meant that, yeah, we sold the flat so quickly that it all just happened really fast and didn’t have time to process it all. I think it was very quick.

Jane: It just a really serendipitous chain of events that led to you quickly moving from a finished flat straight into a building site.

Joe: I think that was the moment where actually it hit us both Siobhan, probably more the moment we walked in the front door of the new house, because obviously that’s, normally and always a really exciting moment. You know, you’re posting your pictures of keys and you’re so excited and champagne and stuff, and it’s quite the opposite,

that’s when it hit us. We’re like, wow, what have we done here?

Siobhan: I think I cried when we moved in. You look at someone’s house when you view it and everyone’s furniture’s in there. It never, it, it’s when all the furniture’s gone and you see actually there’s so much work to do here. And we didn’t have hot water, just things like that.

You couldn’t you know, we were showering at the gym at work and stuff. There was just, it was in not the best state. And I think it hit us how much work we actually had to do. I think when we first looked at it, we thought it might be more of a, maybe a quick fix, renovation.

We wouldn’t have to do too much. And then as it happened, you know, it was. All walls down, floors up ceilings. It was completely just stripping the whole thing back really. And starting again, wasn’t it?

Amy: And did you live on site during the renovation?

Siobhan: No, we, we thought we would, that was the plan originally. And then very quickly just, it just so happened a friend of ours as well had a spare room in South London.

So we we went and lived there for maybe three months. While the bulk of like the messy, like electrics, plumbing, all of that stuff happened and then we moved back in. It wasn’t finished, but you know, it was all the, the smaller things you could do comfortably living in the house.

Jane: Obviously everything happened so quickly. Were you pulling together some drawings and ideas like in the nights just before you left? Or like how did that happen?

Joe: Yeah, the pressure was on for me, to be honest, because yeah, the plan was definitely to live there for six months a year and just work it all out. Work out what we wanted to do and maybe do some of the work ourselves. Save some money. But Siobhan was quite explicit and rightly so, that you need to sort this out. You got us in this mess, like, whose idea with this? And I, that’s when it hit me actually. I was like, yeah, I do need to sort this out. And it was Siobhan’s friend. Yeah. We, we went and stayed there, but I was frantically working out, doing some drawings before we, even the two weeks before actually moving in.

I was. Working it through, but then it was on sort of turbo mode of drawing and working things out, lining up even builders and stuff straight away. And it was all systems go. And sometimes when that’s the case and you’ve got quite a, and you got a deadline, it gives you real focus. And that was I doing it.

And you make quick decisions as well, which we looked back at that house and it was done quickly, but we made some sort of clear decisions, which was. Which was good, I think at the time.

And yeah, within 10, 11 weeks we were back, back in, which is great, you know.

Amy: It’s amazing.

Jane: Can you tell us a little bit about what you did?

Joe: We decided to put an extension on, so we did permitted development three meters off the back to extend the space. And then it was a full, full refurbishment, completely. We were left with walls and a staircase basically, and a floor. But we’ve got a new roof on, new floor down underfloor heating all the kitchen, everything basically.

Yeah, the full, the full works, then garden, et cetera.

Jane: And, and how did that fit then with the new build aspect? Is that like a completely separate project or, or how did the two kind of fit together?

Joe: It was always seen that if we built a separate house, it was a separate project. If we’d taken longer, we might have thought more about next door as well, while we were thinking about doing up our current house. But again, cuz the pressure was on, we’ve moved out a nice flat that we’ve just done up.

It’s almost like we had to go for it on this one as well, to get up to sort of level we wanted to, and then sort of deal with the, the other one later on. That was like the next project.

Siobhan: We basically just fenced off and had a small garden for the original house and yeah, put a fence and, and just left that plot of land separate. So it, it never really became part of this current house.

We didn’t wanna start using a big garden and then have to cut it back and things. We thought it was just easier to separate it from the start, really.

Amy: Can I ask you just about the budgeting side of things? Because obviously you’ve just done your first renovation was the flat, right? I remember that you said that you kind of maybe was it the work top that you really splashed out on?

And you were a bit sad to leave it.

But can you, can you explain like how you worked with the finances? Because obviously you’re moving through things quite quickly, like was that tricky to have a handle on?

Siobhan: The first flat we did. When we moved in, we had no, we hardly had any spare money really. We really pushed ourselves to buy the flat. And we did a little bit of work with what savings we had left at the beginning, and then we did a remortgage a couple of years in, and that enabled us to change the kitchen and do the bathroom and just get it to the garden, things like that.

So it was exactly how we wanted and yeah, the really lovely acrylic work top we put in there and you know, all these things that we really wanted because we thought we’d probably be there for another couple of years. Really lucky that Leytonstone had gone through a massive change over those three years that we had since we’d bought the flat.

So the prices had gone up a lot for properties there, so we actually sold The flat for more than we bought the house for, which left us with the budget to do the renovation works here really. And we took a bit extra on the mortgage as well, just to just to give us that budget. It probably cost us more than we thought it was going to, I think.

But. Yeah, we, it was well spent on this house, but that was us. We then, hence why we were treating the other house as a separate project because we’d spent all of that money on this, the renovation project really. So we knew we wouldn’t be doing the house the self-build side of the project for a couple of years. We had kind of, yeah, find those savings and work out how we were gonna finance it.

Jane: You do a, a renovation and then straight off the back of that you do another renovation. Do you just do the same thing again?

Joe: There was a bit of that. It was bigger, the flat, and then the went to a house. There’s more to do, but you’re right, we used. Like an IKEA kitchen, for example. We’d already just gone through that process literally two months before or something, or four months before we knew we could get that on 0% percent finance or whatever.

We were just like, that’s what we’re gonna do.

Siobhan: We had two kitchens on finance at one point from the previous flat.

Joe: We still paying for that acrylic worktop in the other house.

off in the

Siobhan: Yeah. We don’t live there.

Joe: But we yeah, we put a lamiate worktop into the new house because we’re.

Which is ridiculous, isn’t it? The house we’ve moved out, we’ve got this nice worktop, and then we’ve got this laminate top in the new one. But we had to make the budget work and stretch further. But yeah, we definitely drew on stuff that we done previously and we knew things that worked and things that didn’t work.

Jane: And where are you right now in the process?

Joe: Yeah, now we’ve, we finished the, so if we moved in 2017 to the new house, we then started building this one probably two and a half years ago.

So we,

We, did give ourselves a little bit of a break and then we, but we were looking at, yeah, the land split and planning and getting everything in place.

Financing again, and then we’re nearly finished this house now. We’re at a point where we’re putting the stair stairs going in today. We’ve got the kitchen, et cetera, so it’s just a few, another three or four weeks, we’ll probably be, we’ll probably be there, I think.

Siobhan: Yeah.

Jane: Wow, that’s amazing. On the final home straight.

Amy: And how do you feel about the new place? Cause I remember talking to you and it was like, do you stay in the house you are in or do you move next door?

Siobhan: It is hard. It’s, it’s taken, it feels like it’s been such a long process from buying the original, you know, the renovation project house and then building this, that our brief has changed like throughout the few years that it’s been. So I think at first we were going to move in. And then so we were designing it in a way that it would be for us.

And then over that time we now have two small children like a two and a bit year old and a almost one year old. So that changed the brief slightly because that house is smaller than the one we live in now. And. Yeah, we’ve we are not moving in anymore.

Arguably there’s more store, there’s more storage in that house. The kitchen’s nicer. The, the bathrooms are nicer. But it just probably doesn’t work for us at this current point in our lives actually, which is a shame.

But we will live there at some point and we are planning to have this house, you know, for as long as forever, really. So, hopefully, yeah, we will live there at some but it is strange definitely designing things, knowing that actually yeah, we, we won’t be living there straight away,

Amy: That’s interesting cuz I guess my next question was, are you tempted to do another like, or are you just thinking, actually we are due a really long rest from the renovating world.

Siobhan: I think we, we will do another at some point. We definitely need a break. You know, we had two under two children and that was really hard. I think we underestimated just, just how much time two children would take and how,

that would impact on the time we had to spend on the house. At some points it’s felt quite stressful, juggling and managing it all. So we definitely need a bit of a break, I think, when this is finished. But Joe’s always on the lookout I think we both are in a way always keen to just see what else is out there, what we might be able to do next.

And we really like the area we love Leyton. So we’ll be here for another few years at least anyway, living in this house. But yeah, I imagine we’ll do, we’ll, we will do another.

Joe: I think we will. I think there was another project the other day wasn’t there, which I thought was

quite interesting. But it’s the challenge is if you, you keep doing it at the minute, effective, you’ve got two houses and. We’ve gotta pay two mortgages on that. And it’s, you’ve got to make decisions where you sell one, sell both.

You’ve got to finance these things. If you’re doing a project and it’s, I’d love to do another one, but you’ve got to make a decision where are you doing it for your next house or you doing it for just another project? And then it becomes more like a business or development thing, isn’t it? Like you’re trying to, that’s your living almost.

And it can be, because it’s so much work and it’s a full time sometimes.. And I think we probably need, when we need a break and we’re talking about the other day, that’d just be nice to spend some time as a family with no sort works going on.

But then when it finishes, yeah, we might sort of go, we need to,

Siobhan: Yeah. What do we do now?

Amy: I feel like there’s gonna be a week and then

Joe’s gonna be like

Siobhan: Yeah.

Jane: How do you balance that, Joe? Like obviously this is your job but you are doing this on the side, How, how do you manage the split between the two?

Joe: I’ve got a full-time job. So this is, yeah, definitely on the, the side Siobhan’s been great. Yes, having small children maternity leave sort of helped with some of the being present on site because we live next door and that’s helped a lot Siobhan’s very organized and put things in place and it’s been a balancing, balancing act definitely with a full-time job.

Siobhan: Yeah, we use all, you know, all nap times where the kids are asleep or when, you know, as soon as they’ve gone to bed, we are like tidying up this house, then going straight next door to the other house to see what we need to do or what we, you know, just sitting in there working out what we need to order, what, what’s coming up next.

And then you come back and it’s time to go to bed. It is very, it, it’s full on at the moment with all of that stuff. And it is just using any free time we’ve got is thinking about stuff we need for that house. And yeah, we don’t really have any free time. It’s, we’ve just taken up. So, it, it is definitely, yeah, it is a balancing act. Trying to just kind of like Keep on top of everything, I think.

Jane: So out of this process,

Is there anything that was just a complete surprise that you didn’t see coming that actually you found really hard or anything that you weren’t expecting?

Joe: I would say overall building house is hard. It’s, it is definitely hard overall. I think one thing that was, I suppose it’s more frustrating was the planning process was quite, everyone sort of has so a moan about the planning process, but when you’re sort of in it is, it’s quite frustrating and that’s probably slowed things down a bit.

Plus cost quite a lot of money. We had to sort of do a lot of, there’s a lot of conditions attached to the application. There was even a section 1 0 6 agreement. We had to do some highway works that we still have to do, which seems quite over the top for, you know, a small, a small house, which I think is quite restrictive to people trying to do this type of work.

So I found that personally a challenge because it almost felt like resistance against doing a project like this. It makes it hard and even trying to do a project that’s more design focused maybe, which is. Trying to do something slightly different or pushing some materials or looking at different things.

Planners were a bit more resistant to that and the house itself is design, it’s not that out out there really. It’s, it’s in keeping, I would say, and it’s just slightly more modern, I suppose. But the planners wanted very traditional sort of stuff that was their go to, you know?

I think it was, was it a gates they kept going on about London iron

gates or

Siobhan: Yeah, even when we got planning for this house, the conditions then wanted obviously all the details of boundaries, gates, things like that. And, and they rejected our, yeah, the front gate, and they, they actually asked us to put one that was in keeping with the Victorian houses, you know, a railed gate.

But, but that made absolutely no sense to this property. They just wanted us to replicate the opposite side of the street. But it, so there was a lot of back and forth on that as trying to show examples of things and, and that really took a lot of time and it was very frustrating cause we were ready to get going and start.

And it was hard to try and get them to understand why, what we were doing and, and why we wanted to do it. So there was a few other examples like that. But yeah, that one sticks out for me.

The gate it didn’t make any sense. For me, I didn’t appreciate how long that might take.

And it felt a bit overkill, really, like Joe said, for the size of the house.

Jane: There is a big leap between doing a gut renovation of a property and doing a new build?

If people are thinking about, you know, they, see a house with a, little bit of land, what advice would you have for them about that process?

Joe: In terms of design, it’s definitely, if you’re doing a refurb, you’re sort of, you’ve got a shell already. It’s already there, and the house is almost telling you what to do or you can go on and look at loads examples for extensions and you can sort be playful at the back of the house and stuff, but your core layout is almost there, isn’t it?

Where new build, it took ages to design because you can’t. At one point we think, do we do a basement? Do we go, do we excavate the whole site? Because why not? You know, add a load more square meters. So we had to go through that sort of design process and I was just, I’d be like out for dinner or something.

I’d be going, do you think a basement or not? And you’re just like, it was always on my mind like, do we do that? And then like, is that window right? So you’re sort of starting from scratch. You always, it’s a whole new design, which takes time. That does take time to work through and make sure you’re fully comfortable with the design. You even changing materials or what? Bricks, or see there’s more decisions to make, I think, just to get that shell, which you normally have as a starting point for a refurb. So it’s sort of, you’re doing interiors more aren’t you, I suppose. And more layouts rather than the full on what’s it look like from the outside, from the road.

Jane: And how, how much do you think, is that a 50 50 split? Is it like doing the same job for the inside, but totally again, for the shell?

Joe: I would say it’s more for the shell. Like to get that, that right. That’s what would keep me up at night or what would worry me is getting the proportion of the house right, the windows, the right size or what bricks we’re doing. Because ultimately internally if you really wanna change your bathroom, you can do, or if you wanna change your flooring, you can do kitchen, you can change, but the outside, are you not gonna pull a whole wall down on the outside or, you know, it’s this, that’s, that was the bit that was stressing me out more is the design right?

Are we maximizing the, the plot in terms of do we go to a basement or not? Should we do an extension or not? We didn’t, in the end, we actually pulled the house right back to make it smaller than our current house to give us more outside space. There’s all these, there’s more fundamental decisions, which I think are bigger than the internal stuff, and that again, I didn’t really appreciate probably at the time, but that’s what takes a long time to do. So refurb in our current house, we did within 10, 11 weeks because it sort told you what to do.

You do a bit of sketching, you do a bit of working out, and you go, ok, we’ll do that. Great. But a house, there’s thousands of options We could have done, thousands of materials we could have used. And you see all these infill plots across London that they’re all look different, don’t they? And you can play around with the one on the other corner is completely different, another house that’s been built.

So you can, there’s more decisions and more design to go through basically.

Jane: And how long has the house taken you from, you know, concept to now?

Joe: It’s probably been, yeah, four, four years.

Siobhan: Four years with the, yeah, with the thinking about it.

When did we get planning now? Maybe two years


Joe: probably a bit longer wasn’t it?

Siobhan: So we’ve probably been building two and a half, three years I reckon. And we had a bit of a break in between. We got the groundwork and slab in and then stopped again make sure we’ve got the right bricks.


Joe: We can do the groundwork, the slabs, a slab, and this sort of layout. But then it starts to get visible, doesn’t it? You have a panic and.

Jane: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. Well, it’s very public, isn’t it, because it’s your neighbors.

Joe: Oh, it is yeah. It’s a very densely populated part of London and it’s all the maisonettes and houses. There’s loads of people and we’d speak to all the neighbours and stuff and wanted to keep everyone in the loop, but it’s, you know, it’s very visible and very loads of people around.

Jane: Yeah, adds a bit of pressure, doesn’t it?

Joe: That’s it. We wanted to do something good.

Amy: Wow. I’m just marveling at how much you’ve built in the last, five years or something. I mean, like basically a family and two properties. So I, yeah, it does sound like you need a rest.

Joe: It’s definitely the kids that surprised me. Definitely the kids like I can do the building stuff in some way. It’s just that it’s the time. The time is just taken away massively and it’s, it’s unfair not to be giving the kids time. So

Jane: I feel like there are depths of tiredness that you must have gone through in this process.

Amy: Because going through the kind of newborn, I mean, I

feel like that is tough.

Joe: That’s the bit That’s

Siobhan: was really tough. I basically just took a bit of a break from it all. I didn’t have any head space to, to think about it. And that’s when all the, yeah, the actual shell of the house was going up and everything. And so Joe really focused on all of that stuff at that point.

And now they’re a bit older. Yeah. I’ve got more time to be on the interior side of things. Um a

Joe: You remember when? When Penny was born was at Whips Cross, still sitting there, and I took a call from the window supplier didn’t I?

Siobhan: Literally an hour, an hour, after he, our second was born, the phone rang and yeah, I could hear Joe discussing window measurements and I, was not happy.

Joe: No, yeah. Wrong but

Siobhan: Yeah,

Joe: just default to do it. Yeah.

Jane: Well, you just think I’ll just get this out the way cause you don’t wanna be also thinking about the fact that you didn’t take the call whilst you should be the moment

with your new baby.

Joe: That’s the dilemma. Cause I knew they were arriving in a couple of weeks time, you know, new baby, new windows. It was just like, oh no. That moment, I remember that moment. Cause really summed it up.

Jane: I think that’s the thing that it is like you’re living, you are living this huge process. And it, it just, it doesn’t stop, does it? You just, you can’t put it down at the end of the day because it’s not your work and you can’t leave the office.


Siobhan: Yeah.

Jane: all encompassing, isn’t it? But yeah, I think it’s an amazing achievement.

Amy: Yeah, it really is.

Jane: So you were on the home straight. How long do you think you have now until you’re all done.

Joe: What is it? About four weeks

Siobhan: Yeah. A a about a month or so, we think

Yeah, it’s really exciting. We’ve already been thinking interiors, but we can start, you know, we’ve got sofa arriving next week and we can order beds, things like that. Now it’s getting to that point, which is really nice.

It’s felt a long time coming, I think. I think we’ve pushed this sofa order back about five times now. The date just keeps shifting back, but it’s next week and it’s, it’s staying at that now, which is good.

Jane: You should definitely take that moment to have your keys and champagne moment, which you didn’t get to have the first time. Like I think now’s the moment, isn’t it? You can safely have a little celebration and a pat on the back.

Joe: right.

Siobhan: Yeah. That would be a good, good day when the sofa arrives.

Amy: Well thank you so much for sharing your story and it is been great to talk to you guys today. So thank you.

Siobhan: No, it’s been great. Thank you.

Joe: It’s been useful for us as well. A bit

of a debrief.

Siobhan: Yeah, it’s been great to talk it through.

Amy: And you can even stay at Siobhan and Joe’s. Check out their Airbnb in the show notes below

Next week, we are running a free webinar about the three most common mistakes people make in their renovations and how to avoid them. We’d love for you to join us. It’s next week on the 27th of June at 1:00 PM. If you can’t make it live, don’t worry. Automatic replays are available for anyone who signs up.

Register via the show notes below.



Our closing thoughts:

Sometimes projects choose you! And it’s a now or never moment. 

That doesn’t make it easy though. Living through multiple renovations is both a massive privilege and super stressful! 

Being a team and remembering the end goal is key to survival.

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31. Race to the finish line: A design and build loft conversion

This week we talk to Ella who chose to work with a design and build company to create a loft extension for her home.

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30. Slow renovating: Creating interiors that last

This week we chat to Lee, founder of Burt and May tiles about his latest home renovation and his approach to creating ‘timeless’ interiors, rich in layers and materiality.

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29. The renovation game: Climbing the property ladder

This week we chat to Jen, as she shares her journey of climbing the housing ladder, one renovation project at a time.

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28. Our takeaways: End of series round up

In this bonus episode we take a moment to look back on our third series and discuss favourite top takeaways from our lovely guests.

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27. Halfway there: Reflecting on the journey so far 

This week we chat with Lauren, a first-time renovator, whose partner’s electrician skills are coming in handy as they tackle the ambitious task of updating their 1970’s home.

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26. When perseverance pays off: A rural barn conversion 

We listen to the self-build journey of Ade who transformed a dilapidated barn into a dream home for his family in the picturesque Kent countryside.

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25. Navigating budgets creatively: An Interior designer’s story

We sit down with Bo, an experienced interior designer who had to make some tough decisions when faced with skyrocketing renovation costs.

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24. Renovating remotely: Transforming an old school on Anglesey

We talk to Gemma about managing a remote renovation and the differences in renovating a holiday home as a business.

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Stories-From-Site-Barbara - Front cover

23. The doer-upper: A journey of renovating, diy and maternity leave

We talk to Barbara about falling in love with a fixer-upper home and the joys of undertaking DIY projects during maternity leave.

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