Taking the leap to retrofit your home
This week we talk to Stewart who together with his wife Fiona relocated to make a home in which to enjoy their retirement.
When they reached out to Paul Testa of HEM architects, it was then that their real retrofit journey began.
In this episode we talk about Stewart’s role in the project, the benefits of living in a home with a properly designed internal environment, and the real value that an a architects can bring to a 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.
After 10 years as architects renovating homes, Jane and I set up HomeNotes to teach people how to take on their own renovation journeys. We’ve met so many inspiring people on the way, and now we want to share their incredible stories.
This week we talked to Stewart, who together with his wife Fiona, relocated to make a home in which to enjoy their retirement. When they reached out to Paul Testa of HEM Architects, it was then that their real retrofit journey began.
In this episode, we talk about Stewart’s role in the project. The benefits of living in a home with a properly designed internal environment and the real value that an architect can bring to a project.
I thought to start with, if you could tell us a bit about how you found the house,and I guess I would be interested to know if you knew from the outset you wanted to do a big project or if that kind of happened organically?
Stewart: Uh, that very much happened organically. We very much had no intention of doing a big project. My wife had retired already by this point I was still working extremely long hours and very a busy occupation. And she decided that we should move from where we lived in Lincolnshire to uh, Rutland, where we spent quite a bit of time at the weekends.
So we went and eventually found a house that fitted our criteria and decided to buy it.
Amy: And what was your criteria? Can I ask
Stewart: Well, my kind of I didn’t really have the head space for moving house at this point in my life, but my wife, who ultimately was correct said we should do it. And her criteria was she wanted to move to Roland cuz we liked sailing. And there’s a big lake here. We used to come here the weekend to go sailing.
She likes music and she’s a pianist. So she’s got a, a mini grand piano. She wanted a house where she could have her mini grand piano and she wanted a nice view. That was her main, her main criteria.
Jane: This is great criteria.
Amy: Yeah, I like this
Stewart: I think the fourth criteria there was room for me as well, but I’m not sure that was quite as high up in, quite as high up in the list anyway, we found a suitable house and purchased it in, in a market town of Okham in Rutland, which is on a lovely little town. It was a 1930s house.
It had been extended three times, so basically blocks put on the side in the back and as happens with extensions. The original house was really very narrow, front to back, more or less, one room deep. And the kind of stairs took up quite a big chunk of that floor area.
So the house basically had lots of dark, disconnected spaces because of the way it had been developed with a kind of big, long corridor running around 1, aspect of, of the property. But it was in a, it was five minute walk to the town at a south facing rear garden, it was in a conservation area, and looked onto a farm park where there was lots of interesting animals wandering around. So we had a, a lovely aspect out the back. So we kind of thought, oh, we can do something with this, uh, and, bought it.
Amy: So then did you approach an architect and what kind of problem did you want them to solve?
Stewart: Well, we decided to engage HEM architects in Sheffield. We knew Paul because our son had studied architecture at Sheffield and so we basically handed it to Paul and Alan to have an initial conversation, about what, what we could do uh, we, we’d done a few houses up not in any, not a big retrofit, just the usual, you know, convert the attic, knock a wall down here, rearrange a little bit.
Nothing, nothing major. And we both got pretty good vision, my wife and I, and are pretty good at sort of seeing what something could look like. So we didn’t really envisage doing a big retrofit. We just envisaged doing some work to it, like we’d done in previous houses to kind of come up with something that we’d be happy with.
We did some rough sums and we talked to the estate agent that we’d bought the property from. And he kind of said, well, you know, you’ve sort of bought it at the market price for the road, there’s a ceiling price, if you’re gonna do something, you need to add x square feet of space to
make the numbers balance. So, so an was more or less saying you shouldn’t spend too much on it. It wouldn’t work out financially viable. So then we kind of talked to the architects and uh, they said, well, actually in our, in their opinion, you don’t, you don’t need to add a lot of space.
You just need to add the space that you’ve got at work. So that sort of started a conversation about how we could convert the property. And in the end we engaged them, turned out to be a full retrofit . It kind of got away from itself a little bit , but actually the end result is fantastic.
I mean, it’s, it’s a dream to live in, to be honest. The old house had no curb appeal. It was dark and disconnected and the new house is full of light, full of space. Every, every inch of the space is just usable, the way it’s kind of designed and laid out uh, everywhere you sit in the house, there’s little design features that you can see from one room looking into a next.
Uh, It’s just a joy to live in, frankly.
Jane: So it sounds like the layout was the driver for you of how the project was gonna evolve, but the retrofit was added in there as a, a sensible thing to do whilst you were doing other works. Is that kind of how it, how it came about?
Stewart: Yeah, exactly. The first thing was to get the space usable, I suppose. And as we decided how to do that, then we then became persuaded that actually we should work on the energy performance of the property and the internal air quality and all of that side of it as well. So,
Jane: For people at home that aren’t really sure what retrofit means, would you be able to tell us a few things that you did to make the house more energy efficient? Like what types of work?
Stewart: Well, we decided to basically make it an as, as much of an airtight box as we could. So all of the external walls were thermally insulated from the outside with about 130 mill of external insulation. And then put a mesh, mesh reinforced, render put on top of that. We put a new slab down and fully insulated the floor area.
We insulated all the, the roof spaces. So we ended up with basically a, a big insulated box, which we made as airtight as we could. And obviously it’s a retrofit, so that’s quite challenging to do that on an existing building. So, but we did that and then we put in mechanical ventilation, heat recovery system to control the air flow in and out of the property.
As our architects explained to us, you in a traditional house, you’ll lose a lot of heat straight out of the, all the sort of gaps in the property, which are inevitably there in any, in any building, particularly older ones. And if you can stop that and control the air coming in and out, you can get a much nicer internal environment then, uh, you need minimal heating.
Now we were gonna a bit skeptical. In fact, we probably ended up putting in more heating than the architect recommended, but it’s hardly ever run, to be honest.
Even downstairs, the temperature’s really constant all year round you open the door and a cold winters morning you walk in and it’s immediately comfortable and very pleasant temperature, which it pretty much holds the whole year round. So we took a bit of persuading cuz obviously that’s extra cost.
But it was absolutely the right thing to. We would’ve never have done that had we not engaged an architect.
Amy: And do you feel like you notice the difference? does it feel more comfortable to live in.
Stewart: Oh, oh, unbeliev. We had a quite a large Victorian house and where we, where we moved from. And the heating probably similar floor space to this one. The heating bills are half, less than half of what that was, and the internal, it’s hard to describe, but the quality of the, the air and the warmth of the property.
It’s just constant all year round. Doesn’t matter whether it’s the middle or depth of winter and minus five or 10 outside or summer and it’s 20, 20, 30 degrees outside in, inside the property. It’s pretty much consistent.
Jane: That sounds so lovely. How, How, much did it take for you to be convinced? Was it looking at you know, energy usage? Did you go to look around another property? Like how, how did that process work?
Stewart: Yeah. we went to look around some other properties. We went up to a place called the Green Building Store up in Manchester, which HEM architects work with quite a lot and sort of talked to them about it. I suppose the architects really convinced us really, Paul and Allen.
Jane: It was more them, just them being passionate about it.
Stewart: Yeah. Yeah. I would say that’s right.
And being, doing the right thing for the environment. That was very much what was kind of driving, not, not so much on our part, but on, on their part that we’re very passionate about. This is the way you need to build houses now because it’s better for the occupants and it’s also better for, for the planet sort of thing. So, yeah, that they, they more or less persuaded us.
Amy: and can we talk a little bit about budgets? Cause I think you maybe started with kind of an expectation of what you wanted to spend and then it ended up being more than that. Is that, is that
Stewart: Well, when we bought the house, we kind of just thought we would do what we’d done to other houses. You know, we’d maybe think about knocking a wall out here or, you know, reconfiguring a bit there that type of thing. And obviously when you go for , a full retrofit, that’s a whole different level.
So the, the budget we kind of set in the end was quite a large one. Probably 295 k, 297 K by the time we ended up with a full design and, you know, your enthusiasm gets away from you, et cetera. And I, I was very much full on in commercial business mode and I was kinda looking at the numbers, very skeptical and thinking, you know, is this really worth it or not?
Looking back, it was absolutely worth it because we, we’ve added so much extra value to the house If we sold it tomorrow, we’d get our money back and, and more. But my wife was in the, sort of, quite rightly in the mode that we’re retiring, this is gonna be hopefully our forever house.
So we’re gonna stay here as long as we can. So, you know, it’s not a commercial project. Within reason we’re gonna spend what it takes to get it the way we want it. And we were lucky enough to be able to, you know, fortunate enough to be able to, to be in a position to do
Amy: With the of design process, obviously you you were thinking you were gonna just make some tweaks here and there when the architects showed this kind of. Other option, which is, you know, moving the stairs, like taking the roof off, like doing all of these things.
What can you remember how you felt about it?
Stewart: It kind of evolved to solve the sort of, fundamental problems with the house, The solutions the architect proposed were actually very clever. They just simply suggested putting a relatively small front porch extension on full height,
opening up the front of the house and taking the stairs out of the center of the house the narrow footprint and moving them there, which then freed up whole load of floor space in the main body of the property and also took a straight up into the attic.
So that immediately brought lots of light into the front of the house. Made it a real wow factor. House real curb appeal cuz we put lots of windows in that elevation full height atrium if you like, right? All the way to the top, the stairs going up. And that just that simple thing just transformed the whole property, the design of the whole property.
And we then effectively could re-lay out all the internal spaces to make them all flow and work.
I never really knew what architects, I knew what architects did, but I didn’t really know what they do.
You know what you mean?
Everybody knows what an architect is and what they do, but until you actually get involved in the project, the level of detail and all the little bits and features, and it’s just, it takes it to a whole new level as to what you can do with the property.
Cause taking the roof off, I mean I I suppose that was more, probably more me than the architects, cause once we got into this project so one of these people that if I’m gonna do something, I, I kinda like to do it absolutely as best I can type thing.
The architect wasn’t saying, you need to take the roof off and do this. It was more, look, this is a 1930s house. If I’m gonna do this, I don’t wanna have to redo the roof in five years or 10 years. I just wanna do it now and get it all done with. So I then started to kind of say, let’s put a new roof on that allows us to do better insulation, better air tightness. And it was that kind of, I suppose, two-way process. And I think the, the design features were all from the architects. And then it was about, okay when we’re doing this project, let’s do it as well as we can.
It sounds like you got yourself into the technical details of it, so you started to learn about how the house should work. Uh, Yeah. Well, they uh, put the house through the the passive house calculation and use that to do iterative kinda work. And if we did this, this is what the performance of the property would be if we did that, this is what it would be. This is what the cost would be.
So that was quite a useful process. And yeah, I did kind start to get into the tech technical side of the property.
Jane: Really. I’m interested in the, in the house model. So when they, when they put the house through the it’s kind of a computer program, isn’t it?
And it, you know, you are, you are modeling different options. So you could sit down in a meeting and go through all the different aspects and say, you know, this is gonna be this investment, but you’ll get this much in an energy saving.
Is that how it worked?
Stewart: Yeah, they took, they did all the, all the number crunching and they were, they’re obviously experts in that, and Paul’s a particular expert in it. So yeah, they took us through all that and they showed us the options. Different thicknesses of insulation, you know, if we insulated the roof better, all that sort of stuff.
For example, was double glazing or triple glazing worth it?
In the end, I decided that triple glazing wasn’t worth it for the extra benefit it gave internally. So we just stuck with double glazing.
Jane: I really love the retrofit process just for that clarity of knowing that you’re making investments in the right place. And obviously, like you said, it’s about not spending money where you don’t need to as well, because I think previously the like home renovation market is very much stick your finger in the air and say, oh, well we, we’ll add insulation here, or we’ll meet building regs.
But obviously building regs are a, a minimum requirement. You know, they’re not necessarily the best that you can do. So in a way, having this process of doing the energy modeling just takes the guesswork out of everything and means that you can be confident about the different things that you are doing, knowing that you are making a sound investment and that you’re gonna get the, the benefits of the work that you are putting in, which is, is a relatively new thing for the architecture world.
I mean, I feel it shouldn’t be, but not every project is going through this process.
Stewart: Yeah, I mean, my background running a, a large business, everything is kinda numbers based, facts based, analyzed decisions taken on the basis of as far as you can what’s gonna give you the best results? So to me, it was perfectly normal and logical way to do something. If you’re gonna do something and spend a lot of money on it, you wanna understand it, get under the skin of it, and sort of evaluate it before you then press the go button.
Jane: Yeah. Such a worthwhile process to do. I think it’s just a, a leap of faith because like you said, you can’t really appreciate the comfort factor of what your investment’s going to give you. You have to decide this at the very beginning of your project when you’re just working out things. To kind of do that energy modeling is, a bit of a leap of faith, isn’t it?
Stewart: Yeah, and the architects went on quite a bit about, the quality of the internal environment of the property, you know, the air quality, the light quality, the humidity levels, all of that. And, we all live in houses all our lives and you just don’t think about these things.
And they went on at quite some length about how if you designed it properly and built it properly. The internal environment would be, you know, just a, a delight to, to be in and, and it’s only when you actually finish the project and start living in the place. Actually it is,
It does make a huge difference.
But it take, you know, we had to trust our architects to, and, you know, we didn’t fully trust them cause we put extra heating in, but, which we never use, but So we could have saved, saved some money there.
Jane: The, the concept of being a bit chilly after all that work though is too, too much of a risk factor.
Stewart: Yeah, that’s, that’s what we were, my wife and I were you know, we don’t wanna be cold. Let’s just make sure.
Amy: I remember you saying that on site, maybe there were some with your builder. Do you want to explain what happened?
Stewart: Yeah, so we eventually got to the point where we wanted to find a builder. So we used a
quantity surveyor who who helped us pull the shortlist, the builders, and have a final negotiation and draft up a proper contract. I was, didn’t have the head space of the time cause I was full on running a pretty large business. So I decided that the way for us to do it was to get a builder as a main contractor,
employ a QS to manage the money side of it and engage the architects to, you know, having done the design.
control the quality. And running a manufacturing business, quality control, something that any manufacturing business does, and you’d be daft not to do it.
So we kept the architects on to do that. And my idea was I’ll just rock up once a month for, you know, an hour or two, And then basically come back another month and a few months later it’ll all be finished and I’ll move in. So.
Jane: I mean, that sounds like a foolproof plan, doesn’t it?
Stewart: Yeah, that was the kind of plans I was used to , but it proved to be nothing like that, to be honest. To be honest, I found the QS in a small build. I think it was good to use them to do the final negotiation and come up with a contract, but beyond that, they, they didn’t add anything. It was just costing money for nothing really.
The architect was useful cause you’re an expert who was basically saying, that’s right, that’s wrong. You need to re fix this. So that was useful. And my builder, who was a lovely chap and ultimately built us a lovely house. He basically very quickly ran out of money. He was supposed to be, you know, funding the project and obviously we’d make him stage payments.
But he very quickly got into money problems, which he didn’t own up to, to begin with. And you sort of wondered why things weren’t going quite as fast as you thought they might have done. So anyway, he effectively ran out of cash and I then had his choice to make, do I kick him out with, you know, the house virtually knocked down and not rebuilt, or do I find another solution? And I think you’ve gotta recognize, yeah, you’ve got a contract and it’s a tight contract and all the rest of it, but you’re dealing with small builders. They’ve got nothing behind them, so you can’t actually enforce a contract. In that sense of the words, it’s good to have it and it’s, it does give you some benefits, but you couldn’t go all the way to the end and say, I’m gonna sue the pants off you because he doesn’t have any pants.
Sorry. Not sure if I should say that.
Amy: It’s a very good way to put it.
Stewart: So I, I thought about it quite a bit. By this time I had moved, I’d sold my business and was in a sort of semi-retirement phase, not working as as hard as I’d been. So I decided I had the time and I would step in and I would basically take over uh, the money side of it and I would just engage him, if you like, as a contractor.
And uh, I would project manage it. So I then got myself fully immersed in the project pretty much on site every day. To, to, to make it finish. And I think that was the right thing to do cause the guy was a decent guy. He had the skills to do it. He just needed support.
Amy: How did he find that bit? Did he, welcome you stepping into that role? Or was it kind of a tricky thing to navigate?
Stewart: I think I was lucky cause he did accept it.
Stewart: Yeah, he accepted it. Yeah. So, and we ended up working well together really.
Jane: That’s different from the turning up once a month, once every two months, you couldn’t get more different,
Stewart: Oh yes. It’s totally different, yeah.
Amy: I was just gonna say, It’s interesting you were talking about the architect being on site and the quality control, because that’s a really important part of Retrofit works, isn’t it? Because the level of detail and the air tightness and, and how everything’s put together is very critical for making sure that all the works that you’ve invested in and planned actually work and do what they’re supposed to.
Jane: And so did that happen and, did it, did it pass the test?
Stewart: Yeah. Yeah, you’re right. Obviously in a retrofit, there’s lots of this airtight taping goes on, lots of membranes, et cetera, et cetera, all gonna be properly installed and properly fitted and, and all the tech that goes behind them. Not there was a lot of tech, but you know, the tech that goes behind that.
So, yeah, and our builder had never done that before.
Stewart: So yeah, the architects were very, very much supported the builder and actually showing them how it should be done and making sure it was done properly.
So, yeah. And, and a retrofit particularly one where you’re trying to make it energy efficient, et cetera. I think yeah, that, that aspect of it is critical.
Jane: It’s just slightly different construction methods than traditional contractors as you used to. So there is a bit of skill swapping and, and information sharing on site, isn’t there?
Stewart: and, yeah, I actually found that the builders were interested. It was something new for them too, so they, they took it very well.
Jane: And they’ve used all these new techniques that perhaps they hadn’t come across before. Hopefully more and more builders are being asked to do that, cause you know we need to do more of it in the uk.
Amy: So looking back over the, the whole of the project, what would you say is the most unexpected thing about the process? What took you by surprise?
Stewart: I suppose the thing that took me most by surprise was how inefficient small building process is. I run a large manufacturing operation supplying all the retailers where literally if you didn’t supply absolutely 100% of what they asked for. On the day and the time within plus or minus 15 minutes of when they wanted it, you got fined and all kinds of stuff like that.
Whereas the small buildings industry for me, it seems very inefficient, you know the planning and the scheduling, it’s kind of, yeah, they know roughly what they’re gonna do, but there’s no detail behind it. I’m sure big projects are very efficient and super well run, cause they have to be.
But at this end of the market, it seems very inefficient to me.
Amy: Yeah, it’s true. I mean, I think it’s because the next kind of tier up you, end up getting the builder who has you know, a bit of admin staff or someone in an office like doing the ordering. And you know that that side of building is a massive job , you know, just that all of the organization and ordering and making sure that everything is on site when it needs to be.
But I think normally what happens is a builder is good at what he does. He gets a bit more busy, he gets more people on. Then he’s trying to manage, but also do the, you know, I mean it is we have a lot of respect for small scale builders because they’re trying to do so many different things.
Stewart: I can see the challenge. They are by their nature building it themselves and they don’t have the time to do that as well as, you know do all the planning and all the admin that’s needed.
Amy: But I agree. When you are a homeowner and you’re faced with the chaos, it’s quite shocking, isn’t it?
Stewart: Oh yeah. And it’s, I know it’s easy to say, but that’s why probably a lot of them end up probably going out of business because the, they don’t control the costs or something happens, it shouldn’t have happened. And they end up perhaps losing money on it, or not making as much money as they thought. So yeah, it’s.
Jane: I guess it’s like making your production line. But each time you do it, your raw materials are coming from a different place, you know, different doors, different method. It’s just a, it’s a totally bespoke thing every time. And I guess that’s where it’s not as easy to make the product and get efficient in that way.
Stewart: Yeah, probably in an ideal world you’d employ like a project manager and just someone who would do all of that schedule at all. But then that’s extra cost, isn’t it? So I suppose laterally, I ended up doing that myself, really?
Stewart: I have one more question actually from me, which is, do you have one piece of advice that you would give other homeowners? Uh, Yeah. If you’re doing a major retrofit, a significant retrofit, which I would thoroughly recommend, if you can, you know, if, if, if you can do it, then you’d be daft to do it without using an architect. It’s as simple as that. If you’re gonna spend a fair amount of money, you want a professional sat by your side getting the most of the money that you’ve got.
And even this, when we, when we first bought it, we thought, well, we, we’ll figure a way to do it ourselves. And when we eventually embraced the full retrofit thing, I mean, the level of detail that an architect brings to the project. It gives you such beauty and pleasure in, in the finished thing, you know, the, the design element of it.
It’s just, it’s worth, worth the money and it’s added easily more than what it costs to the, to the value of the property.
Amy: I’m also just watching the, your lovely light flood in behind you, on your wall behind. It’s, it looks very idyllic where you are.
Stewart: I’ve got a beautiful view out there. Yeah. I can look great down. Yeah. It’s just a stunning view. Very lucky location we have.
Amy: Oh, that’s amazing.
Jane: Thank you so much for talking with us today, Stewart, and for anyone who’s intrigued to see the final results, you can go to our website, homenotes.co/storiesfromsite and see the finished photos there.
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:
The desire to future-proof our homes in light of the environment and the energy crisis means retrofit has become more of a priority, but it can feel overwhelming to know where to start.
We have a free course coming soon which addresses exactly this! Sign up via the link here to join the waitlist.
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