Out of the box: Bespoke design vs off the shelf architecture

with Tishna

This week we dive into the world of sustainable home renovation with our guest Tishna.

Motivated by her daughter’s health needs, Tishna embarked on an in-depth exploration of eco-friendly and natural materials for her loft extension.

However, she faced significant challenges in convincing her team to engage in using them. 




Amy: Welcome to Stories from Site, the podcast for renovation enthusiasts. I’m Amy Dohnalek and together with my co host Jane Middlehurst, we chat with home renovators about the roller coaster that is renovation.

This week we dive into the world of sustainable home renovation with our guest Tishna.

Motivated by her daughter’s health needs, Tishna embarked on an in depth exploration of eco friendly and natural materials for her loft extension.

However, she faced significant challenges in convincing her team to engage in using them.

In this episode, we do get a bit geeky and talk about our industry. So as an explainer to anyone fresh to this topic, you values indicate the thermal performance of any extension to your home with certain values required to meet building control and keep your home warm.

We also discuss permitted development rights which streamline the process of home alterations and permissions by establishing clear criteria such as setting heights and volumes for loft extensions.

I wondered if you wanted to start by telling us what you have been doing.

Tishna: Yes, sure. So we live in in North London in a mid terrace Victorian, pretty kind of standard Victorian house. And we are kind of hopefully towards the end of doing a dormer, L shaped dormer loft conversion just to create more space because we’re working from home much more. And so we’re currently using our spare bedroom as my office and the back of our living room as another office for my partner and yeah, it’s just made life a bit more difficult as our daughters at school, we can’t have her friends over and all this kind of thing.

So yeah, we’re trying to reconfigure the house and move upstairs basically to work.

Amy: And you spoke about maybe wanting to do a side extension. Do you wanna talk a little bit about that

Tishna: Yeah. So my dream has always been, to have a nice big kitchen. And I think, you know, particularly during lockdown, we were spending so much more time at home and, you know, I’m, I felt myself becoming more and more domesticated and just spending too much time in the kitchen, basically. So the, so the original plan, my original plan was to go into the side return, have a lovely big space

And my partner, he said, you know, I think we should go up into the loft. It just didn’t feel very exciting. Didn’t feel like, you know, you come into the house, there’s this big, wow, there’s a great kitchen, you know with an island or whatever. So but I did, I read something somewhere and, and it, thank goodness I did, it said, you know, just what is the problem that you’re trying to solve?

And the problem is really not being able to use half of our downstairs while My partner, I mean, not his fault, but you know, when he’s working at home our daughter can’t have a friend, her friends around and we did just get stuck in the kitchen or upstairs in bedrooms. So I just thought, yeah, we just need to move him out basically or up.

So we’re both going to move up, so that’s good, but actually in hindsight, and now that, you know, The loft is nearly done. It looks fantastic. It will be fantastic. There have been a few trials of tribulations along the way, but yeah, so that’s why we decided it’s a lot cheaper as well.

So, you know, I’m quite nosy. There’s lots of people having lofts done around us and side returns and, a friendly neighbor down the road, he said, come in and, you And he just, I asked him how much it costs and I could not believe it. I just thought, well, actually we can’t even do that. You know, it’s just too expensive.

So yeah, so the loft it’s made sense on kind of. A couple of levels.

Jane: A non architectural question. In your loft, are you both having your separate office spaces or is it one space where you’re both going to be?

Tishna: Wow, Anthony would love us to have our separate spaces because apparently I’m really loud and I’m on the phone a lot for work. And he’s just head down, you know but no, we are sharing a room. And then, and then we’ve created a spare room at the back. So we had a look at other people’s and the houses are basically the same footprint, you know, all the way down our road, had a look at a couple on our street.

And most people have gone for quite a big shower room, but actually we’ve just really minimized ours. We just thought, you know, it’s not the main bathroom, that space. Doesn’t need to be big. And yes, we’re really, really happy actually with how it’s turned out or turning out.

Jane: That’s a lot of extra space, isn’t it?

Tishna: It’s a lot. Yeah. When we sit and think about it, we say, actually it’s quite ridiculous. It’s, it’s a five bedroom house now. The space, it’s kind of transformed and, and the kitchen will do it another time. I don’t think we’ll extend it but, you know, we can do something else.

Amy: And how did you go about making the loft extension?


Amy: did you go to a loft company or how, what was the process around that?

Tishna: so I asked around there’s a nice family, a few doors down. I actually asked to go and have a look at their side return extension. And then when I was chatting to her and explaining what we were doing, she said, you know, come and have a look at our loft. And there was a company who, I mean, they just had their boards everywhere.

They did very many, loft conversions in the area. And I got about four quotes all from design builders. And they kind of, you know, the, the quality of the workmanship seemed really good. There were a few, you know, somebody did say, you’re not going to use that company, are you? Because my friends had a nightmare and I thought, you know, actually on balance.

They seemed really good, really, really easy to get on with, you know, so we, we went with them. Our daughter, you know, this, this is where the sticking point came actually with everybody I spoke to was, you know, so our daughter has eczema, she’s got food allergies and there were certain materials that was, you know, really actually worried, you know, honestly about using, you know, especially in terms of insulation and nobody knew anything about using alternative insulation.

Nobody installed it, use sheep’s wool, hemp, or anything like that. And I’ve done quite a lot of research. I thought, you know, consciously we’re making a decision to put these things into the building. And I don’t really want to. So, you The builder said, you know, don’t worry, you know, it will be fine kind of thing.

And I thought, okay, but I needed a re quote and it never came. And then just various questions just. weren’t getting answered. And I was getting more and more stressed. And it was actually before any building work had started. And then the scaffolding was due to go up. And, my partner and I, we had a big sit down and I said, you know, listen, I am so stressed already and they haven’t even started and we are due to pay.

Thousands of pounds as soon as the scaffolding goes up, you know, we might lose a couple of grand but they would use their sort of in house architect who just, you know, I’d expected working with an architect was going to be a bit of to ing and fro ing and and conversations like, you know, we’re going to use this insulation and he just said, oh, I don’t deal with that, you know, that’s just something that you talk to the builder about later, or building control.

So, you know, I hadn’t understood that part of the process or how that would work. And Anyway, we ended up firing them. I just said, you know, you don’t reply to any of my emails. I’ve got all these unanswered questions. We just can’t move forward. And then I’m so glad we did. We both are so glad we did because they basically went out of business.

They went into liquidation. One of them, they were having issues between the two directors. So we actually feel really lucky. And then I did manage to get our money back. By threatening to take them to small claims court. So that was a massive relief. And then, the builder that we have at the moment.

He isn’t so personable, but I’ve realized all builders just want to go in, do the job, get out. They’re not actually, I thought they would be more creative and interested in being more creative and doing things differently. And just doesn’t seem, you know, it’s basically about their bottom line and do it as quickly as possible.

What is this insulation you want me to use? I don’t, I’ve never heard of it. You know, that kind of thing. And so that’s been my struggle really, is, is kind of having these battles, you know, just why wouldn’t you just use this? But it’s Celotex. And I said, yeah, you know, these big conversations around health, breathability of the building, because it’s a Victorian house, but then suddenly you’re putting a box on top that’s not working in the same way as the rest of the house, you know, it’s just yeah, I’ve become a bit of an expert on some of those things.

And I’m just one of those people. I need to know what they’re doing, what’s happening so that if something goes wrong further down the line, we know how to fix it, you know.

Jane: Did you overcome that hurdle? Or

Tishna: One of the big compromises is the insulation.

So Basically, but mostly because we, we did everything through permitted development and I hadn’t realized anything about really what that means. You know, I knew it was 40 cubic meters. I hadn’t understood that was the external measurements. And so using the installation that I wanted to use. You have to put.

much thicker insulation in and it just meant that we’d then compromise on the size of the rooms which at the time didn’t feel that big you know we haven’t got hugely tall ceilings, but they’re, but they’re good ceilings and ceiling height in the house. And then suddenly it’s quite a lot lower in the loft, you know, and I just felt, so we, we’ve had to compromise.

So on the external walls, we have used PIR board and internally and in the floor, we’ve gone, we’ve gone with sheep’s wool. Also, you know, it was south facing at the back of the house, so solar shading was a really big question mark for me. Nobody knew whether we needed planning to, you know, build a kind of awning, I suppose. I didn’t even know how to describe it, but you know, in Mediterranean countries, people build out like that, and nobody had heard of doing it here, and it was just really surprising how little information there was around all these things even with doing online research.

And yeah, I suppose not working with an architect, I’ve just assumed if you did work with an architect, that is They’re things that they would be able to advise you on or tell you about, but builders and the architects that they were using just, just didn’t know. And then by the time you’re talking to building control, you’ve already built the box, you know?

So yeah, it’s been interesting actually.

Amy: Yeah, we sympathize with your experience. ’cause I think,you are right. I think builders know what they’re good at. You’re right, they want to come to site. They want to get it done. And I think often what we don’t realize is just how tight their margins are.

So they don’t have in, in some ways, it’s a shame that they don’t have bigger margins because there’s just not that capacity for


Jane: There’s already a lot of things to go wrong, you know, they have to reduce any unknowns, they just want to reduce that risk.

And so for them, adding in something that they’ve never used before, just feels like a massive risk factor for them, and it could spiral their tight budget and their time scales even Because they need their guys from here that jump to the next one the next one, you know It sends things out of whack for them So it is totally understandable from their side that they don’t want to mess with the product that they’re making But it’s quite shocking from a user perspective That the product maybe isn’t even what general society says we should be looking to try and achieve now. It’s not caught up, so, and it’s surprising that they also are not aware, or don’t have that visibility on the different materials available.

Tishna: you’re absolutely right. And I think my surprise was because of the building regs, you know, they’re constantly changing and it’s all about insulating your house and you know, people’s health you actually, come down to it, it, it doesn’t actually work like that, you know. So just, you know, I became this ridiculously kind of up to speed on thermal value, you know, values, U values, all of this because we’d put sheets for insulation in, in, in, between the joists and the floor.

And then the architect had given me all these U values and one of them included the floor. And I was thinking, this isn’t going to hit that, you know, we need about five times the thickness. I think he’s done it wrong. And I didn’t want to, I didn’t want him to put chipboard down until I knew. And so then got building control involved and, and the guy’s been, you know, really good, but he didn’t know the answer,

And then he had to go and find out and that put us back two and a half weeks because I was adamant nothing was going to go over our joists until, you know, I didn’t want the expense of taking everything up again. And the same with windows, that was another big compromise actually was, okay, I’m not having a kitchen side return, so we’re going to have these lovely Velfac windows.

And the builder wouldn’t engage with that at all, because we weren’t using the company that he uses. And so I suddenly was looking at, cross section diagrams of windows and I just couldn’t understand them. And, you know, and again, you know, the compromise of trying to save money versus actually getting a, going with a one stop shop.

I started talking to the guy who was going to supply the windows and then somebody else was going to install, but I didn’t realize how complicated it was. And at the time when I felt when we first looking. The U values were, you know, the double glazing hit the U values. It was only when I was getting quotes from other companies and one of them was a supply and install, and they quoted me for triple glazing.

And I said, you know, I don’t want that. And she said, you have to have that to hit your U values. But, you know, I look at this diagram and I’m thinking, I don’t think the builders made, made the, you know, the opening thick enough so we couldn’t have them, you know, it’s just. Things like that, you know, when the builder’s not actually, he didn’t want to help, and I do understand, you know, your point of, they do have these tight margins, he’s going from one job to the next, he’s employing people, and I get all of that, but you know, ultimately, I said, I have said to him many times, we are spending so much money, we’re not doing this again, you know, we’re only doing this once, and I want it done, we’re the ones living here, and I want it done How we want it done, you know, it’s, I’m sorry if it’s going to delay you, but you know, so he thinks I’m a pain, I’m sure,

Amy: No, but I mean, it’s such an awful thing to be in that position where you feel like you’re being awkward, when actually the thing that you’re asking for is better, you know, for future proofing and for the environment. So it does feel like we are at a bit of a crossroads, in the industry as a whole, I mean, as part of being an architect, you have to kind of keep up with the regulations and kind of that side of things.

And I think, it’s interesting that isn’t actually true for builders. So it feels like just generally. That’s a bit crazy. I mean and I feel like there has to be some kind of,

Jane: overhaul really of the whole system.

In different countries, like in in Australia, for example, you have to be on a register and there were certain, standards you have to meet to be a contractor.

there are contractors out there.

That are amazing and do, you know, have really, up to date standards and do do their research and how can you tell the contractor that’s done all that work? And how can you tell the contractor who runs a great business? And, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with, working really hard to provide a service, but it just isn’t.

Upkeeping with, the changes that we need to make our buildings sustainable and future proof.

And I think that’s just a real shame.

Tishna: I think there are contractors out there, but we couldn’t afford them, you know, probably. Yeah, but I just was so surprised because like I said before there are so many houses around here having conversions done And I just thought crikey that must mean none of them are doing anything Slightly, it’s not even different what we’re doing.

It just makes total sense, you know to me at least. And yeah, I think my surprise was that even if it’s difficult for this build or any other builder now that they wouldn’t just want to go, Oh, that’s actually quite interesting that you can, that you’re using that, you know, Oh, I might suggest that, you know, further down the line.

But it’s not coming across like that. And I don’t, yeah, I don’t think that’s what he’s going to be doing, you know.

Amy: No, but it’s, it’s such a problem. I think that’s what’s frustrating. And also just really sad is like you say that, that there’s extensions rolling out across the country and they’re all not as good as they could be.

Jane: But it, it’s tied into the permitted development.

rules as well, isn’t it? Because the permitted development heights of extensions, volumes of loft, were all done on, you know, the assumption that the walls and the roofs are a certain thickness. And so that also needs to be taken into account, because obviously, if you add that extra insulation depth, and you push yourself outside of permitted development rights, then of course, then people aren’t going to do it.

So, that’s another thing, and I find that a lot with rear extensions, that, you know, you have to be three meters, you’re usually three meters tall. So, if you’re doing that extra roof insulation, it’s really a barrier to adding that in because of the extra, ceiling height you’re going to lose.

Tishna: Yeah. And that, and I hadn’t realized any of that until afterwards. And I wouldn’t have gone through permitted development, you know,I was just really shocked that, the way it’s all calculated, I couldn’t quite understand the reasoning behind it,


Jane: I just think it’s so amazing that you took that deep dive and, that you learnt all of this stuff that just shows massive commitment on your behalf and that must have been so frustrating to have all that knowledge then and not be able to push it through.

Tishna: You know, I knew, and I think anyone doing any kind of building work knows there’s going to be compromise. I mean, I think it was two or three days in, the builder kept ringing me at work. I really need to talk to you. I really need to talk to you. And I was thinking, oh my goodness, you know, something terrible has happened.

And then I said, you know, I don’t know when I’m gonna be home. And I’ve got to do the school run. And he said, okay, can I, can I just speak to you on the phone? I, it was like giving him a therapy session. He, he said, You know, he said, I feel like I’m saying no to absolutely everything you’re asking me to do.

And I don’t want to, I don’t like letting people down and, you know, all of this kind of, we had this big chat and I said, don’t worry, there are some things I will compromise on, you know, if we can’t have this on the external walls, just don’t worry about it. it’s a shame that we had to compromise actually, and, and also, you know surprising there were no government initiatives, to encourage people actually to use particular materials.

So it’s been a, it’s been a good learning curve.

For me, very boring for my partner. He’s just like, just get on with it.

Amy: There are architects out there that do bespoke design, and there are contractors out there that do bespoke design. And really, I guess that’s what we’re talking about is, you know, saying, you know, they never even asked me anything, like having an architect that sits there, they exist, they’ll sit down with you, they’ll say, So what do you want to achieve?

Jane: Or you want it to be sustainable? Or you care about the materials? Let’s do some research into this. We’ll use this. You know, it’s a very bespoke service, and it exists, but it’s that next level up, And now materials prices have gone up, you know, people just can’t, afford to go that level up in their consultants fees.

I guess it’s understanding that there are architects that just do the drawings that you need to get through building control and get through planning. But it’s no frills. You know, it’s just like, that’s it. And again, with the contractors, there are, there are contractors out there, like you said, that would, they do, they’re excited by the challenge.

You know, they work quite often with these bespoke architects and they’re like, Oh, so what are we going to build this time? Oh, it’s going to have this extra detail, or it’s going to be this thing. And they are excited by the process and they can get their head around, you know, Each job being bespoken different and that’s their, that’s their business.

So I guess as a homeowner, it’s just, you’re coming into this new world and, I guess you didn’t realize at the beginning that there was even those options, I’m assuming.

Tishna: Do you know what, I think my naivety was that I thought, both of the builders, the one that we fired and our current builder, you know, the current builder recommended an architecture firm, they draw up your plans, they say we’ll do two or three designs, and then structural drawings, but I’d never examined architectural drawings before, so I sort of, He’s just looking at some shapes really, you know, I wasn’t looking into the detail and now I would know that’s not quite right there, you know, where they’d ended a room was just where we were having a chimney breast removed and the builder said, but you’re not going to finish there.

You’re going to finish way out. You know, they haven’t factored that in. And so I wasn’t reading those properly, but also in, in You know, I was very naive thinking, well, if they’re going to do two or three drawings in between the drawings, we’re going to have some big conversation about what’s not quite working or, you know, what if we use this or did this, you know, and shifted this around.

And that didn’t really happen. You know, they changed a few doors for me. You know, they didn’t even give me internal dimensions of the final room sizes.

So, but it’s been a, it’s been an interesting learning curve. I’d say ultimately, you know, what we’re going to end up with, we’re going to be very happy with. It’s been pretty painful, you know, just doing all the research. I do work and then we have a kid and then I was staying up till one o’clock in the morning, you know.

Going down these rabbit holes that you can tell. And actually not knowing who could give me the answer to my questions. That was very difficult. It’s like, who do I ask? I don’t know any experts in installation. I, but I did find, you know, an incredible company. It’s just a guy and he’s got a kind of blog, you know, online talking about different kinds of windows.

And I ended up messaging him just going, I’m so confused. My builder’s not helping. Can you answer this? And he was incredible.

I did know it would be good to work with an architect, but we just couldn’t afford it

Jane: But I think it makes you feel a little bit crazy doesn’t it? Because once you have that knowledge that you said and you’re like, who do I go to to get the answers? It makes you feel a bit mad because there’s people there working on your project and you’re asking them and they’re like, No, yeah, and that, that in itself is just very stressful to be like, hang on, my reality and your reality don’t seem to be matching up here.

And what, who’s wrong? You know, you’re, you’re the professionals doing this job, but I’ve got this, all this different information. Am I, am I crazy?

And I, I think we felt that even as architects, I remember going to like a, an eco conference and they’re talking about the different insulations.

Again, it’s all about insulation. And I was, and the lady was saying, well, don’t you use this on your projects? And I just said, yeah, I’ll use it. The risk factor for me is just, it’s too big because if I, if I push this, not only am I one, you know, perhaps I don’t have a client like you who’s actively wanting that even in the first place, you know, so I’m trying to convince them that it’s a good idea.

I’m trying to convince a contractor that to do a thing that’s not what they usually do. So they’re looking at me and saying, okay, fine. Well, we’ll, we’ll do that. But all the risk is on you. You’ve requested this, the client’s not even requested this and then you’re kind of thinking about it, you’re like, okay, well, I’m just trusting the information I’ve been given from the insulation company.

Who knows whether they’re going to get insurance for it or, whether it’s not going to work as they said, or, you know, the risk on that, all of it, even though I’m a professional and I have a desire to push that through, even architects in that situation can’t. battle through that. And I think that that just shows, what you were up against,

And I think until it becomes more standardIt just feels too risky. Cause you, I, you could have a client calling up saying, well, this has happened with the insulation and, You, you were the one who said, why have you made us do this thing that everyone else said wasn’t necessary?

So, it has to become the status quo, and it has to become so so obvious that everyone feels comfortable with doing that, and that’s a whole industry approach, that’s building control, that’s insurance companies who get that. about unusual materials, and its contractors and its clients.


Amy: To be fair, it’s possible though, isn’t it? Because if you look at solar panels, I feel like there was a time when actually, That felt kind of like, Ooh, that’s, that’s probably expensive and a bit kind of, that’s, we’re not going to go for it, even though we want to, yeah. And I think now that doesn’t seem so big, do you know what I mean?

So, I mean, there must be some positiveness somewhere. But I think like change can happen, and I think to be honest, coming from the consumer, from you, the homeowner, I think that’s so great because I think, Like Jane’s saying actually if it’s the architect and the homeowner saying to the builder look this This needs to happen.

Then you, you kind of need, it’s like power in numbers,

Jane: You know,


Tishna: Yeah. I mean, the interest that there were, you know, I did come across websites and the materials are very readily available. You know, they just had longer lead times, but, but it wasn’t that they, you had to import them. They came from Ireland, you know, the installation, but it was super easy to, to order it and all of that.

So, you know So in that regard, I think it was pretty straightforward. But it’s interesting what you were saying earlier, Jane, about the permitted development, you know, it’s the restrictions, and why Why, why is that size? Why is it about that size in particular? What is it about that? Why can’t that just extend a little bit further so that people can then, you know, use these materials?

I mean, I would say it’s been a great learning curve, but when we do another, then I’m forearmed and forewarned kind of thing. You know,

If we had more money, maybe it would have been easier. But even then, I’m not convinced it would have been that much easier. The builder’s always saying to me. Why would you want to do that? You know, I mean, that is his default. Why would you want to do that? And I just, I’ve ended up saying, that’s just what I want, you know.

That’s just what we’re doing.

Amy: Do you know what? I think we need to send this episode to some government, think tank or something. I think we should try to get some change so by the time that you do come round, like, we’ll try and change things.

Jane: what’s the situation now? are you wrapping up

Tishna: I’m talking to you, there’s a very nice guy upstairs who’s laying our cork floor planks. So that’s

quite exciting.

Our shower room, I painted it all and then the plumber has put, done all the fittings. So, you know, we’re really, really nearly there. We’re, um, we’ve

yeah, I mean, we’re nearly at the finish line.

Amy: Yay.

Tishna: It’s quite exciting. I’ll send you a picture or

something once it’s done.

Amy: amazing.

Jane: And thank you so much for this. It’s been probably the most I don’t know, industry talk that we’ve had on the podcast so far, but it feels good and it feels like the more we can have these conversations and the more that it’s out there, then we can start to work out how things should happen differently.

So thank you for talking us through what happened and, and, and your thoughts on it and letting me and Amy talk about our architectural industry and the, and the problems that we’re having with it. Yeah.

Tishna: really nice to chat.

Our closing thoughts:

The construction industry is changing – but slowly.

On big scale projects sustainability and eco-friendly materials are being used and installed. But sadly on the smaller budgets, getting everyone onboard is tricky!

If this is important to you, get in touch as we have some resources for you to help you on your journey.


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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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22. Prioritising positivity: Converting a bungalow with separate trades

With construction costs rising, Claire and Dan managed the different trades they needed on day rates to renovate their 1950s bungalow.

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