Our journey renovating a Warner flat

On Tuesday they arrive, the men to destroy our home. What will go first? Will they rip out the kitchen cupboards? Will it be the shower in the funny place in the corner with the rank bit down the side, or will it be the dark red wallpaper that has given the hallway the look from The Shining since we moved in? I don’t know, but the first swing of the sledge hammer will mean the begining of a project to transform our home that began when we purchased it in April 2015.

House projects are scary… and you seem to have to learn everything on the hop. Much like running a startup.

I thought it would be quite fun to blog about our house renovation so that:
- others could benefit from the lessons we’ve learnt
- we could have a record of the experience
- our interested parents could monitor how it’s going
- our builder (hi Marcin!) could use it as a testimonial once the work is done

So how did we get here?

Between forest and marsh lies the glorious Stow. Walthamstow. E17.

We moved to Walthamstow because of the closeness to green space and we love being a part of a changing, vibrant, multicultural community. That’s what makes London tick.

We have a 2 bedroom ground floor Warner flat. Warner flats deserve a special mention. They were built at the turn of the century for local factory workers and are characterful, well-built brick buildings. Some great history can be found at the WE project.

Our goal is to renovate the flat in a clean 1950s style and add some kiwi influence with bifold doors linking the kitchen with the garden (and the BBQ!). I’m afraid we’re one of those couples that love danish furniture. Sorry. Promise we aren’t hipsters gone insane.

That’s the plan… In this post I thought I would describe how we made our decisions, got the plans drawn up and decided on a builder. So let’s begin.

Pinterest and plans

That’s sort of where we started, by pinning all the things that we liked. Here’s a small sample: https://uk.pinterest.com/cunliffe1723/house-project/

We renovated the front 2 rooms on our own over the last 12 months (we did everything except the electrics and plastering) so we had an idea of the look we were going for. This is a great thing to do because if you’ve never dealt with tradesmen before, doing a smaller job first will teach you a bunch of things before you begin the big job. Doing the work yourself can also save costs, teach you what order to do in things in, and you learn what is easy and what is hard.

Pro tips: restoring skirting boards, not worth it. Keeping original coving, super worth it. Parents coming down from Wigan to help, fun and invaluable! (Thanks Heather and Chris)

Getting some help from the professionals

We couldn’t do the rest of the flat on our own so next step was to find an architect. Like all of these things, a recommendation from a friend was a good start. We settled very quickly for Kirkwood and Kirkwood who did an amazing job on a friend’s house (Hi Alex!). Alex came round, we had a chat, he took a bunch of measurements and we quickly settled on a broad plan. We then appointed a structural engineer to tell us the art of the possible. The plan hasn’t changed much from the first version but we have gone back and forwards over some of the details. For example, removing chimney breasts was too big a job, with too many permissions and was too expensive to make the final cut.

Up till now it’s all fun, possibilities, drawings and ideas. We’ve drawings from the architect and structural plans worked out. Then comes the next bit… the practicalities, the budget, the builders, the fear and the spreadsheets.

The ‘spreadsheet of doom’

Sarah is really organised, and very detail-oriented. I’m a bit of a dreamer. Sarah did a lot of the work here. It took a long time but we built a spreadsheet with a very detailed plan for each room. What needs to be demolished, what needs to be rebuilt, what needs installing, painting etc. This is both good and bad. It’s a lot of upfront work but what you get out of it is (hopefully) a better idea of the costs and the basis for an detailed, itemised quote from builders. When I say detailed, I mean it. The renovation is 3 rooms and a hallway and the spreadsheet is 11 tabs and over a 1000 individual entries. Here’s a sample:

Schedule of works. Detail.

It is detailed.

Our intial plan was to give the architect’s drawings, structural engineers plans and the ‘spreadsheet of doom’ to each builder and ask them to give us an itemised quote (a price for every one of the 1000 lines!). Now this is where it started to go a bit wrong. We know people that have done this before for bigger projects. They were able to use the itemised quotes take thing out which where over budget and adjust the total price easily and to make sure that the work was completed correctly. Friends did this for their large house renovation and they finished it on time and on budget.

The problem is that quoting this way from a massive spreadsheet is a huge amount of work for a builder on a project of our size. Asking each builder “Can you give me an individually itemised quote?” didn’t work well at all. Trust us on that one.

What did work well in the end was a compromise. We created a summary sheet and asked for a price for each set of works. We only asked for an individual price for items that we might decide not to do, might do ourselves or might ask someone else to do. This allowed us to make key decisions, like deciding to get the floorboards refurbished and polished by a specialist contractor. The summary quote sheet looked like this:

Summary quote sheet

One thing we also did, which is very good to do, is get all the planning permissions, freeholder agreements, party wall agreements (Hi Yvonne!) and permissions totally signed off in advance. Builders always ask about that. Showing you’ve done it means you are committed to the project and that you are able to start on time.

Choosing a builder

We asked 3 builders to quote for the work. How did we decide? Price was a consideration, of course, as was personal recommendations but a funny thing happened. 2 out of the 3 builders were recomendations from friends and we went with the one who wasn’t. Why? Well… important to us, Marcin was the most organised. By far.

This was one of my tests.

He turned up on time for the first appointment. He turned up on time to talk through the quote. He was late once but he rang ahead and explained why.

Over the years I have interviewed a lot of people for jobs and hired lots of software developers. One of the things I always try to do is test people not on how friendly they are, but on competence. Test them on the thing they are going to do every day. So I took the same approach here. Someone turning up on time is what I want, someone that gives detail in their quotes, someone that understands our slight level of OCD and someone that listens really well and then delivers on that. That’s Marcin.

Marcin got back to us really promptly. He understood what we wanted more than the others. His quote was the most detailed. He didn’t freak out about our spreadsheet. He dealt with all the insane insurance requirements days before we were due to start, while both he and we were on holiday. He came around with his wife (Hi Berta!) when we wanted to talk about the payment schedules and we found something that would work for everyone.

At every stage, everything was “no problem” and he meant it.

We also checked his work, previous jobs (thanks so much to Paul and Claire for letting us into their home!) and found that they had experienced the same level of organisation and attention to detail.

Here’s Marcin on MyBuilder in case people are interested: https://www.mybuilder.com/profile/view/pioneer_concepts_ltd

Working out the contract details

Of course things can go wrong along the way, but I feel like we have started under the best possible circumstances. We’ve done all we can to make the project a success. Let’s do this thing!

I’ll be producing a blog every 2 weeks until the end… so we will see. I forgot to mention we have a hard deadline to work to.

Winter is coming. The baby is coming.

Wish us luck.

The clock is ticking

In my next blog, we’ll share our plans, some before shots and the first week of demolitions.