The Search Continues

I did what you all said you would do. I walked away. There was no point where the sellers and I seemed to be able to agree – they really didn’t understand that they would no longer be the landlords of the shops and as such that their concerns were not the priority. And I had to concede that I just didn’t have the experience to take on a property with complicated commercial leases. Anyway, all gone now. The place is back on the market, wonder what will happen next time round? I guess that’s not my problem! Time to start looking again…

lordship lane

When you walk around your neighbourhood, what do you see? Do you notice front gardens; front doors; gates; trees? Colours? A friend of mine really loves street art. She regularly posts pictures on Pinterest or Facebook and as she’s a secondary school art teacher, I’m guessing this search becomes resource material for her students. Street Art is a controversial thing. There are still people who prefer a wall to be a wall and because its a wall, it should be well, blank. But here’s the thing, you adorn your walls inside your home, don’t you? And when you see a blank page, its almost irresistible to not make a mark on it. Same with blank walls – and they’re cheaper than buying canvas or artist’s paper. People have been doing it for quite some time…

sign writing

Yes, I agree, there’s nothing that pretty about squiggles of black spray paint but when someone has taken the time to plan a mural and has executed it with style – well the sheer scale takes it from being a picture to something monumental. At the very least it becomes a landmark – and we all still use them regardless of how often the mapping on our phones comes out. I’d rather navigate by art than by supermarkets or service stations!


My new area has a lot of good art. Perhaps it’s something to do with the fact that there’s an Art Gallery in the neighbouring village, or it could simply be that this area has a bit of a vibe anyway – it’s the louder, younger sibling to the genteel village; smaller, punchier, livelier. Lots of pubs and cafes serving good food and three big (in size and in league table standing) independent schools all judging each other by the cut of their uniform.

north cross road

Maybe people are too busy to notice the walls they walk by, but I defy you not to smile when you look at HRH ‘walking’ the corgis. Regardless of whether you like it or not, it inspires a response. And that is what artists over the centuries have been wanting to achieve with their work. A Street Artist is no less interested in the viewer just because the work is outside. And it’s quite likely that their work will have a much shorter lifespan than something in a frame and hung indoors, so their choice of subject matter is a point of curiosity, but funnily enough the rest of the local street art doesn’t appear to be topical, there is no theme; it crosses generations in content and execution. There is a mix of colour and monochrome. Some are on shops, others on hoardings. Their only commonality is their location – and my sense of joy at having spotted them.

frogley road

goodrich road

And that I think is important, in spotting something unexpected the viewer experiences a shift in focus; a distraction, is diverted. You may simply be going about your business and bam a whacking great piece of art is right in front of you. Yes, you could be too immersed in your phone to notice but if you weren’t, that surprise discovery would take you out of yourself for a moment. It would give you pause and direct your focus away from whatever was preoccupying you. You would be in the moment, connected to something unexpected in exactly the same place as you. And that focus outside of your problems and concerns – for just a moment – is like drawing air deep into your lungs, reviving and realigning your body and soul.

Mrs Robinson

For the artist this work has probably taken thought, planning, preparation maybe even research. But for the viewer, it is just there same as you. I saw something on Facebook recently about meditation techniques, in our busy world even slowing our breathing for 20 seconds reduces stress levels, so taking the time to notice the little things and to put aside our concerns for the smallest amount of time can have a positive impact. If just looking around and noticing your environment changes your focus for a moment, then the artists are achieving something great in modern day reality – and that would give street art as much relevance as the works of the Great Masters.

the lordship

How Not to Buy a House

Earlier in the year, I sold my house. As you may remember I marketed it through an online estate agents and was pleased with the results. That was back in June. I decided not to buy in London immediately because I wanted to invest some money into small scale property development and didn’t want to tie up all my capital. I did however fall for a property in Rye, East Sussex which had two shops attached to it and would be a wonderful place for holidays and to rent out as a holiday let. So the property would pay for itself and I would get the added bonus of being able to enjoy it myself.

High St Rye

I put my offer in and it was accepted. That was in April. I booked my surveyor and almost from the very moment I started to follow the normal process of buying a property in the UK, I encountered issues. The survey had to be done by someone who also specialised in commercial property, because of the shops. Surveyors are cautious people – they give you every possible worst case scenario and you as the prospective owner have to decide which bits scare you and which bits don’t. He expressed concern about several areas – the shop windows, damp in the cellar and about the building being on a hillside. So, I booked a structural engineer to report on the hillside behind the property (the garden was on terraces below the building). He was happy that there was no evident subsidence or land slip but expressed concern about the open cellar (mentioned by the surveyor) to the building called the Undercroft and suggested it might be caused by the drains. So, I booked a drain survey. He expressed concern about a blockage to one of the drains. I asked the owners if they would get the drains jetted. NO.

undercroft arch

cracking to undercroft

Before I go any further I should say that the house is a listed building. It was built in 1580 and remodelled in the mid nineteenth century, so the street frontage is Victorian. That didn’t worry me particularly but the idea that the drains were possibly affecting the cellar that supported the building did. Especially since the current owners had done extensive refurbishment in 2010-12. So this was a sticky issue for a bit. But then early in July, my solicitor threw in the curve ball – the leases on the shops were irregular, old fashioned and the tenants had a protected tenure under the 1954 property act. To make matters worse they were new leases, one was only signed a week after my offer was accepted.

stairs to loft

All of a sudden my legal team grew and I was called in for a meeting to explain exactly what the pitfalls of these leases could be. Lawyers are risk averse, they want you to make an informed decision because let’s face it, buying a property is a big investment. So, the partner specialising in litigation explained that the 1954 property act was written to help tenants who were setting up businesses (after the war) to be able to establish themselves in a community and to be able to rely on the premises becoming part of their identity in that community. It was a way of offering stability at a time when life was fragile and so the 1954 act protected tenants by offering them an automatic right of renewal of their lease when the term ended. In 1954 that was good for business. In 2016 it isn’t. I was potentially buying a property with two tenants who had an automatic right of renewal to their leases at the end of every term of that lease. And as there was no rent review in the leases either, at the same rent. In theory that would be fine if everyone were happy, because no-one wants an empty rental unit, right? But the minute there was a problem (like rents not being at market value) these leases would be a noose around my neck because I would have to compensate the tenants – or take legal advice to rewrite the leases so that they were no longer protected tenants. Either way I would have to pay.

front bedroom

According to the estate agents – who had written one of these leases – there was no intention for the tenants to have protected tenure and they suggested that the owners might be amenable to re-issuing the leases. So I asked the owners if they would terminate the current ones that my lawyers were so concerned about and arrange with their tenants to enter into unprotected leases. Initially they said NO. And that I thought was that. But then they came back and said ‘alright.’ And this is where it got really tricky. One of the points of my survey was the repair of the shop windows, he felt they needed immediate attention, but under the terms of the leases, the decorative repair of the windows was the responsibility of the tenants – and it hadn’t been done. How was I, as new owner, to get my brand new tenants to undertake repairs to the windows (because my surveyor suggested it should be done before the winter) when they likely had made no provision for the expense?

shop 1

The problem with taking over leases that you weren’t party to is that they are likely not to suit your idea of how you want things done. I could make no changes after these leases were re-issued until the term ended in two or three years. And that to me seemed like a long time to have to wait to get things done – or to interact as landlord with my tenants. So I asked if we could add a clause to the leases (that were in the process of being rewritten) that would work as a service charge – payments that the tenants already made coming to me for me to administer as owner of the property. That way I could keep the maintenance of the building on track; wouldn’t that be of benefit to the tenants as well? This idea went down very badly. Not only was it a NO, it was a ‘we don’t do things this way in Rye’ NO.

view to the rear

I took advice – from my lawyers who really were only able to say ‘the owners aren’t obliged to do this. When you buy a house you buy it as you find it, the leases are the same.’ I spoke to a dear friend who is a property law lecturer – who said ‘do the tenants have their own independent legal advisors? Even though they’ve agreed to give up the current leases (with protected tenure) and go to unprotected leases, without the rubber stamp of a lawyer, they can come back at any time and say “we were misinformed” and you would have to compensate them for that because you would be the owner.’ And then I spoke to my Dad (who worked in property for 50 years) who said ‘you’re doing too much running around. You’re the buyer, they should be trying to convince you it’s a good buy. Personally if they won’t include the maintenance clause, walk away.’

So, what would you do?

We Need to Put Some Love In

For those of you who get my Facebook feed, you’ll know I had a holiday in Italy earlier this summer. Verona, to be precise and it was wonderful – I already want to go again. We visited Venice too and although I posted a few pictures I didn’t tell you the whole story – about how shocked I was to see how run down the city is, about how heartbroken I felt to see this gem crumbling before my eyes. I was last there 25 years ago and it has held a special place in my heart ever since. So much so that I wanted to go there for my birthday last year – I’m so pleased I didn’t, it would have ruined my day.

We’ve all heard the stories about ‘how Venice is sinking’ and yes it is, a couple of millimetres per year. But that isn’t what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the buildings crumbling from the rooftops down.

Campo San Polo

Plaster falling off walls, lintels cracking and exposed brickwork being left to the punishment of the elements. We all know how harsh sea air can be – salt water carried at high speed by gale force winds will have the same effect as a jet wash or a water canon. This is a city at risk from the elements but rising tides aren’t the only story, the neglect in areas that don’t face the sea is almost more pronounced.

Venice pathway

Venetian piazza

And where are the people? Where are the homeowners, the live blood of the city? Is it all just for tourists? My heart breaks; how can this wonderful, charming, seductive city have become a ghost town? Our hosts in Verona asked how we had enjoyed our day in Venice and I blurted out how shocked I was. Their reply, though understandable, doesn’t make it right: the taxes are so high no-one can afford to live there, the people who do buy homes there only come for holidays and do nothing to maintain the building the rest of the year, the politicians can’t agree on which action to take and because they want to be popular with the voters, they choose to do nothing, the city is so full of tourists that to get any work done is difficult because everything has to come in and out by barge – and it costs too much, so it becomes mired in apathy. And the clincher, Italy has so many World Heritage Sites that all need to be maintained, how can you choose which ones get the money? Oh my God. There was nothing I could say.

Venice canal

I spoke to another Italian friend who lives in England and he was of the opinion that in true Italian fashion, the minute it looks like Venice will fall into to the sea, it will be saved. A bit of drama and a bit of attention, whipped up to a frenzy and it’ll all be fixed. But why does it have to get to that stage before anything will be done? The tourist areas in Venice are hell, congestion has a totally different meaning there, the alleys leading to the main Piazzas are so crowded, you’re literally queuing to get into the squares, there are bins of overflowing rubbish and the canals can be smelly, drainage is obviously an issue. And don’t even try to use the mapping on your phone – too many people, too many buildings. But these areas – San Marco, La Fenice do get funding and have been restored beautifully. At the moment the Rialto Bridge is undergoing a facelift of the most comprehensive kind. But it’s not enough, for a city to have a soul – and to be cared for – people need to live there. Their identity and lifestyle need to resonate with the tempo of their community. Without that neglect happens, decay sets in, apathy becomes a state of mind and history is allowed to crumble – just fall into the sea.

Venice canal 2

I’ve done a bit of reading since I got home and there have been huge building programmes to create sea defences that will control the winter tides following the same principles as the Thames barriers. It was all supposed to go live last year – but then the Chief Executive was found to have his fingers in the pot and was prosecuted. The programme came to a halt and I don’t know if it was ever finished. As the article says, at a cost of 5.4bn Euros, it has to be finished!

Grand Canal

But what about the architecture? If the foundations can be saved with the sea defences – when they actually do get finished – who is going to give the residential buildings of the city a second chance? Who is going to encourage inhabitants to come back and make their homes in Venice once again? It isn’t a theme park but unless the tides turn, Venice runs the risk of being shut permanently and not just for the winter.

Grand Canal 2

A Kitchen/Diner conversion

It’s the moment of truth. The kitchen has arrived! My clients placed the order back in March and finally, after a 10 week lead time, it is here. The space was created from two rooms – a small, unimaginative kitchen and a larger more conventional dining room. We’ve taken the wall out between the two and squeezed in a downstairs WC too, but it hasn’t been the most straightforward of processes – even though there was nothing to really cause concern. We knew we needed structural support because we also removed the old chimney breast to allow for a continuous run of units on the long wall. We knew that we needed to support a door opening we moved and we also removed the whole back wall to fit bifold doors, but all of these jobs are standard procedures in todays kitchen conversion.

the wall is out but not the chimney breast

the wall is out but not the chimney breast

the chimney is out and the stud work for the WC is in

the chimney is out and the stud work for the WC is in

And yet we had the council (Lambeth at its absolute finest yet again) jumping up and down about substack drains and not signing off the steel work because the DS hadn’t seen the drawings. Considering I’d taken in the drawings at the time of applying for building control, it was all farcical – especially when I found out that the inspector assigned to this job had been on holiday and it was someone else covering his jobs. I spent a week on hold with Building Control to speak to the right person and when we finally got the right guy on site, he was totally in agreement that we’d been asked to do things that weren’t necessary – and were wasting his, ours and the clients time!

the substack drain - that we didn't need

the substack drain – that we didn’t need

That was Easter – so much has changed since then! The kitchen company have taken the plans for the space and created something which will look wonderful. I haven’t specified the kitchen on this job; I’ve been devil’s advocate, because I’ve continued to work on the rest of the house while the kitchen has gone through the design process. It’s actually been interesting being one step removed; there are so many little things that have had to be decided because the kitchen company have simply said ‘it has to be like this.’ My usual position is that the building will throw up problems that you have to work with – and in agreement with the clients – that defines the space. As none of this job has been new build – it’s all within the footprint of the existing house – we haven’t had the luxury of increasing ceiling heights or extending rooms to accommodate the kitchen. It has all had to be designed around what we had to work with. And I’ve been pretty happy with how the drawings shaped up. With the bifold doors framing the garden, the space has such a connection with the outside, it has a 3D effect somehow. But of course this space is about the kitchen and inevitably the conversations were more to do with the problems of shoehorning an appliance into the room than how much space we’d created.

the opening for the bifold doors

the opening for the bifold doors

the bifold doors are in

the bifold doors are in

This has been a collaborative process too, with the clients actively involved in the choice of everything from appliances to sockets to door handles. Very often I include this type of detail on the sample boards and the client simply approves what I’ve suggested. On this job it’s all been sourced and signed off after many discussions, so there has been extra time involved and there have also been a few moments when things didn’t get discussed with the right person.

the bathroom kitchen

the bathroom kitchen

new space temporary kitchen

new space temporary kitchen

But for the most part the project has gone well – if not straightforward. Why do I say that? Because the scope of the project has grown and become the entire house. We knew that the clients wanted to do this but scheduling that amount of work is always difficult when you have the clients living in the building. The space they have to live in gets taken over by the need to store items away from the build area and any temporary fit out is constantly moving to allow for any work needing to be done in that area. This creates additional work for the team – for example the clients have needed a temporary kitchen throughout the process – the first was in the old kitchen, the second was in the hall, the third was in the first floor bathroom, the fourth was in the new kitchen, the fifth is currently in the front room. That means the old cooker, fridge and washing machine have been carted up and down stairs as have all the pans, utensils and crockery. This is a lot of work. And don’t get me wrong the results will be fabulous, but what it means in real terms is that our time on site is spent trying to co-ordinate the arrival of deliveries so as not to overwhelm a space that is already bursting at the seams.

the kitchen arrives

the kitchen arrives


So, it became apparent yesterday when the kitchen arrived that our team would not be able to carry on working downstairs. They can’t go into or through the kitchen because it is piled high with boxed up units and appliances. Right now there is plenty to do on the first floor, but not being able to get the rear of the house or the patio finished is an added annoyance because any waste will now have to be carried through the brand new kitchen. Grrr.

Anyway, it is what it is. The work will soon be finished and the irritation will fade because the one thing you learn in this industry is that there will always be glitches and changes to plans – and it won’t in any way affect the finished product. It just might take longer.

Choosing Estate Agents

Well the house went on the market on the 22nd March – I did pull out all the stops and get it listed before Easter. It was a bit of an anticlimax after the chaos of getting the listing to go live because I didn’t have any viewings over the long weekend, but it was an interesting exercise.

Screen Shot 2016-05-16 at 16.04.41

I decided to take a punt with this house sale and to use an online estate agency – you may have noticed in the picture on the previous post. Having bought and sold before, worked at an estate agents for a short time and being the daughter of someone who is the third generation to run a family owned estate agency, this could have been a controversial move! So I didn’t tell anybody I was doing it. But the numbers stack up – SERIOUSLY.

In the UK estate agents fees are 1-1.5% of sale price and there is VAT added to that, so this is a chunk of money to part with and the previous sale had given me cause to complain about the behaviour of the agent handling my property. I didn’t want to be mucked around or to feel that I had no control, (both of my children are doing major exams this term) so my research instead was of the type of package offered if you took some of the responsibility for the sale yourself.


At the end of the day as a designer I draw plans and take photographs almost every day. It seemed just an inconvenience to have someone else do them for me. I also liked the idea of being able to schedule the viewings according to my commitments, instead of rushing out of the house in the morning and just hoping that everything was looking ok. I work from home, so some rooms are always more lived in than others, I had a house guest (who was with me for eight weeks) and I also have a dog, a very excitable puppy who loves everyone. I needed to be able to have her contained and happy – and I wasn’t sure how she would take to having an agent she didn’t know in her domain.


When I sat back and thought about it, I decided that having a local agency involved could possibly be more stress than I could cope with, so doing some of the work myself and having the property listed on a hosting site was the way I wanted to go. Never having done it before, I was keen to see how it worked. And for someone who does computer drawings almost every day, I was surprised at how much time it took me to do my whole-house floor plan. Who knew!

27 Queensville floorplan no text

And how has it all gone? The house sold itself really. Apart from turning my car into a mobile storage unit (bursting at the seams with laundry baskets and ironing, dog toys, partially eaten Easter eggs, leftover tiles from the kitchen and winter hats and gloves, not quite finished with for the season) I had the place looking as good as it could. I had four viewings in the space of a week and the third viewing made an offer – which I didn’t accept – and then increased to a price closer to what I wanted. So I accepted that. I can’t say that being with an online agency had anything to do with that!

In fact I’m not sure being with an online agency has done anything other than give me more control over the viewings and viewing schedule. I’ve had to chase them for information about my buyers, I’ve had to follow up each conversation with checking the website – as opposed to my ‘dashboard’ – and another phone call to check that things have been done. Considering they sit behind computer screens – the very definition of an online company – I honestly can’t say I’ve felt that they were more efficient than an agency conducting the viewings for me. So, the only real benefit then is the hugely reduced fee? Yep that’s about the size of it. From my experience at any rate.


And this should be something you take into account when you want to choose an estate agent. If you work full time, conducting the viewings yourself will be hard, unless you can opt to work from home on certain days and take some time from that schedule. If you have a young family who need your full attention when you’re at home, then this too will make taking responsibility for the viewings hard work, especially if they have a sleeping pattern that rules out certain times of the day. And you have to keep things looking immaculate (or as close to) because when you take people around your own house, you’re aware of the things they don’t like by what they don’t say. It can feel very personal – if that’s going to make you feel unsettled, then this process isn’t for you.


I’ll tell you the one thing it has done though, listing my house with an online agency has given me the choice to accept a lower offer than I might have done. That probably sounds counter intuitive, but because the fees are so much lower I’m actually ahead of where I would have been – by about £14,000 – if I’d sold through a local agent. So what it really does is give you more control over the money going into your pocket. That £14K will go a long way to paying my stamp duty on my next property. And as soon as I exchange contracts, I’ll tell you all about it.

Getting your House Ready for Sale

I think I mentioned that I was planning on selling my house this year. Having been through the process before, there is a good time to list and a not so good time. For homes that come into the family bracket as mine does, listing in spring means that anyone who is wanting to move for the new school year in September, has the time to view, offer, instruct solicitors, arrange finance and move in before it’s time to dust off those pencil cases. So my plan was that I would list my property just before Easter. But Easter was early this year and the school holidays started the day before. I had to decide to either pull out all the stops and get my property on the market the week before – and everyone going away would be thinking about their holiday – or I had wait until the beginning of April. What to do, what to do?


I wasn’t particularly bothered either way until I saw a property that I actually wanted to buy. How annoying.

So a couple of weeks ago the rear of the house was painted – it never did make it to the same colour as the front and I’ve hated that I’ve lived in a two toned house for so long. Finally the back garden will have the intimate feel that only a dark colour can provide and considering I help people with these choices every day, it is frustrating to say the least, to always be at the back of the queue – because I’m working on someone else’s house.

As you might be able to tell, I had a list! Richard, my builder thinks I’m nuts, that people like to do work to their new homes. But not everyone does, a lot of people are looking for something they can move into and just get on with living in. After all they’ve spent all the money on the purchase! So, because there are things that have annoyed me for a while, there was a list.

ensuite bathroom

Install a towel rad in the top bathroom – a very cold room in the winter.
Re-turf the back lawn.
Change the windows in the loft room – the seal of the double glazing has gone and they’re cloudy to look through.
Oh and I painted the bathroom…

family bathroom

Ok, so you’re wondering why I would bother to go to this trouble when I want to move on. I recently heard of a previous client who had a two bed flat to sell that had been tenanted for about 6 years and the place was looking tired. He had it valued and was disappointed with the price the agent gave him. Then he spoke to Rich and asked how much it would cost to redecorate and replace the carpets. I think he replaced the shower door and fittings as well. The work cost about £4000 and the agent revalued the property at £60K more than the initial quote. That’s a nice increase in value!

rear exterior

The same thing will happen with my house. I know that when the building survey is done they will mention the state of those top windows and that will be a point the purchaser will try to negotiate on – and they’ll want several thousand off the price. To replace them supply and fit will cost about £700. So it is important to look at this as a transaction. I have to spend a bit of money to make a good job of the sale!

wall colour enhances church pew

There are other things that matter too and it’s very hard to be detached when you look over your own home, but you need to see things as someone viewing your property will see them. So when I saw a post on a blog I follow, Mad About the House, I was interested to read her comments. I don’t think she’s gone far enough. Spraying some air freshener round and tidying up don’t in any way make a property aspirational. Because every property is listed online and people can peek in from the comfort of their sofa, the property has to look better than the images. Something that’s supposed to be shiny, has to sparkle; something that’s supposed to be plush, has to be lint free; beds have to be made and cushions plumped up. It’s this level of care that makes a home look loved – and it is that love that brushes off on people as they leave a viewing.

bed cushions

Because of course you want them to come back and to put their money on the line! Surely that money – and let’s be honest, it’s not chickenfeed we’re talking about – is worth you putting a bit of effort in?

How Ugly is Ugly?

It’s very easy when you drive around the same areas repeatedly to not see the buildings you pass by. In the new Channel 4 programme ‘Ugly House to Lovely House,’ George Clark and his team of architects take the eyesores and turn them into individual and unique homes. What I had thought was different about this show was the emphasis on the exterior transformation. I’m not an architect. I’ve always thought that I really only understood how internal spaces worked but watching this programme, I don’t think they’ve gone far enough!

before and after - but they've forgotten the porch and the front door

before and after – but they’ve forgotten the porch and the front door

By definition if your home is referred to as ugly, that’s an opinion based on appearance – so, what is seen from the street. If your house looks ugly from outside then surely that is where you would expect the bulk of the budget – and the attention – to be focused. But no, it’s really just another refurb show. The inside is ripped to bits – and the bulk of the money is spent there – and then the outside is the wrapping that finishes the scheme off. On all three episodes I’ve watched so far, I’ve felt that the exterior didn’t meet expectations. They have local residents giving their opinion of ‘progress so far’ (and of course they can only see what’s happening outside) and their criticism really reflects what I felt to be lacking – a transformation of the defining parts of the house as seen from the street.

neighbouring properties

neighbouring properties

but still with their own touches

but still with their own touches

So let’s strip it back to basics. If you’ve bought a house for reasons other than aesthetics as many of these people did, you’ve bought it because it ticks other boxes: close to children’s schools, affordable, within an easy commute to work, close to family or countryside that you enjoy. At that point, how it looks isn’t the focus. But when you’re living there – and the purchase is just part of the history – aesthetics do become an issue. If you refer to your own house as the ‘ugly house’, then you too have a negative opinion of your own space. And this has an impact on how you feel about living there. Do you love something that you think of as an eyesore? Or does it make you feel protective? Would you defend it if someone told you they thought it was the worst house in the street? Or have you just stopped seeing it? Do you even care anymore?

attention grabbing

attention grabbing

Can you see the apathy building up? It’s so easy to just make do and ignore the things you don’t like. But why should you put up with living in a space that isn’t what you want? Especially since it is probably your largest financial asset.

a modern 'between the wars' house

a modern ‘between the wars’ house

Exterior transformations are not as difficult as one might think. They’re not always straightforward, but none the less changing how the outside of your house presents itself says that you care in BIG capital letters. I changed the colour of my house about 18 months ago – it is now a grape-grey and I’ve had so many positive comments about it. The word most used is LOVE. “I love your colour; I love your house; I love that it’s different to the others, more individual.” I’ve also been told it’s bold and different, but hey I quite like that too!

defining the property with colour

defining the property with colour

highlighting the features you want to accentuate

highlighting the features you want to accentuate

Not every house suits being painted, of course, but changing the colour of the window frames adds a distinctive feel that really opens the windows wide, a bit like mascara on the eyes. And then there are the more remedial approaches – porches and roofline updates, pillars and new front doors. Many of these things come as kits and provided the measurements work can be installed fairly easily by your building contractor which not only cuts down on cost, but allows you to plan exactly how the new exterior will combine with the old. And let’s be honest a transformation will leave traces of the old building intact as with this building below, if you look closely the brickwork around the front door hasn’t been disguised.

simple updates

simple updates

doors and windows - contrast to the house next door

doors and windows – contrast to the house next door

And that’s the point when an exterior refresh has to acknowledge what was there before. Short of tearing down the original structure, you will be working on top of someone else’s vision. It is easier to say ‘what have I got to work with?’ and plan to enhance the bones of the building than it is change a street frontage – especially if it’s in a terrace. Adding porches and incorporating the details gets around this neatly though and again many kits are available for this type of job. The house below already had a porch – but to create a more modern and individual look they’ve opened it up, stripped the wood and enhanced the timbers for a more handcrafted feel.

modern mock tudor

modern mock tudor

Ugly doesn’t have to be the defining feature of you home and transformation isn’t something to be scared of. The resulting property will make you feel so much better about living there and that in itself is reason enough to take the plunge.

The End of An Era

Last week was a very busy week. My ex husband moved house. I thought I was just lending a hand but it turns out I was actively – and emotionally – involved in the process.

wilfs house move

We moved in as a married couple with a one year old son in 1999. We did a loft conversion and created a six bedroom house, three and a half bathroom house. We had another child, a little girl. We redid two of the bathrooms and the kitchen. We replaced missing cornicing and two missing fireplaces. We added stained glass to the front door – and to the back door. We redecorated throughout, refinished floorboards and replaced the carpet. It was during this process that I retrained as an interior designer and throughout my coursework Wilf was my ‘client’ – I used his requirements to act as my brief.


Both of our children started school and developed a wide range of interests. We made wonderful friends in our neighbours. We had lots of parties and many guests from abroad – some staying for months at a time. It was a busy family life in a home that answered the needs of its inhabitants.

I’ve been separated and then divorced from Wilf for nearly eight years and since then I’ve been in and out of that house countless times – my favourite arrivals have always been on Christmas morning with bags of presents, in my pjs (I don’t even own a onesie, but Christmas morning is a tradition: I arrive in pyjama’s.)

Christmas carnage

After I left, I never felt particularly attached to my old home. It was Wilf’s house, the kids were there three nights a week, it was just a part of the scenery, so to speak. But last week packing up, I’ve been in tears countless times. I felt the love that we’d put into it over the years. I saw for the first time, stripped bare, all the work we had done. Without the furniture, the house was still beautiful, a little grubby where picture frames had rubbed the paintwork and where furniture had scuffed the floor but its bones were good; spacious and light and welcoming.

megan's mural

So what was it that caused me to get so upset? I was really surprised at myself. When you start unpacking a home, you unravel the history of the time that you’ve spent there. All of the events that surround the furnishings – the carpet from Turkey, the mirror from Stow-on-the-Wold, the clock from Newark, the painting from New Zealand, all come back to you and the trip down memory lane as you remove them becomes a part of the leaving of that building. It also brings up the milestone memories, the bathtub filled with toys by my son for my daughters first bath; the murals painted for the children by my mother; the measuring wall under the stairs – even the dog was measured on that wall; the first day at school; the birthday parties. It goes very quickly from a family home to simply four walls and looks incredibly unloved. It had no personality, it didn’t look like ‘ours’ anymore – I found that the hardest part. Somehow I wanted the house to know it had done nothing wrong and in thinking that, I found that the memories of living there were also enriched.

wilf's bathroom

the little room

It’s really important to understand how much a part of you your home is. I say so often that you can’t under estimate the impact your surroundings have on you and I suppose because I haven’t lived in that house for eight years I didn’t regard it as my surroundings, but seeing each room undressed made me analyse the progression we had made through that environment as a family. The room that was the catalyst for this was my son’s room. Full to the gunnels of models planes and books about trains, space and birds (it took me two days to box up all the models, destined for deep storage – likely not to be unpacked until he is a father himself!) you would be forgiven for thinking he was 10 years old. He’s nearly eighteen! He’s reading Whitman and Donne not Tintin and Biggles. That room hasn’t grown with him. He was still living surrounded by his childhood – not with the kit of his youth; guitars and amps and computer gadgets. I felt in a way that we had let him down, to look at that room we hadn’t let him grow up, which isn’t the truth at all, but then looks are deceiving and that was what got me thinking. If our homes are to meet our needs they need to be flexible enough to grow with us. They need to accommodate not only the inhabitants but the possessions that hold our memories. And if that’s not possible, it means we need to be brave enough to let go.

railways poster

My final task as Wilf gave back the keys was to put up replacement lampshades. It’s fanciful I know, but when I looked around the naked rooms I got a real sense of the house enduring, of shaking herself off and moving on, ready to receive her new family. I hope they will be very happy there and love the things about her that we loved.

front door

Bathroom Checklist

A couple of the bathrooms I’ve done recently have had issues with the water pressure in the shower. It’s the first thing that the client comments on and the one thing they really want improved with the upgraded shower. But I have bad news for you. Sometimes it’s not the shower that’s causing the problem. Sometimes it’s the boiler.

When a system is plumbed the route that the pipework takes is the most direct that the structure of the building allows. But if that pipework was run by an owner three of four ahead of you and the bathroom has had changes made along the way, there’s no telling how many alterations to the original route have occurred – nor indeed the age of the boiler itself. The reason that’s important is because of technology. I can see head scratching, go with me, here.

fired earth style shot

fired earth style shot

As technical processes become more advanced and the making of bathroom metalware is done by precision instruments, the fittings available to us are a great deal more intricate. On the outside they look uncomplicated and streamlined but on the inside they have restrictor valves to adjust water flow rates and they need a certain amount of pressure to operate at their best. For something so comparatively small, the inside (the gubbins – one of my favourite words) is extremely high tech. And here is the problem. If you try and plumb one of these sensitive, modern belles to a boiler that is 10+ years old, you’re going to get a few generational differences. It’d be like putting your great aunt behind the wheel of a Ferrari.

The output of your boiler is designed to take both hot water and central heating activity, but it can’t adjust to the demands of fittings that are trying to second guess it. What I mean by that is if the fittings make allowances for the boiler output and it isn’t keeping up with the factory settings of the fittings, then the two components are out of sync and the end result is lost pressure. The thing to remember is that with current regulations, the factory creates a setting that inhibits the temperature – so you can’t scald yourself. Often this can’t be altered which is tough luck if you like a HOT shower! And even more annoying this is only apparent when the fittings change. So, you may have hated the old shower but the pressure may have been fine and with the new shower the pressure is awful – or much less hot than you had. The first option is to take out the restrictor valves, but this doesn’t really solve the problem because with every upgrade you do to your property, the boiler will have to supply the fittings.

tiled shower enclosure

As the designer, I’m often the person specifying the fittings and so I’m likely to be asked to sort this out. The problem is that often I’m not told about the boiler – because the clients don’t necessarily see it as part of the problem – but it definitely is.

If the work is done in stages, then the technology of each fitting (tap, shower, bath, radiator) will be step on step more advanced than the boiler – and the blame will be laid at the feet of the contractor that fitted the bathroom (or the radiators) not the boiler. But the workman has no control over regulations nor indeed the build quality or specifications of the metalware. This is something that should be factored in when you decide to make changes to your bathroom. If the boiler isn’t modern enough to have factory updates done remotely (the time now updates automatically when the clocks change, for example) then you’re likely to suffer with issues of compatibility when you do want to make changes. Yes, it adds money to the work being undertaken, but contrast this to how upset and dissatisfied you’ll feel when the bathroom you’ve been planning for months doesn’t meet your expectations. In that situation it’s natural to want to lay blame with the workmen, but with issues of compatibility between fittings and appliance, you only have two choices – live with it, or upgrade the oldest parts. And if you’re going to go to the trouble of having the work done, surely that should mean you’ve done your homework, you’ve researched the minimum requirements and understand the problems you could encounter if you decide to ‘take your chances?’

mother of pearl mosaic

A Sense of Calm

Ensuite bedrooms have to work hard, which is a strange thing to say about a room that largely revolves around the unconscious state. But, think about it. Because they’re often used by two people, the space has to function for both of them as well as providing a quiet place to sleep and easy access to the bathroom. When you add a dressing room function as well, the space has to prove itself up to the job. And that means there’s a lot at stake for the client. They have an equal share in the restorative value of the room – so they both need to feel at ease in the space. The level of comfort has to be suitable for both of them and it needs to reflect their combined taste and lifestyle. There’s a lot to consider in a master bedroom.

master bedroom

The last master bedroom suite I worked on was not without its problems as a project – delays in deliveries, carpet cut to the wrong size and a work force who didn’t quite feel any time pressure. In a bid to be efficient, Rich and I used a second team – he was having surgery on his ankle – but this was a big learning experience for us, because they did not work the way we did. We had communication issues, builders losing their temper and yelling at other members of the team, threatening to pull off the job and asking for more money. It was more soap opera than refurb project and it was hard work. It really made me realise just how lucky I am to work with a good contractor, one who thinks things through and is good at problem solving. You would think that these would be qualities all building contractors would possess – I can tell you, they do not!

through to the bedroom

Eight months on, the pain has been forgotten and the bedroom suite has a sense of gentle luxury. It’s quiet, both in colour and in sound. It’s uncomplicated, the furniture all matches (so not my choice, but in this space, I have to agree) the simplicity of the decor is what gives it that sense of calm. The bathroom takes advantage of the sloping ceiling and has a much more dramatic feel because of its location. The dressing room is streamlined and accentuates the ceiling height with full height wardrobe doors.

dressing room

The pendant ceiling lights at two different levels add a more glamorous element and provide a layered lighting plan that works according to the time of day or task required.

pendant lighting

It was a collaborative process, this space and I feel really pleased with how much of the clients’ taste is present in the suite. I was the guiding hand – and at times I did insist on following a certain direction – but largely speaking I suggested a type of fitting and the clients then researched what they would like and we arrived at a choice according to price and availability.

ensuite bathroom

There are two things I would say about this type of process: it takes forever and this was a first project. The clients had never had any building work done before and didn’t really know ‘exactly’ what they wanted. So, the sourcing was slow – there is a lot of choice out there, we looked at maybe twenty wallpaper samples (I would normally give a choice of three) and at times we couldn’t dovetail the lead-times, so the clients didn’t move into the space for several months after the building work finished. But overall the project has built their confidence. It looks great and it works the way they want it to. And that really, is what you want at the end of project. After all if you plan on spending money on a bedroom ensuite, the result should be what you want – a space that works for both of you.

shower enclosure