From This – To This

After much hard work I can finally reveal the transformation that has undergone the flat I purchased in June. I’m thrilled – but it wasn’t without its stresses – I have learned many lessons as ‘the client!’

If anything progress was made more difficult by not having a buffer between client (me) and contractor. Reflecting on the process has given me a totally different understanding of my role as designer. I find it quite straightforward to be decisive for clients; for myself, not so much; the agony of not having quite finalised something and knowing that my indecision could potentially hold up the workforce. I never do that for a client!

When I viewed the flat and decided to buy it, it was a bland and ‘generic’ space; lots of cream and beige, very inoffensive (such a damning word!) What that really means is whoever did the initial design for the space sucked all of the individuality out of it and turned each flat in the block into an identikit replica. I genuinely believe that it is possible to create a space with personality without a high price tag, so this mass-produced look is one that feels like the designer has lost interest and isn’t actually invested in giving the end users an interior that a) looks good and b) functions well. All of the finishes were low cost – and after ten years looked a bit rough around the edges. It was light and spacious though and that was the element that sold it to me – as well as the location very close to the river and the sense of tranquility in an area that is quite heavily trafficked.

looking toward the front room

What I wanted for the flat was a look that had personality and warmth, I wanted to add more individuality and to create a space that related to a more design led aesthetic. I earmarked the ‘big ticket’ items (flooring, appliances, carpet and work surface) and decided to use finishes that would age well, I want to see if in ten years time the place still has a more considered feel to it. I don’t mind if the floor is a little scuffed and the carpet a little scruffy … in some spaces it is this lived in feel that adds to the success of the design. And this is my challenge to myself, how will the flat look when it’s been used for ten years?

So, what’s been the biggest lesson? A bespoke finish isn’t going to be quick, so I was unrealistic to think it would be achieved on a short refurb schedule.

I specced a herringbone wood floor – it took two weeks to fit. I specced hexagonal tiles for the bathroom – it took six days to tile two walls ( a space 1.70cm x 1.90cm!) Each straight edge (into the corners and trim) had to be cut, that was 200 cuts which took almost a full day. I specced black tap-ware for the bathroom and kitchen and due to changing specs I couldn’t get them without ordering from Italy and waiting for their summer hols to end, so no plumbing until the beginning of September. Needless to say the tap-ware isn’t black.

I got really frustrated with myself at having to have fall back options for the fall back options (the work surface is plan d!) and that meant the work force were critical of my choices – not that it was any of their business, but it dented my confidence – for a client they would never have questioned it. I discovered that the bedrooms were longer than the largest size of carpet (a 5 metre width) and so had to order nearly double the amount to finish them. I looked at ordering more wood herringbone but in terms of cost there was no saving and that would have added another ten days to the fitting dates (so additional labour costs) – the carpet went down in an hour and a half.

The most stressful part of the process was doing a job I don’t normally do and measuring the space for the tiles. Needless to say I miscalculated (in the teeny tiny bathroom) and ended up short – the handbasin wall short to be precise. I went back to the supplier to find that the whole shipment had gone to a developer and they weren’t getting more stock until September. ARGH. NO No no. The suppliers were amazing and tried to track down an alternative (which wasn’t quite the same colour white) and we had about a square metre to finish on one wall that would stand out like a sore thumb. I sent them a photo and effectively begged them to check the warehouse…THEN miraculously they found enough to finish our job just lurking somewhere in the back of their football stadium sized warehouse. What? The week before they had nothing left. How does that happen?? That was an awful week.

The thing I have learned from this as a designer is that it’s the build process that absorbs the lead times of the order schedule. We weren’t doing any building works, so there was no buffer between ordering and delivery. They guys needed everything on site immediately and for the most part we had an easy time with the delivery process, but some things we just didn’t allow for. The work surface for example. I was going to use a quartz (plan a) but the cost was way more than I expected (and I spec this for clients frequently) so we looked at Corian (plan b) and the colours weren’t what I wanted, so I looked at an acrylic surface (plan c) and found that as supply only it was more than the quartz when we factored in the labour costs. So I ended up settling – very halfheartedly – for a laminate. I have never specced laminate in my entire career as an interior designer. Who knew what a steep learning curve that would be! The width we needed wasn’t standard and it had to be ordered in. It took two weeks, which meant that the kitchen was the last room to be done; we had no running water for about four weeks, just a bucket under a stopcock. Joyous!

But it’s all over now and the place is being marketed for tenants. I’m also going to list it on Airbnb – let me know if you’d like to stay sometime!


Another One Bites the Dust

This property – the third – was supposed to be the lucky one. It was supposed to be mine! And to be honest I really did want this one, but I didn’t get it. Why? It’s another long story.

When I first lived in London over twenty-five years ago I lived in a shared flat on the Fulham Road. There were 10 of us; it wasn’t exactly private. Or quiet. We shared everything and it was CHEAP, which made living in London affordable on a very low salary. It was also a fantastic flat in a fantastic location; you could hear the Household Cavalry trotting off from the stables to exercise in Hyde Park a couple of times a week.

I lasted there three months and then moved to leafy Putney… And it always stuck in my mind that if I had the chance to buy a property on the Fulham Road, I would go for it.

So after the warehouse disaster, I started looking in the areas I knew and this little, tired, gem of a flat on the Fulham Road just called my name. It hadn’t had anything done to it since the 90’s, it was just waiting to be taken in hand (by me) and given a new lease of life. So what was the catch? HA – you figured that out already, did you?

first floor flat

It needed its lease extended.

And that was going to cost. The agent mentioned this at the first viewing, so I did know I was going to have to pay for this and the agreed purchase price certainly accommodated the lease premium. I was happy to take that on, but things unraveled really quickly.

Within the first week of my offer being accepted I discovered that the sellers hadn’t had a leasehold survey done. What is this? Well, its jolly expensive is the first thing I should say. It’s a report done by a surveyor to set the value of the lease premium in relation to the value of the property and others of the same ‘type’ in the same area. Essentially the premium compensates the freeholder/landlord for loss of earnings (ground rent) but does not factor in things like the general condition of the building and certainly not the decorative order of the property. What we found was that the premium we’d been told was likely to be asked was a fabrication – though not a million miles from what was an accurate value – just more than I wanted to pay for a building that needs a fair bit of TLC – because the moment I became a leaseholder, I too would have a share of those costs.

With the advice of the surveyor and my solicitor I asked the sellers if they would consider extending the lease in their name – if I increased my purchase offer to cover the premium – so that it would be transferred to me as part of the sale. That way the whole process would be ‘friendly’, they already knew the freeholders and it would be a simple conversation between them to get an agreed price for the extension. Or so I thought. They would only agree to doing this if I paid them a consideration – which they would split with me if the premium was less than what was agreed between us. Hmm. And then I got a really weird call from the agent to tell me that they could get more for the flat with the lease extended, if they remarketed it. Hang on, I was buying it, it wasn’t being remarketed. Was it?

From that moment things got nasty. The sellers refused to talk to the freeholder on my behalf, they would only allow us to start the lease extension after exchange of contracts – so at the point I owned the property and deposits had changed hands – and they kept pushing for me to agree to their terms. I got twice weekly phone calls from the agent, to see ‘how I was getting on.’ One of them left me shaking. So after three weeks of this I couldn’t take it anymore and withdrew my offer.

That was nearly three weeks ago and more pieces of the puzzle have revealed themselves, but the bottom line is that the sellers wanted more money for the flat than the market was prepared to pay. The place had been for sale since March of 2016 and they hadn’t accepted any offers before mine. Somehow in the process of accepting my offer they decided they would recoup some extra funds from somewhere. But how to do it?? Aha. Inflate the lease premium. Thing is they hadn’t done their homework.

the palette for the updated interior

If they had initiated the leasehold survey and agreed the price with the freeholder in advance, they could have added their little bit extra and no-one would have known. I’d never have questioned it because it would have looked like they were organised sellers, paperwork in order and all ready to go. But because the agent kept making ‘out of nowhere’ comments, I knew something was up. Every time he tried to coerce me into accepting the sellers terms he would mention that they could get more if they remarketed it.

In the end they got what they wanted, but the market is pretty uncertain right now; maybe it’ll be another year before they actually have it off their hands. And have I found another place to buy?


Resolutions – or Projections?

You will have noticed I haven’t been posting recently, I got caught up in the chaos of house buying again – and had another property slip through my fingers. When things go wrong the process of buying property in England – Scotland has a different system – really induces anxiety. As a buyer you get to ask questions and so long as your finance is secure you pretty much get left alone, which can be very difficult if you need advice. Your solicitors are only there to offer legal advice. For anything else they’ll say ‘It’s up to you, I can’t advise you on that.’ And there are some aspects of the property process which are not legal but are important, like knowing how a block of flats pay for maintenance work.

Gatti's Wharf

The most recent disaster was a one bedroom flat in a warehouse development near Kings Cross. It was very cool, all exposed brick and bed platforms, but tired and needing a bit of love. It was in a gated courtyard and was on the first floor balcony. It backed onto Regent’s Canal and each property had a key to the canal, just like the private garden enclaves of Knightsbridge or Notting Hill. I really liked its simplicity and how I would be able to use the raw materials to create something unique. I loved how quiet it was and especially how close to such excellent transport links it was – Kings Cross-St Pancras was about half a mile away through a pedestrianised piazza – great for Eurostar, the South coast, the North and central London.


But right from the start the owner wanted as much as he could get out of me. There was another buyer interested and that pushed the price up. I should have walked then because as the conveyancing progressed it became apparent that the documents held at the Land Registry were irregular and that to have ‘clean title’ they would need to be rectified – and the owner was adamant he wasn’t paying for it.

The tussle went on for a number of weeks with the other sides solicitors saying ‘you can do that when you own it.’ But really, why was it my problem? And as my solicitors pointed out, he had owned the place since the development was created in the early 90’s, his legal standing (to prove that the documents were the only copies) was greater than mine would be as the new owner. It all became very heated and then the issue of how maintenance work was paid for raised its head. The development freeholders had had a report done to help them define what maintenance should be done first and then over a 10 year timescale – naturally there were costs attached and I wanted to know how they were intending on paying for them over and above the service charge. Not an unreasonable question but no-one had the answer because it hadn’t been voted on by the owners.

exposed brick

So they agreed to share the minutes of the AGM with me. When they came through I got a bit more than I had expected because not only were the service charge costs going up they had also voted that there would be no AirBnB in the development. And right there, the property was suddenly not fit for my needs. Because I had planned on setting the place up as an AirBnB. That way we could also use the flat ourselves, family and friends from abroad, overnight guests who just needed a single night in town and even me, if I fancied a change of scene. It’d be like a city break without having to go away!

regents canal

Anyway, it wasn’t to be. As the new girl I wouldn’t have been able to get them to change their minds (the owners association) and I couldn’t take the risk of ignoring it because what kind of protection would that have been for my investment?

bed platform

So here I am – again – just having put an offer in on another property and what will I do differently this time? Well, that’s the burning question! As I sold my house last year and the funds are just waiting to be put toward a property, I’m ready. As a buyer all I need to do is appoint a solicitor, order a building survey, read some documents and transfer the funds to my solicitors. I think this time that is all I will do. No chasing and getting upset because people aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do.

The thing I have learned though is that in selling a property you should expect to be challenged – if the building has a long and quirky history and a commercial aspect as well or if it is part of a development that was converted from warehouses – any buyer will want to unravel the paper trail to understand how and why things have been done. It isn’t enough for you as a seller to say ‘ that’s just the way it is,’ no-one would give you the legal advice to trust an answer so vague and unfocused. So, when you want to sell a property think about how you would feel if you encountered a mess on the property if you were the buyer. They will feel nervous and need reassuring. If you want to sell, you need to be able to reassure your buyer. And the way you do that is by making sure your paperwork is in order.

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?

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.

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

Getting My Hands Dirty

To try and speed up this kitchen refurb, I knew that I would be doing some of the work myself. I knew I’d be painting the units, sealing the work surface and tiling – a new skill for me. But I didn’t realise I would also be doing the sanding of the floor boards and helping to build the carcasses!

kitchen floor

I started with the work surface because it was being stored in the hallway and was essentially a hazard. It came in 3 metre lengths and weighed an absolute ton! Richard, the building contractor only had me to help him manoeuvre it into the house and we really must have looked like a comedy act. I’m not much use when it comes to heavy stuff! But now that it’s cut into appropriate lengths and is secured in place, it looks fantastic. I chose a wood stain that can be applied with a soft cloth and was really happy with how it went on. Because the work surface is a composite wood – small blocks of wood fused to create a longer length – the wood stain goes on in an irregular way. Each small block is a different part of the grain and takes colour differently, so getting the colour even isn’t really the issue. I just wanted it to looked aged and weather worn. The colour I used from Mylands came in a 250ml container. So I didn’t have the fear of knocking the thing over and turning my whole room Clay coloured. Apart from the smell, which is horrid, I found it easy to work with. I applied two coats and was sparing with the amount to allow it to build up colour in a natural way.

choosing a wood stain


I took Mylands advice on how to finish the work surface as well. They felt that oiling the surface would give me a more robust finish rather than varnish in either a water or oil based formula. What they said – and I’ve seen it myself – was that coating the surface with a varnish allows water to get trapped underneath. This isn’t visible until the varnish bubbles – and that could be months later – but by this time the water has penetrated the wood and starts to blacken the timber. If timber is oiled, this disperses on the surface and naturally repels water. Building up that protective layer takes time and you have to be quite diligent in the first few weeks because it needs to be applied every day for a week, every week for a month, every month for a year and thereafter once a year.

I have done this with kitchen units in the past and they did come up well; fats wipe straight off and the wood patinates really nicely. So, I decided that this would be my approach. It’s now been oiled every day for a week and the water simply forms beads on the surface. So far so good!

danish oil

The tiling was really fun. Richard has done so much of this over the years that I was keen to get the tricks of the trade. He started me off with lines all over the walls – where each row would start and where we would finish. The adhesive is applied to the individual tiles to give enough movement that they will bed evenly onto the wall. This allows you to get the tiles level on the surface as the adhesive doesn’t set hard for a number of hours. Each one has a spacer separating it to allow the grout lines to be even and to allow you to get them level. Then when all of the regular tiles are positioned, the ones that need cutting are measured and cut with either a scorer or a wet wheel tile cutter. They are applied the same way but every so often something needs to be slotted in around a socket. Make sure you turn off the electricity to that circuit before you attempt to remove the socket cover! Wipe each tile as you go to remove any adhesive and keep the edges clean so that the grout lines are clear. Then when everything has dried, you can remove the spacers – even without grouting, the wall looks really finished!

tiling the kitchen

ready for grouting

Applying grout is a bit like icing a cake, you have to watch where you’re putting it and work quickly to make sure you get the finish you want. The thing about it is that mixing it takes patience. It’s a waterproof product so doesn’t naturally want to bind – but once you get the consistency right, you end up with something a bit like butter icing in texture. When you spread the grout, you also have to work it into the crevices and run a finger over the gaps between the tiles to make sure you haven’t missed anything – so that’s where the cake icing analogy ends! Then you wipe it off with a sponge and fill in any gappy bits. You wipe it again – and again – and then you buff it. It’s worth taking the time to get it smooth because this finish is the difference between a professional look and something that is a bit ‘homemade.’ Grout does not look good if it’s rough and ‘rustic.’

Now I’m just waiting for the doors…


And Then I Saw This

And suddenly all my ideas for the kitchen took shape. I’d had a picture from Smallbones tucked into a file for about six months and had thought that that might be my jumping off point, but it was much grander than I knew I could achieve in my space – I didn’t want stone work surfaces to start with. What I liked about it was the contrast of the blue and grey, with the natural warmth of the wood introducing a more relaxed feel to an area that could otherwise feel quite cold and impersonal.

It was this contrast of colour and texture visible with the wood and the painted surfaces that I thought I could achieve. But although I’d found a tile and the paint colours, it just wasn’t quite coming together for me. So when I saw the jug at Designer’s Guild, I knew how I could make it work.

kitchen samples

It would be wooden work surfaces and they would be oiled – not varnished – to a colour that would age a bit like driftwood. The base units would be pale grey and the wall units would be blue. I’d create a shelf below the wall units and use a bracket to support the shelf so that the units would look longer and more like furniture. The handles and draw pulls would be black, the sink and taps would be brushed stainless steel as would the oven and hob. The light fitting would have multiple pendants – in different styles, some metal, some glass. The feel would be functional and arty, a bit like a studio space in essence.


I decided I’d also use french doors in the opening to separate the kitchen from the dining area. This may sound mad, but for those of you used to open plan living, you will know how noisy the space can get when you’re cooking or running the washing machine or dishwasher. If someone is also watching the telly, that too increases in volume and things can get tense – no one can hear themselves think! I’d seen a couple of kitchens that had glazed doors across the opening and it really fitted with what I wanted to do.

Homes and Gardens magazine August 2015

Homes and Gardens magazine August 2015

I’m not usually one for ‘copying’ ideas because I think it’s quite a lazy way of approaching design, but sometimes the ideas are so very similar to what you were considering that it can’t be avoided. The above kitchen is very different to mine – urban and streamlined, mine will be very utilitarian and play with styling based on the shaker heritage – the feel will be very different. My doors will be hinged into a frame with side lights, not pockets doors on runners as these are. And sometimes a picture helps the builders understand what you want much more easily than even doing a drawing of it!

So that was my side of the design work done, this is how the space is looking now.

tiling in the kitchen

Things are coming along…

While the Designer’s Away…

The builders will play. My kitchen looked like this when I went on holiday last month…

queensville kitchen2

And when I came back, it looked like this…

RJF kitch refurb

RJF kitchen

And I could tell before I even got into the house, because the front garden was piled with rubble bags. Quite a surprise actually, because I thought the rear of the house was being painted.

So once my heart rate returned to normal, I got down to the business of planning my ‘new’ kitchen. I had done some plans, thinking that we’d get onto it shortly after my holiday, so it wasn’t a completely mad idea on their part and I’d even gone so far as to calculate what units were required. It’s fair to say a reasonable amount of work had been done. The big questions were things like tiles and the work surface. Generally tiles are the glue that pulls a kitchen or bathroom together. In this case because the floor in the old kitchen was tiled, I was faced with questions about what I would be able to achieve on a budget, working within the framework of what was already there. Was the original floor still underneath? Would it be in good enough condition to use – or would I have to replace it with a ply sub floor and re-tile?

tiles stripped back

And units that we had initially thought we’d re-use, now have to be replaced. Why? Because the plumbing in my kitchen is ‘creative’, the wiring is ‘creative’ and the gas connection is scary. We have to start again – the backs of the units have been cut about and that’ll be obvious after the wiring and plumbing is redone.

kitchen old door wall

So I’m still keen to see exactly what I can get on a budget. My brief – because I have to have a story, even for my own work – is to create a kitchen alcove that links visually to the dining room. The whole of my downstairs is now open plan except for the hall and stairs, so the different zones are all visible from where ever you stand in the room. In my own home I have a relaxed, eclectic style mixing french painted furniture with utility and mid century pieces, so there’s a mix of wood and painted furniture, (with a bit of glass and metal thrown in for good measure.) It’s this link I want to pull into the kitchen, so I’ll be looking to create that same relaxed, mismatched, utility feel. It’ll work with the age of the house and the overflowing garden I have outside the french doors.

The last kitchen I did for myself was the total opposite of this (though the size wasn’t far different.) It was very sleek and urban, high gloss units and a quartz work surface with a mid century feel, but that look just isn’t right for this house because it has more of a cottage feel to it, so I think a ‘country/workroom’ styling will suit it – be easy to live with. What I can’t do anything about is the size of the kitchen. I had looked to reverse the rooms out and put the kitchen where the dining room is, but the costs involved were more than I could cover at the moment. So I had to resign myself to moving on from the innovative option and to thinking creatively within a very restricted place. Hmmm.

floor plan Diane's kitchen

Working with a small space is challenging, but the mechanics of a kitchen create even more restrictions. In this room the plumbing needs to stay where it is because there is no room anywhere else to put the dishwasher or the washing machine – and on a budget moving the ‘services’ creates a lot of additional cost. Corners can’t be accessed, so space that can be used as storage, can’t be got to easily, there are lots of doors opening into the space, so the door swings have to be included in the tolerances, electrical supply is needed in every area and it all has to be well lit.

Because I do this all the time for clients, I know the drill. The space always dictates what can and can’t be used in a room and often I have to tell them that the wish list isn’t going to be possible. It is a disappointment, because I do like to be able to give people what they want – and it’s still a hard conversation to have with yourself. I’m as frustrated by this as any client – I still want it how I want it! So I’m going to have to think hard…

A Busman’s Holiday

Richard, the contractor I work with, recently had to have surgery on his foot and ankle and as a result was stuck at home for a few weeks unable to drive. To be honest having someone with an injury on site is dangerous, they can’t move fast enough to get out of the way and for that reason cause a hazard just by being there. Even worse, if they should overbalance or land awkwardly, the risk of damaging the surgical repair is quite high. Would you want to go back to the surgeon and say ‘I’ve ruined your work’?

So nobody wanted him around and not being one for sitting still, he decided to rip out his bathroom at home! I know, right? So this is the only family bathroom; WC, handbasin and bath, quite a small room. Downstairs luckily, there is a separate WC – so far so good. **This was the reason he thought replacing the new bathroom right at the same time that he was sporting a surgical boot was a good idea.

plumbing the shower valve

plumbing the shower valve

One wet Sunday in March he investigated the tiles on the wall and low and behold, they ‘fell off the wall almost without effort at all.’ Hmmm. So the walls were completely stripped and the pipework for the WC was capped off (because there was still the WC downstairs.) Then it all got a bit complicated because the only place for the family to bathe was in the bath that he was removing. He ran the pipes for the new shower position and put the bath in its place. He ran the pipework for the new WC position and the new handbasin position. He skim coated the walls with plaster around the area that the bath had previously been in. He started tiling the floor and did half of the room, waited for the adhesive to go off (dry) and then moved the bath back to its old position and tiled the other half of the floor. He repeated the process to do the grouting, moving the bath around the room as he went. The bath could still be used at that point because he reconnected the taps to the new handbasin position and had the waste going out via the new WC position.

the existing bath position

the existing bath position

But then it all got a bit difficult because he had to wait for the shower tray and every time he needed to do something, he had to move the bath and re-plumb it. So for a couple of days the family showered at friends or the gym, while the project inched forward and the wall tiling was done. But even when the tiles went in, the shower tray was installed and the shower valve and shower head were plumbed, there was still the shower screen to be fitted (which was a special order – and it was delayed.)

By that stage Rich was mobile and his name was mud at home. Complete mud. Think about how frustrating it is to have delays on site when the project is your own, you want someone to blame, don’t you? When it’s a project that you haven’t really asked for and certainly not when the builder is on sick leave, I imagine that you don’t hold back. So Rich was living in a building site and going off to work in one every day. Complaints at home and complaints on site.

awaiting the vanity unit

awaiting the vanity unit

How fun – not. If you decide to refurbish your bathroom while you’re living in the house, expect to be unpopular!

mirror and hand basin

It all turned out well though, the shower screen is in and the family are really happy with their new bathroom. And it looks fabulous – Rich is back to valued member of the family status. Woop!

walk in shower

Don’t let this put you off, it is possible to do the work and live on site with a bathroom that is the building site. It isn’t fun, but it is possible. And if you’re prepared to put up with the frustration of delays and having dusty feet and a gritty handbasin, you will save yourself some money in the process. Keep in mind though, when you’re living on site, there’s no escape from the dust and the noise – and generally work takes longer if the site is habited – especially if fittings need to move every day and be re-plumbed or re-wired every time this happens.

wc and shower

The interesting thing is you get a perspective of your own home that you wouldn’t otherwise see, the raw, vulnerable side of a building with wiring hanging out and pipework exposed. And I think that makes you feel more protective of where you live, more inclined to care and less blasé about the responsibility of homeownership.

vanity unit

When you see that your property needs you to care for it, I think that is when your house becomes a home.

glass jar