It’s been three and a half months since we started our extension project. That’s 14 weeks of demolition, dust, dirt and decisions, through pouring rain and an icy cold winter. Or you could say nearly 100 days of tearing our Victorian terraced house apart at the seams and slowly putting her back together.
I’ve shared all the behind the scenes over on Instagram but I thought it was time to put pen to paper (or fingers to the keyboard) and share our experience in more detail. At the very least it will be cathartic for me, but it might be useful if you’re planning a similar project. You might remember I wrote a blog post with everything I had learnt up until we started on site (you can read it here). Well that seems a very long time ago now. And my oh my, how far we have come.
At some points I really didn’t think we would get to this stage. This is a project we have been dreaming of for almost six years, since we brought the property with planning permission for a different extension in 2016. We always knew it was something we wanted to do – to make the spaces work better for us and maximise the house’s potential. But it always felt like a huge mountain to climb to get there, from raising funds and securing planning permission to finding a builder and navigating the realities of building in a post-pandemic world where literally everything seemed to have gone up in price.
It was always the plan for me to project manage and being very honest, I wasn’t sure I could do it (anyone else suffer from self doubt or just me?!). Yes I could and have done for clients, as that’s part of my job. But for myself, it felt far more anxiety inducing. Sometimes you can be your own worst client. Being a bit of a perfectionist, I wanted the extension to be the best it could be, and sometimes when you’re a perfectionist you would rather not do something than do something and fail. There was also the small matter of balancing my own (one woman) business and being a mum to a toddler too – how as I going to fit it all in?!
I knew it would take a lot of strength and hard work, but while it’s been stressful at times and I struggle to sleep with all the thoughts going round and round my head, in many ways it hasn’t been as hard as I thought it would be. That’s partly down to our truly amazing builders, and partly down to the reality of things often never being as bad as you think it will be.
I remember planning my wedding and looking at wedding photographs and thinking, ‘how will we ever make ours look as good? There’s just so many elements to think about’. And it was the same with the extension – when you look at everything ahead of you, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. But if you break it down into steps, it often doesn’t seem so daunting.
We’re now nearly at the end of the journey, reconfiguring our south London abode from a cosy two bedroom house to an airy three bedroom home. The addition of a new contemporary extension will completely transform our house, almost doubling the size of the downstairs living area and adding a new bedroom and bathroom to a new first floor level at the back of the house. Here’s the story so far.
Architect: Scenario Architecture, Structural engineer: Baker Chatterton, Contractor: Polstar Group
This is how our house looked before the extension. You could call it a two up two down with a bathroom plonked on the end! Unlike the other houses on the terrace with double storey rear extensions, ours had a very draughty, poorly insulated (or not insulated at all) single storey extension out the back. This housed our only bathroom, down the stairs and along a corridor, away from the bedrooms. I can only assume that the original extension was demolished in the WWII raids and this was built at a later date in its place – it’s certainly not original – after all, they didn’t have concrete breeze blocks in the 1900s.
To get to the garden we would have to go down to the end of the hallway and out of a back door to the side of the extension. It meant that we would almost forget the garden was there sometimes, such was the awkward connection between inside and out. We could see the garden from the kitchen window, but it was just a pain to get to. I wanted to be able to open the door to the living room and step right out into the garden. It meant we also needed to move the bathroom upstairs to be able to open the downstairs up and free up space.
That isn’t to mention the inconvenience of having your bathroom separate from your bedrooms. The amount of times I went up and down those stairs when I was pregnant! Surprisingly it’s quite common for Victorian terrace houses in London to have bathrooms downstairs – the concept of the modern bathroom is a relatively contemporary idea – and many were tacked onto the back of houses without much thought. That just doesn’t work with our lifestyles today, where the bathroom is so much more than just a functional space to get clean.
I think the project would have been much easier had we just been doing a side return extension. It was getting the bathroom upstairs and all the services and pipework with it that complicated matters. You might remember that we were planning on carving up the larger front bedroom to make space for a new bathroom. When we got the first quotes from contractors through, we realised that it would be much easier to squeeze in a bathroom into the new extension and make do with a smaller (not quite box size) bedroom at the back. That way the soil pipe wouldn’t need to be moved too much and it could go straight up from where it was to its new position, rather than down through the hallway or kitchen.
We could have made the whole first floor extension a generous bathroom, but we really needed three bedrooms as we work from home, and I knew it would be appealing to buyers to have an extra bedroom. So that left us with one small bedroom and a compact bathroom with a 1600mm long bath. The bedroom is still big enough to fit a double bed and we’ll mostly be using it as our home office. The bathroom is tight, but I don’t think you’ll notice the footprint so much when everything is fitted seamlessly. You notice the size of rooms so much more when you start to put freestanding furniture in them. If a bathroom is well designed with seamless finishes, I don’t think it matters what size it is. We’ve also gone with sloping ceilings rather than flat ceilings and added a roof light in the bathroom to maximise light and give the illusion of space and volume.
The proposed plans from Scenario Architecture
This is the plan our architects drew up. I came to them with a very clear vision of what I wanted. I knew I didn’t want to have glazed doors running right the way across the width of the extension. Somehow I find that a bit one dimensional. I wanted a more intriguing space that would have moments of interest and intimacy. I had also always dreamed of having a cosy window seat looking out onto the garden.
I spent a while deliberating over the merits and pitfalls of open plan living. While open plan living can give airy, generous spaces flooded with natural light, it often doesn’t leave you with many options for day to day living or much opportunity for nuance in the types of spaces you’re creating. Our homes have to work hard to support our needs and multi-faceted lifestyles, from running a business from your dining table to doing your homework on the kitchen island. And sometimes you simply just want to escape your family and find a quiet place to relax.
Once we had the form of the extension, I inserted a zone of much-needed storage, slightly separating the existing spaces from the new structure. You would still get views from the front of the house to the very back, but you would also gain practical space for the washing machine, hallway storage, and extra pantry space for the kitchen. It was a game changer. This section of cupboards will extend along one wall, forming a built-in bench seat for the dining table before wrapping around the window to become an inviting window seat.
Some people might have moved the kitchen into the new extension, but that would have been an extra expense we couldn’t have justified. The kitchen isn’t very old so it didn’t make sense to get rid of it and start again. Plus I like the idea of the kitchen being the centre of the home. The kitchen is always where everyone gathers at a party and it’s where all the action happens everyday. Here it really is at the heart of the home.
I also know that a lot of people who add an extension to a narrow Victorian house find that the middle space becomes a bit lost and lacking in purpose, sandwiched between the front and the back. Here every room has a clear purpose, complementing each other with different uses and ambiences. We have the cosy front room with the wood burning stove, the kitchen in the centre, and the more family friendly, multi-purpose space at the back of the house where we will have our dining table.
Our architect’s were great in their knowledge of what we could design for planning, meaning we sailed through planning and gained approval without any hitches. In short: we submitted planning in March 2021 just as I was having our daughter, gained approval in July 2021, revised the design and the architect’s drew up the tender before getting quotes back from contractors in summer 2022, and finally starting on site in October 2022. Scenario Architecture also helped recommend our structural engineer Baker Chatterton and other parties we needed to appoint, guiding us on the way. After the tender, the process was handed over to me to project manage on site. Eek!
I think it would be useful to note budget. Google the cost of an extension project and you get varying, and often outdated, estimates. After five years of living in the property, we remortgaged to give us a solid budget of £150,000. When we submitted planning in 2020, £150k for a project of this size might have been feasible, but in 2022, after all the world events that have happened since, our budget had to work much, much harder. We received quotes varying in price from £170k-£330k. All were out of our budget. After a lot of thinking we realised that it was now or never, and that prices were just going to continue to rise. We’ve had to dig into our savings and finally settled on a contractor quote of £145k. That doesn’t include glazing, doors, fixtures or finishes. I estimate by the end we will have spent a total budget of around £185k, all being well.
We had a very bad experience with a builder when we first moved in here. So one thing I will say is these things are worth doing well and a good builder will make the whole process a lot smoother. The higher contractor quotes are higher for a reason and quality comes with a price. If you’re in the same position, I would recommend meeting (face to face) with around four to five builders and getting quotes from them. See which ones you gel with and which ones you could see yourself working with. You can tell a lot from someone if they turn up late and make excuses – it won’t bode well for the project! Look them up on Companies House too. Then choose one or two you like the most and refine the quote and ask questions until you come to a price you’re both happy with. Personal recommendations are always the best way to find a builder and that’s how we found ours – Polstar Group. Always ask for references and see if you can speak to a previous client to find out how they got on.
To get to our price we had to spend a lot of time going back and forth, adapting the design and negotiating with the contractors. We’ve reduced the amount of glazing, revised the spec of the joinery, removed some exposed joists, taken out a green roof, and shifted the first floor around as mentioned for better egress of the soil pipe. We’ll also be doing all of the painting ourselves.
We’ve still got a long road ahead but I’m relieved we managed to get to a point where we could do the extension. The hardest part hasn’t been getting planning or project managing on site, but getting the design to our budget. Stay tuned for tomorrow’s blog post where I’ll be talking you through the first stages of the build, where things started to get messy!