We’ve all smiled and flinched at the trials and tribulations of amateur property developers on TV shows such as Property Ladder and Grand Designs. But CM wanted to know what happens when construction professionals themselves undertake home renovations

It’s not easy being green
George Martin, Willmott Dixon

Like a number seven bus, or strawberries and cream at Wimbledon, there’s something quintessentially English about Ivy Cottage, originally built in the 17th century and then extended in the 19th. With its rustic red brick walls, tall chimney stacks and ‘eyebrow’ windows, the Warwickshire home of Willmott Dixon’s head of sustainable development George Martin wouldn’t look out of place in a Constable painting or an EM Forster novel.

But beneath the layers of history lie a plethora of modern building products and materials designed to reduce the grade II-listed building’s carbon footprint and maximise its thermal performance. Martin’s recent eco-makeover of Ivy Cottage included the installation of a pellet boiler, log burner and solar thermal panels, plus high levels of wall and roof insulation and energy-efficient windows and doors.

The only really visible evidence of intervention is in the front garden, where the ground has been dug up to accommodate a 3,500-litre rainwater harvesting system. But the disturbance is temporary – Ivy Cottage will soon look good enough to adorn the lid of the very smartest box of chocolates.

The refurbishment has been a labour of love for Martin, who specified and sourced all the products with his wife Jenny.

‘My day job’s a lot easier than this,’ admits Martin. ‘With a new build, you get to specify the thing from the beginning and the supply chain is in place. Doing an eco-refurb we had to start from scratch. It took an incredible amount of time to work out what we needed and who to speak to, especially with the heating and plumbing systems. There’s no one person you can go to for the information.’

Confronted with a dearth of UK manufacturers, the Martins looked to mainland Europe for products and systems with a good track record. Martin says: ‘What happens if you spend lots of money on products and they don’t perform properly? So we went to companies with a pedigree, whose products would perform well with one another.’

Leaving their English wellington boots at the door, the Martins selected a Viessmann solar thermal system from Germany and an Austrian Windhager pellet boiler in the knowledge they would integrate well. The rainwater harvesting system is from Ecozi, the UK supplier for German company ASP.

As you might expect on a grade II-listed building, planning restrictions were tight and there was no room for even a millimetre error – one of the council’s planners happened to live next door. ‘The south west-facing solar thermal panels on the roof of the annex caused a particular problem,’ explains Martin. ‘It wasn’t so much a visual thing as the principle of having it at all that caused objections. But hopefully that will change as more buildings like this are worked on.’

Insulation is often a problem when upgrading listed buildings, as exterior walls can’t be altered. So the Martins modified the internal walls using a 100% recyclable wood fibreboard called Pavatex, which was covered by a layer of lime plaster. But finding a builder willing to take on such innovative systems was tricky. The Martins shortlisted three contractors and then gave each a sustainability statement detailing their eco-requirements, such as recycling targets, zero waste to landfill, and using Forest Stewardship Council-certified timber.

My day job is a lot easier than this. we had to start from scratch

George Martin

‘A couple of companies were looking at this saying “what does this mean, we’ve never seen this before”,’ says Martin. And once chosen contractor Clulee took on the job, it needed guidance from suppliers on unfamiliar techniques, such as lime plastering.

Jenny Martin recommends a local council-run website – www.communityfreebay.co.uk – which helped achieve zero waste-to-landfill targets. ‘Users can advertise unwanted household items, no money changes hands and the only requirement is that the person requesting the item comes to collect it. When disposing of items it’s often difficult to match the giver with a market and this idea provides that link. Brilliant!’ she says.

With the project completed under budget, the Martins are now enjoying their cosy cottage, but are painfully aware of all the other similar local properties in need of an eco-makeover. ‘It’s frustrating because the refurb market is potentially massive, but the problem is interesting Joe Public in doing this. We’re planning an open day this summer to help spread the word,’ concludes Martin.

A few ideas from George Martin:

  • Do your research, speak to people who have done similar jobs and go into it with your eyes open.
  • Don’t live in the building when you’re doing this much work, the mess was unbelievable.
  • Steer clear of wind turbines. They’re inappropriate for urban environments and on old properties can cause structural damage.
  • Be nice to your neighbours – they might turn out to be planning officers.
  • Favourite features: A cupboard door made from oak panels taken from French railway carriages; recycled cross-laminated timber doors used to make a desk in the study.

Property Ladder
Tony Veal, Mace

When Mace project manager Tony Veal decided to try his luck in property development, he thought he’d start small by refurbishing a one-bed ground floor flat in London’s Bethnal Green.

But minimising costs meant maximising effort: Veal has taken on the complete scope of work, including drawings and materials costing. And now, as work progresses he’s even living in a tiny room in the gutted flat.

Veal, an Australian national sponsored by Mace to work in the UK, was determined not to make the same mistakes as other first-timers he’d seen on TV. ‘I’ve watched hundreds of episodes of Property Ladder and the developers always end up spending double their budget. Sarah Beeny taught me there’s no point spending the money if you can’t easily make it back!’

But when the recession hit he knew he was facing a struggle. ‘When I was negotiating the sale with the vendor last August, every day the headlines in the papers were “House prices drop 20%”, “Bad time to buy”. It was a scary time.’

But Beeny would have been happy to see Veal sticking to his guns and playing the market conditions to his advantage during the purchase, using experience gained at work to negotiate the contract and price. He managed to reduce the offer price by 10%, and by spending under £30,000 on the upgrade work he’s still confident of making a healthy profit when he sells.

The big plus is you don’t have to hand the property over to the client at the end

Tony Veal

A builder was found through www.ratedpeople.com – a website Veal recommends because it includes comments from clients. ‘But I don’t think my builder was used to this level of involvement from a client.

I spent about 50 hours on the drawings, so all the info he needed was there. I’ve hardly had any calls from him asking questions.’

With no previous fit-out experience, Veal quizzed colleagues at Mace for useful products and suppliers. Their advice has come in handy when making last-minute alterations. ‘When the builders started opening up the ceiling grids and we saw the lights weren’t going to fit, the guys at work would say “go check out this light fitting”, or “make sure the timber’s double spaced at 600mm centres”. It’s been funny going in every day to hear them say: “So what happened last night then?”’

It hasn’t all gone smoothly, though. Last month, the open kitchen/living room was progressing well, but fittings for the gutted bathroom were a couple of weeks late. This not only set work back on site, Veal had to suffer the inconvenience of taking showers at work. He’s expecting the builders to overrun the six-week first phase by a couple of weeks.

Surprisingly, Veal doesn’t believe his industry experience has benefited him doing a personal project. ‘Working on a minor scale, you think “I’m in building, it won’t be a problem”. But in reality, I faced just as many challenges. The biggest problem was not knowing the relevant suppliers. But next time it won’t take me four months’ preparation, I’ll just go direct to the guys I’ve used this time.’

So there will be a next time? ‘I expect so,’ says Veal. ‘My day job is all about paperwork and managing people, but doing every little thing on this project has taught me lots of new skills. You get to see the fruits of your labour and a big plus is you don’t have to hand the property over to the client at the end.’

A few ideas from Tony Veal:

  • Visit www.ratedpeople.com to find a decent local builder and read comments from clients.
  • If you’re going to sell the property on, speak to estate agents pre-design to get an idea of what features buyers want.
  • Consult you builder on alternative systems. Veal’s recommended installing underfloor heating to increase space and re-skimming the walls instead of totally re-plastering.
  • Favourite features: The open plan kitchen/living room is spacious and light and opens directly onto the garden.

Grand designs
Richard Smith, ROK

The hazards of taking your work home with you became all too apparent to Rok’s Richard Smith last year as he watched construction of his four-bed dream home slide six months behind schedule at the hands of subcontractors he knew through his day job.

‘Building your own place in your spare time, you might think it would be a case of preparing the drawings, employing the subcontractors, agreeing what’s required and a price and then leaving them to get on with it. Well I’ve got news for you, it doesn’t work like that,’ he says resignedly.

Next time I’d splash out on a main contractor and do much less physical labour

Richard Smith

A design team leader at Rok’s York office, Smith had set his heart on building a place for himself and his girlfriend in a quiet rural location. So when a large four-acre site became available in a tiny village about 20 kilometres south of Scarborough in North Yorkshire, he jumped at the opportunity.

Eager to exploit his construction expertise, Smith confidently took on the role of architect, project manager and even joiner. His skills proved useful during the early stages of negotiating with planners. ‘If I’d employed an architect he would have probably have gone with what the planner recommended and I wouldn’t have got the house I wanted,’ he says. However, the process still took an unsettling 12 months.

When work finally hit site, the drama was to rival an episode of Grand Designs. Smith had employed the subcontractors based on the quality of their work on Rok projects and felt confident he could trust them to complete the job without the expense of paying for a site manager to supervise the works – something Kevin McCloud would definitely disapprove of.

As Smith relates, the groundworks package went well, but problems began with the timber frame contractor. Smith says the Polish workers it was using failed to understand what was needed, and he asked for them to be replaced with English workers.

With the project delayed by the frame, Smith was then forced to wait for the bricklayer who’d since moved on to another project.

When the firm finally started work, Smith would return from work in the evenings to find much of the work either not done or incomplete. ‘When I confronted them they had all sorts of excuses, but they were excuses. I think they were slacking off or not turning up because they knew I wouldn’t be there during the day,’ he says.

Things went from bad to worse when, at the last minute, the roofing contractor said he was pulling out, claiming he was unable to tile a timber-framed house with the brickwork incomplete – something Smith angrily disputed. To prove his point, Smith defiantly decided to tile the roof himself.

Working on the project every week in the evenings and weekends for a year was draining in terms of his personal life, but it was Smith’s work relationships that suffered most.

‘I thought it would be a lot easier working with people I knew. I expected them to be professional and meet deadlines, but they failed me and I won’t be working with them again in any capacity. If you’re considering a job like this, use someone you know or someone who’s been recommended, but not someone you work with. If it goes wrong you end up taking it very personally.’

Despite the problems he encountered, Smith managed to complete the house on budget and he’s now keen to take on another build or even start a sideline in property development. ‘Next time I’d splash out on a main contractor and do much less physical labour. Having a guy there all day to supervise, who’s responsible for programme and time constraints would have made things much simpler.’

A few ideas from Richard Smith:

  • Familiarise yourself with planning procedures and policies – it could mean the difference between your dream home and a poor compromise.
  • Make sure you have a place to live during your build – it beats a cramped caravan.
  • Favourite features: A quirky kitchen tap that looks like a shower head (pictured) and the corner window in the breakfast area that offers views over the paddock.