A juggling act

Despite working as long-haul flight attendants and running their own business, Nick Housley and his partner took on the challenge of turning their Sussex bungalow into a ‘des res’. Roseanne Field reports

Self-build is in Nick Housley’s blood, his parents are serial self-builders who have taken on several projects over the years, and have passed on the tricks of the trade. Perhaps this is why Nick and partner Mark’s already hectic lifestyle didn’t put them off taking on their first large-scale renovation project.

Nick and Mark work as flight attendants for British Airways on long-haul flights, meaning they’re both often away for days at a time. Nick also runs his own entertainment business singing and DJ-ing at weddings, which Mark helps out with. So the pair were already trying to balance more than most could easily manage, but they decided to add another big plate to the ones they were already spinning.

Clearly a highly motivated individual, Nick was adamant that they could create their dream home, despite the three-bedroom new build they were living in providing all the basics.

A self-builder’s history

Having had first-hand experience of self-build projects growing up, the concept wasn’t daunting to Nick, and in fact it was how he got the bug. “I’d always wanted to do a project because my parents had done self-builds,” he explains. “We lived in a caravan when I was five when they did their first self-build, they did another when one I was 16, then they did a place out in Spain.” However, for Mark it was an entirely new experience. “I’ve just been dragged along!” he jokes.

They bought a modern home together on a small development of five new houses in the village of Crawley Down, handy for Gatwick Airport, but dreamed of owning something bigger. “Even after we’d moved we were constantly looking around big show homes, so we knew we weren’t settled,” says Mark. Nick explains that he knew self-build could be the key, given their limited resources: “I had this vision of what we could achieve because we could never afford to buy a house this size”.

The pair began hunting for a suitable plot of land, but immediately ran into problems. “We were looking for a garden plot or anything where we could build from scratch,” says Nick, “but there was nothing because land’s so hard to come by around here.”

Undaunted, they put their house on the market and within three weeks had accepted an offer from a young couple. Their being first- time buyers – and as a result in less of a hurry to move than some – turned out to be a stroke of luck, as six months later Nick and Mark were still searching for a suitable plot. Just as they had almost given up hope, and were about to pull out and put their house back on the market, Nick found a bungalow in nearby Copthorne, on the website Rightmove.

The property’s previous owners had planned to extend upwards and had gained planning permission as well as handily adding two fitted-out log cabins in the garden to live in while the work took place. Sadly, as Nick explains, they ended up divorcing so the property was put on the market.

The bungalow’s existing planning permission was actually to add two storeys, but as Nick says, they were on a “really tight budget, and we didn’t need another floor,” so they submitted an amended planning application, bolstered by the knowledge it had already been through the process once.

There was a small snag in the form of a lack of documentation to prove the foundations could support the weight of a two-storey building, something Nick’s parents’ wisely flagged up as a potential issue. Luckily everything was fine, but as he says, it meant “£1,000 straight away just for some soil checks!”

Although achieving planning was reasonably hassle-free, it didn’t come without its stresses later down the line. On both flanks of the house, a certain size of opening was dictated for the windows, but when their architect said it would be “fine” to install a slightly larger opening, the self-builders did just that. Unfortunately the neighbours on one side objected, so the planners were summoned, who informed Nick and Mark they would have to go back through planning but were likely to be rejected. This meant that just two days after they had been installed the windows had to be taken out and replaced.

As the neighbours on the other side didn’t object, Nick and Mark put the increased window size to the planning department. There was an important safety dimension, as being a bedroom there was a need to have a means of escape, which the smaller opening wouldn’t provide. Were it to have been rejected, they would have had to install fire doors throughout the entire property. This meant a nervous eight week wait, which Nick says “was really stressful because the timber frame was going up, and they couldn’t put the weatherboarding on because if it didn’t get approved the window was going to have to come out.”

Getting their hands dirty

Being on such a tight budget, Nick and Mark took on almost all of the work themselves, but with help from family and friends. This meant making some huge sacrifices for the duration of the project. “Our life’s been on hold for 18 months,” says Mark.

They began work in May 2016, completely stripping out the bungalow, with the help of Nick’s dad. This included the roof, so all they were left with was the four outer walls.

Unfortunately, the unpredictable British weather had its part to play. “We had the most horrendous rain, and because were keeping the existing floor downstairs, we couldn’t let it get wet,” explains Nick. This meant covering the building with huge tarpaulins which needed to be constantly emptied of the large amounts of water pooling on them. “Water started to drip through so we had buckets everywhere, and it was a bit of a ‘what have we done’ moment,” says Nick.

With money being very tight, Nick also took on the role of project manager. He managed to take a little time off being a flight attendant at the beginning of the project while Mark continued working, meaning he was often only in the country for 11 days a month. This meant at the start of the project Nick was taking a large share of the project on his shoulders. “It was all new to me and I was trying to learn everything because I didn’t want to be ripped off by anyone,” he says. “When Mark got back, he was my support while I was tearing my hair out!”

When Nick did return to work it meant sometimes neither of them was around to manage the project, leaving it in the hands of the builders who were doing the timber frame and the roof – the only elements of the work not undertaken by themselves. “We’d built up a good rapport so we felt comfortable leaving it with them,” says Nick. They would do a full ‘handover’ for each other when either of them left to explain where the project was at, as well as keeping in contact as much as possible. “We just had to try and communicate as best we could from the other side of the world,” Mark explains.

Their time away from home also meant sometimes taking a creative approach to placing orders. “We were organising materials and other things from far-flung countries via Skype and FaceTime,” says Mark.

Once back on site, they were living in the log cabins at the bottom of the garden. There were some issues with the cold and mould and damp during the winter months, but they did their best to make it homely as possible, including managing to put a Christmas tree up. Mark says such efforts helped with stress levels: “You’ve got to try and maintain some sort of normality because if you don’t, you’ll go stir-crazy”.

One of the biggest challenges was the plasterboarding – something they’d never attempted before. “It was just never-ending,” says Nick. Installing the loft insulation was also particularly torturous. “It’s a big space and with the way the roof is structured it’s really difficult to get to the front,” Nick explains. “We were balancing on the beams trying to cut insulation with a saw,” adds Mark.

As well as Nick’s parents’ expertise, Nick’s uncle did all the electrics, and Mark’s dad helped out with the plastering, while Mark did almost all the decorating and coving. “That was how I was spending my days off.”

Somehow they managed to keep their entertainment business running successfully at the same time, with Nick hosting a resident DJ slot at a local hotel every weekend as well as singing at weddings and Christmas parties, and attending wedding fairs.

Eight months in to the project, in January 2017, Nick decided he wanted to get the house finished in time for Mark’s 40th birthday in July, despite Mark’s reluctance to impose this deadline: “I didn’t want to add to the stress and pressure Nick was already under,” he says. Nevertheless, Nick was typically determined: “His 40th was on a Monday and we moved in on the Sunday before.”

The couple are now just left with the rendering around the ground floor to be done, which will be an off-white colour, and the landscaping to the front and back.

Design and layout

The original bungalow was 1,000 ft2, and with the extra storey they’ve doubled its floor area. The front door sits on the left-hand side of the hallway, with a useful storage cupboard to its right. The stairs are further down the hall, while to the right, double doors open to the large living room.

There’s a small utility room with a toilet between the lounge and the kitchen/diner, which stretches across the width of the house at the back. This impressive space features a large island with a partial false ceiling containing fixed uplighting hanging above it, along with a double oven and steam oven, a large American- style fridge freezer and a long dining table and seating area. Double doors lead out onto the garden.

The couple do a lot of entertaining which had a big impact on the internal layout. “Initially we wanted to have a through-lounge, but the drainage wouldn’t allow for us to put the toilet on the other side,” explains Nick. “But actually it’s done us a favour because we like having a separate lounge to relax in.”

They’ve installed PVC skirting boards throughout the entire house. “We tried to use some new, innovative ideas,” says Mark. The downstairs is heated by an unusual type of underfloor heating which is surrounded by aluminium plates that slot into the suspended floor, as opposed to being installed in a screed. The upstairs, which includes the main bathroom plus the five bedrooms – two of which are en suite – is heated by the combi boiler, which also provides their hot water. The couple use one of the bedrooms as an office for their entertainment business.

A lot of their interior design ideas and furniture were inspired by and sourced from far- flung places they have visited with work. “We were lucky that way,” says Mark. “A lot of people don’t have the opportunity to travel and get things from all four corners of the world.”

Making it work

Although there were inevitably moments throughout the project when they felt overwhelmed, Nick and Mark managed to stay positive and keep going. “It is really tough, but once you’ve started there’s no going back,” says Nick. “You just have to keep going forward, you’ve got no choice because you’re living in a building site!”

Their job requires them to take annual flying exams, and Mark was also learning to drive, meaning a lot of studying had to be worked in to the schedule. They put the success of their project largely down to their support for each other during the particularly challenging times. “You have to take the pressure off each other,” says Mark, adding, “you’ve got to become a unit.”

The couple also made sure they put time aside every week to have a ‘date night’ to get away from the project. “It was our release, just to go out for a couple of hours and not talk about the house,” Mark says.

Despite the many challenges they faced, they realise they were lessened by having knowledgeable parents on hand to help. “We were lucky we had the guidance of my mum and dad,” Nick says. “It really was a family affair that has got us to where we are,” adds Mark.

The project has been a labour of love, but satisfying: “It’s been horrendous, but in a good way!” says Mark – and they’re proud of what they’ve achieved, particularly given the money available. “It is achievable on a budget with the right determination,” Nick stresses. While they still have a few bits to finish with the house – which they’ll tackle alongside planning their wedding – they already have plans to have another go in a few years: “We will do another one,” Mark says confidently.

NICK & MARK’S TOP TIPS

  • Attend self-build shows
  • Be organised with paperwork and trades
  • Support each other
  • Research and learn
  • Don’t put pressure on the timescale
  • Ask for advice
  • Be flexible

HIGH POINT

Nick: “I would say when the stairs went in.”
Mark: “For me, it was finishing all the painting and decorating.”

LOW POINT

Doing the insulation and the plasterboarding

PROJECT STATS

  •  Bungalow cost: £427,000
  • Cost of build: £110,000
  • Estimated current value: £750,000 – £800,000
  • Bungalow size: 1,000 ft2
  • Finished house size: 2,000 ft2

CONTACTS/SUPPLIERS

Stairs: Stairbox
www.stairbox.com

Ovens & hob: Baumatic
www.baumatic.co.uk

Cooker hood: Hotpoint
www.hotpoint.co.uk

Fridge freezer: Samsung
www.samsung.com/uk/refrigerators

Kitchen units: Howdens Kitchens
www.howdens.com

Timber frame construction: Plane Carpentry, Worthing
01903 201631

Building materials: Jewsons Crawley
www.jewson.co.uk

Roofing materials: Raven Roofing
ravenroofingsupplies.co.uk

External weatherboarding: Southern Sheeting
www.southernsheeting.co.uk

Insulation boards & plasterboards: Total Building Materials
totalbuildingmaterials.co.uk

Plumbing supplies: HPS Heating and Plumbing Supplies
www.hpsmerchant.co.uk

Miscellaneous: Wickes; Screwfix; Tool Station
www.wickes.co.uk
www.screwfix.com
www.toolstation.com