A change for the better

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Heidi and John Exley moved into the house of their dreams near Doncaster – and then modernised it beyond all recognition with the help of a local architect


For years Heidi Exley had secretly admired a neighbouring house she could see from her bedroom window. Although she lived in the next cul-de-sac and liked the house she shared with husband John and their children Grace and Brook, she often wished for the privacy and open countryside views of the other property.

“I admired it from a distance,” says Heidi. “Houses rarely come up for sale around here, but I waited and hoped that one day it would.”

When nothing happened, she took matters into her own hands and put a letter through the door asking if the owners would consider selling it. As it turned out, it was perfect timing. The owners were looking to downsize and immediately got in touch.

“We arranged to have a look round, and although it was very dated inside – particularly the kitchen and bathrooms – it was everything I’d hoped it would be,” says Heidi. “We put our house on the market and it sold straight away.”

At that point, Heidi’s dream came to an abrupt halt. The owners were unable to find anything suitable to move to and a year dragged by, with the buying chain held in limbo. Eventually Heidi and John’s buyers got tired of waiting and pulled out and a second year passed.

“Eventually, the owners got in touch and said they’d finally found somewhere to live, so we put our house back on the market,” says Heidi. “It was a nail-biting time. My heart was absolutely set on this place and I was terrified of losing it if we couldn’t sell ours.”

Fortunately for the Exleys it was second time lucky and in 2015 they paid £325,000 for the four-bedroom detached house near Doncaster, moving in at the end of October.

They waited until after Christmas before John, who runs his own plumbing and heating business, launched a major renovation of the property by updating the entire central heating system. This involved removing plaster from the walls and taking up floors. Very quickly, the renovation took on a momentum of its own and led to re-plastering most of the internal walls and Artexed ceilings, refitting the bathrooms, laying new floors, replacing the wobbly staircase with a bespoke one built by a joiner, rewiring throughout and updating the front door.

“We had about £40,000 allocated for the renovation, saving a lot of money with John being able to do so much of the work himself,” says Heidi. “Fortunately we didn’t have to buy new windows, which was a big saving.”

With the renovation complete, Heidi and John lived in the house for a further two years while they saved up for the second phase – the creation of a new open plan living-kitchen at the back of the house.

“I knew what I wanted but had no idea where to start,” says Heidi. “We needed to get someone in who had the vision and experience to turn our ideas into reality.”

They had seen and admired the work of Doncaster-based architect John Mason of Ink Architectural, and contacted him to help them come up with a design which would transform the back of the conventional 1980s house into a striking family home full of light and space.

John Mason picks up the story: “We were approached by John and Heidi to assist in creating a modern addition to their detached home which was not functioning in its current

state for the needs of their growing family. The conservatory was unusable – too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter – and separate kitchens, dining room and garden rooms are becoming a thing of the past, with homeowners wanting open plan living with a sense of shared connection to all spaces. Our brief was to provide a modern, open plan and light filled space which could be used for day to day living, and to take advantage of the views over open fields and countryside beyond.”

“John saw what needed to be done straight away,” says Heidi of their architect. “He was particularly keen to make the garden and beautiful country views the focus of the extension, which includes full-height feature windows leading directly into the garden.” John also suggested that the extension should be rendered rather than built in the same brick as the original parts of the house.

“He said the new section would always look like an add-on it if was completed in the same materials,” Heidi adds. “By rendering the exterior at the back, and making it a very modern extension, the house still works as a whole without trying to disguise its original style. It shows how old and new can work together.”

The challenge was getting it through planning. The garden has a number of trees which are protected by preservation orders. One in particular, a huge Class A beech tree in the middle of the garden, blocks a lot of natural light from entering the house.

Doncaster Town Council asked for a tree survey to be carried out – at an estimated cost of £3,000 – and special foundations installed to prevent damage to the tree roots. After extensive research, Heidi managed to find a specialist company, Selwyn Trees, to carry out the survey for more manageable £600, and their findings were duly accepted by the council.

“This resulted in specialist foundations being designed and specialist excavation and construction methods being adopted,” says John Mason.

The council also refused to allow any extension that went beyond the footprint of an original conservatory and small enclosed porch.

“We finally got permission to build a single storey extension across the back,” says Heidi. “We didn’t consider applying for a two storey extension because we were already running on a tight budget. The pitch of this extension was determined by the existing second floor windows – we didn’t want to have the expense of moving windows unless it was absolutely necessary.”

The building work was “relatively straightforward” with the old conservatory and porch being demolished, foundations dug out for the new extension, and walls built to create the new open plan living space. The roof was put on and the doors between the living room at the front of the house and original dining room were bricked up. The wall that once housed double doors leading into the conservatory was completely demolished, and a steel beam installed to take the weight of the upper floor.

To keep the house liveable during the build, John plumbed a sink and dishwasher into the garage, and Heidi set up a table in the hall with a makeshift cooker and a few kitchen cupboards.

The extension roof was finished with Sandtoft Caldersale Grey roof tiles and new windows installed along the width of the house at the back, before first and second fixes were installed and floors laid. The project cost Heidi and John a further £60,000 – but they believe it was worth it to achieve the updated house of their dreams.

Heidi’s only regret with the design is the large steel support beam which runs the full width of the kitchen – a structural necessity but nonetheless a visual division between the kitchen and sitting areas of the new open plan living space.

“It would have been brilliant to have a high open ceiling throughout, but to compensate for the restricted light this created in the kitchen area we introduced a high slit window which brings in light but doesn’t impact on privacy with next door.”

When it came to final fixtures, fitting and furniture, Heidi resorted to basic techniques to decide where everything should go. “I marked out the position of the kitchen island in red chalk and masking tape, and even went so far as to lay plates on the floor so we could see how wide it needed to be,” she says. “We also marked out the position of the extractor pipe and the size we wanted for the sofa, so we could order one that would fit exactly where we wanted it. It’s hard to visualise these things – and very easy to get it wrong.”

The final job, which was carried out in the autumn, was the patio which links the house and garden.

“We still have a few bits to finish,” says Heidi. “We can’t wait for spring so we can open up the doors and start to really enjoy the house and the way it links to the outdoors. I have had a few moments when I wondered whether it would have been easier and cheaper to just buy a bigger house in the first place, but doing it the way we have means we have a lovely home in the location we always wanted, yet redesigned to suit our needs. It’s a win-win solution.”