Green shoots of recovery

When Mark Rainforth bought a dark and dated bungalow on the outskirts of Sheffield, he wanted to work out a way of creating an eco-home befitting the beautiful location, but achieving it was not without its construction woes


The first time Mark Rainforth viewed his house on the outskirts of Sheffield, he dismissed it as a non-starter. The exterior design of the 1960s bungalow was uninspiring, but the interior was so badly designed that the back of the property was in permanent semi-darkness.

But the more Mark searched, the more he kept returning to the dated property.

“The place itself was pretty dreadful, but the location was exactly what I was looking for,” he says. “I realised the only way I would get the house I wanted in the location I wanted was to buy this one and renovate it.”

He was particularly attracted by the wide, open views from the back of the house which borders the Peak District – a significant plus point for Mark, who is a keen walker. It is also on a bus route into Sheffield city centre, where he works as a Professor of Material Sciences at the University of Sheffield, a field which fed into his ambition to lead a more eco-friendly lifestyle.

For the previous 18 years Mark had been living in a large, six bedroom 1930s house which was often cold and damp in the winter, and costly to run. When his marriage broke down he spent nine months searching for a place to live, but the old stone houses of Sheffield, with their big, cold cellars and single skin walls, were not what he was looking for.

“I was passionate about wanting an eco-house, but I didn’t relish the thought of renovating,” he says. “In fact, when I finally decided to buy this place I thought I could just apply sticking plaster to it and make it work. How wrong I was.”

Within a matter of weeks, Mark realised he could never live in the bungalow as it was. It was dark, depressing and badly designed. In fact there was very little he liked about it, and he soon drew up a list of fundamental changes he would need to make in order to live there.

“I moved here in May 2017 and the first summer wasn’t too bad because I spent so much time outdoors,” he recalls, “but the longer I lived in it, the more I realised that everything about it was wrong.”

The dormer bungalow included two small upstairs bedrooms but no bathroom, and the roof sloped so steeply at the back that any residual loft space was virtually unusable.

“There were doors from the bedrooms straight into a shallow attic, which meant there were mice and spiders everywhere, the outside air came through the roof into the bedrooms and there was no insulation up there so the heat just went straight out through the roof,” says Mark. “It was freezing in winter, and boiling hot in summer.”

On the ground floor, a tiny hall led into an equally small kitchen that contained 30-year-old units which were not fit for purpose. A small inner lobby led to further rooms, including a dated bathroom; the wiring snaked above the skirting boards and the radiators didn’t work.

“I would have the heating on, two jumpers and a blanket, and still be cold,” says Mark.

Although he had a limited budget, Mark realised that the only way he could continue to live in the bungalow was to plan radical changes, including an extension upstairs at the same time as replacing the roof and reconfiguring the ground floor to bring more light into the whole house.

This would involve moving the kitchen – which was a small, windowless and located in the middle of the property – into an area occupied by a master bedroom and study across the back of the house. The old dining room and part of the original kitchen would be turned into an en-suite bedroom.

“I had done a few bits of DIY and been involved with building projects through work, but never done anything like this for myself,” says Mark.

Undaunted, he began by drawing up a few rough designs and presenting them to architects, one of whom came up with a proposal that would have cost more than £300,000.

Despite this, Mark employed an architectural technician to draw up a design which, he said, was a “useful exercise,” because it highlighted the challenges of the exposed site, and the availability of modern building materials to deal with it.

Armed with these drawings, he approached six architects, finally choosing Sheffield based architect Paul Testa, who instinctively knew what Mark wanted to achieve and how to meet the challenges within his maximum £160,000 budget.

“We spent a lot of time talking about getting close to a Passivhaus design with airtightness and mechanical ventilation with a heat recovery system (MVHR); the pros and cons of the finer details,” says Mark. “I couldn’t afford a ground source heat pump, but we agreed that excellent insulation was key.

This would be in the floors and roof, but also in the form of internal insulated boarding around all the walls.” This would be achieved by stripping off existing wall finishes and creating a new skin comprising stud panels filled with expanding foam, 75 mm Knauf Frametherm, and a vapour control membrane. All joints and junctions with windows would be sealed with airtightness tape.

Paul produced detailed drawings which were submitted to Sheffield planning authority in November 2017 and passed, uncontested, three months later without conditions. Mark then put the build out to tender and two came back. The first had a good reputation, but went beyond his budget by around £25,000 and Mark would have to wait months before they could start. The second builder was able to keep within budget, providing Mark changed his choice of wooden framed windows for PVCu. They could also start within a couple of weeks.

“The fact that they could start so quickly should have rung warning bells, but hindsight is a wonderful thing,” says Mark. However, at first they got on with the job very efficiently, starting in July with the promise of finishing by Christmas.

Mark moved into rented accommodation nearby while the builders started to dismantle the bungalow, removing the roof and most of the internal walls to the point where it was just a single storey bare shell.

The new roof was a key element of the rebuild, comprising a new dormer roof featuring zinc cladding and a replacement pitched roof section featuring Marley Modern roof tiles.

“Everything seemed to be going well and the builders were at the point where the roof was not quite finished and partially covered in tarpaulin, when everything suddenly ground to a halt,” says Mark. “It was November, and they had been called away to another job. Until this point they had rushed through the renovation – sometimes too quickly as it turns out – and then everything became painfully slow.”

There was a justified delay when the original design for the MVHR system needed adjusting which, in turn, delayed the build. Then the company supplying the bathroom tiles went bankrupt, and a replacement had to be found.

However, although the builder’s contract ended at the start of January, the work ran on and on, as the builders finished jobs in a piecemeal fashion. When they were signed off in May – in Mark’s view prematurely – some work had not been completed, such as the MVHR system, and there was still a long list of snagging to resolve. “

It was a nightmare,” says Mark. “Just one example, there were endless broken roof tiles and the edge was not mechanically sound, symptomatic of the poor finish that was found in many places. The builders then tried to charge me for storage of the kitchen, which had arrived on time but they still hadn’t managed to install, even though the delays were largely down to their own lack of organisation and attention to detail. Someone had to come back seven times to finish the guttering and they never did complete the porch – I had to sort that out later. The lack of attention to detail was dreadful. It reached the point where relations just broke down completely. We finally came to an agreement and drew a line under everything before we ended up in the small claims court.”

By August 2019 Mark started decorating and moved back in so he could finish the remaining issues himself. These included resealing the shower, which leaked, sorting a crack in the garage roof and finally completing the porch.

“The whole experience left me feeling emotionally and physically drained,” says Mark.

“The money I saved on the windows was respent trying to rectify mistakes and by the time the build was finished I was £5,000 over budget and the project had taken more than twice as long as it should have done.” The positive news in all of this hassle was that during the year of the renovation he met his now wife, Debbie, who is a community mental health nurse. “Instead of the house reminding me of all the negatives of the build process, it actually represents a new beginning.” Although Debbie was not involved in the original design, Mark says she saved him from a nervous breakdown during the build, and together they tweaked the design and chose the fittings. “Debbie’s input was key in making the house look as wonderful as it does now,” he says.

There is another bonus, too. Mark bought the bungalow, in its original state, for £320,000 and spent £180,000 on the renovation and extension. He recently had it valued at between £550,000 and £600,000. He has also reduced the running costs. Even though the house sits 800 feet above sea level on an exposed site, the average monthly heating bills are less than £70 thanks to the triple glazed windows, high spec insulation and airtight qualities.

“It’s been a huge learning curve, and hindsight is a wonderful thing,” says Mark. “However, if I were to do it again I would learn from my mistakes. When getting a quote I would include every single detail of the project, including the fine details of materials to be used. I would check out recommended builders by looking at their previous projects and talking to the owners. I would be prepared to wait for the right builder, and I would visit the site every day if possible. Doing a renovation or building project like this can be hugely rewarding, but you need a strong constitution. It can be extremely stressful.”

That said, Mark still believes he made the right choice in buying the bungalow, as the location was pivotal to everything. After that, it was a case of finding an architect who understood his wish-list and could help turn his dreams into an affordable reality.

“Thanks to Paul, the design of the house is spot on, with plenty of light flooding in from the north-facing back of the house via an open passage to the front of the property, and more light coming in from the landing and down the stairs,” says Mark. “It’s gone from a dark, poky and very dated bungalow to a light, modern, two storey home with a layout that finally works. I’m not planning to move from here but if you were to ask me whether I would do it again then, yes, I probably would – but I’d make sure I got the best builders in to do it!”