Stepping into the light

Despite having an architecture degree, Tom Holliday and his wife Carly turned to an architect friend to help them transform a dark, dated cottage into a light and spacious family home near York

If Carly and Tom Holliday had known what they were letting themselves in for when they started renovating their 19th century farm cottage, they would probably never have bought it.

“Hindsight is a wonderful thing,” says Tom. “Our biggest mistake was not sitting down at the beginning of the renovation and working out exactly what we wanted, how much it would cost and how we were going to fund it. The reality was that we spent far more than we anticipated and it took a lot longer than we thought it would.”

In spite of that, Carly and Tom have achieved everything they wanted thanks, in no small measure, to their friend and architect, Tim Hatton of York-based Carve Architects.

When they started looking for a home within a 10 mile radius of York, property manager Tom and Carly, a project manager who works for the NHS’ private events arm, turned to Tim for help and inspiration.

“We were living in London at the time and wanted to be closer to friends and family,” says Tom. “Tim drew up a list of villages we might be interested in and eventually we found this place. It wasn’t what we had in mind, but as soon as we saw it we realised this was the one. It wasn’t the house so much as the surroundings that really appealed to us.”

The cottage came with 1.5 acres of land – more than they knew what to do with – and had “huge potential,” says the couple.

“We didn’t really want this amount of land but it was too good an opportunity to miss, and the house had a really good feel to it. It was gut instinct that made us buy it,” says Carly.

The farm cottage, built in the 1850s, is one of three adjoining properties and had a very small ground floor footprint. There was a staircase running directly from the sitting room and the previous owners had extended to create a bigger kitchen and two bedrooms upstairs. The resulting L-shaped property had an added lean- to. There was a wood-burning stove with a back boiler, and few windows to bring natural light into the property.

Carly and Tom were unfazed by the dated design and bought the house in October 2016 for £350,000. They didn’t move in straight away, however. In fact building work didn’t start until over a year later, in February 2018, after months of painstaking planning and preparation.

“Tim gave us lots of design ideas,” says Tom. “We studied architecture together at university and while I have a degree in architecture,
Tim is really visual and forward thinking.

We trusted his judgement and advice completely. Although he is a very good friend, that didn’t stop him being very professional and cutting to the chase. He listened to what we wanted for the house, how we wanted to live in it, and came up with four or five key designs based on our wish list.”

While Tim’s strength lies in seeing the bigger picture, Tom has a finely tuned eye for detail and, between them, they were able to bat ideas back and forth until they agreed on the final design.

“I suggested a veranda balcony going round the house at first floor level, but Tim said it wouldn’t work in the setting – so we compromised with a Juliet balcony,” says Tom. “Tim also suggested the nibs and portico, using K-Rend to create shadow lines and
visual interest when you view the house from the garden.”

The final agreed concept included a 5 x 6 metre extension on the ground floor plus 3.5 x 4.5 metres of new space on the first floor, creating a total two-storey increase in living space of around 45 m2.

Tom’s biggest regret was that he had to park his dream scheme of building an underground ‘man-cave’ due to an estimated £100,000
price tag.

“Since I was a boy I’ve loved the concept of bunkers,” says Tom. “I always said I would have one when I grew up – a man cave, cinema room, music room or a kids playroom. I asked Tim to include it in his design but it was cost-prohibitive. It’s not entirely out of the question, though!”

Plans were finally passed in January 2017 and Tom and Carly then spent a further six months trying to find a suitable builder. “We chose the first builder because he said he was able to project manage it, but in the end it didn’t work out so we found another builder, Chris Smith, on Facebook. He turned out to be a great find – his attention to detail was amazing,” says Tom.

“We really wanted to find someone who would be reliable, easy to work with and who would also go the extra mile to get the best deals on building materials,” says Carly. “We liked the fact that Chris was always very ‘can-do’ and would come up with suggestions that would improve the build, rather than simply being negative.”

Carly and Tom moved from London into a house in nearby York while the building work was done, so they could be close enough to oversee the build on a daily basis.

The build involved knocking down the old lean-to and erecting a new kitchen extension in its place, before knocking out the original exterior wall to create one large room. The exterior was also redesigned to turn the dark traditional cottage into a light, open, modern family home featuring white rendered walls and rooflights.

It was February 2018 by the time the trench foundations were completed and a double leaf masonry wall built for the extension. Working in snowy, freezing conditions, the builder also dug out the entire ground floor to lay underfloor heating pipes, using a mini digger to remove the debris. It was unexpectedly challenging: the previous owners had laid ultra hard concrete which “ruined” several pneumatic drills before they finally broke through it all. Part of the first floor was also taken down and rebuilt to create a higher ceiling in the extension.

Access to the house created its own set of challenges. The lane to the back of the property is very narrow and a cable running across the lane had to be held up to enable lorries to squeeze underneath. Many materials were left on the roadside and manually carried to the site during the build until work on the main driveway was completed.

The level of this drive – to the front of the house – had to be raised and levelled to compensate for the high water table and allow for external pipes for ground source heating, which cost £10,000 and was organised with help from Go Eco Renewables.

Although the cost had been allowed for in the initial estimates, there were many other costs which sent the overall budget spiralling out of control.

“We realised, too late, that a series of incremental smaller costs soon started to escalate into one big cost which we had neither planned nor budgeted for,” admits Tom. “If we had to offer advice to anyone doing something similar, it would be to work out an overall budget from the outset and get a full breakdown of the costs in writing. I would resist the temptation to agree to additions that the builder suggests, given the relative small cost. We got taken up in the spirit of ‘while the builders are here and it’s a good price for this addition, let’s just get them to do it’ without thinking how we were actually going to pay back the additional debt this got us into.”

In the end they sold two investment rental properties to pay off their bank loans.

“There has to be a bit of flexibility, but we took a lot of risks, paying for rent and mortgage at the same time without thinking about how we would pay off these extra costs. We probably wouldn’t have done it if we had worked it out properly beforehand.”

That said, they are both delighted with the results.

Cost issues aside, they finally moved in May 2018 once the £5,000 kitchen from Howdens was installed, bathroom fittings were in and floors coverings laid.

“We had a few problems to begin with, including a significant leak through the ceiling when we switched on the water,” says Carly. “Something hadn’t been capped properly and water came pouring into the extension.”

The couple also came up with some ingenious ideas to prevent other problems in the future – like photographing everything throughout the project.

“We even took drone pictures of the trenches for the ground source energy pipes being laid so that we knew where they were if we ever needed to access them,” says Tom. “It was a very steep learning curve and we have learned a huge amount along the way, but there is very little we would change. The extension has totally transformed the way we live and we love the direct link to the outdoors.”

Carly and Tom still have a lot to do – especially in the garden – but now they are finally in and enjoying the benefits of the house they have no regrets about taking on the renovation.

“Had we known then what we know now, we would probably not be living here,” says Carly. “But it was definitely the right thing to do in the end. Thanks to Tim and his vision, it has lived up to all our expectations.”