The art of compromise

Perseverance and compromise paid off for Clare and Mark Gittins when they took on the virtual rebuild of a derelict cottage just outside Rotherham

Most people wouldn’t have given the dilapidated old cottage on the edge of a busy main road a second glance. It was damp, dark and crumbling after years of neglect, and the garden was completely overgrown.

Despite this, Clare and Mark Gittins saw beyond the dilapidation of the 18th century former toll house. Although it had everything going against it – including its location in a green belt area and associated restricted covenants – the couple saw huge potential in the old stone walls.

“We spent two years looking for the right house in the right place at the right price, and found nothing we liked,” says IT consultant Mark. “We had put in a number of offers on other houses but nothing stuck. Then we came across this one.”

Clare recalls their initial impressions:

“It was a nightmare,” she says. “There were steel shutters over the windows, no floors, a couple of awful extensions at the back and everything inside had been wrecked.”

In spite of its condition, an open day attracted 30 prospective buyers – all of whom fell by the wayside once they realised it came with tight restrictions. This opened the way for Mark and Clare’s £120,000 offer, which they withdrew after friends and family told them they “must be mad”.

But the thought of breathing new life into the cottage gnawed away at the couple until they re-submitted their offer, knowing they were taking a huge gamble.

“We were effectively buying three stone walls,” says Mark, “but we wanted a big garden and we liked the views from the back of the house. We were prepared to work hard to achieve what we wanted.”

But what they wanted – and envisaged – for their new home wasn’t what the owners of the estate on which it sits had in mind.

“We actually wanted to build a light, modern house with lots of glass,” says Mark. After several meetings with architects they invited Sheffield-based architect Paul Testa to draw up the design and submit it to planning. “Paul really understood what we were after – three bedrooms and an open plan living space with lots of light – and really worked hard to make it happen,” says Mark. “It took a bit of effort, but Rotherham planning authority eventually passed Paul’s modern design and we were delighted.”

However, their euphoria was short-lived. On the day that the demolition of two unattractive previous extensions began, the project ground to a halt. One of the restricted covenants in the deeds of the house decreed that the estate had to rubber stamp the design – which they refused to do.

“We were gutted,” says Mark. “We considered fighting it – we thought we had reasonable grounds – but we didn’t want to risk losing it all together, so we agreed to compromise.”

For six weeks the build was on hold while Paul drew up the new design and resubmitted it. One of the new restrictions was that the windows should include glazing bars.

“We had already ordered the windows so it cost us another £2,500 to have these altered,” says Clare, an operations manager. “It was really frustrating because one of the things we really liked about the original design was the big, plain windows overlooking the view of the countryside.”

The green belt restrictions also meant they had to stick to the original footprint, and work within a certain volume of living space. Paul took the new design to the limits of planning by almost doubling the size of the original cottage and using the footprint of the demolished extensions to create a two-storey new build, with a full-height glazed atrium.

There followed many meetings with the estate manager and the planning department to achieve the compromises that worked for all parties, before the second application was finally passed.

“It delayed us, but it would have been a much longer delay had we not capitulated and instead fought for the original design,” says Clare. “We were living in a caravan on site, and doing a lot of the work ourselves, so we didn’t want it to drag on longer than necessary. In some ways it did us a favour, because the new design is more traditional and will probably be easier to sell, if and when we eventually move. We were quite pragmatic about it.”

While they were waiting for the green light, Clare and Mark continued with the demolition, hiring a crusher to grind all the old bricks and stone into rubble which went into levelling the ground ready for the foundations.

All the interior walls of the original cottage were stripped back to the original stone and the roof – what was left of it – was removed.

“A lot of the roof tiles had come off and we didn’t know what damage had been caused to the old timbers, so we played it safe and had the whole lot taken off and the building reroofed,” says Mark. “By the time we had stripped everything out there were just three stone walls left standing. It was virtually a full rebuild.”

The new SIPs structure was supplied and built by the Shire Timber Group, during which time the older part of the building was rewired and replumbed. The old portion was then plastered using a special lime and hemp mix to allow the old stone walls to breathe and prevent damp.

“The most challenging aspect of this was blending the old style plaster to the new plasterboard walls of the new extension,” says Mark. He adds: “We didn’t want to hide the fact that the house is in two parts – the old section and the new build – but achieving a smooth transition wasn’t easy.”

While Mark was very hands-on throughout the build, doing most of the heavy labour, concreting the floors, fitting doors, cupboards, bathrooms and stairs, Clare spent every spare minute researching and purchasing the building materials, fixtures and fittings.

“It was challenging because it took up so much of our spare time – which was in short supply bearing in mind we both work full time,” says Clare.

There were a couple more hiccups along the way. When the septic tank was delivered, it arrived without any means to crane it off the lorry, so it had to be sent back and re-ordered. They also had to negotiate access with the council as the main road was closed mid-build, restricting access to the site.

“We moved into the house in October 2015, before it was finished,” says Mark. “We were desperate to get in.” By this time the Wren kitchen units were fitted and they had bathrooms, but the stairs were still a makeshift affair until Mark had time to fit the new ones. It was to take a further two years for them to finally get the house completed internally and the garden is still a work in progress, but by doing so much of the work themselves they managed to stick within their original £100,000 build budget. Their only major overspend was an unexpected £1,500 extra cost for a 10 metre strip of land by the back doors, known as a ‘ransom strip’, which they bought from the estate to bring the whole garden into full ownership.

To help them fund the project they approached the Ecology Building Society. “They were a crucial factor for us achieving the end result. We approached several mortgage providers, including those that specialised in self-build, but no one was interested in lending us any money,” says Mark.

“The Ecology were fab – an absolute breath of fresh air. We managed to secure a mortgage specifically designed for projects like ours.” He continues: “Once the work was complete we commissioned a new EPC and were then eligible for a discounted rate based on the ‘green’ improvements we had made. This allowed us to use our savings to undertake the work needed, and make the project more manageable.”

Bizarrely, shortly after Clare and Mark were granted planning permission second time around, the green belt status was lifted.

“We can only speculate over why that has happened, but it works in our favour,” he enthuses. “It means we are more likely to get planning permission should we decide to extend further or even build in the garden.”

While it has been somewhat challenging, the couple’s experiences with this project haven’t put them off doing it again.

“We would certainly build again,” says Mark, “but I would employ more tradespeople to do the work and we would make sure we were not constrained by planning clauses or restrictions on the build materials. Perhaps next time we do this, we will achieve what we set out to build in the first place!”