After meeting my partner Dean at Norwich Art School, graduating together, travelling Australia together and then spending years in a tiny rental together, in 2017 we decided it was finally time to find a space we can call our own. I was working in retail at the time, while Dean was (and still is) a builder. He recalls the moment our boiler failed for the second time in one week during winter as the turning point in wanting our own house.
While renting, we would notoriously try to push our luck with landlords. We were constantly trying to paint walls, customise things here and there – we even persuaded them to let us change the floor – so when considering getting our own place, we knew from the get-go we wanted a project; a space completely customised to us. Having lived in Norwich for almost nine years without feeling the pull to move to London, it was clear we had found somewhere we loved to be, so it made sense to stay put and buy here.
After spending a year in Australia, we'd developed a taste for large open spaces with lots of natural light – something that we wouldn't be able to afford outside of Norwich, but also something you don't come by often in Norwich. With Dean's skills and contacts within the building trade though, we were confident we would be able to pull off something unique.
Over the following few months, with a budget of £200,000 (including the idea to renovate), we searched for something virtually unliveable with ample room to extend and develop. Norwich has an extensive offering of mid-terrace houses that require work, so it didn't take us long to find the one.
Located two minutes down the road from our rental property, we found your average two-up, two-down for £140,000, but the difference between this house compared to previous viewings was the 90ft garden greeting us as we stepped out of the back door. Immediately we saw the potential to extend.
Our budget was small, but my ambitions were big. An architect helped illustrate how the use of skylights and vaulted ceilings could create the illusion of a bigger space. We knew that in order to save money and avoid compromising these ideas, the majority of this project, aside from plumbing and electrics, would have to be carried out ourselves. Before any of the fun could begin, however, we had to endure a gruelling three months of back and forth with planning permission. At times I thought we'd never get the go-ahead and would have to forfeit having an extension altogether, especially when we found out after 12 weeks that our application was being sent to a committee and could take a further four weeks. By a stroke of luck, in the final days leading up to our application being handed over, the planning authority relented and we were free to go ahead as planned.
The renovation process took a lot longer than expected. Dean and I were both working full-time, sacrificing our days off, weekends and evenings to work on the house. We were very fortunate to have the help of Dean's dad, also a builder, and a few others in the trade who offered a hand when they could, but it still felt very slow.
Although we had an architect's drawing to work off I still had all these wild ideas of higher ceilings, floating stairs and oversized glass skylights that I wanted to try; however, I swiftly learned that renovating isn't as simple as pointing at a Pinterest image and saying, "I want that". Luckily Dean's dad was open to taking a few gambles and saw potential in some of my unorthodox ideas, helping me understand the process and work out ways in which to achieve them.
Room by room, the house was stripped back to its shell. We spent days smashing down walls and demolishing the entire downstairs to create an open-plan kitchen and dining space. We removed all the bathrooms, the kitchen and two chimneys. The only original internal feature downstairs is one structural wall, which had to stay for obvious reasons; other than that, everything you see was added in. We also removed half of the loft space in one of the upstairs bedrooms to create higher ceilings and added a Velux window, which as you can imagine was a bit touch and go as we risked the entire roof collapsing in the process. We also added a small porch to the front of the house for storage and privacy. All the while, we were living in a rented property down the road, so the race to get the house in a liveable state was on.
Eighteen months later and although the house was by no means complete, we were finally at a stage in which we could live in it. The sense of relief and excitement to leave the rental house and move into something we had created was unreal. For the first few weeks, it was really bizarre; I felt like we were staying in someone else's home or an Airbnb. I remember being so careful around everything so as not to make any marks or get anything dirty.
We'd been so focused on the construction of the house that we used up the majority of the budget before we could even get started with the interior. We were essentially living in a white box while we saved up to start buying furniture, lights and paint. Coming from a smaller, part-furnished rental property meant we didn't have anything to fill our new home with so we lived in a very stark house for a long time, which in hindsight was quite beneficial because it gave us time to become more familiar with the space and figure out what would be best for the house. I often look back and think if we had jumped the gun by decorating everywhere as soon as possible, we'd now be faced with a lot of regretful decisions. Instead, we now have a carefully considered space, decorated in a way that works for us and the light in the house.
During the first year in the house, ideas would flow in and out of my head, especially as interior trends are ever changing. Each month I'd be fantasising over something new to try, but the ideas that stuck with me are the ones I knew were right for us and you can see in the house today. Through the use of natural and raw textures, we've tried to achieve a balance of minimal and cosy. This is reflected in Dean's timber painting studio, which he built at the end of the garden and clad inside using ply. We are both homebodies and love to spend time relaxing at home, so to have a space where we felt comfortable was crucial. There's still a long way to go; we have a downstairs toilet to complete, my office space and a lot of blank walls just waiting for me to decide what to hang on them.
There are so many elements of the house that I love: our custom-made skylights, the green Detale wall in the kitchen, removing the loft space in the bedroom and of course, the concrete floor, which if I'm honest was a total fluke that we made ourselves and worked out surprisingly well. I'm most proud of the risks we took to achieve something different with a mid-terrace house. I'm proud that every idea in this house was envisioned by us and no matter how difficult it seemed to get from A to B, we worked out a way to make those ideas happen.
I think some of our family members are confused as to why we've done some of the things we've done. My dad's face when he saw we didn't have a railing on the stairs and told him the floor is concrete intentionally was priceless, but I love that. I love that walking into our house makes people think and question the how and why.
From digging out footings to building ceiling rafters, my favourite part of the journey has been gaining a new set of skills, knowledge and confidence. Before this process began, I underestimated what goes into building and renovating a house. Dean and his dad have taught me a lot about construction, and I like to think I've helped them think outside the box when it comes to projects such as this.