Creating the perfect extension: sometimes it makes more sense to extend, than try to improve

This couple blew the budget and had to move eight times during the build - but say it was worth it for their dream home...
Sitting in her new large, light living room-cum-kitchen in Haggerston, east London, Stephanie Donaldson contemplates the garden, while Alfie, 11 months, manfully charges round the skylit white space like a small but determined tank.
 
The view is a long, neat lawn, bordered by attractive brick walls with decorative arches worked into them, all viewed through a triple sliding glass door that takes up the entire height and width at the back.
 
It is a great space, but when Stephanie, 34, and her husband Adrian, 36, first saw it in 2011, it was so overgrown that they couldn’t even see the pretty walls. To get to the garden, they had to go through a poky, dark kitchen crammed into a short dog-leg at the back of the modest three-storey Victorian terrace in N1.

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The semi-basement, says Stephanie, was “dark, cramped and dingy”. Three rooms were packed into a space half the current size, and everything was falling apart — Adrian tried to change a light bulb and got an electric shock.
 
But Adrian, a lawyer-turned-recruitment agent, saw the house’s potential, and, because the owner had had one offer fall through and was keen to sell, the couple spotted a chance to get a good deal. They made an offer below the asking price and it was accepted.
 
Had they known then how long it would take to work the transformation and how much it would cost, they might not have done it, says Stephanie. However, that leap of faith into the unknown was the best thing they could have done, she adds.
 
“We were babes in the wood,” she laughs. Like the majority of people, the couple had no experience of doing up a property.
 
When they met in 2008, they were both lawyers. Stephanie, living in a flat her parents had bought in Notting Hill, went with a girlfriend, as moral support, to Adrian’s birthday party in a pub in Angel.
 
However, Adrian was based in Japan at the time and went straight back. In 2010, Stephanie saw on Facebook that he had returned to London, so they met up — and that was that. They started looking for a place to buy soon after and decided to take their chances with the Victorian house in Haggerston.
 
They moved in and coped for 18 months. The basement was so cold and grim that they camped upstairs, only dashing downstairs for food, and realised something needed to be done. For inspiration, they went to look at another house in their street that had been worked on by architect Alexander Martin, and liked what they saw.
 
Stephanie told Martin what they were looking for. “I said, ‘We want it simple, family friendly, with lots of storage — can you do that?’ He said yes, so we hired him,” she says.
 
The couple, who had originally planned just to do up the basement, soon realised it made far more sense to extend and improve the property at the same time.
 
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Money and time well spent: the extensive building project transformed the Donaldsons’ Victorian home in Haggerston

Martin came up with a plan to extend as far and as wide as possible at the back, creating one huge room, plus a small room off it with clever doors that fold back flat on parliament hinges, so it can be a spare bedroom or part of the overall space. There’s also a mini utility area built into the hall corridor.
 
The storage Stephanie wanted is there in spades. The all-white kitchen comes from Ikea, but its stylish white quartz work surface is bespoke. Instead of folding French windows, Martin suggested the more costly triple sliding door. Also bespoke, it’s the most expensive single thing, but well worth it.
 
On higher floors, the house has been smoothed and sorted. Their architect attended to almost every detail, even down to specifying pendant kitchen lamps and the sofa. The raised ground floor, which was one room, was re-divided into its original two, restoring proportion and making a bedroom for Alfie.
 
Next to it, above the old kitchen dogleg, a new bathroom uses similar neutral tiles to the kitchen, and clean lines. The top floor is the grown-up area, with a fresh, simple-lined bedroom, a corridor with plentiful dressing-cupboards and a huge mirror, a master bathroom in the same clean palette, and a terrace — with great views — on top of the bathroom.
 
But it wasn’t all plain sailing. Having hired Martin in January last year, they sought planning permission in May, but an objection — later overruled — held things up, and the build started that August. By then, Stephanie was pregnant with Alfie. The couple had a budget of £150,000 but, because they extended the build a great deal, “we blew it”.
 
Works ran on much longer than expected and the couple, who were living off-site, had to move eight times. Just before Alfie’s birth they were still bunking with friends, and finally ended up at Stephanie’s parents’ home. They had to remortgage the flat in Notting Hill. “I was enormous — and grumpy,” Stephanie says.
 
They finally moved back home in July. Despite the moving traumas and spending more than twice what they had planned — and twice the amount of time — they loved it. They blame themselves for the overruns, for not being more engaged with the work and the time frame. They certainly don’t blame their architect, who they heartily recommend.
 
“I’m really glad we had that leap of faith,” Stephanie says. “We never in a million years dreamed we could open it up like this.”
 

What it cost
House in 2011: £935,000
Money spent: £350,000
Value now (estimate): £1.65 million
 
Stephanie’s tips
  • Get a very detailed spec, costing and time estimate at the outset.
  • Watch your budget like a hawk.
  • If you change your mind on anything during the build, it will cost.
  • Visit the site on a daily basis, get regular updates from your architect or project manager on progress.
 
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