A triumph in Wandsworth

Their builder went bankrupt, they had no roof, it was winter and their children were in the middle of GCSEs. But this Wandsworth couple turned disaster into a design triumph
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Living room
Large glass doors open up onto the garden
On a gorgeous early summer morning, every surface in Mel and Paul Bowker's house seems to gleam in the sunshine, from the glossy kitchen units to the boutique hotel bathrooms, and the ceramic white tiles freshly laid in the minimalist garden.

But behind the façade of a period home perfectly reinvented for a modern family lies a tale of woe that will chill the spine of anyone considering remodelling their own property. Despite taking what seemed like every sensible precaution to make sure the work went smoothly, their seven-month, £370,000 project turned into an 18-month epic, during which time the family moved from pillar to post and could only watch helplessly as their budget more than doubled.

D-Day was September 22, 2009, an anniversary now indelibly and unfortunately etched on their collective consciousness, when the building firm they had hired to take charge of their architect designed refurbishment went bust. They were left with a half-built home open to the elements, a living room that resembled an open-cast mine and the problem of finding a new firm prepared to take over the work mid-project.

This is - fortunately - a story with a happy, albeit expensive, ending but the couple hope their experience will prove an invaluable cautionary tale for other families looking to eke a bit more space out of their homes. Mel, who works for the florist Simon J Lycett, and husband Paul, a wine merchant with Wilkinson Vintners, bought their house in Wandsworth some 15 years ago.

External pic of Wandsworth house
The Bowkers gave up a traditional lawn in favour of a white ceramic tile terrace
"It was a very standard Victorian house and when we moved here the kids were two and four and it was brilliant, a fantastic house for them to live in," says Paul. As the children - Bella and Charlie - grew up, the house began to strain at the seams. Bella's bedroom was too small for a teenage girl and the fourth bedroom, which doubled as a spare room and an office, was so tiny that with a single bed in place Paul had to perch on the counterpane in order to work at the desk.

Move or improve

"We had a choice: either we moved or we did something with the house we had," says Mel. "The problem with moving was that the house was looking very tired and beaten up. If we had taken the decision to sell we would have had to do a lot of work, and when we talked to the kids about moving they really wanted to stay here." And so the family decided a "don't move, improve" strategy was their most cost-effective and least disruptive choice.

Paul's office building in Marylebone had recently been worked on by the architectural practice Clarke:Desai (clarkedesai.com) and he had been highly impressed by the outcome. "They came down to the house and got really excited about it, even though it was a very average house," says Paul. "Bobby (Desai) had an amazing vision about how to make it bigger, by really using the space." Obtaining planning permission was a relatively simple matter, although the roof line did need to be amended after a first attempt was turned down, and work began in January 2009. It was supposed to take seven months.

Family kitchen shot
The Bowker family in the kitchen
The Bowkers, who are both 48, had been scrupulous in their selection of a contractor. They invited three recommended firms to tender and selected not the cheapest but the one that impressed them most. They went to see previous examples of their work and talked to former clients and did not scent a whiff of trouble. So they signed a contract and moved out, staying at first with relatives and friends and then moving into the house next door because their neighbours were taking a six-month sabbatical and the property was empty.

However, by the summer of 2009 it was clear that things were going wrong. Work had slowed to a crawl and the managers of their building firm were proving elusive.

In September, they managed to convene a meeting and were assured the work would be completed by Christmas. Within days, however, the firm had gone bust. They later learned that the hardworking Polish builders who had been taking their house apart had not been paid for weeks and that materials they needed to get on with the work had not been bought.

At the point work stopped, the back of the house was not watertight and, with autumn approaching, rain began pouring in. Their front room had a giant hole dug into it - ready for the subterranean wine cellar - and the house was an uninhabitable wreck. "We lived in eight places in 18 months while the children were doing GCSEs," says Mel. "We felt incredibly vulnerable."

wine cellar
Trap doors in the living room reveal an underground wine cellar

Check financial position

The Bowkers urge anyone hiring builders not to be lulled into security by recommendation but to also hard-headedly look into their financial position.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, however, and having been left high and dry, the couple had to find a new team of builders. They were turned down by several firms unwilling to take on a half-finished job.

In January last year, a new workforce was found and work began again. The delays meant that the family finally moved back home again last June - a year late - and their original £370,000 budget had more than doubled. Fortunately they had a tiny mortgage, having bought the house more than a decade ago for about £180,000, and they were able to borrow the necessary funds. But anybody in a less secure position might have lost their home. "It has been a painful experience but having bought the house very cheaply I think I can still say it has been worth it," says Paul. "We love the house. How much is it worth now? Mel has talked about getting someone round to value it but I can't bear it. There are some things that I don't want to know."

The project included extending the back of the house to create a large, light living room/kitchen, with a glass wall giving a spectacular view over the garden. Upstairs the number of bedrooms remains the same. But by extending the first floor above the kitchen Bella got more space, and a bathroom and shower room were fitted in alongside Charlie's bedroom, plus an enlarged spare room with its own en suite. On the top floor the pitched roof was straightened, giving the master bedroom more height and usable floor space and a light, airy feel.

Mel and Paul Bowker on the open-tread staircase
Mel and Paul Bowker on the open-tread hardwood staircase
Space has been maximised throughout the house. A neat work pod has been carved out beneath the stairs, freeing Paul from the need to perch on the spare bed in order to work. Storage is built into every room, and the living room at the front of the house hides a secret: trap doors in the floor open to reveal a two-metre deep underground wine cellar by Spiral Cellars (spiralcellars.co.uk) capable of holding almost 1,200 bottles.

The family's original garden was a fairly uninspiring patch of muddy grass and the project also included building a self-contained office/teenage party room at the end of the garden. The family gave up a traditional lawn in favour of a white ceramic-tiled terrace, which bounces the light beautifully.

As well as expanding the house, the couple have created a highly modern interior behind a traditional façade. The main architectural flourish is the open tread hardwood staircase, with its glass balustrade and dramatic silvery landings that were created using panels of metal mesh sandwiched between two panes of glass. Atop the staircase is a skylight, so the heart of the house is always light.

Pink splashbacks add a touch of drama to a coffee-coloured bathroom
The interiors have been kept safe with white walls and a mixture of wood or limestone floors downstairs, and neutral carpets in the bedrooms. The kitchen is a calm stone colour, with a shimmer of silver, while the granite work surface has been honed to a matt finish. But there are some bold splashes of colour to be found, including dramatic floor-to-ceiling splashbacks in the otherwise coffee-coloured bathrooms and shower rooms, which pop out in vivid pinks and oranges.

Now that the project is finished, the couple can comfort themselves with two facts: the house is finally the family home they had always wanted and although their budget spiralled, at least they will be saving cash on holidays for the foreseeable future. "Whenever anybody suggests going away I always say no," says Mel.

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