If that sounds like a plan, the good news is that anyone sensible, with gumption, the right team behind them and a willingness to work, can do something very similar.
“My parents were brought up in Liverpool,” says 30-year-old architect James Davies, who started his own practice in 2010, “and they always taught me the value of money.”
Man with a plan: architect James Davies found his special project - a problem house in east London to transform
James was looking for a project but had very clear ideas about the niche he was after: something with lots of problems to strip back and sort out, that could make a spacious family home and he wanted to do it in E5, which is Homerton to you and me.
“It has a really nice feeling when you walk round the area,” says James. “It’s well connected, with bars and shops. Ten years ago, families who wanted to live in Islington leapfrogged Dalston and came to Homerton. It’s quiet, and I know all my neighbours.”
James saw the house, a 1900s terrace, early last year. The 1,500sq ft property was on the market at £580,000, its problems visible from the street. “It looked horrific,” he says happily, leaning against the clean, shiny, white and marble kitchen he has put in, looking out, through new timber double-glazed windows, at the garden’s just-laid lawn.
“There were horrid latticework uPVC windows and bricked-up additions, the bay window at the back was falling down, the front wall was coming forwards, the side walls had bowed out, the back wall had been bomb damaged, and there was a ‘non-compliant’ side extension that would have to go.” Oh, and the butterfly roof had had concrete tiles put on it in the Eighties and was collapsing.
To complete the picture, adds James, “when I walked in I thought someone had died. It smelled like an open sewer.” That was because there were 20 dead rats under the floorboards.
The house, which had been let to students for years, was in appalling condition inside, too, dark and dingy, with a filthy kitchen. Even so, in a lively market it had gone under offer but the sale had fallen through. Two months later when the For Sale sign went up again, James approached the vendor directly and got the house for £550,000.
As he says, with all those structural defects his credentials played to his strength. The surveyor understood that James could fix things, so he got a mortgage - but with a whopping £25,000 retention. That alone might scupper some people’s finances.
James is evidently no slouch. Knowing that time really is money in a development project, he’d already had a full structural survey, a drains survey and a damp survey. He knew exactly what he was buying - and relished the prospect. “A day after contracts were exchanged, my seven builders moved in,” he says. Within a month they had corrected most of the external defects, rebuilding walls, fixing the roof, taking down the aberrant extension and preparing for new windows. James, who was living in the gutted property, which now had no electricity or gas, was his own project manager. “I was so excited to be up the scaffold every day, and every single decision was run past me.”
And so to bed: even the bedrooms are light and bright. White walls throughout allow James to use colour widely in lighting and furnishings
But he admits to one mistake, which is inevitable in a project of this scale. He ordered the windows late, so the team had to wait for them to be delivered. And in July, “I was woken up at 6am one day by someone trying to break in to steal tools.”
Undaunted, with the first fix done, and three new skylights bringing in lots more light at the top, they started on the inside. “I knew exactly what I wanted,” James says. “It was about making a dark and dingy house as light as possible.”
This is a textbook development. Everything is clean and bright. Clutter has been removed, the butterfly roof has been replaced, insulated, and exposed, creating a lot more height on the top floor, which makes the rooms feel bigger. Pocket doors that slide away into the wall increase flow in passageways.
Quality where it counts: the kitchen island is crafted from Italian Carrara marble.
Basic goods have been used to save money, such as square-cut skirtings, standard plastic switch plates, and Ideal Standard sanitary ware. But where it matters, James has used quality. So a specialist plasterer recast the lovely frieze in the sitting room on site, while the kitchen island is made from Carrara marble - the type Michelangelo used - and the heavy radiators are absolutely gorgeous but also belt out heat.
This house shows that, if you have the guts, you really can turn adversity to your advantage.
What it cost
House bought for: £550,000 in June last year.
Costs, including project managing: £175,000 plus VAT.
Value now: £1 million.
Architect: James Davies at Paper House Project (paperhouseproject.co.uk)
Contractor: Future Building Solutions (futurebuildingsolutions.co.uk)
Specialist plasterwork: Thomas & Wilson (thomasandwilson.com)
Timber sash windows: from wall2wall (wall2wall.info/sash_window.html)
Victorian cast-iron radiators in black primer: coventry-demolition.co.uk
Rustic oak engineered hardwood floors: from thesolidwoodflooring company.com
Worktops in white Carrara marble: from GQ London (gqlondon.com)
Glossy white kitchen cabinets: from Howdens Joinery (howdens.com)
Taps and showerheads: grohe.com
- Create a character profile of who you are designing for and stick to it. I was designing with a young family in mind.
- Be dogged on price. Try for discounts on everything. Most people will drop the price a bit if you ask.
- How to bargain: try to speak on the phone, don’t email. Buy several things from one supplier and they are more likely to be flexible.
- Use a heating engineer and get good-quality radiators and a good boiler. The whole system has to work together to work properly.
- Don’t cut corners on taps. Every plumber knows how to fix a Grohe tap.
- Pocket doors keep space streamlined, particularly in halls.
- Your contractor is your best asset. To find one, ask a professional you trust, such as a surveyor. Ask for references, and then ask the contractor to take you to see a previous project. Talk to the owner in person. A good contractor should be very busy, and need to be booked ahead.