Racking up nearly 5000 Instagram followers on her dedicated renovation page, @homewithaj, AJ describes herself as an “absolute novice renovating a Victorian house”; which resonates with many undertaking their own renovation and self-build projects. Here, i-Build’s Editor, Rebecca Kemp, talks to AJ about her newfound infatuation with renovations and discovers what prompted her to take on such an extensive restoration.
RK: What inspired you to take on this project?
AJ: It was not my original intention to buy a place that needed renovating, but I realised that there was nothing on the market that was 100% to my taste. I hadn’t realised how particular I was about things, such as how essential ceiling heights were to me and the amount of natural light in the space. During my search, I realised how much of my own stamp I wanted to put on my home, and the only way to do that correctly was through renovation.
RK: Had you always wanted to pursue your own project?
AJ: I always wanted to renovate a place, but I didn’t think it would be my first home. I had envisaged that my first home would be just moving into a nice, warm space from the get-go. I’m busy, and I just don’t have time for my first property to be a huge project. I had grown up watching Changing Rooms, 60-Minute Makeover and Homes Under The Hammer, and I love Grand Designs, Location, Location, Location etc. – so I always had the vision to renovate, but I didn’t think it would be my first one. I really got into the spirit of things though and truly loved it – I now want to do another.
RK: How and why did you choose this property to renovate?
AJ: The main stand-out features to me were the high ceilings and big windows. I also love that it’s split level; it’s technically a flat as I have a neighbour underneath, but it feels like a house with the gorgeous hallway. I have lived in London for 10 years and always on one level, and I just fell in love with the luxury of having stairs. It reminded me of being back at home up North as everyone lived in a house, and the staircase makes me feel extra at home. A touch of northern life!
RK: What was the vision and inspiration behind your new home?
AJ: My wardrobe! A person’s wardrobe is such a reflection of their personality – what you wear every day is a representation of what you love. Of course, fashion changes – as does your style – but ultimately, you will always have your go-to outfits. For me, it does tend to be quite bright, so my home reflects that. I did try to use Pinterest, but I struggled to use it as I would find things I’d love and would keep tapping away but never find where it was actually from. I did also follow lots of home Instagram accounts, but it gave me the confidence to be bolder with my choices more than anything.
RK: How did you approach finalising your design brief?
AJ: The timing was impeccable as I had just worked with John Lewis, where they’d picked five experts to design a room. I was tasked with creating a living room and kitchen space for a display area for their flagship London store. I worked with an interior designer there and really loved the process. I found myself using a lot of dark colours, which surprised me as I thought I’d be more into muted greys. It was almost like a practice run. By the time that campaign had finished, I was ready to decorate my own place, and it gave me the confidence to go super bright with my colours. I didn’t have an interior designer but knew I wanted to start with the hallway, and everything else would just flow from there. It was more thinking about what I wanted to wake up to every day; what would put a smile on my face and what I wanted to come home to after a long day at work.
RK: Were there any challenging aspects to the project and build?
AJ: Initially, I wanted to project manage the whole renovation myself, but when it came down to it, I was abroad for around six weeks of the renovation. An illustrator I’d met once, called Hattie Stuart, recommended someone who would be able to assist, so he helped me project manage.
I also had an issue with four of my windows – the kitchen and three of the living room ones. I didn’t realise they were all so rotten and almost falling out the frames. That was the one expense I hadn’t budgeted for, so my top tip, when you’re looking at a property, is to go around and actually open and close windows to check them.
Moving my gas meter was also an issue – I wanted it in a specific place to make room in the kitchen, but builders aren’t legally allowed to do this, so it took a few weeks to get the correct permission.
RK: Did you work with an architect at any point in the process?
AJ: No – I didn’t make any structural changes, but I did change the layout in the bathroom – this room has had the most significant transformation. There wasn’t a bath (which I wanted to have); therefore, we re-shuffled it and utilised the space properly.
I was contemplating knocking down a wall and having an open-plan kitchen-cum-living room, but I am quite old-fashioned and like having separate spaces – plus, my kitchen is big enough for a dining space anyway. I cook a lot of Nigerian cuisines, and it’s delicious, but it is also fragrant, and I didn’t want my settee to smell.
RK: How did you approach material and product specification?
AJ: I always knew what I wanted it to look like. Thank goodness for my builders; they were able to advise me on the materials that I needed to use to get the effect I wanted. Don’t be afraid to ask loads of questions and get lots of samples to make sure you get the look you want. I also found the staff at B&Q helpful.
RK: Are there any particular materials you would recommend to others looking to renovate or self-build?
AJ: My kitchen and bathroom look really luxe. I bought good quality yet relatively cheap cupboards and drawers and then invested in the doorknobs and surfaces. The main expense of my kitchen was the worktop. I used Slab Tech, which is like compressed marble, but it’s beautiful. You do have to buy it in metres, but that meant I had some leftover which I could use in my bathroom and it ties it all together really nicely.
I wanted a big vanity unit in my bathroom with a sunken sink, however these can be really expensive. As I had the leftover kitchen worktop, I just got a couple of extra kitchen cupboards and used that to make my vanity unit. It’s fantastic as it’s huge, and only a fraction of the cost.
RK: How long did the renovation take?
AJ: It took three months, with two months of planning beforehand, so five months overall – which was much longer than expected. There were a few delays with things, even like my oak wood floor. I ordered a sample and loved it, but when I went to order, it was out of stock which really slowed down the process.
RK: When was it completed?
AJ: I moved in last May (2019), after having bought it in September 2018. The kitchen and bathroom were complete, but I had a mattress on my floor for months.
RK: Did you remain within the original budget?
AJ: I did go over my original budget. I was doing really well until we had to replace the windows, so I was over budget by £10,000. That did also include re-doing the garden, which I hadn’t included in my original plan. I used a fantastic Gardener called Jordan Sutton, who transformed my derelict garden within five days without the use of machinery. It was just him and a spade!
RK: Is the finished space everything you hope it would be?
AJ: Definitely, and more! I feel proud to see what it was and what it is now – it’s unbelievable. Most importantly, I managed to create a homely environment where my friends, family and I can relax, and that was ultimately what I wanted. When I’m away working, I always get excited to come home and love waking up in this space.
RK: What do you love most about your new home?
AJ: The hallway. I knew I wanted something in the hallway to have a splash of colour and decided it would be the floor. My three favourite colours are orange, red and yellow. I thought yellow would be too pale on the floor, red would be too dark and angry, so orange was the perfect in-between. It took me ages to find the ideal carpet. In the end, I had to import it from Italy. Shockingly, no one does a bright orange carpet at an affordable price in the UK.
RK: What is your favourite room?
AJ: My living room. It has three massive sash windows that are south-facing, really high ceilings and the light just floods in, which makes me feel like I’m on holiday every day. Having the new windows has made such a difference, and means that the heat is retained a lot better, so it’s a really warm space. Directly above the living room is my bedroom, which also has south-facing windows, so I wake up in the sunshine, which makes it my second favourite room.
RK: Is there anything you would have done differently?
AJ: I would have installed my fireplace in my living room first. That’s still on my to-do list, and it’s going to be such a messy job – I’m dreading it. I would have also been a bit more patient; I’m now trying to get planning permission to extend into the loft. However, I wished I’d waited with my other renovations and completed it all at once – now I’m hesitant for all the dust and noise again.
RK: Would you do the whole thing again?
AJ: Absolutely. For the next place, I would probably do somewhere less traditional like an old factory, studio or even a church. I also love barn conversions. During the renovation, so many people would tell me to think of the profit I’d make by renovating, but it’s never been about the money for me – I’m not going to be a property tycoon.This has been my baby, and I’m loving living here for now.
RK: What advice would you offer to anyone looking to renovate or self-build?
AJ: Even if you hire someone to do the work for you, make sure you’re still around to project manage. Also, do your research; being single and female, I did find people would try and pull the wool over my eyes a little bit. Still, if you do your research and know what you’re talking about, you’ll save yourself issues in the long run.
Do everything in order. Prepare your critical utilities like gas, water and electricity first, and that’s when you can start looking to decorate. As your house needs to function correctly first, if you skip these steps and have to go back and re-do them, you’ll ruin all your lovely paint and wallpaper.
Send your neighbours a bunch of flowers before you start. Thankfully, my neighbour and I get on really well. One of my horror stories is that my living room completely fell into my neighbour's home. A builder walked over the bare floorboards and just fell right through – I can’t believe she still talks to me!
Accidents do happen, so make sure you get all the right insurance before you start. Lastly, have fun with it!
To view the process of AJ’s renovation, look up her Instagram account, @homewithaj.