08 Mar 2021

The Self-build Diaries: Rupert and Rose McDonnell

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After Rupert and Rose McDonnell’s second son was born, the pair realised they needed a house with more space and a change of location to be close to an excellent primary school.

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The couple wanted to stay in the Peckham area; however, after they began viewing houses, Rupert and Rose soon realised that many homes within their budget were not quite right and relatively small. However, after a few disheartening searches, the McDonnells stumbled across ‘Peckham Palace’, and fell in love with the property.

Here, Rose talks to i-Build’s Editor, Rebecca Kemp, about how she and her husband brought the home back to life and transformed it into the family home they were looking for.

RK: Had you always wanted to pursue your own project?
RM: Yes, I’ve always wanted to take on a project; however, my husband certainly didn’t want to. Still, we knew we wanted this particular property. There were several offers on the house already, so we had to beg the estate agent for a viewing and immediately put in an offer. The need to have our desired home was more significant than the fear of the work involved!

RK: How and why did you choose this property to renovate?
RM: It’s in the ideal location for an excellent local school, on a lovely road and close to the train station. It’s also full of character; detached with a large garden and drive, which is certainly hard to come by in London.

RK: What style and age is the original building?
RM: It’s an 1840s Victorian/Regency property. It had been owned by a family for 70 years and was semi-detached, but the other half was bombed during the war in 1941.

RK: How did you combine the original building’s style with the extension?
RM: We had a clear vision that the front of the house would retain and reinstate its original features, and the back of the house would be a more modern, open family living space. Our architects came up with the concept to build a new entrance to connect the two seamlessly.

RK: What was the vision and inspiration behind your new home?
RM: We love Scandi design and interiors but equally love the character and charm of older homes. Combining living in London with small children and creating a family space for our extended family to visit was vital.

RK: How did you approach finalising your design brief?
RM: We were very clear about what we wanted downstairs with regards to function and style. Plenty of glass was a priority to create a biophilic design. We have two small boys and know nature is essential, but still want an urban lifestyle. Equally, we wanted to see what the architects could develop in terms of features and desired outcomes.

RK: How long did it take to gain planning permission?
RM: We are in a conservation area, and the house is logged as one of ‘special interest’. Our Architect, David Parsons, of Selencky Parsons (www.selenckyparsons.co.uk), recommended a pre-planning consultation to submit a design for feedback, which was very useful. At this point, we were fundamentally told what we couldn’t do and given some guidance on other options’ parameters. For example, we were trying to create a fifth bedroom upstairs with a first-floor extension, which was not allowed. We also added an entrance at the front. However, we were told that it wasn’t modern enough, so redesigned that. Doing this sped up the process, which meant that our final design was approved by mid-December 2018. We had our first meeting with Selencky Parsons at the end of May 2018 when our offer was accepted on the house. We finalised the purchase in mid-July 2018, so it was a bit of a risk to engage an architect, but it paid off timing-wise.

RK: Were there any challenging aspects to the project and build?
RM: We started the tender process for a builder in November with the plans we submitted, keeping everything hopeful that we would get approval in December. Our builders, Bright Tiger (www.brighttiger.co.uk), started at the beginning of February 2019. We knew the house was in a state of disrepair, and our plans included a full renovation and extension; however, we did discover many issues. The house was initially semi-detached and, as mentioned, the other side was bombed in 1941. We found that the external left wall was crumbling and, in fact, had been built as an internal wall! This meant we had to include concrete elbows as well as protection on the exterior wall. Also, there’s a very close-knit community of neighbours around the house, and some were very resistant to change – that came with its challenges! For the builders, I think it would be placing the steel under the back of the house to hold it up to build the extension – I didn’t realise the gravity of this until I saw it happening. We also spent a considerable amount of our budget on doors and windows, so they needed to fit and arrive on time.

RK: Did you project manage the build yourself?
RM: Yes, along with David, our Architect, who we worked with from the very beginning. We started to look for an architect as we were purchasing the property and engaged them before we finalised the purchase – we knew the timing was essential for us. We couldn’t move into the property but needed to move fast. Our criteria was a local company that had completed interesting residential projects with good design.

The builders, Bright Tiger, were fantastic. As part of the tender process, we ensured we spoke to previous clients and went to see completed projects. This confirmed we knew how they would work every week – they were super-organised, which we needed. This was a large project, and we didn’t want it to be too stressful – we both have jobs and, at the time, had a one-year-old and a three-year-old.

RK: How did you approach material and product specification?
RM: We visited Grand Designs Live and relied on Instagram and Pinterest for inspiration. In the brief, we were clear that we wanted concrete, bare brick and lots of glass. We have a large garden that is not overlooked and took a biophilic approach to colour design.

RK: Are there any materials that you would recommend to others?
RM: We love the sedum grass on the roof of our extension, the large frameless doors at the back with a clean threshold out to the garden. Our concrete floor is lovely, but there are flaws in it. Still, how it connects to the outside makes the space feel enormous. Pocket doors are fantastic space savers and can open and close spaces off in a flash – we love them and will undoubtedly integrate them into future builds. All of the downstairs has no radiators and underfloor heating.

RK: How long did the project take?
RM: From purchase to move-in, it was 15 months. We took risks along the way to push it forward and keep it moving and had to make decisions quickly. It also helped to have super-organised builders and an architect who felt equally passionate about the project.

RK: Did you remain within the original budget?
RM: Roughly. Although we went over by about 15 to 20%, which came from some unexpected build costs. There were other additions too, but they were mostly down to interior design. Once the whole house was stripped back, we decided to add a bespoke smart home system for lighting, sound and security.

RK: How does the building respond to its surrounding landscape?
RM: The sedum roof works well with the back as it is very green, with lots of trees. The modern entrance works well as there is a lot of beautiful architecture in the Peckham and Camberwell area. We maintained most of the original facade and had original features remade, e.g. the iron gates at the front, original bricks etc.

RK: What does the local community think of the refurbishment?
RM: We were very unpopular while the work was happening! People don’t like change. However, now we do get a lot of nice compliments, and people regularly stop at the end of the drive and stare up at the house. The grandson of the family we bought it from also follows us on Instagram!

RK: Is the finished space everything that you hoped it would be?
RM: Yes, and more! It feels fantastic and has been remarkable considering the amount we now stay at home with the pandemic! We use the two spare rooms upstairs as offices and have enough space downstairs.

RK: What do you love most about your new home?
RM: Our washing machine and dryer are upstairs – I don’t understand why more homes are not like this! The flow of the space for family life works perfectly, and it’s what we envisaged and planned. I can cook and work in the kitchen and still keep an eye on the boys outside, or they can play in the playroom, which is just off the kitchen. The smart home is excellent – no radiators downstairs and, ultimately, more space.

RK: What’s your favourite room?
RM: The master bedroom and en-suite. The area as a whole is such an unusual space and a complete haven. You can lock yourself away and feel like you are in a different place entirely – it feels luxurious.

RK: Is there anything that you would have done differently?
RM: I designed the kitchen and bathrooms, and I wish that I had more help. I do love the bathrooms, but they would probably be the first thing I would change – they could be better!

RK: Would you do the whole thing again?
RM: Yes. We would love to buy a plot of land and design everything from scratch.

RK: What advice would you offer to others?
RM: Add on a minimum of 20% in addition to what you think it will cost. Go with your gut and heart – you have to take risks, but it will be worth it! Trust your builders and architect – they are experts, and there are many good people out there. It can be fun if you find the right people to work with!

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