Getting Started on your Project

Getting Started on your Project

Design by DMVF, photography by Ruth Maria Murphy.

Most people have some idea of the work and upheaval involved in a home renovation. If you’ve ever watched ‘Grand Designs’ or ‘Room to Improve’ you’ll have an insight into the decisions that need to be made, the obstacles you might face and the drama that can unfold on a build, but you never get to see the years of preparation and planning that are involved before any programme begins.

Long before you have chosen a kitchen, before you have ever looked at a floor plan or spoken to an architect, your research will begin. From the first moment you start wishing for a utility room, an extra bedroom or a view of the garden, you will be making plans. In fact, defining what you like about your current home and what you want to change is the first step in the design process.

Whether you are buying a house or an apartment or renovating an existing one, you need to think about your lifestyle and how it fits with where you live now. Do you work from home? Do you spend much time entertaining? Do guests stay over often? Are you planning to have (more) children? How energy efficient is your home? The way you live now and how you plan to live in the future will determine the shape and flow of your home.

It’s also important to focus on what you want to achieve as a whole. How do you want your home to make you feel? Do you want it to be brighter, warmer, sunnier? Do you want to make it more modern or more traditional? Do you want a view of a particular tree or breakfast in the morning sun? The experiences your home can give you are just as important as the functional role it plays and the problems it can solve.

Of course, many of these questions may not yet have an answer but that is not a bad thing. The earlier you start your preparation, the more time you have to look for inspiration and to hone your ideas and your style. Preparation can start months or even years before you ever pick up the phone to a professional. You may even find that what you thought you wanted at the start is very different to what you want after several months of poring over home design books, websites, blogs and magazines. This is the fun part – who doesn’t like having a good nose around other people’s homes?


Whether you want more bedrooms for a growing family, a home office or workshop or a bigger kitchen/dining area for entertaining, you need to think of what you want to achieve from your space. It may be that you have enough physical space already but you need to change it completely to make it work for you. Can a garage become an office? Will a view of the garden make your kitchen a more welcoming place?

Think also in terms of the experiences your home can give you. Do you want to open up the back of the house to bring the outside in? Do you want to look out your bedroom window onto a roof garden? Do you want to see the sky from the bath? This is your opportunity to put them all on your wish list. A renovation is not simply about redecorating or adding a new room.


Once you’ve collected a range of images, whether online, in magazines and books or in real life, take a step back and look for patterns. Are there recurring colours or colour combinations? Are the rooms minimalist or heavily furnished? Are you drawn to dramatic pops of colour in furniture and fittings? What do you notice about architectural elements like windows, doors, ceiling height and room sizes?


One theme that tends to be in demand across the board these days is the wish for a greater sense of space. Big, open-plan areas with plenty of light are more popular than the traditional design of many small rooms with a similar size and shape. How this open-plan space will be defined needs careful consideration. Do you want a kitchen, dining and living area in the same space? Do you want the sounds of a TV in your kitchen area? Do you need a separate living area? Do you want the kitchen or dining area to open out onto a patio or garden?

While your room should be designed with the different zones in mind, lighting, furniture and finishes can all help to define separate cosy areas in an open-plan space. Think about how you will move through this space and the flow from one zone to another. Make a note of the furniture you want to keep, how this will fit into the space and how you will move around it. Picture the height of the space as well as the floor plans. With an open-plan room, you will have less wall space for pictures, mirrors, shelves and radiators. Underfloor heating eliminates the need for radiators and is a great way of ensuring evenly-distributed heat in a large room.


Keep in mind the existing house, how the rooms link together and how they will connect to a new space. If you are adding an extension, will you be restricting natural light in any part of the existing house? Consider using that space for areas that don’t need windows, such as utility rooms or cloakrooms.


Make sure you think ahead. An open-plan space that works well for young children may not provide the privacy teenagers crave. One family bathroom might be fine for now but what happens when you have several adults fighting for it every morning? If you’re hoping this will be the last major renovation you’ll ever need, then be sure to consider mobility and access for many years to come.


While you are clarifying your personal needs, you must also think about the needs of the house. What architectural style is it and when was it built? Where is it located and what is the surrounding landscape like? How does it relate in style and proximity to neighbouring properties? All of these questions are important for planning considerations but should also be at the forefront of any design decisions. The answers will help you to maximise solar gain and views and privacy, while building something new that is sensitive to the original structure.


If there’s one piece of advice that can be applied to all aspects of home renovation, it’s ‘Do it once and do it right’. Buy the best you can afford, and that includes professionals. Don’t put in a cheap kitchen with a view to changing it in a few years – you will either end up spending too much overall or living indefinitely with a kitchen you don’t like.

So how do you buy the best when your budget doesn’t seem to allow for it? Economies of scale mean that the most cost-effective way of renovating is to do it all at once. If you can’t afford everything you want right now, then plan your renovation in phases that take each other into account. Do the groundwork now. For example, if you want to insulate, then insulate the whole house while you are extending. If you can’t afford to decorate at the same time, then do that in phase two.

Don’t forget to allow for any professional fees – architect, quantity surveyor, engineer – in your budget. You will also need to hold back a percentage of the total amount for contingencies.

You may also have to factor in the cost of renting during the build. Yes, it’s costly, yes, the upheaval is only for a few months, but if you are doing a big job and you value your sanity, you will need to leave the house, if at all possible.

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