If you have ever had renovation work carried out on your house, particularly whilst still living in it, you will probably already know just how difficult it can be. After a disastrous and still unresolved experience in my own home I felt compelled to put together some top tips to help you survive the merry mayhem of home improvements.
With my tried, tested and trusted builders of choice already booked in to create a new kitchen extension I designed for valued clients of mine I could hardly jump the queue. Not wanting to wait for their next window of availability or project manage it myself due to spinning several other plates already, I arranged for an alternative company to do it all. Believing I was in safe hands I foolishly didn't dot all the Is and cross the Ts quite as I would for a client job and also chose the wrong guys. These two mistakes caused untold stress, delay and regret, so read on to find out how you can maintain your mental health during a refurb. Grab a cuppa, its a long one!
Most of us are pretty familiar with tales of builders not turning up on time, at a completely different time to what was arranged or indeed not at all. Then there are sagas about delayed projects that go on seemingly forever, and mistakes that don’t get rectified because in the end people just want tradesmen out of the house. Construction work is by its very nature prone to being at least a little unpredictable. Every project will encounter problems, especially in older or neglected properties where discovering clandestine complications is more likely. Some delays and upward revisions of the anticipated expense are inevitable and cannot always be helped.
Although we know to expect a level of disruption, even when everything goes to plan, we still find it stressful, but why?
Finances and Feelings
The reasons for instructing construction work in the first place may be emotionally charged; such as preparing for the arrival of a new baby, adaptations for a disabled family member, creating a granny annexe for an ageing parent. In these situations it is critical that the work is completed on time which adds an extra layer of pressure. Inheriting, saving up or remortgaging to borrow a large sum of money to pay for the work can also mean the stakes are already high. There will likely be emotion attached to that money and even going through the remortgaging process can be stressful before you have even begun the project.
Even if you can stay in a hotel or with family during the build there is no escaping the tangible displacement of things. Having furniture and possessions in disarray can be deeply unsettling for some. Being without a working kitchen or bathroom for any length of time, especially beyond the expected finish date, is enough to bring out the princess in even the hardiest of campers.
Whether you opt to co-ordinate your own tradesmen or instruct a project manager or company to oversee all the labour it will still require your time and energy.
There are a huge amount of decisions to be made from layouts to power socket locations and details like handles which can be fatiguing and overwhelming. This is one reason why so many people run out of steam once their extensions are completed, fall out of love with the whole project, then don't get around to decorating for years afterwards.
Any kind of stress or endless joint decision making will test a relationship. Renovation is no exception!
Feeling out of control
When there is a lack of communication about what is happening when, or if progress stalls, it becomes very difficult to organise your everyday life. Naturally this is incendiary for most people and leads to a feeling of uncertainty which can create waves of chaos in all areas of life.
Stress and Frustration
Even the smoothest running of jobs can cause some discomfort, so when things go wrong or are delayed it can be affecting in a very big way. A healthy dose of perspective about the world’s problems is always important, but don’t be surprised or hard on yourself if you find you’re getting in as much of a state about your comparatively trivial living room as worrying about a relative in hospital. The human body doesn’t distinguish one kind of stress from another.
So how can you reduce the negative impact of construction chaos?
As with most things in life, preparation is everything.
Do your homework
Plan as much of the interior decor in advance as you can. Allow for long lead times on special items. You don’t want to be making rash decisions about tiles or taps once the builders are on site. At that late-in-the-day stage some interior designers may politely decline to come to your rescue. They will be loyal to their current clients’ projects and may not want to be involved in a panic situation because correctly specifying details takes time and careful thought.
Another advantage of planning ahead is that you can feel resolute about your design decisions and won’t be swayed by opinionated tradesmen or pushed into purchasing products that the company may have a vested interest in supplying.
Choose the right builders
Allow as much time as possible to find your preferred builders as you will may have to wait months for the best teams to be available. People buy from people its true, but this is not about making friends. Although you want to feel comfortable with who you deal with and invite in to your home, it is almost more important that they are competent and prepared to go the extra mile to do a good job with pride. Trust your instinctive gut feeling but do not rely on that alone. Check qualifications, credentials and experience, and read the reviews on google or checkatrade etc not just the testimonials on the company website.
If you have whittled it down to two but are struggling to choose between them invite another to quote. Be nosy. You are spending thousands of pounds so it is not rude to want to feel secure in your choice. Ask questions about how they work. How many projects will they run concurrently? Do they have sufficient staff or subcontractors in their pool to fulfil that workload? Will they promise to remain on site until your job is complete? Can they guarantee an estimated finish date and what is the procedure if they need to extend the deadline? What about their aftercare policy? Can they put you in touch with past clients for a review? If they are confident in their level of service and client satisfaction they will.
If you can, take some time off work particularly if you are project managing tradespeople yourself. Thinking about the million and one decisions and troubleshooting problems can really cloud your mind and slow you down. Make a list of questions or anything you are unsure about write down in a project folder or notebook, or even on the wall so you can add to it as the job progresses and tick things off when resolved. There’s no hiding form a big list in plain sight writ large on the wall. Having a tangible list will help prevent you forgetting things or having to search through emails. If spreadsheets are more your thing, go for it. t’s always good to have a paper trail of your correspondence but beware the email that “went astray”. Ensure you have a proper sit down planning meeting to work through the project and action plan before any physical work starts so that everyone’s expectations are clear.
On smaller projects it can be tempting to skip floorplans and elevations but they are absolutely invaluable essentials. Even the most rudimentary of hand sketches is better than nothing. You might have agreed something with one person but can you be sure they have communicated it correctly to the trades on site? If it is all being stored inside someone’s head, your project is in trouble. Insist on drawings before any work begins. With the best plan in the world there will almost always be some changes that arise on site, but these can always be added to the drawings (and dated) so that everybody knows what is going on.
Look after your trades
Being a tradesman is hard graft. Everyone likes to feel appreciated in the workplace and a little goodwill goes a long way. Having the builders in can start to feel like you are running a cafe after a while though, especially if there’s a big team. If you are busy, automate the tea and coffee with a designated tray of goodies by the kettle and invite them all to feel welcome using it.
Look After Yourself
All the standard self-care advice for elevating mood applies here. Be kind to yourself and your partner for the duration and put tension down to the challenging circumstances construction can create. The symptoms of stress can be anything from a low mood or energy, short temper, muddy thoughts, overwhelm and nightmares to a heavy chest, shortness of breath, insomnia, teeth grinding and anxiety to name just a few. Practice mindfulness, do your favourite exercise, read a book, socialise with friends and get out in to nature to keep up your resilience to stress, reduce its impact and better cope with the strain.
If you work from home you will already know how enjoyable a good old chat is whenever you see another adult. However; it is important to be explicit that you are ‘going to work now’, particularly if you don't have a separate office or shed to work in, or you may end up in a longwinded discussions or be frequently interrupted. Consider renting a space for the short term or hot-desking so you can escape and remain productive.
If you need to go out ensure you start saying your goodbyes half an hour earlier than you actually need to leave, otherwise you can guarantee that the moment the plumber or spark has your attention you will suddenly be needed to make thirteen decisions about details which will take at least twenty more minutes. Often this might be due to minute details not being arranged in advance. It can be tempting to simply sneak off without fanfare to avoid this, but then you risk delaying the project or being unnecessarily interrupted on the phone while you are out. If possible check in with the team at the start of each day so that you can iron out any queries then. If you have a project manager then a weekly inspection and update meeting may be sufficient, assuming progress is steady and everything in hand.
Children and SEND
Noise, strangers in the house, change, disrupted routine and not knowing when it will end can all be very difficult for young children to understand and cope with, particularly those with additional needs. Prepare them as best as you can with picture cards or visual timetables. Anticipate that the chaos may cause flare ups in challenging behaviour so that you can feel understanding and tolerant of and prepared for any tantrums.
You the customer are always right (even when you’re not) and when you are spending thousands of pounds with a company or individual you can expect to be treated as such. If you’re unhappy or unsure about the quality of any of the work don’t wait until the end to raise concerns. Remember everybody is human and makes mistakes, as long as they are actively and genuinely trying to solve problems there is no need to be obnoxious. Act promptly as soon as you spot anything that troubles you, because waiting can mean having to undo work in order fix a mistake. Say it with a smile before it gets to the stage where you can only say it through gritted teeth, and hopefully it won't reach the point where you have to cry and stamp your feet in order to be heard.
Should the worst happen and work is not carried out to the required standard and nothing is being done about it, particularly if you have a concern about safety, the Building Control department at your local council can advise. In certain circumstances they should be informed of the works at your property either by you or the people working for you anyway, so do check. If you also feel your consumer rights are not being respected then you can always consult Citizens Advice Bureau, seek legal advice or if things get really ugly use a professional mediator.
Don’t be put off!
For all the horror stories there are plenty of fantastically skilled, caring, competent and civilised Women’s-Hour-listening, Earl-Grey-drinking builders who will be a pleasure to have in your home and even sign for your parcels. You might even miss them when they are gone! But to avoid feeling like you cant wait for them to leave or put Watchdog/Rogue Traders on speed dial, take a look on the Federation of Master Builders directory and see who you can find in your area. That extension or new kitchen will be worth it in the end.
If you want help with planning your interior design in advance of renovating then you can book a design consultation in your home or learn how to do it yourself at one of my regular Interior Design Masterclasses in Bristol.
If you have already been through the process is there any advice you would give yourself, with the glorious benefit of hindsight, before going through a house build or renovation? Please share your experiences in the comments below.