Refurb lessons? What the architect learned

Denise O'Connor learned so much from her own refurb that it changed the way she advises clients

Denise O'Connor explains how the goal for her overall house design was to create an enjoyable home the family could cook, eat and entertain in.


In April last year I started on one of my most exciting projects to date: the renovation and extension of my own home. Putting myself in my clients’ shoes was a real eye-opener. Although I’ve been designing homes for more than 15 years, being the “client” gave an entirely fresh perspective. As a a result I have changed the way I advise the homeowners I work with.

Get impartial advice

The whole project started with wanting to extend a tiny utility room to accommodate a bigger fridge. My two boys were eating me out of house and home, and it was impossible to fit everything in our combined fridge-freezer. 

After a brief look at the space, the builder shook his head and said: “Why don’t you extend the house?” He was right; we’d reached a point where we needed extra space, and a bigger fridge wasn’t going to improve things in the long run.

Small projects are okay but not if they are only a stop-gap solution. I often meet people who want to add a room or convert part of their home, but the underlying issue with the house is much more significant. Investing in an attic conversion when the layout of the rest of the home is not working is not the best way to spend your budget. We’ll all favour going for the quick win over the more disruptive solution, so getting some impartial advice is vital to ensure you make the right decision.

Wait until you have the money to do everything

When we first bought we could have done work straight away, but our circumstances were very different (a three-year-old son and another on the way), and our budget was far too small to do all we wanted, so we waited. It was the best decision we could have made.

In the past I have tried to find solutions for clients to help them phase the work so their budget can be spread out. But now, where at all possible, I advise my clients to wait. This often means I talk myself out of a job, but if they can move in and make the house liveable until they have the money to do everything at once, then this is by far the best approach. Not only will they get better value for money and only go through the build process once, but they will also have time in which their plans might change, leading to a better job in the future.


The build is an unstoppable process; once started, there is no turning back. Be as organised as you can; my advice is to have all of your decisions made before the work starts on site. This is something I’ve always told my clients. But having gone through the process, I now believe this is the best advice I could give anyone taking on a home improvement project.

Once the build starts you’ll feel under pressure. There will be distractions and emotions to deal with, and you won’t be at your best when it comes to making decisions. Having decided details beforehand will significantly lessen the stress and make the process much more bearable. You might even enjoy it.

Build a contingency into your timescale

Build some breathing space into your timescale. The build process is unpredictable, and even the most organised can come up against issues that push the finish date out. 

Our build process took 7½ months, which was pretty good. We had hoped to be ready in seven, but some things took longer than planned and we pushed our move date out to accommodate this. 

Waiting the extra couple of weeks for the builder to be fully finished was worth it. Had we moved in two weeks earlier everyone would have been trying to finish around us and what took two weeks would have dragged out to four or even six weeks. 

It’s never a good idea to move in before the work is complete. Giving the contractor a deadline to work to is essential, but make sure it’s realistic and be prepared to make allowances and adjust your plans accordingly.

Keep your eye on the prize

A home renovation is a complicated process; there are so many moving parts and people involved that there are bound to be hiccups along the way. Try to anticipate where issues might arise. Things will go wrong, but keep an open mind and focus on the solution. Be as organised and decisive as you can be. 

Home renovations and extensions are emotionally exhausting, so my final piece of advice is to stay focused on the end result, because I can promise you it will be worth it. 

Denise O’Connor is an architect and design consultant, @optimisedesign

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