Home-improvement dilemmas answered

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Whether it’s finding an architect, planning a layout or converting your garage, Real Homes’ experts are here to help.

Sufficient loft space

Q: I am converting my loft into a bedroom and en suite; how can I ensure the head-height will be comfortable throughout while making the most of the extra space gained?

A: ‘Getting ceiling heights right in a loft space is crucial. Not only will you create an uncomfortable space if you get it wrong, but you can also fall foul of building regulations (with the staircase in particular). I’ve also seen shower rooms that would require a contortionist to get under the showerhead because it wasn’t thought about early enough in the design. The first thing to do is to cross-reference the plan and section off the proposed space. It can still be hard to imagine how high a sloping ceiling will feel, so visit another loft conversion, and bring a tape measure to work out how the ceilings in your proposed loft compare. Alternatively, rig up a sheet of MDF at the right height to slope at an angle; this will give a sense of whether it will be comfortable to stand at a basin, for example.’ – Hugo Tugman, co-founder of Architect Your Home

Hiring a designer

Q: How do I find a reputable architect suitable for my particular project?

A: ‘A person is only allowed to call themselves an architect if they are registered with the Architects Registration Board (ARB), following up to seven years of training. One of the most satisfactory ways of finding a good architect for your project is via recommendation from friends or colleagues who may have had similar work done to their own home, and have been pleased not only with the finished result, but also with the relationship they developed with their architect. There are a number of searchable registers where you can find a suitable architect, such as the one provided by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). It is important to visit a prospective architect’s website to take a look at the sorts of projects they carry out, and then, if appropriate, you should arrange an initial consultation, preferably at your property. You should note how well the architect listens to you and how they might approach the problems that need to be solved. It is always worth asking them to put you in touch with previous clients, too, so you can speak to them directly.’ – Roger Mears of Roger Mears Architects

Glazing a period home

Q: I live in a Grade II-listed house and want to fit wooden double-glazed replacement windows, but can’t find a design adhering to the property’s building restrictions. The existing windows are nothing like the original 1650s style; how can I find a solution to please me as well as the Conservation Officer?

A: ‘A listed building is preserved as it stands at the time of listing, including original and modern additions. Material alterations, including replacing windows other than on a like-for-like basis, will require listed building consent. If in a Conservation Area, National Park or other designated area, and subject to an Article IV restriction on permitted development rights, planning permission will also be required for replacement windows if the style is changed. The fact that you need permission does not, however, preclude you from being able to replace the windows, as they do require maintenance, and if not looked after, will have to be replaced, so this is recognised. You will need to negotiate with your local authority’s conservation officer to find a style that they consider acceptable. This could include an appropriate double-glazed window, so ask manufacturers which styles have been accepted before. They are unlikely to accept plastic windows, but some will agree to composite windows with wooden frames and external plastic or powder-coated aluminium cladding.’ – Michael Holmes, experienced renovator and content director of Real Homes

Clever door designs

Q: I want to install non-glazed bi-fold internal doors to separate the living room from the dining area, but still have the option to keep them open. Are there doors that have a minimal look to help soundproof the space when closed, but look discreet when open?

A: ‘Internal room dividers are an ideal solution to transform one room into two, with the option to fully open the doors to maximise space or to use a single door leaf for day-to-day access between rooms. It’s important to choose doors that are not only functional but which also enhance your property’s style, in a material and colour to complement your existing decorating scheme. A good idea is to choose a set of bi-fold doors across the width of a room to match other internal doors; when closed, the doors will create a wall, while maintaining easy access if required. When open, the doors can then be folded up and tucked away to one side, allowing you to move freely between the spaces.’ – Chris Miller, product manager for doors at Jeld-Wen

Planning electrics

Q: The ground floor of my Victorian terraced house is being completely remodelled, with the rooms changing in function. How do I plan a wiring scheme to ensure I have sufficient electrical outlets in the new design?

A: ‘First, give thought to where and how you would like things to be fitted and advise an electrician accordingly. Think about room layout and where you would like to position furniture, the television, lamps and pendant lighting as well as media technology. Your next port of call should be to choose a registered electrician. Avoid attempting to plan a new wiring system yourself as, aside from being complex and dangerous for the non-electrician, this type of work falls under the electrical wiring regulations, and certain works will be notifiable under Part P of the building regulations (unless the work has been carried out by a registered electrician). This type of work needs to be notified to your local authority building control department or you could incur a £5,000 fine for non-compliant work. By hiring a competent, registered electrician, you can save both time and money.’ – Mike Andrews, chief executive of NAPIT

Fixing a leaking roof

Q: The corrugated asbestos roof of my garage has developed cracks, allowing rain in. Is there a coating that I can apply to waterproof it?

A: ‘There are various ways of upgrading cracked asbestos sheeting, including glass-fibre reinforcement and coating with silicone sealants or bitumastic paint, but they all require the sheeting to be thoroughly cleaned first in order to be effective. Due to the health risks from asbestos dust and the danger of local contamination, this option is best avoided in a small-scale domestic situation. It would be easier to remove the sheeting safely, take it to a licensed tip, and replace the roof with new corrugated sheeting or other flat roofing material. For details on how to handle asbestos safely, download the Health and Safety Executive’s recommendations at hse.gov.uk/pubns/guidance/a14.pdf.’ – Michael Holmes

Energy-saving solutions

Follow English Heritage’s conservation team member David Pickles’ advice on how to reduce bills in a period home:

‘Old houses are often thought to be cold and draughty, but they can vary greatly in energy efficiency depending on how they are constructed and maintained. There is growing evidence that many perform better than assumed, and some outperform modern new builds in terms of energy demand and comfort. Improving energy efficiency, whether your home is listed, in a Conservation Area or pre-1919, can be done sympathetically and without compromising historic character. Before you think about improving its energy efficiency, ensure that the building is in good repair, as the smallest of defects can have a big effect on energy performance:

  • Carry out basic maintenance: A faulty gutter can lead to damp walls, which will reduce energy efficiency.
  • Install loft insulation: Roof insulation at ceiling level is a quick and inexpensive way of improving the energy efficiency of your home and can be done as a DIY option using insulation rolls, or by hiring a specialist company. To meet current building regulations, you will need around 30cm thickness of insulation.
  • Stop draughts: Rotting or ill- fitting windows are not difficult to repair, so many companies now specialise in overhauling original sash windows. Repair is always preferable to replacement, as the windows of a building are a major part of its historic character. Heavy curtains and simple draught excluders can also make a difference.
  • Reduce draughts from chimneys: Chimneys can be a considerable source of draughts. Dampers can reduce cold air flowing in when flues are not in use, but they shouldn’t be an exact fit as some air is still needed for ventilation and to prevent damp build up. An affordable and effective temporary option is a chimney balloon, which inflates to block it up.

Converting a garage

Q: We have a two-bedroom end-terrace house built in 1992 with gardens into which we could extend if it weren’t for an inconveniently placed garage. Will creating more living space but getting rid of the garage affect the value of our property?

A: ‘If the existing garage is of sound construction, converting the space into an extra room will enable you to make the most of your home and in a much more affordable way than building anew. You could convert it into a bedroom, hobby room or perhaps a home office, tailored to your own requirements. Alternatively, a conservatory or orangery could be designed to fit into or around any elevation, so you could keep your garage as well as create more living space. As for how this will affect your property’s value, this depends on factors such as your location, the type of improvement made and the use of the room. However, generally speaking, increased living space is in demand so will not only add value financially, but will also increase the quality of living in the space.’ – Phil Goult, national product development director at Anglian Home Improvements

Rooflight installation

Q: With full planning approval, I’ve recently altered my flat roof to a sloping roof with hip ends, and now want to install rooflights to maximise natural light – will I need planning permission for this and do I need to ask for permission from neighbours when adding new windows?

A: ‘Installing roof windows to maximise natural light is an excellent idea – and one that should be straightforward. In terms of planning permission, it’s unlikely that there will be a need for this, given that the alteration project has already been given the go-ahead. However, different projects can fall under different categories, so it’s always wise to run it by your local planning authority just in case. As a general rule, no matter what type of house you live in, always check before starting any work. This makes things easier in the long run and puts your mind at ease when beginning your project. Standard roof windows don’t change the profile of the building, make it higher or alter the structure so there should be no problems with installing them. Look out for modern, more contemporary designs, which will create a streamlined finish and have less of a visual impact on the exterior style of your home.’ – Richard McArthur, marketing manager at Velux

Matching material

Q: I am building a modern extension at the side of my 1960s semi-detached property and I want to match the bricks and mortar to the existing house to create a cohesive look. How do I find the right materials to do this?

A: ‘Your local builders’ merchant can offer a brick matching service where an expert will visit your home and match your current brick type to those readily available from its suppliers. If the brick is still manufactured, they can offer you a quote; if it’s no longer made, they can offer the closest match in terms of texture and colour. As brick colours differ hugely across the country, it’s advisable to use a merchant that sells heavy building materials near to where you live for a more accurate match. Generally speaking, the bigger the merchant, the wider the range of brick types that they can source. Another option is to buy the closest matching brick and use a specialist brick tint to darken or lighten the colour to the existing structure, which may have been affected by weather erosion or fading over time.’ – Andrew Harrison, chief operating officer of Travis Perkins

Creating an open-plan layout

Follow experienced interior designer Julia Kendell’s advice to create the right space for your home:

‘While it’s easy to be tempted into filling an open-plan space with furniture and ‘stuff’, the real delight of open-plan living is the feeling of space and sociability. Zone areas using groups of furniture, rugs and colour schemes to make sense of individual elements for smaller, friendlier spaces. Good lighting is key to ensure that an open-plan layout is welcoming and cosy despite the expanse of space. Use dimmers and concealed lighting to bring the room to life and add a sense of drama. For greater flexibility, installing several lighting circuits will allow you to create different moods. When it comes to decoration, it pays to think big and bold. Small patterns and tiny ornaments will have no impact in a large space, so scale up the décor to ensure it doesn’t get lost within the room, and go for oversized pictures and mirrors. Updating interior doors can help to unify a scheme throughout the house, and they are an important element to set the tone for the design scheme. Good- quality doors and ironmongery add a sense of solidity and permanence.’