Run-down cottage transformation

Jan Ollis and Ben Malin took on a dilapidated farm cottage and restored it to create a family home full of character and charm. Both the interior and the exterior have been beautifully restored and the couple did much of the work themselves

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Jan and Ben had been searching for an affordable renovation project for their first home together when they viewed a run-down farm cottage in a north Somerset village. They fell for it straightaway, even though it was in a state of disrepair.

‘The house was dark and we had to pick our way through rooms packed with TVs, crates of china and old clocks – the owner was rather eccentric,’ Jan explains.

The couple were convinced of its potential, however, and pressed on with the purchase. After a year of negotiations they took possession, and it was then that they realised the size of the project.

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The owners: Jan Ollis, an artist and designer who runs a fashion accessories business called Chi-Chi Moi (chichimoi., and her partner Ben Malin, an environmental and planning consultant, live here with Jan’s children, Milly, 19, and Dominic, 24

‘We knew it needed a new roof, plumbing and wiring and that the ground floor would have to come up for a damp course,’ says Jan. ‘Our surveyor warned us to be cautious, but if other problems had been obvious from the start, we might have walked away.’

Jan and Ben intended to do a lot of the work themselves, using builders for the skilled jobs they couldn’t manage. They lived in one part of the property with Jan’s son and daughter while the renovations were being done in the other half of the house.

Once the work was underway, however, the couple’s plans quickly unravelled. The sagging living room ceiling indicated structural problems in the upper floors, which meant they had to take down the ceiling and upstairs partition walls and replace the rotten joists.

‘At one point the roof was off, the upstairs walls and floors had been knocked out and we had a mini-digger taking up the living room floor,’ says Ben. ‘We couldn’t live in all that chaos, so we moved into two caravans in the garden.’

‘I’d never live on site again,’ adds Jan. ‘We had nowhere to relax and worked on the cottage every evening as there was nothing else to do. It was a few months before we could sleep in the house again, but we still had to cook in the caravan.’

The sitting room started to take shape though. The ceiling was reinstated and the beams were shot-blasted back to their original state. Oak flooring was laid and the walls plastered and painted. The couple also restored a secondary staircase leading up to the master bedroom which is behind a door in a corner of the sitting room.

‘We’d heard about the second staircase, but the door had been nailed shut and the top of the stairs was boarded over, so we never saw it until we moved in,’ says Ben. ‘It was rotten, but we decided to rebuild it as it was part of the character of the house.’

A small flight of steps leads from the sitting room down to the kitchen, which was originally a dairy, probably added in the 18th century. The ceiling beams were black and the lino-covered floor and walls were full of damp. The floor was dug up for damp-proofing and the plaster was removed so the walls could be tanked. Some rotten ceiling beams were replaced and Ben sanded the blackened timbers.

Meanwhile, Jan turned her attention to the floor. She bought some slate tiles in three different sizes from a reclamation yard.

‘I spent half a day working out a layout,’ she remembers. ‘It was like fitting a jigsaw together. We waxed it afterwards to give it a mellow look – people often ask if it’s the original dairy floor.’

Ben and Jan already had various pieces of pine furniture for the kitchen, but they wanted some modern pieces too, so they bought a pale blue retro-style fridge and a stainless steel range cooker, adding a glass splashback for a modern twist.

Next they started on the master bedroom. A small fireplace had been boxed in and turned into a cupboard. The ceiling height emphasised the tiny, low-level cottage window, the floors were rotten and the walls were covered in woodchip paper.

‘The plaster came off the walls along with the paper, and when we pulled up the bedroom carpet, the floorboards came away too,’ Ben remembers. ‘We then had the walls and chimney breast replastered – the new rounded corners give the chimney breast a softer look that’s more in keeping with the character of the house.’

The crumbling floorboards and joists in the bedroom, and throughout the upper floor, were replaced with a layer of chipboard for sound and draught-proofing and topped with reclaimed pine floorboards.

One of the master bedroom’s most striking features is its high-vaulted ceiling and dramatic A-frame overhead which reaches up to the full height of the building.

‘When the roof was taken off, the false ceiling in that room was removed too – that gave us the opportunity to expose the full height,’ says Ben.

The couple had expected that daughter Milly’s bedroom would be an easier job, needing little more than redecoration. However, work on the upstairs floor joists meant the partition wall between her bedroom and the narrow landing had to come down, which they hadn’t allowed for in their budget. As all the upstairs internal walls had to be removed, Jan thought about changing the layout, ‘but I realised that the results wouldn’t justify the cost’. In the end they settled for new floorboards in Milly’s room and had the walls replastered before being painted white.

All the bedroom doors opened outwards onto the narrow landing, which made access into the bedrooms awkward. Jan and Ben had planned to paint the door frames white. However, once they realised that the corridor walls had to come down, they decided to get new doorways cut in oak and replaced the doors with attractive reclaimed pine ones.

By the time the couple came to do the bathroom, they had started to run out of money. The bathroom had been put in during the 1980s, along with the utility room below and hadn’t been upgraded since. As Jan remembers: ‘The suite was turquoise and about 20 years old. There were floral tiles and two matching basins, but only one had running water.’

Jan and Ben decided on a clean, modern look, with space-saving furniture. ‘We wanted a walk-in shower, but the sloping roof meant we could have only a shower over the bath,’ says Jan. ‘To keep costs down, we had the walls filled and painted, rather than replastered, and I laid the tiling. We did splash out on a spiral radiator, by saving on budget radiators elsewhere.’

Now, with the renovation complete and all the hard work behind them, Jan and Ben have a beautiful home.

‘We love it. I just wish that I had written a diary about our renovation project, because so much happened’ says Jan. ‘It’s fun to look back now that it is all over.’


Building work, including plumbing, plastering, damp-proofing and a new roof£60,000
Kitchen, including appliances and worktops£5,500
Bath suite£2,000