When teacher Clara McGillian and lecturer Nicholas Felstead first picked up the keys to their first home in May 2019 they knew there was a renovation and interiors mountain to start climbing.
Armed with very little DIY experience and a limited budget but a vast amount of enthusiasm they dived in to rescue a 1930s period property stuck in the past.
Even though the couple had viewed new-build houses they were desperate to live in a specific and respectable area also convenient for commuting to work; but so did many other people.
They were constantly being priced out of the area where they wanted to live and increasing the buying budget was not an option.
The only answer was to take on a renovation project – find a cheaper wreck and revive it.
So the hunt began for a property that had not been touched for years that was looking for some modern love.
In return for the makeover the house would repay the couple by adding value to their property investment.
Clara, aged 31 and originally from Northern Ireland, says: “When we first walked in and saw the original front door with the stained glass, we just knew that we had to have it! We could see so much potential in the house.
“However, at this point, we didn’t even own a drill and we totally underestimated how much work was involved.
“It was like a time warp! It had elderly previous owners who we think last decorated it in the 70s – we found a date for 1972 under the wallpaper in the hallway.
“We also had found out that it had been empty for approximately four years and so it was quite musty and damp.”
The couple had previously been renting and were anxious to banish years of magnolia memories and express their style on the interiors of this three bedroom semi in the Bridgend area.
But before colours, textures, furniture and accessories could even be considered, there was a whole house to drag from the past into the present day, from top to bottom.
Clara says: “We knew the house needed a whole rewire and we actually discovered that it had the original electrical consumer unit from the 1930s.
“Therefore, we got an electrician in straight away to start the work. We were renting at this time but we only had enough budget to rent for six weeks more before having to move into our new house. We were very much under a time pressure.
“We began by stripping all the wallpaper off every single surface, ceilings included, and we ripped down the old lath and plaster ceilings. Some were quite damaged and drooping.”
The couple knew that at this demolition stage that any walls that were no longer welcome needed to be removed and moved to the skip.
This courageous and confident property pair knew exactly how they wanted to open up the most sociable space at the rear of the house.
So the wall between the then kitchen and dining room met with a sledgehammer, as did the wall from those two rooms to the hall.
Now, when you open the front door you are greeted by a pleasing visual journey into the home, down the hallway and into the kitchen diner at the back – all from the front mat and a touch of genius.
Clara says: “While the full rewire began, we also got a builder to come in and remove the wall between the dining room and the old galley kitchen.
“While this was going on, we also got plumbers in to re-plumb the whole house as it too had all the original plumbing. They also put in new pipe work for some new radiators as some rooms didn’t have one.”
Clara says: “We did keep all of the old radiators too as we couldn’t afford to replace them all and they were in perfect working condition. We then got the whole house skimmed, which we were hoping to avoid but the original plaster wasn’t in a great condition.”
Then the tenancy was up on the couple’s flat so, whatever state the house was in, they had to pack up and move in.
There was no kitchen, only one electric socket was working and the walls were only half-plastered.
But the state of the house made the couple work even harder to continue the renovation job they had started, as quickly as possible.
They spent the whole of the summer of 2019 grafting and ploughing their way through the DIY jobs, doing as much as they could themselves to save money.
Although a new experience for both of them, the couple successfully fitted their own kitchen, taking the time to measure accurately and rechecking everything was level during the installation; time consuming but necessary.
It might have taken two weeks but installing the kitchen themselves saved Clara and Nick a considerable amount of money, with the only expenditure being the worktops.
A professional was booked for this tricky job that requires specialist tools and if bodged, would have set them back financially.
Once the major renovation, structural and installation work was complete, then came the fun part; the interior design.
The couple looked to the house itself for that first spark of inspiration.
Clara says: “After renting for a decade, we were so sick of magnolia walls and brown carpet!
“We wanted our home to reflect our personalities but also to be a place where a happy atmosphere is created. We also wanted to tie our style into the home.
“The windows and the front door have stained glass and the colours are red, green and yellow.
“We’re not huge fans of red but we used pink, green and yellow as base colours for the house and tied in shades of grey.”
Now each room has its own identity and personality and yet fits effortlessly into the overall interior design scheme but this was not particularly planned.
Clara found inspiration on Instagram but she also gave herself the freedom to be spontaneous and try things.
She says: “I’m not one of those people who plans or uses moodboards as I’m far too impulsive!
“I usually decide on the atmosphere I want to create in the room and go from there – I think you need to get a feel for each room and then go from there.
“For example, I wanted our bedroom to be calming so I went for a dark green as I associate that colour with nature.
“Other rooms, I actually began with a piece of furniture so in our living room, we already had our blue sofa and then I bought our rug, so I planned the living room around those two items.”
The overall look the couple continuously had in the back of their minds was to create a feeling of warmth and happiness in every space, in every room.
The shades and tones in the stained glass in the front door were the first step to injecting the once drab home with a welcome shot of colour and visual sunshine.
Clara says: “I wanted to walk through our front door at the end of a long day in work and feel instantly pleased so I chose colours and styles that make me feel happy.”
And the couple have certainly achieved that.
From the moment the sunny yellow front door greets you and you walk in, you know this is a home full of joyful colour and intriguing personal design statements to enjoy.
Clara says: “I definitely have a thing for pink, green, yellow and grey! I think they are colours that complement each other well, this colour palette is running through the house.
“I love to have lots of cosy things like cushions, fur and throws. Personally, I think it makes the space feel much cosier and more comfy.”
But despite the lack of planning, or maybe because of it, there are multiple interior connections between each space in the home as well as individual rooms with individual personalities.
There’s a palette of strong colours but teamed with muted tones and neutrals, black accents and tactile soft fabrics and eye-catching metallics, the scheme is successful in creating balance.
Each room has zones and each space in that zone has intrigue.
The sunny yellow front door greets you and is offset by the dark grey wall up the stairs that sets a dramatic backdrop for an eclectic collection of wall art and mirrors, drawing the eye up to the first floor.
The stairs are colourful pastel stepping stones that are given extra impact being next to the dark grey wall and being framed in white.
The hall itself has a welcoming display of plants, instantly connecting the nearby outdoors to the indoors.
The lounge is a comfortable and inviting space, wrapped in a cocoon of Farrow & Ball’s Sulking Room Pink shade that brings warmth coupled with the soft, tactile fabrics found throughout the space.
Drama is created by the introduction of jewel colours, with the emphasis of darker tones of green and blue.
Finally, the fireplace might be the bargain feature of the home, with the biggest expense being just the time to strip the wallpaper, remove the old gas fire and rip the plaster off.
And what a most appealing central feature it is, perfectly toning with the on-trend tones of dusky pink that is the backbone of the design in this room; and cheap to achieve.
The kitchen diner, now opened up, connects to the other spaces by continuing the tones of green and pink.
The use of the dark green in the dining space is dramatic but it is working hard to visually zone that space, create a more intimate atmosphere in this corner especially by painting the ceiling and connecting the room to the rest of the house.
The dark tone is also a perfect backdrop to the added wall art. Who knew one pot of dark green paint could work so hard and achieve so much?
The open-plan kitchen uses a more neutral palette of white, grey and black to create a bright and inviting space.
High shine worktops bounce light around, there’s a nod to the age of the property with the choice of a Belfast sink and of course there are ‘pops’ of pink and green to catch the eye.
Arguably the kitchen has two main features that are instantly engaging; the central and sociable island unit and the cooker area.
Recessing the black cooker into the old chimney breast frames the space and successfully allows the installation of hidden, integrated lighting.
The statement tiles behind the cooker ensure that the eye is drawn across the whole kitchen, to the end of the room; it anchors the space.
Softness is introduced into the area through the cushions on the black metal breakfast bar stools, the plants and flowers. The choice of metallic hanging lights adds a touch of glamour to the space.
The kitchen diner has gone from two dark and lonely rooms to a bright and inviting sociable space.
Upstairs the three bedrooms have been shown some interiors love too.
The third bedroom, currently a dressing room, illustrates the impact that just a slice of dramatic wallpaper can bring to a small room without overwhelming it.
Using the wallpaper above the picture rail and on the ceiling gives the room a cosy feel but as it is elevated it is an accent.
If the wallpaper were used as the main interior feature on all the walls in a room this size it could feel rather overwhelming.
Clara’s idea is cheaper too as it uses less wallpaper, although she says it was a challenge to paper the ceiling.
Clara has then created a band of candy pink under the picture rail before the soft pink takes over on the walls.
This banding is another clever idea, creating a gradual journey from a strong pattern to a soft pastel. Without the layer of candy pink, the transition between strong pattern and pale pastel might have visually looked too jaring.
The choice of yellow chair not only adds a focal point at ground level to balance the dramatic ceiling, it also visually connects to the stained glass panels in the window.
The master bedroom features the jewel-like dark green that can be spotted around the home and again it provides a perfect backdrop for art work and informs the colour choices of cushions.
Painting the slim panel of wall by the window – not stopping at the corner – is another great idea to pinch.
It creates a more visually dramatic effect by almost hugging the end of the bed that would not be there had the painting stopped suddenly at the corner.
Softness is created in the space via velvet cushions, a soft grey accent, plants that mirror the art work and the fluffiest of central light fittings.
The second bedroom illustrates that you can create a stunning effect by using paint creatively, and is a cheaper option than buying enough wallpaper for four walls – all you need is some paint and some water.
Decant the paint into a separate container, start painting at the bottom of the wall including the skirting board, add a small amount of water for the next layer up and blend. Patience is required but the final result is soft, inviting and engaging.
By not continuing the dark blue paint effect up to the junction of the wall and the ceiling, Clara has created balance in the room between the white floor and the white ceiling.
Colour fading into white creates the visual effect of extra room height, as the eye follows the paint’s journey up the wall to its white destination.
Accents of pink and white, touches of metallic gold and tactile accessories such as cushions, wall art, plants and strings of light all add extra layers of softness and visual interest.
And then to the despised bathroom.
During lockdown the couple decided to tackle the bathroom, a space they were so unconnected with that they spent as little amount of time in the room as possible.
The couple decided to brighten up the bathroom as a temporary measure with only a budget of £180 to spend in this space.
Clara says once they have the budget, time and materials they will eventually rip it out and start again.
Clara says: “The bathroom was so dated. It was a place that we didn’t really want to spend any time in. Ideally, we would have loved to rip it all out, however, it wasn’t a priority as it was all fully functional.
“We decided to give it a budget makeover to try to make it a nicer room but it actually ended up much nicer than we thought possible.”
So collecting the materials for a colourful transformation were gathered together.
In total Clara and Nicholas, 35, and originally from Shropshire, spent a week brightening the budget bathroom.
They got the materials from Homebase, with Ronseal One Coat tile paint on the tiles and the walls painted once the floral 1970s wallpaper was stripped off.
The shower curtain became a cheap and cheerful focal point from Amazon and the mirror was sourced from Dunelm.
Clara says: “We used Ronseal Diamond Hard floor paint on the floor boards. The grey paint for the bath panels and the pink paint for the sink unit were both paints left over from other parts of the house. The stars on the tiles were made from my Cricut machine and we used permanent vinyl.
“The main challenge was that Nick had to remake the bath panels as I accidentally threw the old one in the skip months before. So we bought MDF, cut it to size and then sealed the edges with PVA.
“I hated the old sink unit. It had a fake marble top and it looked so bad. However, by painting the unit pink and painting the fake marble top white, it totally transformed it and now I absolutely love it.”
Clara remembers that fitting the kitchen was probably the most challenging project as the couple felt they might be stretching their very recently learnt DIY skills.
Clara says: “We also decided to wallpaper a ceiling for the first time wallpapering, which probably wasn’t the easiest surface to choose.”
The couple were constantly willing to try things and see how each decision turned out, salvaging as much along the way as possible and always looking for bargains.
Clara says: “Our shelves in the kitchen were made out of Ikea flat pack crates and cost £27 and we painted them with left over paint.
“The blackboard above the extractor fan we made and painted with blackboard paint and cost us about £20.
“The shelf was made out of an old scaffold board that the roofers left in the garden.”
In total Clara roughly estimates it has cost about £700 for the interior decor and accessories, with the biggest outlay being paint.
Some DIY projects turned out much better than the couple expected, including painting all of the floorboards white.
Clara says: “This was actually a temporary measure for us as we plan to extend downstairs but want to wait until that is done before buying flooring, but in the meantime, the house no longer has that ‘reno’ feel.
“The chimney breast in the living room turned out better than expected too as we didn’t know what was underneath it when we decided to expose the brick.”
Of all the interior projects that the couple tackled, Clara is most pleased with the experimental pastel coloured stairs.
She says: “We originally painted them white but because all the floors were white, it felt too clinical so we decided to add some colour to them.
“I went to Homebase and picked up colour swatches. I then cut them out so I could place the colours in order of what I wanted to paint them on the stairs.
“I had a few ideas. Firstly, to just do them in one colour but an ombré shade or to include several colours in an ombré shade. We decided on the latter.”
Clara also loves the combination of tones of green and pink found throughout the home and her favourite example of that colour combo is the green sofa and the pink walls in the lounge, but that’s not her favourite space in the house.
Clara says: “My favourite room is our dressing room with the wallpapered ceiling.
“It feels so luxurious to have this extra space and I know we won’t have it as a dressing room forever. I love how the wallpapered ceiling has created so much more depth and made the ceiling feel higher.”
Of all the intriguing and delightful accessories placed and styled throughout the home, Clara’s favourite is the bespoke, coloured stag’s head in the lounge.
She says: “I got it made by a lady in Scotland. This is probably my favourite piece in our home because it is so unique and timeless.”
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The couple have a few words of advice to anyone thinking of going down the same renovation garden path as them; tips forged out of their blood, sweat and tears.
Clara says: “If you’re taking on a renovation you need to plan exactly what needs to be done and what order it will need to be done.
“Get at least four quotes per job as you’d be surprised by how much they vary.
“When it comes to decorating, don’t be scared of using colour. At the end of the day, you can always repaint.
“We learnt that you don’t have to spend a fortune to make a space look good. I think we live in a world where we want everything new but actually, if it is functional, then a mini makeover is a great temporary idea.
“If we were to do it again, we’d love to have the extension completed at the same time as the messy work but unfortunately we just didn’t have the budget to do both.”
When it comes to the interior Clara says be brave with colour, using small steps if you are too fearful to immediately and totally dive into a colourful rainbow.
Clara, known as @dustandbricks on Instagram, says: “Do it! Buy a renovation job and paint your house in colours you love. Be brave because it will pay off.
“Start off small with accessories like cushions. Build yourself up to wanting to use colour. And also remember that if you don’t like it, you can always paint over it.
“I’ve started up an Instagram hashtag called @colourfiedhomes that people may find useful to help with colour inspiration.
And when it comes to the renovation aspect of a project, the couple are equally as enthusiastic and keen to try things.
Clara says: “We would also say get involved! You can learn so much for tradesmen if you watch them work. It’s also unbelievable how much money you can save by doing the work yourself, such as painting and decorating, although some jobs need to be left to professionals obviously.”
And this desire to learn and be ‘hand’s on’ has led Nick to now be christened ‘the DIY man’.
So far the renovation has taken 17 months and cost about £25,000, including all the major work such as a new roof, rewiring, plumbing, heating and plastering.
The slice of that budget spent on interiors is just a slither, but the couple have more to do in the future, such as the downstairs extension.
But for now Clara and the DIY man are delighted with the happy, colourful home they have created.