Renovation and the art of decision making

We’ve been renovating our big French townhouse for eight months now. In fact, on Saturday, it will be exactly eight months. There have been a couple of weeks, when family have been visiting and we’ve enjoyed a few days away from the paint and the dust, but otherwise the renovation has been a full time job. All day, every day. I’ve often joked that we swapped our 9-5 jobs for 5-9 jobs instead. In the beginning I’d often be awake in the small hours, thinking about our plans and going over ideas in my head or on my phone. Long hours of tiring work in the house soon put a stop to that though!


We’ve done various bits of DIY over the years between us and we’re not shy of hard work. A few years ago we fitted a new kitchen ourselves in our house in the UK, we rebuilt a shed, there have been decking and garden projects, plenty of decorating and our fair share of flat pack furniture. So a renovation on this scale didn’t worry us – it was an exciting challenge – just a slightly bigger one than usual.


I’ll admit it has been physically tiring – but sore backs and bad knees have slowly faded and we are both fitter and stronger than we were a year ago. Hubby has lost 2 stone in the process and the endless staircases have given our legs some new definition.


Our bathroom - before, during and after!


The unexpected element though was a mental exhaustion – decision fatigue! There were just so many thousands of decisions, big and small, to be made. From whole room layouts in preparation for the electrician, to what bath taps in preparation for the plumber – and everything else in between. The decisions have been compounded by the house and its various “intricacies”. As I might have mentioned before, nothing in this house is straight, flat, or level. Some of the doorways are small and narrow and the staircases add an extra level of jeopardy to every purchase. So each decision has involved a thought process something like this….


1. What do we want to put in here?

2. Ok, that looks nice, will it fit or will we have to modify the fabric of the building?

3. Excellent, can it get through the door and will it come up the staircase?


I’ll give you my favourite example. Our kitchen, three floors above street level. I like to cook and to bake and so we’ve gone for a big kitchen along two sides of the room. My ideal specification involved a big area of clear worktop for preparation. Turns out that 4 metre long worktops might look nice but they are a little bit tricky to get hold of within our budget!! Having spent weeks sourcing the right length and width of worktop we had to consider how it was going to get up to the kitchen. Much to the entertainment of my father, we put the extendable ladder together until it reached 4 metres and started with it in the entrance hallway from the street. From there, we had to carry it round the dog leg in the hallway and up the stairs to the courtyard, then 90 degrees and up the stairs into the house. Then, up up and up three floors of our central, curved staircase and round another narrow 90 degrees and down the hallway to our kitchen. The theory worked! In reality the very heavy worktop took five of us to lift it through this tricky routine and my heart was in my mouth as we handed it up the middle of the big staircase - us positioned round the edge and the worktop hanging precariously down the middle. Once it was safely upstairs all that was left to do was cut out the hole for the sink, the angle where it meets the next piece and then dig out a few inches out of the wall to fit it in....

Our kitchen - before, during and after


Every tradesman brings their tape measure and their spirit level and every time we are tickled by their faces when they realise what should be a square is actually a wedge and what is actually straight looks perfectly ridiculous because the floor below or the ceiling above simply isn’t. Some things, such as hanging pictures, simply look better done by eye than with a spirit level.


Other decisions have been more about design Vs budget. The tall rooms and their gorgeous Provencal ceilings were crying out for big chandeliers. Having persuaded the electrician to run the necessary cables, we started out hunting for the right fittings to go on the end of them. The problem was that everything in the shops was either too small, too modern, too “blingy” or simply too expensive. We did finally find the perfect chandeliers in Leroy Merlin, at 250€ each, and ordered two of them – one for each apartment – quite an expense for us but we justified it as being an essential part of the “look” we were aiming for.


A problem with stock and quality meant the order was never fulfilled and it took them two months to tell us. I was devastated! However, as serendipity would have it, this turned out to be the best thing that could have happened. By this time I had discovered the joys of Leboncoin.fr and a few moments of searching turned up a vast choice of “lustre fer forgé” and we’ve had some great entertainment driving around the countryside and discovering new villages, all in the name of collecting our bargain chandeliers. Since then, we’ve amassed nine of the beauties, for the sum total of 130€!

Just a selection of our beautiful second hand chandeliers!


Every time we have started on a new room or a new section of the house, the decisions have seemed insurmountable. But, as we get to know the house better and as we become increasingly familiar with the shops and websites where we can source everything, it gets easier. I have to say we’ve been blessed with helpful trades who have given us clear guidance, with helpful suppliers who have worked miracles (a 4 metre worktop delivered within a week), with donations of beautiful furniture and friends who have turned up to help us lift things when we needed them, lent us their cars to pick things up and shared a drink and a laugh with us when we've needed it.


I have to say that I’ve been super lucky to be part of such an incredible team. My father for arriving at 8am so many mornings to help translate French tradesmen, and then working all day long on the renovations – building walls, putting up lights and endless other DIY tasks. My mother for helping with phone calls, making sure we were fed and had clean clothes for three months and for sewing gigantic curtains from scratch (turns out you can’t buy 3m50 curtains ready-made!). Most importantly my husband, for agreeing with my ridiculously huge kitchen design, for tiling our bathroom with the complicated travertin opus pattern I so love and for the endless hours of frustrating kitchen fitting, amongst many, many other things...

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