Victorian semi-detached house - do I need a side return extension? Zen and the art of kitchen design.

The Victorian house.

We own one. Or rather the bank does and we live in it. Anyways, it is the traditional semi-detached design, 'L' shaped with an alley to reveal a small area of land at the back that is pretty much useless for anything other than storing bins. Dark so you can't grown anything, and with one or two doors meaning seating is an issue.

Victorian side return

The kitchen is here, as is a dining room. The dining room may be unused as it is dark, and the kitchen will be small and badly designed. Somebody may well have knocked a wall out, meaning the back room is now part of the front room. It's all a mess design wise. 2016's life shoehorned into the 1900's. We don't live like that. We don't have housemaids, we don't have formal dining. We do have cars, huge amounts of rubbish and chaotic lifestyles.

Our kitchen was shite.

As you can see, an utter mess. Badly designed with the door in the wrong place. It felt small, dark and dirty. We bought the house in 1999 and had no idea what to do with it. Various other builds over the years around the house impacted on it, as you can see from the lack of ceiling. This was from a boiler change thanks to a loft conversion. The back door opened into kitchen units and led on to some steep steps.

It always needed changing, always did. The previous owners had insurance work done thanks to subsidence. Hence when we moved in the kitchen was almost new. Badly designed and poorly specified, yet still new. Poorly designed? Well, yes. The oven did not work on windy days. Lots of cupboards but no storage space. And the floor was not level, which was ironic given it had been replaced thanks to subsidence.

Sure over the years we got people in. If we wanted to leave the room as is, and just replace the kitchen, all we got were kitchen "designers" intent on selling us the maximum number of units. None of them actually seemed to understand the function of a kitchen, which was odd. If I was a kitchen designer, I'd first be a cook. Then we had builders or architects in, who were all mental. Builders wanted to put a singly storey box on the side for £120,000. Perhaps even knock through into the back room. All of the builders wanted to put in a kitchen island. I've never understood the purpose of a kitchen island in a Victorian house - they just seem there to fill in a void in the middle of the room. Strange things. I'm fairly sure they work in quite a lot of houses with kitchens larger than ours, and they do look nice in photographs. For me they are just "flat surface syndromes" waiting to happen, as we are slobs here at muddyground. And have you ever looked inside one? Messy voids is all, not efficient spaces.

A kitchen island seen yesterday

Architects were fun. I could live on a desert island full of them and be happy. They are all bonkers. One of them wanted to construct a massive double height glass triangle on the side that extended 15m into the garden. Great light, sure. Unuseable 11 months of the year though.

The architects wanted us to spend £200,000. On a £300,000 house. And we did actually consider a few of the designs. Anything other than a square box, please.

It was the architects, along with crappy, ignorant builders and dick-head kitchen designers that gave us the confidence to...... Design our own!

What did we want?

A kitchen. That's it. Somewhere to make meals. That's all we wanted. In the end, once we realised this, all was easy. No island for entertaining. No massive amounts of cupboards to store stuff. No huge fridge - we live within a 6 minute walk of a massive Sainsbury's, so why pay to store their food here? Just buy it when we need it. And we have a dining room, so no need to cram a table in.

We just want a kitchen. An oven, hob, fridge, sink and a work top.

Thanks to renting out perhaps twenty house over the past six years for holidays, I realised one important thing; that it's all very well having streamlined white goods, hidden behind flush doors, but how do you find them? We've rented places where we've had absolutely no idea how to operate the hob. None whatsoever. Underfloor heating controls are an arse. And the joy of spending five days constantly trying to find things like the fridge or dishwasher, as they are hidden behind uniform doors. I wanted a kitchen where everything was obvious. My fridge looks like a fridge. My hob has big silver knobs; you can tell at a glance how to use it.

And we have to get out of it and let light in. So why not just move the door, and make it a bigger one? Replace the original door with a window.

And that Dear Reader, is just what we did.

No cupboards on the walls. None. Zero. No wall cupboards here please. Zen and the art of kitchen design. And certainly no downlighters using GU10 bulbs. I hate those things and feel sorry for anybody that has them. We do, in a few rooms and they were the worst decision I ever made. Hateful, spiteful things. The paint seems to melt onto the metal, meaning that if a bulb goes - which it will, soon - the only way to replace the bulb is to wrench the housing free of the ceiling. And you will never, ever get it all back together properly.

Once we decided what we wanted, it all fell into place.

I have to point out here that we'd actually jumped the gun on some things. I'd bought a Rangemaster cooker in Cranberry Red years ago; four to be exact. I'd had it sitting in the dining room all this time. We also had to re-use two industrial and massive lights I'd bought twenty years ago. And, just to be even more eccentric, I've always liked Junckers gym flooring and was determined to use reclaimed stuff where possible. Our original builder flatly refused to even entertain using this. Even now people ask when I'm going to sand the paint marks off.

My old industrial lights

And then the problems began.

You see builders budget to construct boxes. Kitchen companies want to sell you the maximum number of units along with in-house components such as fridges.

We didn't want a £120,000 extension, so no builder was interested. We only wanted 7 kitchen units, so no kitchen company was interested.

It took us almost five years to find a builder willing to do such a small job. Five years! Three of that was due to one who just kept promising to start soon. We were always being "bumped up the list" to a position where work would definitely start in three months. It's funny how three months suddenly becomes three years when the penny drops that he's really not interested. For me that was at year 1, where my wife is much more patient than me. I still keep in touch oddly enough as I quite liked him.

The builder we found was OK; he did the job. I'd find it hard to recommend him in many ways though, least of all being that we didn't click on a personal level at all. Indeed the opposite, as at the end we really didn't like each other. Kind of reading between the lines, I don't think he was universally liked on his projects, which is sad really.

And then the fun began.

We'd found a builder willing to do it. Issue being any builder willing to do such a small job is going to be slightly eccentric. Ours was. It proved the source of many headaches. We had conflicts. We kind of fell out. However, he was not one to bear a grudge fair play. We'd fall out, the next day we'd be back to singing badly together. His partner calls me Mr Negative to my face. Somehow they were hard to warm to, although the build got there in the end.

Why? Because it was bizarrely creative. Our builder had ideas. Our builder knew people, creative people willing to think and make. None of our kitchen units are normal. In the UK kitchens are multiples of a standard 300mm unit. Cupboards will be 300mm, 600mm or 900mm wide. Ours are 835.5mm wide.

Junckers reclaimed kitchen floor

Our builder found us a kitchen. Issue being the kitchen people are up in Norfolk whilst we are in Surrey. They sent us up to Norfolk, so we went for the day, near Cromer. Having dealt with kitchen people before, we were not up for any crap. My wife made the appointment for 11am, with instructions that we'd be out within the hour. So, apologies to Naked Kitchens, that's what we did.

Naked Kitchens.

This was interesting. Naked only do bespoke. We are cheap. Conflict! Yet it was not to be. They got where we were at instantly, and were more than happy to do cheap. They really do understand kitchens, and right from the off were ahead of the curve with us. Small kitchen? You don't want units? Then why not have two dishwashers? Use one as a cabinet. Instead of removing clean crockery from it, and putting it into a cupboard, leave it in situ, and simply load another dishwasher with the dirty stuff. It's one of those circular ideas that I still fret over, yet it works. Saved us having wall cupboards, and means our kitchen, small as it is, now looks big. Utterly brilliant.

Two dishwashers? Well why not.

Here we have to talk colours. In all of our dealings with builders and kitchen people, our issue was that we'd look in the showroom and love all the different colours and designs. yet if we wanted to chose a kitchen, we'd be shoehorned into just picking one, with uniform worktops. It was hard to pick just the one design.

At Naked they just said "pick what you like" so we did. I picked a blue set of cabinets, and my wife.... well, she didn't tell me at the time! I only found out what she had chosen when it came to fitting. The custom kitchen units came in at around £9,000. Sure we could have gone on-line and bought a kitchen for £3,000.... but you're not married to my wife! She wanted self closing drawers, dove tail joints, 100% wood construction, no 300mm multiples.

Oh and Naked are hard to find using sat nav. Use your brain instead. Well worth a visit.

Reusing stuff.

It was only a minor thing, yet it led to so much frustration. I'd already bought the cooker, had some lights and wanted to use reclaimed flooring. We also wanted to limit the number of kitchen units; the fewer the better.

To a man all of the builders wanted to maximise the build, using new wherever possible. Nobody was interested in just doing a kitchen; extension or nothing. For us finding a builder willing to do just as we asked was the hard part. It would have been easy setting a £140,000 budget. We'd have had them lining up in the street, and would have had a dedicated project manager at hand. Funny old world where a £50,000 job is too small for everybody.

The reclaimed flooring has been interesting. No idea where I saw it originally, yet when I saw it removed from the gym environment, well, I wanted it. The rest of our house is engineered oak. It's OK. Bit boring. For the kitchen I wanted something tough and a little more interesting. Figured a gym floor must have proven itself? One builder hated the idea, another liked it - guess which builder we went with? It's been a labour of love so far. It doesn't seem to like getting wet, so I've lacquered it.

Ten times.

This after sanding it by hand with 120 grade paper. By hand. Not with a palm sander. Literally by hand. Had to keep the paint marks you see. And every third coat of lacquer I sanded out the odd bit of grit or hair that seemed to find it's way in.

It now looks stunning. The lacquer has given it an almost three dimensional appearance and it glows. Very organic our floor. Just be warned it takes effort to get right.


Oh man, we had it all and sometimes it caused friction on site. Somebody would say to me "why do it that way?" and the question would seem reasonable, so I'd ask the builder..... Which always caused a flounce on site. I learnt to ignore most people, especially one who shall remain nameless. He was full of advice as to how to manage things and save money. I started to small a rat when he said he could get a loft conversion done for £17,000. Turns out that in near 30 years of home ownership he'd never engaged a builder to do any work.

The only time advice was good was when we had the chimney taken down. A few people suggested that this fell under the remit of building control and that perhaps, just perhaps, we should not allow it to be taken down without getting a proper report. Our builder was frankly stupidly ignorant here; he was insistent that it did not need Building Control, and it all got a little tense. We didn't sleep for a week, knowing our builder had keys and a hammer and was pig headedly determined to just knock it down. Ideally your builder will not have such a massive chip on his sodding shoulder.

Any big design dramas?

Only one really, to do with tiles. Silly things, and we only wanted one wall doing. I'd originally chosen glass, copper backed ones. Really nice things. As was the price. Ten tiles would have cost £1,000. Silly. So we were sent to Kent to see some chap who had 3mm thick porcelain things used for industrial units. Better than it sounds - the finish was a kind of black rust and looked stunning. £180, job done.

Except a month later it turned out that we'd need three, so back to silly. And now, three months into the build we had a whole day to chose tiles. My wife got stressed. We couldn't decide. So, in a fit of madness, I gave the task to my 11 year old son. Who popped into Topps Tiles, and chose some in five minutes flat. As we'd given the decision to him, then the grey ones were it. And how much were they? Our original tiles were £90 each. These? 50p each. And do you know what? Once up they look pretty classy. Job well done there m'boy.

The side return?

We still have it. We left it there. However we covered it with steps and decking. Job done. Just have to find somewhere else for the bins.


I fretted for ages over colours. Kept changing my mind. You see I had the red cooker already, along with some silver lights. Our floor is wooden with red, yellow, blue and white stripes in it. So what colours for the kitchen walls? Our kitchen is almost North facing, so dark. I went through pretty much all of the colour charts; red, green, yellow. Huh, kept changing my mind.

In the end Naked had a blue kitchen on display. I liked it, yet wanted it several shades darker. We were in Norfolk near Stiffkey....... So my side of the kitchen got painted Stiffkey Blue.

And we'd just come back from Edinburgh where I'd seen a huge flat decorated in a light blue. looking through some colour charts, good old Annie Sloan had a blue I liked. The nearest I found was St Giles Blue from Farrow & Ball. Really liked it, although nobody else did. Sod it, my kitchen, my paint, my colour. And the matching white to St Giles Blue is a pure white. That went up as well.

Funny but the white has proven the most problematic in a way. For years I've said to anybody who will listen that white is often a poor choice for a room. People think "room is dark, paint it white!" and go with that. Personally most rooms painted white to brighten them always look dingy. There're no contrast, so shadows make it look dirty and dull.


Our last builder ran hot. For our loft conversion I specified 200mm of insulation in the roof. He fitted 100mm whilst we were on holiday. Said it was enough. By then it was too late. For this build we had to have double glazing, which is actually quite nice now we have it. Sash windows prior you see. We also had to have a new sub-floor. So why not add insulation where possible? I now have the ceiling insulated, and also have 60mm of solid Swedish foam underfloor. And seeing as we have so much insulation, and as we did not want to have radiators.... we have no heating in the kitchen at all. So far it seems to work and is quite comfortable.

Does it work as a space to socialise?

No idea. Will say one thing. Our original kitchen, nobody would stop in it. I'd cook on my own. This one? First time my daughter brought her mate around, they sat on the kitchen floor, playing with the cat and chatting.

I'm not sure what the design influences were here. It's minimalist but not Scandi minimalist. It's not luxurious as the colours and materials - pretty much all wood - are not comforting in a warm embracing kind of way. Functional Brit Male Minimalistic? Not sure it will catch on. I don't really care; my wife adores it and just sits here, looking around. For hours.

It's not finished. We've populated it with our old stuff. The microwave is 15 years old, and the plates are all chipped. What we don't want to do is a cheque book finish, where we just go out and buy new stuff. Most of our kitchen has a back story. It's no IKEA or Wickes buy. We thought and fought for everything in it. Can't stop fighting now just because we've cooked a few meals.