A Beginner's Guide to Finishing Touches
A self build project can become so overwhelming that the finishing touches which make or break a design can be overlooked.
Sometimes we all get so caught up in the bigger picture that it can be difficult to find time for the details. Who cares what the guttering looks like if the planners can’t agree on a suitable roof tile, and what does it matter if the kitchen cupboard handles are boring as long as the project comes in under budget?
Unfortunately these can be the very items that tend to get noticed. You may have spent a fortune on hand-made bricks, but visitors are more likely to comment on the unusual taps in your bathroom or the funky towel radiator, so spending time on the small stuff really can make all the difference and it doesn’t have to break the bank.
One excellent rule of thumb is to focus attention on items which you touch – door and cupboard handles, banisters, window furniture and taps. They tend to suffer from wear and tear, making it important to choose good quality fittings or run the risk of your new home looking shabby after a matter of months. Additionally, these are the things which other people will notice, and where textures and finishes may be exploited to maximum effect.
Taps are the perfect example and suffer from the kind of snobbery usually reserved for cars. For many people (particularly architects) Vola is perceived as the Ferrari of the tap world and may be seen everywhere from barn conversions to innovative glass houses. Make sure that taps and sinks purchased individually are physically compatible and that the materials complement one another. Stainless steel sinks and chrome taps are an obvious combination, but there are a number of other options such as brushed steel and aluminium.
Taps can now be operated with single levers, twin levers and even joystick style controls, which make operation easier and usually smoother – a factor worth considering if your taps are likely to be used by children or the elderly – and some companies also supply taps with a thermostatic valve which ensures the flow will never rise above a safe temperature or pressure.
Aerators may also be fitted which fill the water with bubbles for a softer and slightly less powerful flow, and many taps now come with an extra lever specifically designed to dispense filtered water for drinking and food preparation. Alternatively, there are mixer taps with an additional nozzle attached to a self-contained filter which can be easily connected to the existing water supply and is usually housed out of sight below the sink. And of course there are the increasingly popular boiling water taps, which can dispense chilled water too.
Choosing window furniture should be a fun but important part of building or restoring your own home. Window fittings for modern houses may be as imaginative or as simple as the design, with bright chrome or bronze creating eye-catching features. For renovations, especially for listed buildings, original and period style replicas are widely available – with reclamation yards the obvious choice for those attempting to match particular items. A number of companies specialise in copying original designs, and many manufacturers have their own forge and can replicate individual pieces or produce bespoke, one-off items.
Most window companies offer a choice of styles and finishes for their window furniture, and it’s worth asking to see the complete range of options before you make up your mind. Some handles are integral to the working of the window, and should not be changed without first seeking advice, but it is often possible to exchange standard fittings for more elaborate or better quality window furniture which will instantly create a feeling of opulence. When purchasing from a catalogue try to see a sample to confirm quality and weight, and ask the manufacturer about the length of guarantee and how best to clean and maintain their products.
SWITCHES & SOCKETS
As with many small fittings for the home, switches and sockets are often not given enough thought at the crucial decision making stage at the beginning of a self build or renovation project. It’s not just the style of switches and sockets that is important, but also their positioning and the quantity you wish to incorporate into your home.
Matching switches and sockets look great, and there are now literally hundreds of both modern and traditional styles on offer in addition to the standard white versions. Round ‘dolly’ switches are well suited to period style properties, whilst dimmers and rockers can be equally at home in a traditional setting or a contemporary environment. Materials that complement traditional rooms include brass, gold plate and bronze, whilst chrome, stainless steel, brushed steel, glass and plastic are ideal for more modern houses.
Britain has a long tradition of decorative brickwork that stretches back to the Victorian period and before. In the 1950s and 60s architectural style favoured simple planes rather than more decorative surfaces, but decorative brickwork is now back in vogue for both traditional style and modern house designs. Entire companies specialise in nothing but special shaped bricks, whilst even the smallest brickworks can offer British Standard specials or a bespoke service. Just remember when ordering specials that you may need to allow a little more time than for standard bricks.
Simply by varying the alignment of bricks within the overall brickwork, forming non-right-angled corners, curving a wall or creating corbels, plinths and arches can add life and interest to an otherwise dull building. Features may be created by projecting or recessing a course of bricks to produce a line or ‘string course’ or by setting bricks in a dogtooth pattern.
Plinths are projections at the base of a wall which give additional strength and solidity, and plinth specials have chamfered edges and are used in either two or three courses. Quoins – the external corners of a wall – were often built in stone to contrast with the main fabric of the building, and it is easy to create a similar effect by block bonding bricks in a contrasting colour, whilst arches spanning door and window openings can contribute to a building’s overall presence.
Choosing appropriate fittings and decoration for a roof can provide the perfect finishing touch and add character and style to a house. Avoid overloading a roof with decorative ridge tiles, finials, fancy chimney pots and weather vanes however, especially on shallow pitched roofs, cottages and single-storey dwellings where such details can look totally out of place.
It is important to choose the roof covering first and then select decoration which matches or contrasts. Stone or stone-effect roofs usually have a plain ridge and possibly a stone or pre-cast finial whilst, when slate is used on the main roof, contrasting terracotta-coloured clay or concrete ridge and hip tiles can be used.
Clay roofs will almost always have clay decorative ridges, and smaller ridge tiles on low roofs, porches or bays help to keep a sense of proportion. Ridge and hip tiles can account for up to 20 per cent of the total roofing cost, so take advantage of your supplier’s quantity estimating service and ensure you know your ridge pitch – especially if buying from reclamation yards.
It may sound trite, but the front door to your home is the first impression a visitor will have of what lies beyond, and should reflect the style of the property.
Building a contemporary house only to hang a cheap, reproduction front door, or recreating a Victorian cottage and choosing PVC totally ruins the overall effect. On period style dwellings the rules are strictly laid out and should always be adhered to, but on a modern style house there is tremendous freedom to create something different.
At second-fix stage and with a dwindling budget it’s tempting to opt for the cheapest internal doors on offer, but in the long term the likelihood of cheap doors splitting or warping is relatively high. Unless you commission a one-off design from a joiner, or approach one of the smaller and more exclusive manufacturers, the choice of internal door styles tends to fall into three categories, all of which are available off the peg in standard sizes from builders’ merchants.
Most selfbuilders will be looking for complete door and frame sets in one of the various standard sizes, and should check whether prices include VAT and try to negotiate a discount and free delivery for bulk purchases.
Early doors were made from timber boards bound together by three horizontal rails, and these ledge and brace varieties are popular in renovations, barn conversions and cottage style houses, with companies offering doors in kit form to assemble on site. Many manufacturers also supply skirting, architrave and plank flooring to match their doors.
If you choose the popular panelled version you will need to decide on either traditional solid frames and panels or the cheaper moulded option. When these doors were originally constructed to imitate wooden wall panelling their design depended on the period and their position, with more ornate doors reserved for primary rooms.
By the turn of the century timber shortages brought about the birth of the flush door, manufactured from wood faced with plywood and hardboard. If choosing flush doors decide whether they will be painted, veneered, stained or varnished. Plan too whether you require any doors with glass panes – either fully glazed or half lights.
Despite the growing number of selfbuilders opting for underfloor heating, panel radiators are still the most popular form of heat emitter in our homes. They are cheap and easy to install and control, with a relatively fast response rate. Their obvious drawbacks are that they tend to create hot and cold spots within a room and can be difficult to site unobtrusively. One solution is to make a feature of the radiator by choosing a more unusual alternative to the ubiquitous but cost-effective pressed steel panel.
Traditional reconditioned cast iron column radiators or funky designer models can be relatively expensive, and it is important to avoid cutting costs by choosing a smaller version only to discover that it is not heating your room efficiently. Thermostatic valves fitted to each radiator will enable you to accurately control the temperature of individual rooms, with zone controls enabling bedrooms and living rooms to be run on different programmes.
One common mistake is to connect heated towel rails to the main central heating system, which means that they will only be warm when the heating is switched on. This can make drying towels a problem during the summer, and one solution is to connect towel rails to the primary hot water system instead, or to fit an electric or dual fuel model.
Wall mounted ladder style towel radiators are currently the most popular design, and are ideal where floor space is limited. If you choose to buy reclaimed towel rails or radiators then check that they have been properly flushed through to remove any debris and ensure there are no leaks by having them pressure tested.
Creating an unusual finish with wall tiles is both a practical and attractive way to stamp your individuality on the kitchen and bathrooms. Machine-made tiles are mass produced from a compressed clay compound in one process, and achieve an even glaze, colour and uniformity of shade – although it is possible to distress machine-made tiles to give a handmade appearance. All tiles are evenly sized with an equally thick ‘biscuit’, making them easier to fix.
The method of manufacture used for hand-made tiles, which are glazed, fired and painted separately, will result in a variance in size, colour and thickness. This, combined with minor blemishes, small chips and imperfections, are intended characteristics and are the determining factors in achieving a rustic look.
If you decide to mix cheaper machine-made tiles with some decorative hand-made designs then alter the thickness of the grout to allow for any difference in tile depth to ensure all tiles are flush, and make sure that the tiles are the same size. Always ask to see a sample of tiles rather than relying on a picture in a brochure, where colours can appear distorted, and inspect all tiles prior to installation to ensure they are undamaged and without variation in colour.
The rainwater system of a house – the guttering, hoppers and downpipes – will need to be specified according to the pitch and size of the roof to ensure that it will cope with the volume of water collected. Consider attaching your downpipes to a rainwater harvesting system which can reduce water bills by as much as 40 per cent by providing clean water suitable for a number of applications, including flushing the toilet.
Traditional cast iron rainwater goods are still widely available in a range of period designs while, at the other end of the scale, extruded plastic is a low maintenance and low budget option that is available from builders’ merchants in a variety of styles. Self-coloured, it needs no painting and is relatively durable but may not suit older style homes or even be allowed in some Conservation Areas.
Glass-fibre reinforced plastic (GRP), is a more expensive alternative, but should last considerably longer and is available in period designs from specialist suppliers. Self-coloured, it is very low maintenance and extremely durable.
Copper is becoming a fashionable choice and will resist the elements, gradually developing a rich green patina that will never need painting, and aluminium is a light, attractive, low maintenance material which does not rust and is available in traditional or contemporary designs, including a seamless version which is extruded on site. Aluminium windows and doors are becoming increasingly popular, and it makes sense to colour match the rainwater goods for a uniform finish.
A good starting point for the serious enthusiast is the Brooking Collection (www.clementwindows.org.uk/brooking) near Guildford in Surrey – one of the few places in the country where people can come to research their restoration of a period building or ensure accuracy for period style new homes. This large and unusual collection has been created single-handedly by Charles Brooking, who began forming his collection of architectural features and details when he was just a schoolboy. By the time he was 12 he had already collected some of the items that can be seen today. The collection holds thousands of examples of original architectural features from large items such as doors, windows and sections of staircases to smaller things like door knobs and knockers and sample lengths of architrave and skirting mouldings. Some of the things in the collection are examples of fine craftsmanship or are particularly eye-catching in their design, whilst others come from more commonplace buildings, but all are important in providing a record of the history of building in Britain. Every year it is visited by both the general public and professionals whose work it is to restore old buildings.