The staircase in the house is tilted so it becomes an interior feature and is more comfortable to walk on.
Sometimes most random encounters lead to major life changing events. That was the case of Sabine and Bas from Utrecht. As a busy doctor and pharmacist with three children, they didn’t envision an extensive renovation that would take a better part of two years. But sometimes you have to take a chance when you see the potential. In their case, the decision paid off and now they can enjoy a rich family life and entertain friends in a home that is spacious, beautifully designed and more sustainable. This is their story, as told by Sabine.
Where did you live before moving here?
We already lived here in Utrecht, in Buiten Wittevrouwen. We had a very nice house with enough space in the children’s rooms but not a lot of shared living space. The shared space was very narrow and with our children it could get quite loud. Our neighbours sometimes complained even though we tried to keep quiet.
What is the story behind buying this house?
We both love water and we wanted to get a boat. The Tolsteegsingel is one of the few spots in Utrecht where you can park your boat right in front of your house if you have a permit. We were discussing how nice that must be when a man came to us. We started talking and it turned out he was selling his house.
He told us he owned one of the large houses on the singel with a deep garden. He named a very reasonable price but explained that renovations were a bit behind. He invited us to come and see the house the very same evening. When we arrived we understood what he meant – extensive renovations were required, but on the other hand, all original details were preserved. My husband was immediately enthusiastic about the potential of the house, the space and location. For me, it took a bit longer. I just couldn’t judge whether this was a smart thing to do.
We met with two friends who work as a contractor and a real estate agent. Both were impressed by the extent of required renovations but were enthusiastic and saw the potential. The real estate agent said that if we weren’t going to buy it, he would. Our contractor friend made a rough calculation for the renovation costs which turned out to be pretty close to the actual number in the end.
We started to realise that intensive renovations also meant we could design and create our dream house. We visited the house and the friendly owner again, and over a glass of wine, we agreed on a price and shook hands.
The kitchen and the dining room have a resin flooring that reflects light and is easy to maintain. Underfloor heating ensures comfort for feet in the colder months.
What was your vision for this house before the renovation started?
Our vision was a family house with a lot of living space where we could be together. More “family space” versus individual sleeping rooms. I also wanted a light, airy house – that was a bit of a worry with a basement, which can be dark.
Has it been always your plan to start a renovation project?
Not at all! We had no experience whatsoever with large renovations. We had been looking into more finished houses that were moving-ready. Both of us have busy jobs and we never planned something as drastic as this. This is how it turned out once we found the house. But we did really like that we could design it exactly to our taste.
What did you find challenging about the renovation process?
A lot of things! I loved the designing part, thinking about the space and seeing it turn into “our house.” But we had quite some issues with a contractor and had to find a new one during the process. It all took a lot longer than we expected and there were some problems with the construction permits and asbestos. In addition to a financial burden, this led to a building stop during a critical phase of the construction. That was the worst moment – when both of our new neighbours called us at the same night to tell us that their houses started to have cracks and flooding.
Another challenge was the fact that the house wasn’t ready when we moved in. The sleeping rooms were ready, except the plinths weren’t painted so we had to put all our things in the middle of the rooms. The kitchen was almost ready, but there was no fridge yet – about the only thing we really needed with three young children in the summer. But we could take a shower and go to the bathroom. Fortunately, my parents could take the children during the first week so we could straighten up things. During our holidays, the painters did a great job. Afterwards, it still took three more months until the house was finished.
The large glass facade at the back provides a connection with the garden and lets in plenty of natural light.
What were your thoughts once the project was really over?
Wow! Finished! And having time again! Time to enjoy this place and time for other things. It felt really good that everything turned out as we hoped.
What is now your most favourite thing about your home?
The location with an unobstructed view of the singel, the light and the space. We have a separate room for the children where they can play ping pong, darts, or games. And for being together, the open plan kitchen with the dining is great. Also the garden – we now have a little house in the back where we can sit in the evening sun, which is really nice. Another favourite is the room in the front part of the house with a large couch and a fireplace. We can fit there with the whole family and have a great view over the singel.
Were there any significant changes during the renovation process?
There had to be changes to the construction because of the council and we went through several changes during the design phase. A lot of people end up having problems with humidity in similar spaces so our contractor advised us to build a kind of a swimming pool in the house, with borders that run around the house. It seems like a good advice – humidity has not been an issue so far.
Do you have any sustainability measures in your home?
We wanted to be as much environmentally friendly as possible. We have a solar heating boiler and solar panels. All windows are of course double glazed. I think most people are becoming more environmentally aware because of the climate change. I’m now more considerate about eating meat, buying products, and flying. We also have an electric car. It is something that has gradually evolved this way.
The solar panels were part of the plan since the beginning, the solar heating boiler was an idea from the plumber involved in the renovation. We made these choices for idealistic reasons rather than financial ones.
What about your long-term plans with this house?
We are very happy here now, the house fits us and our needs perfectly. But you never know what the future will look like. We have quite a few staircases, some of which are quite steep, which is not ideal for the elderly. And the house is spacious, which we love for our family life. We enjoy inviting friends and so do our children. But once the children move out, it might be too big. We can always make it into a bed and breakfast though, work from home, or who knows what else we will come up with!
The kitchen and the dining room are overlooked by a mezzanine on the first floor.
What are your personal favourite spaces in your home?
That would be the kitchen and dining area, sitting next to the fireplace. And we have a laundry room – we used to hang the laundry in our daughter’s bedroom in our old house. It still feels so luxurious to do the laundry in a separate room with a great view of the singel. The study next to the laundry room has the same position so you can sit there enjoying the view and not feel sorry for yourself when you have to work.
Was the choice of materials important for you?
We like natural materials, wood, steel and natural colours. And I like coherence in the house – not to mingle too many styles – so for example all bathrooms and toilets in the house have the same style. In that respect, we did find it a bit of a challenge to combine the classical building style (the house is from 1880) with the industrial steel doors/windows and the open stairs between the two lower floors. But I think the combination of wood, steel and natural colors turned out really nice.
For the kitchen floor, I thought of an industrial, concrete floor but my husband was afraid of cracks and cold feet, so we went for epoxy flooring with underfloor heating. It’s very easy to clean which is handy. We recently had a disco party for my daughter’s class. Cleaning up the mess was very easy! For the more classical part of the house, I was sure I wanted wood floors. We discussed stone in the hallway but finally decided for the same wooden floor, continuous in the living room.
What about the garden, do you spend a lot of time there?
That was also something new for us. We used to have a small garden in the previous house. We discussed what we wanted in the garden with the children – a small hockey/soccer field and a kitchen garden were the choices we made. But we have only had one summer here now, so we still have to see what works best. We recently built a garden house in the back of the garden. I would love to make a fireplace there. We can sit there in the evening sun, maybe have dinner there – although I can imagine it is more practical nearer the house. And I imagine it must be also a great place for the children to sit and hang out with their friends, enjoying a bit of privacy.
Something I wanted was the house to be a place where children would bring their friends and hang out. And that seems to be working out!
Were there any surprises during your project?
One of the surprises when moving here involved the stairs. We had sore muscles from running up and down, looking for everything that was packed and impossible to find. I remember the first night when I was putting my daughter to bed on the second floor and she asked for her book that she had left in the kitchen, four floors below… We are more organised now, I hardly think about the stairs these days.
The amount of space was a positive surprise. The children have nice bedrooms but they don’t spend much time there. They rather hang out in the shared living spaces with us. My daughter does her homework in a little study area which is open and overlooks the dining space. In that way she is still involved with us while doing her homework.
And I love that we can always accommodate family and friends. They can come for dinner and stay overnight if that turns out handy. We host parties, like our traditional Christmas party, where we had dinner with five families in the open kitchen.
The new house has plenty of space for family gatherings and to host occasional guests.
Do you have any tips for people who are planning a renovation project?
For us, I think most problems arose during the building phase because the supervisor who oversaw the construction was never in the bi-weekly meetings we had with the architect, contractor, and subcontractor. The building process would have been more coordinated had he been there. The work was done well anyway but it would have saved us some frustration.
How was your experience working with an architect?
Richel was very nice and friendly. He always took time and was very knowledgeable. We had quite some ideas but he added some details we didn’t think of. He came up with the idea to make the open stairs that lead to the kitchen and the dining area spacious and a bit skewed, for both, optical and practical reasons.
Can you summarise how you feel about your house?
Home is very important. It is a place where you wake up every morning and spend a lot of time. If it feels good, it makes you feel good. Similar to sleep – if you sleep well during the night then you function better during the day. For me, that’s the same with feeling at home.