When Sophie and Luke Hakes found a house for sale on their favorite London street, they thought fate meant them to buy it.

But their subsequent two-year struggle to transform the dated house into a contemporary family home—complete with disappearing contractors, shoddy workmanship, a spiraling time frame, escalating budget, and a pandemic—drove the first-time renovators (who became first-time parents during the project) to the “brink of breakdown,” said Mr. Hakes.

The couple had lived in the north London neighborhood of De Beauvoir Town since around 2010, in a modest two-bedroom house. By 2017, with starting a family on their minds, they wanted to upsize.

The living room, with its fireplace, is decorated in dramatic deep blue.


Joanna Yee for The Wall Street Journal

“We often used to walk down this particular street and would look into the houses and say that we would love to live in one of them one day,” said Mrs. Hakes, 34, who works in leverage finance for a bank. When a house there was listed, she said she and her husband went to see it the same day, even though it had only three bedrooms, and one of them was very small.

“The house itself was entirely underwhelming,” she said. But it sat on a bend in the road, giving it a slightly wider plot than the neighboring homes.

“I was quite keen to take on a project,” said Mr. Hakes, 41, a venture-capital investor. “Houses hardly ever come up for sale on the street, and it seemed like a great opportunity.”

In April 2017, they paid $2.5 million for the roughly 1,635-square-foot home and moved in. They hired Tigg + Coll Architects to help them redesign the house. The initial estimate on the project was $980,000.

“We were definitely super naïve,” said Mr. Hakes. “It was the first big building project we had ever done.”

At the start of 2019, they had a plan to expand the house to five bedrooms and they had their building permits. They chose a construction firm. In May 2019, Mr. and Mrs. Hakes decamped to a two-bedroom apartment nearby, which belonged to a friend. They believed they would be back home within a year.

In September 2019, their construction firm shut down due to financial difficulties. Suddenly, the Hakes found themselves on the hunt for a new contractor. They hired a structural surveyor to check that the work already done was sound. “They found endless problems, with the windows, the floors, the electrics,” said Mrs. Hakes. “It all had to be ripped out and redone, and the side wall rebuilt.” When the couple sought a new round of quotes from contractors, they all came in higher than the first ones had been, even though months of work had been done.

Woolton Hakes, 2, plays beside the built-in wine fridge.


Joanna Yee for The Wall Street Journal

Work restarted in December 2019 and in January 2020 the couple’s son, Woolton, was born. Then, in March 2020, the pandemic hit and work stopped once again. “At this point, the house was a shell,” said Mr. Hakes. “It had exterior walls, a roof, and some studwork, but there were no windows, and a great big hole at the back of the house.”

Then the couple got some bombshell news. “Our builders told us that with the pandemic, the job was no longer profitable, and they were pulling out,” said Mrs. Hakes. “We were living in a tiny flat with a colicky baby, and it was a very difficult time.”

They recouped only a portion of what the contractor owed them for the unfinished work. But, due to a bonus payment for Mr. Hakes, the couple was able to keep the project moving. In spring 2020, the couple hired their third contractor, and by March 2021, they were finally able to move back into the property, more than a year later than planned. The work continued around them until June 2021. The build, not including professional fees, ended up costing $1.7 million, plus value added tax, a 20% government tax levied on many goods and services in the U.K. 

Today, the 2,562-square-foot contemporary home has four levels. To create the open-plan space the couple wanted, they extended the basement level outward into the backyard and sideways into the space beneath the garage. The room is now large enough to include a seating area, arranged around a contemporary slot fireplace, a kitchen with gray, ribbed wood cabinets and a marbled porcelain work top, and a dining table. Floor-to-ceiling sliding doors and a pivoting glass door lead to the backyard, where a 226-square-foot garden room is used as a gym, a project they completed after the main build was done at a cost of an additional $65,500.

The hallway, with timber floors and traditional plasterwork.


Joanna Yee for The Wall Street Journal

The former basement kitchen, meanwhile, has been repurposed as a utility room. There is also a playroom for Woolton and a bedroom suite for his nanny. A contemporary central staircase, built from folded steel with timber treads and glass walls, leads up to the first floor. The garage was demolished, creating more space on this level, which now has Woolton’s bedroom, a guest bedroom and a living room.

The primary bedroom takes up the entire second floor and its décor is calm and neutral. It has a spacious bathroom with a double shower and a free-standing bathtub, and a walk-in closet. The third floor, with its steeply pitched roof, is a guest bedroom and doubles as Mrs. Hakes’s home office. 

The house’s façade.


Andy Matthews

Though they moved in around a year ago, the couple are still affected by the stress of getting their dream home built. “It was a lot of heartache,” said Mr. Hakes. “I was very near breakdown in October 2020.”

Mrs. Hakes has spent the past year fine-tuning the interiors of the house. “I love it and have kind of got over those feelings, although if we could have got rid of the house during the middle of the build, I would have jumped at the chance,” she said. “Now I feel lucky every day that I live here and proud of what we have created.”

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