An entrepreneur with a passion for interior design has revealed how her life-long insomnia helped her completely gut and remodel an entire three-storey townhouse in just six weeks.
Nuala Campbell, 38, from Belfast, and her husband Frankie, 43, bought the house, just off Belfast’s desirable Ormeau Road, for just £142,000 in November 2019 – but Nuala said she hadn’t quite realised the scale of the renovation needed until she got the keys.
The home had been a buy-to-let property, and was ‘absolutely disgusting’ with rotten food in the kitchen cupboards, sticky surfaces, and urine-soaked floorboards in the bathroom.
Nuala has now revealed how she would manage each day on just a couple of hours sleep, spending seven hours work on the renovation every evening after work and explaining: ‘Some nights I slept for just half an hour… on good nights I managed four hours. It was tough’.
‘The house was filthy,’ she explained. ‘It’d been used by a landlord who rented out cheap rooms; the whole place was a tip.
Nuala found an infestation of woodlice in the carpets and flooring which needed treatment by a pest control expert.
Nuala runs two businesses – a special effects academy and manufacturing props and prosthetics for stage and screen. She put her creativity to good use on the renovation.
She continued: ‘The features were dated, floorboards rotting and walls crumbing.
‘We realised we were going to have to completely gut the interior, rip up the floors and start from scratch.’
Meanwhile she revealed: ‘In the bathroom there was one of those hoses by the toilet that you typically see in Middle Eastern countries, instead of toilet roll.
‘The floor boards around the toilet were absolutely soaked and rotted, the floor was literally being held together by tough lino.’
The townhouse is opposite Nuala’s office for her two businesses – Titanic FX and Titanic Creative Education – so she spotted a sale board go up in summer 2019.
‘Me and Frankie talked about buying it,’ she remembered. ‘We’d toyed with the idea of buying a second property, doing it up, then using it as a base for visiting lecturers who travel to Belfast to teach at my academy.
‘But we never did anything about it and soon the board changed to ‘sale agreed’. I was gutted, I realised I’d missed my chance.
‘Luckily for me the sale fell through. As soon as it went back on the market we sprang into action.
‘I think the sale’s collapse worked in our favour because we were able to agree a deal of £142,000 – after it previously being sale agreed for £152,000.’
The renovation work began in January when Nuala hired local building firm Farmer & Duffin to pull up the rotting floorboards, replace the dated boiler and heating system, and re-plaster the walls.
They also knocked through a dividing wall between the two ‘tiny’ reception rooms to create a spacious living-dining area.
‘It had been rented by the room, so the middle reception room had been used as an extra bedroom,’ explained Nuala.
‘It’s a four-bed property that had been rented with five bedrooms – it can’t have been very pleasant to live in.
‘The builders completely gutted it. I began to dread the phone ringing. Every few hours they called to say they’d found another problem or another wall had crumbled.
‘The walls needed completely paring back, re-boarding and re-plastering.’
Despite the challenges, building work was finished by late January and Nuala was left with a blank canvas, a larger living space and fresh walls.
‘My background is in make-up and special effects, I love being creative,’ she says. ‘I was determined to do the rest of the work myself.
Nuala chose a kitchen from Ikea, but saved ‘several thousand pounds’ by doing the installation herself.
‘I literally took a sledgehammer to the old kitchen and smashed it out,’ she laughed. ‘I filled five skips. I had to put a mask on because it was so filthy.
‘Then I worked through two nights building and hanging all the new cupboards and fixtures myself.
‘I actually really love building Ikea furniture – good job really. It’s like Lego for grown-ups!’
Nuala admitted she did hire a professional to tile the bathroom because she ‘didn’t want to make a bad job of it’,but said she found her eye-catching black shower screen on Amazon for £70.
‘I did so much bargain-hunting, I didn’t pay full price for anything,’ she said. ‘I’m a natural insomniac so I’d be sat in bed at 3am scrolling my phone, hunting for sales and cheap deals.
‘The wooden flooring was bought in the January sales, reduced from £24.99 per square metre to £7.99 per square metre.
‘I had an idea for a rustic-looking dining table, but most of the ones I liked were £600-£700. Eventually I found a carpenter on eBay and commissioned him to make one, for £120 including delivery.
‘I tried to pay attention to detail, looking for things that were a bit unusual or different.
‘The bedframes, for example, are from Wayfair and have interesting details that set them apart from similar ones you find in Ikea.’
And what she didn’t buy, Nuala made herself, revealing: ‘I upcycled pieces of furniture.
‘My lamps are all a mish-mash, with bases and shades put together. I found a living room side table at the recycling centre during a dump run and stripped the paint off it.
‘I kept an eye on Facebook marketplace for vintage items going for free that I could sand and repaint.’
Since completing the renovations in February, Nuala has already played host to several visiting lecturers – who have all said the house is a ‘stunning’ place to stay.
And she’s had so much positive feedback on her Facebook page that she’s now renovating a five-bedroom house in Belfast on behalf of luxury room letting firm ‘PR Properties’.
‘Maybe this is the start of yet another business,’ she said. ‘I am so proud of what I’ve achieved.
‘I’d say I spent about 60 hours a week working on the renovation – seven hours a night after work and then full days at weekends. Some days I would’ve had my dog Mia with me for company.
‘It just goes to show that you don’t have to spend a fortune to create something really beautiful.’