Thrifty Living: The key to low-cost renovation? Marry an expert builder

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It is now quite clear that the commercial imperative is all that drives the fashion world, so I've decided to ignore it altogether. This week, for example, we were encouraged to "give up dresses". Yes, the most practical, swift and elegant clothing ever designed is now OUT, I learn. It's skirts we must all wear. But, with a skirt, you have to find a top. Then you have to iron the top. And worry about that lump that can appear betwixt skirt and top, and have a panic about the length of skirt, height of shoe, and so on.

Naturally, the fashion industry loves all this and is eagerly waiting for the nation to charge out and buy skirts, tops, and Trinny & Susannah support knickers. Forget it. I'm keeping my dresses. I bought a load two years ago and I love them. I now call them "classics".

Dear thrift seeker, this is how you need to assess your wardrobe. Decide that it has "classic" status, and you won't feel the need to rush out on a spring updating mission to Zara. I'm confident this is a cool thing to do, because I've had support in this theory from a most unlikely quarter, namely the fashion guru Savannah Miller (elder sister to the glamorous Sienna).

I was dispatched to Gloucestershire to investigate the house of Savannah and her husband Nick, who have refurbished it in a wholly ecologically sound manner, all natural, lime-based paint and water butts. Savannah, charming and six months pregnant, greeted me wearing a dark blazer and denim-blue empire line smock, both from Twenty8Twelve, the collection she and Sienna design together.

Now, in terms of financial outlay, Twenty8Twelve is not on a par with, say, Peacocks. Bargain basement this is not. But Savannah's belief is that if you buy a well-cut blazer, some decent trousers and a dress, they will turn into classics and look elegant for years. And hang what the fashion experts say.

So, I was marching around with Savannah and Nick, inspecting their cottage. They endeared themselves to me no end when I asked what had been the driving factor behind the rebuild. "Everything had to pass through a filter of environmental concerns, the character of a period house, selling on, and price," Nick explained. Which was most important? "Money," he said. "Economic concerns are the case for everyone," added Savannah. Too right, girl.

They estimate they spent about £50,000 totally refurbishing their house, which included knocking down several walls and building a (ready-made) conservatory on the back. They kept costs down via several key policies. First, Savannah did the right thing by marrying an expert builder. Most of the house and garden was remodelled via DIY. Second, when they bought the house, which had been owned by a very old lady and sold after her death, they kept every piece of furniture in it. Everything. As I understand it, it was all deeply unstylish and involved a lot of shiny, darkened wood. Never mind; Savannah sanded it all down, painted it white or duck egg blue, and it was reborn – at a fraction of the cost of replacing it. Anything that wasn't reborn was used around the house as part of the building project.

Third, nothing (apart from the conservatory, and some gorgeous wallpaper) was bought new. The kitchen came from their old house in Devon ("We just brought it with us"). The gleaming range was a £200 eBay bargain. The sexy wheeled butcher's block was a cast-off from a friend, the hideous shiny varnish and Ikea-style decoration sanded off and the whole thing repainted. It now looks like something from Heal's.

The house isn't frightfully hi-tech – no solar panels, plasma screens, sexy lighting consoles or hot tubs. There isn't even a working television (a sole unit is used for DVDs only). But what the house represents is a statement that things don't have to come from a high-end, high-cost market in order to look fantastic. All right, you need to spend a bit of time picking around on eBay and maybe even going into the odd skip or two. And it's good if you know how to put up shelves on your own.

But the mindset is more important; the ability to look at a ghastly piece of furniture and realise that with a bit of imagination, it could be transformed. It's the same as having the determination to look at your dresses hanging in the wardrobe and resolve that you won't trade them in for a bunch of skirts.

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