Rikke Mitchell tells Eileen Leahy about the evolution of her two businesses, the construction company
Baltic Star Design & Build and Nordhus Furniture, and how the two complement one another perfectly when it comes to creating beautiful, bespoke and unique creations for her clients…
The lovely leafy enclave of Langton Green is where you’ll find the headquarters of Rikke Mitchell’s successful construction company Baltic Star Design & Build and also that of her bespoke carpentry business Nordhus Furniture.
From the outside, the building in which they are both housed looks like it could pass as a charming period family home but as soon as you walk down towards its entrance and step over the threshold, you are suddenly in a busy workshop with machines grinding and carpenters deftly chiselling away to create the company’s trademark bespoke pieces.
“This is the hub of our two businesses,” explains Rikke as she welcomes me and SO magazine photographer David Bartholomew in.
“This is where all our hybrid kitchens and handmade furniture is created,” states Rikke before stepping through another door to show us a series of smaller rooms where the team can do additional practical things like staining oak boards and mixing and drying materials.
As our photographer David starts to gather together Rikke and her team for fun some group shots I’m afforded a candid snapshot of how this group work together. The atmosphere between them is jovial yet respectful. It’s clear from being with them for only a matter of minutes this team all enjoy working together.
“We all get on and love what we do,” smiles Rikke as she follows David’s instructions to move slightly left in order to get the perfect group shot.
After the team have happily obliged with numerous photos, Rikke and I bid goodbye to David and the other staff members, who include Rikke’s assistant Kelly, and head towards the office for our chat.
As we scale the stairs, I spy a beautiful small showroom showcasing a small selection of the type of work done by both Baltic Star Design & Build and Nordhus Furniture.
As well as stunning cabinetry with reeded glass cupboards and a marble top kitchen island, there are also examples of handmade shelving units, funky tile samples and some statement lighting.
Just a quick glance at this set-up proves just how much of a comprehensive service Rikke and her team of carpenters and builders can give their clients. “Yes, it’s very much a from-concept-to-completion offering,” confirms Rikke.
This is all the more impressive when she goes on to tell me that she actually started off her career designing shopping centres.
“I am a building surveyor by trade, and so I spent many years working in shopping centre construction for big firms up in central London. A lot of my work took me to Europe too, which meant I travelled a lot, but when my children came along, I stopped all of that.”
When she was six months pregnant with her son, friends of Rikke’s had an issue with their house build and they asked her if she could help out.
“I said, ‘Sure no problem.’ Then they told me they would pay me for it and I told them I didn’t want any money. After resolving their issue, they said, ‘Actually could you stay on and finish the job?’ So I agreed to it and it all went from there really.”
Rikke says that after finishing that particular job the couple then recommended her to a few more people and things started to evolve organically after that.
By 2012 she was starting to help more and more people: “My son was six months old by then and my daughter was a toddler, so I wasn’t really thinking that far ahead about things. I just thought I was helping people out but then it just grew and grew.
“That’s when I started hiring construction staff from various trades, and suddenly Baltic Star took off. I’d started off as a sole trader just doing a few bits here and then suddenly I was running full-on projects.”
Eleven years later Rikke now employs a permanent team of 18 and instructs a band of freelance tradespeople as and when she needs them.
“What you see here in the workshop is only a few people – it is just the tip of the iceberg because everybody else is on site somewhere.”
Baltic Star Design & Build’s bread-and-butter projects are extensions, period renovations and conversions. Rikke adds they are mainly residential and are all based in the local area.
“Our USP is that most of the projects are done in stages – sometimes over several years – as that way people don’t have the expense of moving out and renting. It’s so expensive to do that but also pretty much impossible to rent somewhere short-term for three to six months.
“We find that phasing projects like this gives our clients the chance to have a proper think about things, rather than being hit by a million decisions at once. It is very common for people to make the mistake of not telling architects they haven’t necessarily got the funds to do what has been suggested.
“We often have people come to us who have already been through the process with an architect, and we end up redoing the plans for them because I think architects want to show you the most you can do with your house but that might not necessarily mean you have got the money to do it.”
Another one of the things Rikke and her team specialise in is helping people make the most of their house.
“With a design and build project people often become disillusioned and don’t know what to do. Whereas we have a more realistic approach. We will always say ‘Find out what your budget can do for you first before embarking on the grand design ideas’. That way people are aware of where any budget limitations might be.
“If you’re realistic about your budget and what it can do, it actually gives you a lot more flexibility. We always tell people that it’s not always better to extend either. We will always look at the plans and if we don’t think an extension is needed then we will suggest remodelling internally by maybe knocking two or three rooms together. That will get you a fantastic kitchen diner for example – without the price tag of having to do a new build.
“That way you might just have enough budget left over to do the bathrooms up or change your windows or some other thing that would become unaffordable if you had built the extra space.”
The other thing Rikke and her team do when people come to them for the full design and build service – even if they haven’t seen an architect – is to run through options versus budget.
“Briefly this means we will look at how effectively we can use a client’s budget in order to get as much as they want. The key here is not to spend it on things that won’t add value later on. If you want a gold leaf wall for example you’d actually be better off buying a bespoke piece of art instead that you can take with you to your next home.
“All those things are there to be discussed and it’s our job to drill down into the details of what people’s desires are – as well as practical things like how storage needs to work for them.”
I tell Rikke that her approach seems a very different one from the norm. After all don’t builders have a reputation of overpromising, underdelivering, blowing the budget and therefore creating a very stressful scenario?
“We don’t believe in that type of pressure being applied and I think that is why clients come back to us time and time again because we give them good advice in the first place.”
Another of Baltic Star’s USPs is offering clients feasibility services. This can be done on a property they are already living in where advice might be needed on whether a potential building project is worth doing or not. The company also offers pre-purchase feasibility services too.
“This means that when people are looking to buy a property we can come in and walk them through what they can do with the house and give an idea of how much things will cost. It means that when they’ve made their purchase, they’ve gone into it with eyes
“We can put people’s minds at rest by visiting a property with them and using one of our experts who will be able to give an accurate survey determining whether or not drastic work has to be carried out. People find that very useful.”
Rikke adds that usually, if people have had a feasibility visit with them and have gone on to purchase the house, they’ll get Baltic Star to do the work.
And they do that work with genuine integrity as Rikke tells me that both Baltic Star Design & Build and Nordhus Furniture have strong eco-credentials.
“We are members of Considerate Constructors and are also a zero-landfill constructor.
Our commitment to the environment also extends to our workshop. We put a lot of work into sustainability, using timbers that have long lifespans and can cope with the British weather.”
How many projects would the team be working on at any one time? “We usually have around four or five on the go. And then in addition to this there is whatever we’re doing in the workshop.”
This, says Rikke, could be anything from making windows and doors, to kitchens and bespoke furniture. Commissions include everything from console tables and chests of drawers to storage units, alcove units and wardrobes.
This is the Nordhus Furniture element of Rikke’s ever-expanding business and it too has naturally evolved.
“We started making pieces upon people’s requests after they couldn’t find what they were looking for. Three years ago we took on this building in Langton Green as we were expanding so much. Now we can make windows, wardrobes, tables, external and internal doors. And the added bonus means people aren’t waiting weeks or months for something from a different supplier.”
I ask Rikke if there’s anything her team don’t make and with that her right-hand man Nick pops his head into the office and answers for her: “Nothing at all. If somebody wants it, we can make it.”
What has been their most unusual commission to date I ask Nick.
“We recently did a display cabinet for a lady who had a huge antique plate collection but couldn’t find anything to display it in. She wanted something quite contemporary because she was living in a fairly modern converted listed building. So we set to work: the shelves are glass and there’s a groove in them so the plates can sit in it perfectly. We also put lights into it so it can be illuminated at night.
“It’s all about listening to what a client wants and working out how we can achieve it,” adds Nick. “We try to design everything. I just think bespoke should be exactly that: bespoke.”
Rikke adds: “Everything we make, whether it’s a kitchen or a unique piece, is handmade by our talented craftsman. There are no limits to what a client can have. If we can help you imagine it, we can definitely create it.”