The alchemy of renovation

Our plans for the house are progressing. For the couple of months we’ve been here, my mind has swung all over the place as I consider how we might make the house function better. I’ve oscillated between grand gestures to minimal interventions, and everywhere in-between. Anthony is still dreaming of a tower from which he can look out over the wonderful garden he is creating: I get caught up in cupboards. There are obvious maintenance things to do, such as repairing and repainting the exterior walls and windows, cleaning the roof and improving insulation, and cutting back plants around the house to let in more light. But my main preoccupation is how to improve the layout. So I thought I’d take you through a few of my thoughts.

This is a classic Australian farmhouse, built from local timber in the early 20th century, and set up on stumps to encourage airflow below the house. It’s in the Queenslander style, although those found over the border in Queensland tend to have fancier ornamentation. The house has undergone several nips and tucks over the decades, not always successful. The original curved bullnose verandas were replaced in the 1930s with a flatter version, and then completely enclosed some years later. The location of the kitchen was moved into a bigger space created by knocking together two bedrooms. Aluminium sliding windows have replaced some of the old timber ones, too, but thankfully the bones of the original house remain intact.

The question with any old house is how much to replace and what to keep. There is endless potential when there are few constraints. There are no-brainers, of course, such as getting rid of those aluminium windows. Others are less obvious. When we first arrived I was keen to restore as much as possible and even take it back to the way it looked when it was first built. A few months on, I’m more inclined to modernise but it needs to be carefully done. I think simplicity is key. Houses evolve but this has a particular character that I don’t want to lose. I don’t want to fake it, either – to add details it would never have had, to create a phony Federation bathroom, that kind of thing. It’s a fine balance. Which is why it’s good to identify the parts of the house that really sing out to me.

Here are some of the things that I love about this house:

The kitchen occupies what had once been two bedrooms. It’s a large space with the same high ceilings as found throughout the house, which make every room seem bigger. I can’t wait to rip out the existing daggy kitchen units, of course. I was considering reinstating the original dividing wall, which would then allow us to create a grand new bathroom while still leaving us with a reasonably spacious kitchen. But I’ve come to realise how lovely it is to have a huge kitchen and one that you can eat in. Farmhouse kitchens are meant to be social spaces and this one does that perfectly. Room for cooking and dining and even an armchair or two if we fancy. More important than a grand bathroom, I think.

This brick fireplace was in the original kitchen and the cast iron range would have sat within it. The bricks look quite rough and gritty but they feel remarkably smooth. They were made in the nearby village of Bexhill where there was a small brick factory. I love the rather amateurish way they’ve been laid, too, although it’s all sturdy enough. We put in the woodstove which works a treat and heats up the room quite quickly, which makes the room into the perfect winter snug.

The sitting room fireplace is posher, although it’s a fairly standard Edwardian type with decorative tiles running either side of a cast iron insert. It’s more about show than practicality as the fire basket is pretty small. The wood surround with its mirror and mantleshelf might originally have been polished but I like it painted. I think we’ll light a fire there occasionally, more for the look of it than the warmth it will generate. Just as it was intended.

The house is constructed of timber felled from the land directly around it (the whole area was a vast rainforest known as The Big Scrub before the tree fellers and farmers claimed it). That means teak and blue fig (quandong) and other remarkable timbers. I love the rich colour of the broad floorboards, which were hidden under carpet and lino when we bought the house. The chamfer boards on the walls (and ceilings) are lovely, too. In some areas they’ve been covered up, like in the old kitchen, which has fake wood panelling that was so popular in the 1970s. It seems totally bizarre to put fake wood over real wood but at the time it was obviously seen as more upmarket. I cannot wait to tear it out and reinstate the proper boards.

There are metal ventilators in the ceilings of several rooms, made from zinc or pewter and then painted. They were used to remove the fumes from gaslights suspended below, so they show which of the rooms had proper lighting and which had none. Each is different, adding a subtle dash of fanciness to the simple rooms.

There are some peculiarities in the house, too:

Queenslanders are all about airflow, built for hot summers. They’re not so good for cold winter nights, which can get pretty nippy even after a glorious hot day. Every room in this house has at least two doors, some have three. Sometimes it feels like the house is one giant passageway. So I want to close down and contain some of the spaces, like the old kitchen, so they have a calmer, away-from-it-all feel.

This is a farmhouse with no near neighbours and beautiful views over the surrounding countryside. And yet many of the external windows have frosted glass in them. Why? If someone drives up to the house I have to go to the door to see who it is because the entire western side has frosted glass in the windows. That is all coming out.

The original house was more or less surrounded by open verandas. Over time these have been enclosed, creating living and sleeping areas that could be used all year round. My initial instinct was to open them up again and yet they’re useful between-spaces. I particularly like the long gallery on the eastern side where I’ve put my desk and which fills with morning sunlight. We’re mindful of snakes, too, given that our own pecan trees and the macadamia farm behind us attract rats which in turn attract snakes. I’m not overly concerned about the resident python, currently snoozing in the breezeway and which does a fine job of deterring the rats, as pythons aren’t hostile to or particularly bothered by humans. More worrying are the brown snakes, which can become aggressive, especially in the spring. They’re one of the most venomous snakes in the world so I don’t want to create anything that a brown snake can climb through, like a veranda balustrade. And yet I adore a veranda! The jury is still out on whether or not to open up even a small portion of the existing veranda.

The house was originally the home of a married couple and their thirteen children. Meal times must have been fun! The bathroom would have been accessible only from outside. It’s not that much better a hundred years on. There’s an external bathroom still, which is handy if you need to shower before heading inside, but the proper bathroom in the house is pretty dismal. It’s got to go. We live in an age when it’s almost normal to give every bedroom its own bathroom but I’m certainly not going down that path. I’m not a fan of the ensuite, anyway, except in a hotel, unless it is buffered by another space, like a dressing room, but it’s nice to give guests their own bathroom. I’m thinking we’ll create one on part of the enclosed veranda outside one of the bedrooms. The main bathroom will be moved to a more discrete area, too.

The house has a main entrance door complete with doorbell off the front veranda that leads into the hall but no one ever uses it. That’s because you approach the house from the side. There you’ll find a door into the side veranda and kitchen, another that leads directly into the sitting room, and yet another that leads into the old kitchen. It’s unclear which is the one to use and I’m always amused to see which door people go to – it varies. A clearly defined entrance is a key principle of feng shui and so I’m determined to get this right. At the moment I’m thinking it will through a new covered terrace, or outdoor room, somewhere for summer shade and winter sun, which will lead into a dining hall, with the kitchen to the side. Properly welcoming and also giving me the indoor-outdoor space of a veranda.

Yesterday we had another meeting with our architect. Just as I’d hoped, he put the cat among the pigeons. A huge wall of glass instead of a set of opening doors? A bathroom that merges inside with out? The kitchen moved to the opposite side of the room? There’s much to consider and so I must try to visualise what looks best and what works for us. Doing it right will take time. And time, in these pandemic days, is perhaps the great gift that Covid has given us. I’ll keep you posted.

Constructive criticism is such a gift, too. I’d love your comments.

Categories: Architecture, Design, feng shui, OtherTags: , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Oh, what a beautiful, beautiful post with such a wonderful title. All the photos, all the gorgeous detailing and the history behind them. How clever are those ceiling ventilators? Wood on wood – you must be in your element! Frosted glass! That would drive me mad. I really don’t see the point in that. I suppose it is a glazed version of net curtains.
    Us Brits would die for open verandas, so it will be exciting to see the decision you come to. I think it is vital to live in a house for a while before one makes any radical changes. One thing I want to ask is do you have the original plans of the house, or would you be able to get hold of them, because they might give you yet another perspective?
    Thank you for taking us on your journey. It is going to be very exciting seeing it all progressing!

    • It is exciting but also daunting! We don’t have the original plans but it’s pretty clear what was where and where doorways have been moved. Not quite the same as renovating a medieval house and all those surprises! Mind you, I’m looking forward to removing the fake wood panelling and seeing what exactly is behind – hoping for an old newspaper or a forgotten cup or something! You’re absolutely right about needing to take time – our ideas change every week and then the architect came in with a few ideas we’d not considered which is precisely why it’s good to have a professional oversee this. I am definitely loving this ride!

  2. Colin, firstly congrats on such a great place with good bones in lovely pastoral surroundings. Secondly, no idea what a Federation bathroom is but one of my pet peeves is the current obsession with designy bathrooms. I like a nice loo but the obscene amount of time and money that goes into them is mind-boggling. (no pun intended for the Brits) I think the designers have done a number on us all. How much time do we actually spend in a bathroom to warrant the cost of the current fads/must-haves? A fireplace and TV, seriously? An app controlled “intelligent” toilet/bidet with heated seats and mood lighting? We have moved from colored fixtures and oddly shaped whirlpool tubs to stand-alone baths that look very like the Victorian ones in my gran’s house.To reach them you must cross marble floors begging to be slipped on and showers that appear designed for group activities. Then there’s the incredible variety of showerheads (rainforest anyone?) A bench is a must-have as are cunning niches in which to stash your numerous overpriced gels. Forget sending your kid to uni, tiling is a great career option. If you don’t go for the Scandi wet room look in glaring reflective white, the options are endless. Hand cut from Italy, hewn from ancient mountain ranges??? Fixtures alone can lead to bankruptcy. I note black trim has replaced chrome and brass in the shower hardware, at least for now and brushed nickel is apparently passe. Don’t get me started on the sheer number of these mini-spas apparently essential for the average family. You need staff and a Costco visit just to keep them in toilet rolls Talk about first world obsessions….Anyway, for what it’s worth I say spend your hard-earned $ where you actually live – kitchen/diner for sure. Sorry for the rant. I clearly have major issues resulting from recent reno quotes and resultant potential for divorce proceedings. Look forward to seeing your progress.

    • Oh what a fabulous rant, Vicky! Made my day! I tend to agree with you – the bathroom has gone completely OTT. Although when I was in Japan I was totally converted to those bum-washing, heated seats on the loos, although not sure I needed the music covering any splashy noises. And a cedar bath would be nice… You’re right, it’s all about the living spaces, making them as lovely as possible. I hope your renovation manages to find its harmonic side and bring you pleasure!

  3. Thank you, loved reading this and the house is adorable. We bought a 1900 timber house in Lilyfield in 1988 and we still have it. When we lived in Brussels we dreamed of a weatherboard house with a tin roof. We put on the tin roof with the last money we had. Love a big kitchen, but wouldnt have a wall of glass, as you said the house was cold. Much prefer opening doors. Good luck xxxxx

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    • Thanks, Michele. And I can understand why you still have the house in Lilyfield – so many pretty weatherboard houses there. But yes, without insulation in those wooden walls, and plenty of gaps in the joints, they’re bloomin’ freezing in winter. If we go down the glass wall route then it will be triple glazed like a Swiss chalet!…

  4. Kelpies are good at tearing brown snakes apart but wouldnt want them to get bitten. My MIL’s dogs did this down at Murrambateman

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  5. What a beautiful house. How lucky you are to have found it and been able to buy it. I’m sure that, like here in France, folks keep such places in the family, if at all possible. Hard to say what to do; your photos show all the pluses. Good for you, for refinishing those stunning wood floors. I did that and it was a great decision.

    Unlike some of your other commenters, I’m big on ensuites. I like boundaries and not seeing my guests until they are showered and dressed is a boundary I’d like to retain — or forget about completely, depending on the guest, but that discussion is for another time. Another boundary I’d likely keep is the enclosure of the verandas. You can always put in a half-height band of windows, which gives you usable space, and open them for the breeze. Snakes, bugs, sunburn, no thanks: I like my walls. Maybe you could open one section, when you define the entry.

    Your architect should be able to clean up the circulation. I’m sure that if the house held 13 kids there are lots of extra rooms, which will be a help. Keep the big kitchen, for sure. Maybe paint that dark gray fireplace, if that’s not too heretical for you? Maybe replace the tatty aluminum windows with ones that are properly finished aluminum on the exterior, wood on the interior? I hate maintenance, such an energy drain, and when it comes to maintenance, exterior wood is a life-sentence. Definitely an obvious entry. That Frank Lloyd Wright “hide it around the corner” or the modernist wall-o-glass thing aren’t for me.

    What an exciting project. You are off to a great start. I can’t wait to see what you do.

    • Thank you so much for your wonderful and generous comments. Yes, we do feel lucky to have the house and thought, at the time, that it was odd to be the very first people to buy it even though it’s over a 100 years old… I do understand about ensuites, and I do like my own, it’s true. I’m just not keen on them being directly off the bedroom, and I absolutely loathe the ones that are totally open to the bedroom. Who in their right mind wants to sit in bed and see a loo?!… I’m with you on your comment on the fireplace – I’d also been thinking of painting it grey, a soft tone but enough to make the shape of it stand out against the ubiquitous Dulux Antique White USA. And I’m thinking that we may open up the front veranda just to waist height so that at least we can walk ‘outside’ and sniff the morning air, but the other verandas are simply too useful as additional sitting areas and study. I had been thinking of completely glazing them but then I think of seasonal heat loss/ heat gain as well as having to keep them clean so replacing the windows with more practical frames is the way to go. Don’t need to create work for ourselves… It’s lovely to share all this, just as I enjoy seeing your journey with your house in France. This might be the nearest I get to getting my French house so I want to get it right! Thanks again!

  6. Having lived in Queensland for 10yrs I have to say I love the traditional Queenslanders. A friend had one very similar to yours and I loved the whole feel of it. He was a great traditionalist and kept the feel of the house…almost like stepping back in time yet being in the 21st century. Very tastefully done I must say. I always felt that I was stepping back in time. You place is just beautiful and those views are just glorious… lucky you. How exciting to have a blank canvas as it were. Bonne chance!

    • There are some gorgeous ones around, aren’t there – the grand ones overlooking the river in Brisbane and the dozens of beauties in Ipswich. I’m looking forward to going up to soak up some more inspiration… Thanks for your lovely comments. It’s somewhat daunting having a blank canvas and we’re still lurching between making big changes and simply refining what’s already here. Thankfully getting any building work done is a slow process here so we have plenty of time to reflect and change our minds and play with ideas. In the meantime, the old dame makes us very happy…

  7. I hope you are thinking about the colour scheme throughout and especially outside. Despite having lived in Australia all my life, as an unobservant person, I have only recently noticed how varied are the external colour schemes of the houses surrounding mine although there can be a tendency for more frequent “fashionable” colours depending on when the house was painted.

    This is in distinction to houses in Britain which are nearly all WHITE with black accents. How boring. As a child before colour television, I used to think Britain was all in black and white and now I can see much of it is. How often does one see windows in a brick house in any colour other than white? A coloured front door is white adventurous.

    As to verandah enclosures, in Sydney, we are blessed with a partially enclosed return verandah facing east and north. There are times when I prefer being in the enclosed part to avoid flies, cacophonous cicadas or temperatures that are slightly above or below comfortable for an extended stay.

    • Yes, colour is important and I know this house has gone through a couple of manifestations, including the clotted-cream colour with maroon accents that so many houses in the country have gone through. How lovely that houses in your area use colour so freely – that’s a rarity, I think. When we painted our house in Sydney pink people were rather shocked but there was a yellow house nearby and another that was blue. Now, all are white… As for the UK, I know that limewash was used for many houses in Scotland but oddly enough, I have never lived in a white house or known anyone else who did. I think of multi-coloured houses in London, often a whole street in a range of pastels… We’re still undecided with the veranda – on a chilly morning we appreciate the enclosure, on a hot day we want everything to be open. I think we just have to take the plunge!

      • My problem with white is aggravated by the number of fake Tudor houses. Really? I am glad they are rare here where they would be even more out of date and place. I am sorry to hear your former Sydney neighbours have reverted to white. I hope it is a temporary lapse of imagination.

        I share your disdain for phony Federation bathrooms and need no explanation of what you mean. Or for anything elaborate for that matter. As one who often showers in the backyard with a hose (the weather is just permitting—neighbours in single-story houses are so considerate), when in the bush, you can let your hair down to open them so much to the outdoors.

        Glass louvres are the simple, commonly employed answer to the need for breezes on hot days. We are blessed with outward opening wooden shutters popular on the Continent, but I don’t see the point of the inward opening ones that just seem to create unusable space inside. Fake shutters much smaller than the windows they relate to are another disappointment.

      • I love an outdoor shower! Yes, we’ll be putting in lots of louvred windows – I like them as you can leave the house open, as it were, and get all that airflow without having to worry if it rains. We were definitely going to do that with the front veranda but now we’re thinking of opening it. Honestly, we change our minds every other day, all just part of the process!

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