Notes from a renovation

For months my head has been so full of this house that sometimes it’s been difficult to think about anything else. And yet there are days when I write my journal and wonder what exactly I did. Sure, I’d been on the go all day but what did I actually do? That’s the thing with renovating: a morning can easily pass just dealing with a door.

So I thought I’d share a few observations from the past few months.

  • Should you move out when work is being done on your house? I’m sure most builders would say you should. And yet we haven’t. When we renovated in Sydney we stayed in the house, too – it was one of the selling points of the building company we used that they would work around us. But when the untiled roof was covered only with flapping tarpaulins, and there was one of Sydney’s mega storms with water cascading down every wall inside, my stress levels went off the charts. This renovation has been much more organic, with work happening in one part of the house that doesn’t impact other parts of the house. That’s changed recently, with our living space gradually contracting, and furniture and boxes everywhere. So now the fridge is by the front door and we’re cooking on two electric rings in the sitting room. It’s only short term and it’ll make us appreciate all the more having our refreshed rooms back.
priming the new window frames
  • I loved hearing that Chartres cathedral was built only by men of good heart. I thought of that when we renovated in Sydney, given some of the tradesmen were obviously stressed, being pushed by their bosses. They were sometimes irritable and often a bit slapdash. I didn’t want that kind of energy here. Thankfully we’ve been blessed with the most thoughtful and design-savvy builder you could ever wish for. I don’t know how he’s managed to remain calm when Anthony and I dithered over so many decisions, but I do know that together we’ve been able to come up with some great solutions to certain design issues.
  • Lead times are estimates not certainties. Anything that isn’t stocked is going to take time to arrive. Our tiles took only a few days, our kitchen sink a week. But the copies of the wooden veranda brackets have still not arrived. We were told they might take five or six weeks. We’re now at nineteen weeks. They’re the finishing touch for the veranda and without them we cannot paint the veranda. It has moved from farce – ‘they’ll be with you tomorrow’ – to complete befuddlement. Have they even been made? Did they lose the original bracket I dropped off to copy and they’re afraid to tell me? It’s beyond bizarre.
waiting for louvre windows
  • Trust your taste. It took a whole year to choose the tiles for the bathroom. We both liked travertine for the floor but we wondered if it was a bit passé now. So we searched for something different, checking out virtually everywhere between here and the Gold Coast, from warehouse chainstores to niche places that import tiles reclaimed from French chateaux. At last we found a deliciously OTT design with spicy colours that we agreed on but then discovered first there was no stock and then that it had been discontinued altogether. Feeling frantic, we visited our local tile shop to look for something similar. Which was when we uncovered a panel of travertine tiles and both of us sighed and said how lovely they looked. So that’s what we ordered. We were back where we had started. It’s just been laid and we love it.
travertine tiles going down
  • I’m always put off when a sales assistant or a tradie suggests I go with what everyone else has – this kind of lighting, that type of marble top. I don’t really care about current trends. But there’s a difference between that and something actually useful. Like being told people prefer bottom-hinged fanlights above their French doors rather than the traditional swivel-hinged because they can have flyscreens on them. Makes sense to me. Having the experience of a wise carpenter or builder is a gift.
  • Unseen items can drain your budget. You hear ‘uh oh’ and know there’s a snag. Our house is little more than hundred years old but over the past century it’s been patched and repaired and fiddled with. Which means the electrics and plumbing are a hotch-potch in places. Some have wanted to strip it all out and start again but others have been happy to work with what’s already there. Either way, it costs. Annoyingly, they’re things that no one ever sees so you just have to remember to smile every time you flush the loo or switch on a light.
always something happening
  • Check your tiles. You’re meant to add 10% to the area you’re going to cover. Which I did, plus a bit extra. But each time we’ve needed more. Depending on pattern and layout, your floors and walls are going to take more than you think. Better to have a box left over than try to track down a precious few at the last minute which can slow or even stop the job, ending up costing a whole lot more.
  • Make cake. Offering homemade cake along with the usual tea and coffee feels more thoughtful than boring old biscuits. In Britain builder’s tea was a cliché, so strong and full of sugar you could supposedly stand up a spoon in it. Times have changed, or maybe it’s the Byron Bay effect. Suddenly it’s all herbal tea and exactly what kind of coffee am I offering? (No one is going to touch instant.) Some days I feel like a barista in a café but I reckon it’s an important part of keeping everyone happy.
  • And speaking of keeping people happy, try to stay civil with your partner. Taking out your frustration on your partner is never attractive. (That’s a note to self – and an apology to Anthony for the times I huff and puff when we get our wires crossed.)
holding the dream
  • Beware the false economy. We want to maintain the heritage feel of our place and we hate pointless waste so we’ve tried to reuse, recycle or upcycle whatever we can. But that can make inroads on the budget. Our old doors needed quite a bit of attention to make them fit the new doorways so they’ve ending up costing as much or more than a new door but they’re worth it, given they were here when the house was built. Anyway, I love a bit of wonk, a touch of wabi sabi.
  • And yet, we had a fright at the cost of everything. Our previous renovation was distancing because we had a fixed-price contract, everything sorted before anyone set foot in the place. There was nothing to do except make progress payments. This time we’re aware of every item we need so we’re shocked that a panel of boring plywood can cost more than a beautiful piece of local timber, or that the price of a bog-standard window can vary so much. Labour costs have risen, too, especially with rising fuel prices. It’s taken time to adjust our thinking and accept the new reality. We’ve also wised up to getting proper quotes before okaying any work.  
kitchen waiting to be stripped
  • The priority is always whatever is happening at that moment so it’s easy to forget the details of what was happening before. Are we buying the door knobs or is the builder?  Did we say we’d clear space for the plumber? Make notes all the time and keep a diary of who’s coming when. It saves you waking in the middle of the night and trying to figure it all out in your head.
  • You always hit a point during a renovation when it all feels too much. Holding the vision is one thing but there are times when you just want to say hold the dream and gimme a break. That’s why it’s good to keep at least one room normal. I don’t mind sleeping in a bedroom that’s piled with boxes but I like the room we sit in at night for supper and telly to look less like a storeroom. You need a space where you can close the door at any time and pretend everything’s tickety-boo. It’s the mental health zone, if you like.
the mental health veranda
  • Going with the flow. Okay, so I had visions of a Christmas party on the lawn, the house lit up behind us, paintwork gleaming, everything finished and our guests full of admiration. ‘Actually, it was so easy,’ I would tell them, rather smugly. Except that’s a dream. Stuff happens, plans change, materials are held up. So we’ll have plywood benchtops in the new kitchen for a while, given the stone won’t be ready until February, and the paintwork might take a while to get around to, and who’s even thought about the finials and fretwork for the gables when there’s so much else to do. Breathe. It’ll happen. Just not exactly to fit with the calendar in your head.

I’m sure there’s more. The beauty of humanity is we’re resilient and can focus on the positive. After all, some women wouldn’t chose to have a second child after a difficult pregnancy but they do. Renovating is peanuts next to that. So enjoy the magic. It’s worth it in the end.

What tips can you share to help me through the final phase?

Categories: Architecture, Australia, Design, memoir, OtherTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Loved this. Did you get the wooden verandah brackets yet. Fed wood in Rozelle does them. My house was built in 1900 as was half of Lilyfield. All the best xxxx

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