Your Neighbour's Home Renovation Feels Like A Never-Ending Saga
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Your Neighbour’s Home Renovation Feels Like A Never-Ending Saga

It started with the bathroom and ended with everything but the kitchen sink.

By Kris Frieswick
Fri, Aug 20, 2021 10:44amGrey Clock 4 min

You know that house down the street that’s been undergoing renovations for five years?

You and your neighbours are judging the owners. Don’t deny it. “The house isn’t even that big,” you say. “They could have rebuilt it four times over in the time it’s taken them to do whatever the hell it is they’re doing in there.”

In your sarcasm, you have stumbled upon the truth.

It actually would have been faster and cheaper if they’d just knocked the whole thing down and started from scratch. But they didn’t do that because when they started, all they wanted was a new bathroom.

Let’s take a trip in the Way-Back Machine to the moment when the five-year renovations began. The bathroom is old and dingy and needs a major refresh. Budgets are set, quotes are received, timelines are created.

At this point, one of three things happens.

In our first scenario, construction begins, budgets are exceeded, deadlines are left in the dust. But, eventually, the new bathroom is completed. What a thing of beauty it is! There is joy in the household. Well, not the entire household. Someone has decided that the rest of the house now looks dingy and old compared with the bathroom. Maybe, one spouse suggests, a quick remodel of the living room would be in order so that the superiority of the bathroom does not remain so glaringly evident. Again, budgets are set and exceeded, deadlines made and left in the dust. Finally, a spiffy new living room emerges from the clutter, immediately revealing the dining room to be outdated, unfashionable and, let’s face it, sort of depressing.

Eventually, five or more years later, everything in the house is replaced, including the veranda, the roof, the septic system and one of the spouses.

In our second five-year renovation scenario, we learn early in the bathroom renovation that things are going to be a whole lot more complicated than anyone planned. On day two, the contractors discover that the home’s wiring is so old that there is no point in connecting the spiffy new electrical outlets to it because the first time someone uses a hair dryer while the electric oven is on, it will overload the feeble electrical system and possibly burn down the house.

The electrical wiring, the contractors announce, must be upgraded, house-wide, or else they can’t be held responsible for what happens. This is a job that can be done without tearing out every single wall in the house, but one of the spouses decides that since the walls are all horsehair plaster, they should be replaced as well “while they’re at it.”

The contractors start tearing down walls and guess what those walls aren’t—horsehair plaster. Nope, they are made using once-ubiquitous, currently banned asbestos. This discovery legally requires immediate remediation by a certified asbestos removal team and involves wrapping the house in a giant plastic bag and setting up a self-contained air filtration system that…. oh, screw it. All you really need to know here is that this bathroom renovation has turned the house into a Superfund site that will cost approximately 250 times the cost of the bathroom remodel to clean up. Only then can the electrical system be replaced, or the walls rebuilt, or the bathroom completed.

Scenario two isn’t always asbestos. Sometimes it’s massive termite damage that essentially requires the entire house to be rebuilt. Sometimes it’s foundation subsidence that requires a very complicated repair in which piers are driven into the ground around the house so the foundation can be connected to stop it from sinking like the Titanic. It’s scary. And expensive. Sometimes it’s worse. You get the picture.

In any case, fast-forward five years. The owners, now impoverished, finally get their finished bathroom. They plug in the hairdryer while the oven is running. It blows the circuit breaker.

Scenario three involves the simple bathroom remodel and nothing more. That’s all the owners want. That’s all they can afford. They set a budget and build in a 30% budget allowance and a 50% timeline overrun. They interview multiple contractors until they find The One. The One requires a 50% deposit up front. Although the owners are doing everything right so far, they forget two crucial things—always check references and never pay a contractor 50% upfront.

The contractor gets done ripping out the appliances, fixtures and walls in the old bathroom and then vanishes with the deposit. For the first month, he pretends he’s sick. For the second through sixth month, he assures them he’s coming tomorrow. For months six through current month, he’s just gone. Meanwhile, the owners are trying to work around the giant hole in the middle of their house where the bathroom used to be. Finally, at month eight, they start looking for another contractor to complete the work but their budget, now just 50% of its original size, causes at least two of the contractors to bust out laughing. The owners are exceedingly dejected. The home remains a work site until they are able to scrape together the remaining funds, which takes them four more years.

The next time you see that house down the street that has been under renovation for the past five years, don’t scorn the owners, as is your way. Instead, bring them a casserole and sit quietly while they tell you the story of their five-year hell project. Bring some tissues. They’ll probably cry.

Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: August 19,2021


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There was a time, not too long ago, when the most important must-have for would-be renovators was space. It was all about space to be together and space to be apart.

But as house prices increase across the country, the conversation has started to shift from size for the sake of it towards more flexible, well-designed spaces better suited to contemporary living.

For the owners of this 1920s weatherboard workers’ cottage in Fremantle, the emphasis was less on having an abundance of room and more about creating cohesive environments that could still maintain their own distinct moods. Key to achieving this was manipulating the floorplan in such a way that it could draw in light, giving the impression at least of a larger footprint. 

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Positioned on a site that fell three metres from street level, the humble four-room residence had been added to over the years. First order of business for local architect Philip Stejskal was to strip the house back to its original state.

“In this case, they were not quality additions,” Stejskal says. “Sometimes it is important to make sure later additions are not lean-tos.”

The decision to demolish was not taken lightly. 

“Sometimes they can be as historically significant as the original building and need to be considered — I wouldn’t want people to demolish our addition in 50 years’ time.”

Northern light hits the site diagonally, so the design solution was to open up the side of the house via a spacious courtyard to maximise opportunities to draw natural light in. However, this had a knock-on effect.

A central courtyard captures northern light. Image: Bo Wong

“We had to make space in the middle of the site to get light in,” Stejskal says. “That was one of the first moves, but that created another issue because we would be looking onto the back of the neighbouring building at less appealing things, like their aircon unit.”

To draw attention away from the undesirable view, Stejskal designed a modern-day ‘folly’.

“It’s a chimney and lookout and it was created to give us something nice to look at in the living space and in the kitchen,” Stejskal says. 

“With a growing family, the idea was to create a space where people could find a bit of solitude. It does have views to the wider locality but you can also see the port and you can connect to the street as well.”

A garden tap has also been installed to allow for a herb garden at the top of the steps.

“That’s the plan anyway,”  he says. 

A modern day ‘folly’ provides an unexpected breakout space with room for a rooftop herb garden. Image: Bo Wong

Conjuring up space has been at the core of this project, from the basement-style garaging to the use of the central courtyard to create a pavilion-like addition.

The original cottage now consists of two bedrooms, with a central hallway leading onto a spacious reception and living area. Here, the large kitchen and dining spaces wrap around the courtyard, offering easy access to outdoor spaces via large sliding doors.

Moments of solitude and privacy have been secreted throughout the floorplan, with clever placement of built-in window seats and the crow’s nest lookout on the roof, ideal for morning coffee and sunset drinks.

The house has three bedrooms, including a spacious master suite with walk-in robe and ensuite overlooking the back garden. Adjustable blades on the bedroom windows allow for the control of light, as well as privacy. Although the house was designed pre COVID, it offers the sensibility so many sought through that time — sanctuary, comfort and retreat.

Adjustable blades allow the owners to control light on the upper floor. Image: Bo Wong

“When the clients came to us, they wanted a house that was flexible enough to cater for the unknown and changes in the family into the future,” Stejskal says. “We gave the owners a series of spaces and a certain variety or moods, regardless of the occasion. We wanted it to be a space that would support that.”

Mood has also been manipulated through the choice of materials. Stejskal has used common materials such as timber and brick, but in unexpected ways to create spaces that are at once sumptuous but also in keeping with the origins of the existing building.

Externally, the brickwork has been finished in beaded pointing, a style of bricklaying that has a softening effect on the varied colours of bricks. For the flooring, crazy paving in the courtyard contrasts with the controlled lines of tiles laid in a stack bond pattern. Close attention has also been paid to the use of veneer on select joinery in the house, championing the beauty of Australian timbers with a lustrous finish. 

“The joinery is finished in spotted gum veneer that has been rotary cut,” says Stejskal. “It is peeled off the log like you peel an apple to give you this different grain.”

Rotary cut timber reveals the beauty of the natural grain in the kitchen joinery. Image: Bo Wong

Even the laundry has been carefully considered.

“The laundry is like a zen space with bare stone,” he says. “We wanted these different moods and the landscape of rooms. We wanted to create a rich tapestry in this house.”

The owners now each experience the house differently, highlighting separate aspects of the building as their favourite parts. It’s quite an achievement when the site is not enormous. Maybe it’s not size that matters so much after all.


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