The Block, a Renovating Nightmare or, a Restoration Delight

Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one. Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955)

If Costume is a footnote to culture, then Houses must be the header. From antiquity until the middle of the twentieth century a lifeline of continuity connected architectural styles. They transmit an impressionistic picture of their age and often explain the nature of society, what mattered most to people who built them and the values they shared.

Architecture is the art of enclosing space, and in the case of secular architecture, it is a private space, where in its world of interiors it can be either God, or the devil in the details. Attending to details is how today’s first class interior designers reveal their strong disciplined approach to producing natural designs. Since the early days of sustainable architecture designers have had to now adopt a long-term view for the cycle of a building’s existence. It’s all about creating a multi-layered interior people will enjoy for decades, transcending a passion for only fashion.

Do the final protagonists on television’s real estate renovating reality show, The Block 2011, produced at Melbourne, face a renovating nightmare, or a restoration delight? They will need lots of courage, persistence, patience and an understanding for an alternate point of view, if they want the style of perfection that flows from ensuring a love for detail. The Channel 9 Show in 2011 is different in that the renovators are tackling a house with a garden, not an apartment.  The houses are located in Cameron Street, Richmond a trendy multi personality suburb of Melbourne, where heritage is a very important aspect of its culture. Melbourne is a lively and cosmopolitan city, combining a passion for the creative arts and good living with a state wide sports addiction like no other. Food, art, music, wine and football are what Melbournians regard as a perfect mix of society and culture and Richmond is close to all the action.

Sociologists would have many ideas for why the comfort of the past seems never to have been more appealing than right now in Australia. The traditional houses chosen to work on are in a terrible state and even the biggest optimist would be worried. It’s all very well to have an overall view of what you want to achieve but unless the detail becomes a passion during the build, the result may mean chaos, misunderstandings and soul-destroying budget blowouts. The current enthusiasm for renovating remaining industrial age workers cottages is fuelled by the fact they are all on the city fringe, allowing for good investment increases. The information age also allows that many more confidant people will tackle renovation projects, without any type of formal training, seemingly aided by the belief anything is possible. While that may be applauded in so many respects, it can also come against them if they do not set parameters and follow guidelines for planning and producing their own grand design.

Everything in life is certainly about how you choose to look at it, as a challenging opportunity, or as a hurdle already too high to jump. Renovation, restoration and replication have become a huge industry for building contractors, and their trades, as the new generation seek to put their own particular stamp on a property of their choice. Pursuing the Australian dream is part of the fabric of both our societal and cultural heritage and history and doesn’t seem to be abating. The Block protagonists do have an advantage over many other couples starting such a task, in that the producers of this show have already submitted designs and planning applications for the houses to the local planning authorities, agreeing to incorporate a number of environmentally sustainable design features during the building project.  They don’t have to work out a best layout scenario because it is provided and the innovations proposed will significantly reduce the water and energy use in the homes.

Will their relationships as couples, or friends survive renovating dilapidated unloved worker’s cottages that the creators of the show have provided? The odds are stacked against them. But if they do then they will most likely endure. They have more at their disposal than say the generation before them, and at more affordable prices. Their conviction will certainly be strained to optimum levels under the $100,000 budget they have been given, even if they do gain additional bonuses along the way. What may seem to be minor additions can add up to big dollars overall and it will require a special focus to take into account paying professional trades, as well as purchasing stylish goods and plants to fit out the house and garden and not overcapitalize the property so that it can be sold for a profit.

Where should a renovator start?  Well a method with a proven principle is starting by making a list. I know, boring…but there it is. It makes sense to stay organized through life’s biggest transitions and the most stressful situations will be lessened if you begin by breaking down big moments into small, simple achievable tasks. If you share your progress, and check things off as you proceed, then as each task is completed it will provide momentum for the rest of the project.

Start with simple headings, Permissions, Preliminaries, Planning and Production.

Permissions include signing off with all relevant authorities before you commence. In Melbourne they are very tough on people who flout the rules as they apply to heritage and nature. So in this case the Heritage and Environment council consult would be the first one, unless you have the advantage of someone doing it for you. Check out all the considerations for planning permissions that have been approved for The Block project at the Yarra Council’s website.

The Security of any property during a build is vital, especially in a domestic situation as you would need to stop neighbourhood children or others wandering in when the build is in progress or out of hours. Safety for the renovators and the trades involved with work at the site is as important as keeping the site access clear and the grounds clean. All trades should be instructed up front to look to their tools and to remove their own rubbish daily from the site, otherwise mice, rats and cockroaches can cause havoc. Trust me during my years as an interior designer/project manager I have seen it happen in the very poshest of places.

Preliminaries includes taking time to work out what is possible and make sure that it dovetails with what the authorities will allow. Taking the time to study what the aspect and alignment of the property has in its favour is of vital importance and can also save dollars. Dividing up the dollars and making an allocation for each stage of the project is a must.

As is including a contingency, the most important aspect of any renovating budget. Setting aside an amount up front to cover cost blowouts makes good sense. Don’t think 5 or 10 %, its more likely 15% is the most realistic figure. You just cannot see or forecast some problems, no matter how good the planning and if you have the luxury of some funds being over toward the end, that’s a big positive.

In this case the renovators haven’t had the luxury of living in the house for a year to see how the weather behaves so they will need to use on line information technology to assist them. They need to consider the way the property faces and how the winds blow? It’s no good putting in expensive fold back designer doors to a courtyard that channels the wind and plays havoc with them whenever you try to entertain. Investigating how the sun in summer behaves in relation to rooms like bedrooms, which you want to be cool at night in summer but warm in winter is vital. Working out how the layout will work best includes planning the size and shapes of furniture so you can make sure doors, passageways and staircases allow for easily inserting and removing the goods you live with. It costs dreadful dollars to hire cranes to lift a grand piano or large lounges into place over a neighbour’s house and yours, after the event and then find it still won’t fit or can’t go where you planned for it to be.

What about the living areas, do they engage the sun at the time of day you want them to? For those renovating in Melbourne the way the temperature behaves during the day is noticeably different to Sydney and Brisbane. In Melbourne the hottest time of the day is in the afternoon between 3pm and 6pm, so this can change how a major living room will work. Also is it on a busy road, near the train or people shouting in a local sports arena. Interestingly, living with trains can be easier than other noises, because they run to schedules, and rhythmically on a track, so you can get used to the noise. But cars, buses and trucks rumbling by are very different so is the road outside is busy, its good to ensure sleeping arrangements are made with this in mind.

This time renovators also have a garden. So, what part of that should be put in place prior to the house renovation? Should the dirt to refresh the garden be brought in first or last? Bringing it in after fresh paint has been applied might not be the best option. There are a lot of preliminaries to consider, including perhaps planting a shade tree on the hot side of the house while access is open. It’s often cheaper than insulating and green is good. If possible using plants as a boundary are cheaper than man made fences, much more attractive and provide additional privacy, although they won’t keep a dog in.

The Planning includes working out how best to make use of what you already have without incurring further costs.  Then the design principles attached to the original design and layout plan are the next to consider. They need to conform to council requirements while suiting contemporary needs. Making sure the TV set up is digital and the relevant amount of GPO’s (General Power Outlets) necessary for operating it, and perhaps multiple computers, are major factors for consideration in contemporary interior. Ascertaining what walls are load-bearing and what are not early on is also helpful.  Putting in steel beams to support sagging ceilings later is big bucks and can also change the way you place lighting.  Energy production and illumination are big ongoing money burners. So at the renovation stage it’s good to explore all the options available in regards to recycling and renewable energy resources.

While investigating these options the finishes (not paint) for ceilings, walls and floors need to be considered in relation to them. It may be better to install underfloor heating in the main living and sleeping rooms, rather than air conditioning, which you need in Brisbane a lot, and in Melbourne on say six days a year. Melbourne is a very cold place in autumn, through winter, in spring, and on some extraordinary summer days. Keeping a house warm in Melbourne is far more challenging than keeping it cool in Brisbane, where flood levels have to be planned for and breezes captured. Checking out prevailing breezes makes good commonsense. Can they be made to work in your favour to cool main living areas without having to resort to solutions that burn energy? Also will solar panels on the roof and insulation in the walls and ceiling of the main living areas assist energy saving and help control temperatures up or down in the long term. In Sydney southerlies in summer are a consideration, as they strike often and unpredictably with all sorts of results. Canvas awnings including sensors may not be a luxury because they react to sudden changes in wind velocity and close down, which is far less costly than replacing them when they are torn to shreds in a storm.

The Production commences once the preliminaries and planning has been completed. It’s really the best bit, and so it is good for morale to save the best for last. However back at the preliminary stage you need to set aside a budget for the last part first, so that you know just how much of the real budget you have to work with during the preliminary and planning stages. Because what happens is that without planning at the beginning, for the end you may just totally run out of dollars to put the jewels into your brand new jewel box.  Or in this case add the furnishings, accessories, artworks and artefacts that make any house a home.

The cottages chosen for The Block 2011 are turn of the twentieth century worker’s cottages. There are two style traditions they could take a reference from to bring into the contemporary age.

The first is Modernism, which included style movements such as Arts and Crafts 1875-1915 and Art Deco (1920-1940). Designers such as England’s arts and crafts guru William Morris left a great legacy of shapes and symbols that were generally simple and flowing. The furniture and furnishings for houses built at that time were rich naturalistic designs that certainly suit today’s contemporary environmental commentary.

In the U.S.A. in the first few decades of the twentieth century they were streamlined in the design work of architects like Frank Lloyd Wright (1867 – 1959) and furniture by Gustav Stickley (1858-1942), Accessories included the bronze and lead light lamps of Louis Comfort Tiffany, monochromatic pottery glazes and a strong interest in native art forms.

The second would be a traditional English Victorian cottage, which evolved from the eighteenth centuries cult of the picturesque. It started in 1785 with a publication of a design manual by John Plaw entitled Rural architecture; consisting of designs from the simple cottage. This signalled the vogue and birth of the Cottage Ornéé, which was a place where affluent people could go to pretend their tastes were simple and rustic, when in fact they may be very sophisticated indeed.

The Cottage Ornéé was built by the sea and in the countryside and ended up providing a role model for the birth of Victorian villages, when little hamlets of cottages became part of a grand design.

The fashion for owning such a cottage gained momentum during the nineteenth century opening up a Pandora’s box of styles, creating a dilemma not only for the client, but also for the architect struggling to produce what they were wanting, or rather what they thought they were wanting, or alternately, had been talked into wanting. This was not conducive to a purity of style, and so quaintness and charm became the most important design element.

The design came down under with colonists who basically sought simplicity, comfort and convenience, which is still a contemporary concern. It will be interesting to see what styles the couples choose for their cottage project on The Block 2011.

Carolyn McDowall, June 2011

1 Comment

  • ynot says:

    I have never seen a house built on the same day as the concrete stumps went in…that would go for three of the block houses. On the end is a house that burnt down and the old owner just slapped new weather boards on it, a new roof on one side… to hide the burnt frame . It’s a case of the buyer beware. Just look at how the paint is already peeling off the roof, how many paint runs are on the front fence and that should give you an idea of what crap these houses really are. And, if you’re not convinced just look at the ceiling and count the joins and think about how much it will cost you to make this house livable

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