Long gone are the days when you bought a house and moved in, warts and all. The volume of work undertaken on newly purchased properties varies massively and covers the whole spectrum of redecoration, renovation, extension to detonation and rebuild. From a quick removal of dated wall paper to complete knock downs, you see it all. But in recent years it’s become increasingly common for a home to be purchased and leveled within several months. More interestingly, the home has been knocked down without the new owners even occupying the home. Within the Essendon & Strathmore locale, you’d be hard pressed to find a single street without the regulatory temporary fencing announcing the arrival of a building site.
I’d been thinking about this home rotation blog for a while as a follow up to my previous one, on preparing homes for sale. Then a client sent me a link to a news article about Warren Kirk, a man who photographs the beautiful, but ugly, suburban homes of Australia. That sealed it, my procrastination ended abruptly, as the coincidence was too much to ignore.
For over 30 years, Warren Kirk has been documenting real people living in real homes in an effort to record real everyday history. Kirk comments “what people don't tend to understand is that they (and their homes) are living history” and he’s taken it upon himself to document it. His documentation of the the people and their homes he finds sits in stark contrast to modern day society, which spends a lot of time self-documenting EVERYTHING on Instagram, Facebook and the like. Many of the homes and businesses Kirk has photographed no longer exist as progress has demanded demolishion. His work really is recording history, as well as a lifestyle that’s on it’s way out. His latest images from Western Melbourne suburbs are stunning but heart wrenching. They can be seen here on his flickr account https://www.flickr.com/photos/70980743@N03/
So learning this, my thoughts consolidated and the questions came thick and fast. What is it that makes a person want to buy a particular house? How many imperfections can there be before the deal is off? At what point in your viewing does it become your future home? Is it an emotional pull, or a practical pull or both? How do you accept the emotional pull isn’t enough to combat the practical hurdles?
So how do you know when the house you’re viewing is your new home?
They say it’s instinctive and you know it. As you embrace the house, it embraces you back. A house hug, where it feels like it’s yours even though it isn’t (yet). As you move about the spaces you can envisage your furniture in certain spots in certain rooms. You can see yourself cooking and dishing up dinner. Practically, the price bracket will fit your budget and the house will host all the ‘must haves’ on your list. Or at least most of them.
But on viewing how do you know you’re not seeing what you want to see over what you need to see? How do you make sure it’s going to meet all your expectations now and it’s a good match for the life you envisage on having in the future. If it doesn’t, what are you going to have to do to make it so. Don’t like the bathroom, then you can renovate it. Right? Well that depends. Clearly once it’s your house you can do what you want - permits and planning regulations permitting. But should you? And it’s this question you need to be asking yourself as you walk around. ‘I can…… but should I?’
If the house has recently been renovated, within the last 10 years, then you should really buy it because you like what you see and it ticks all the practicality boxes. There should be very few ‘buts’ or ‘qualms’. There should be no ‘buts’ in the bathroom or kitchen, which are the resource sucking rooms of the house when it comes to redecorating and renovations. For those interested in sustainable living, replacing kitchens and bathrooms which still have years left in them, has to be a no no, unless they are going to be given a second lease of life somewhere else. This doesn’t get over the fabric of the house. The materials fixed to the walls and floors of the kitchen or bathroom you’re renovating. These are more often destroyed in removal, rather than salvaged. Tiles being the worst offenders. Plasterboard another. Should I….?
If it’s an old property that’s had very little work done within the last 20 years plus, then yes, you should be open to considering changing it, updating it, upgrading it, especially if it’s going to make your home more efficient in it’s use. But the truth is many of us don’'t do it to make our homes more efficient. I find the results of the Houzz and Home Australia 2015 report rather disturbing. The report revealed that the boost in renovation activity was down to homeowners doing ‘elective projects’ rather than necessary upgrades. Even more disappointing was the discovery that they were more were inclined to upgrade their home’s functionality and aesthetics over improving its environmental footprint. Again it boils down to needs and wants and ‘I’d like to …. but should I?’
Then there’s the properties that are so dilapidated, you can’t possible salvage what’s there. Houses, like all products, have a life cycle. A cycle with an end of a use, but potentially the start of another. An example of this would be roof timbers being removed and re-milled into dining tables. But this end has to be the end, where the house is incapable of performing it’s role due to physical condition of it. Not an end that’s brought about because you don’t like the bathroom, lack of walk-in-robe spaces or a butlers pantry and the narrow hallway making it more time efficient to knock it down and start again. The house has been robbed of its life. As have all the materials and stories within it. Homes have history. They have stories. They’ve played a role in people lives and took part in a community. Sentimental. But so true. Should I….?
The route of this home rotation is our desire to make our homes look like something we’ve seen or experienced elsewhere. “I want my kitchen to be like this…” que pinterest image. You take a house of one shape and style and try and force it into being another. Only because it’s possible, doesn’t mean it should be done. What I’m suggesting is coming at it from the other angle completely. This means finding a house that ticks most of your practical boxes, identifying what doesn’t work and coming up with creative solutions to get over this whilst trying to keep the integrity of the house. If that isn’t possible, then maybe this just isn’t the house for you.
Being a custodian of living history means doing your house justice!
You need to understand the background of a house and the site it sits on, to have any hope of recreating or renovating that space in a way that is sympathetic to the history, architecture, topography and the people who have resided in it.
When it comes to sensitive and necessary works to improve the functionality and performance of your home, there’s nothing quite like living in it to get your to do list together. I talk from experience. We bought our house in 2012. I loved the retro tiles in the bathroom and the straight forward layout. My husband loved the huge workshop. The kids loved the garden and disability ramps which doubled up as gymnastic bars. It just felt right. Right in the gut. It ticked the all the boxes. Everyone was a winner. But it also felt right in the heart. Sold. We moved in six weeks later.
We had to retrofit the kitchen because nothing was working. The oven, cook-top, fridge were all bung. The elderly man who had lived there had vacated 18 months before. We bought new appliances and had to fit them all down one wall because the 1960s kitchen cabinetry was too shallow to allow it to fit anywhere else and we were not ripping that out. Essentially, we did the bear minimum to allow us to move into and use the house as a young family. Essentials being eating, sleeping and washing. There was plenty of other things that weren’t right. But we nestled in and enjoyed our new space, warts and all.
It does beg the question, when do you start to change your new home? Sometimes you have to do work to be able to live in it. If you do need to redecorate your new home then this makes sense to do it before you move in. There’s no furniture and you’re not at home to deal with the mess and disruption that comes with painting. If it’s installing functioning appliances, again you’d like them before you move it. Anything above and beyond that, I think you need to wait. To renovate properly I really believe you need move in and feel the home. See how the light moves through the space, see how your family does the same. See what works. What doesn’t. I say this for good reason. Even I got it wrong.
Like everyone else, I got a little excited when we bought our house. As a form of therapeutic outlet I drew up plans on what I’d like to do to the house. I started this even before we got the keys. I dreamed. I plotted. I envisaged. I moved walls around, changed doorways, swapped room functions as I visualised our family living in our new home. Thankfully, the ideas and plans stayed on scrappy bits of paper as life got in the way.
After moving in to the house we realised that one half of the house, although dark, worked really well. I had always loved how the bedrooms and bathrooms were all up one end of the house. But I really didn’t like how the bathroom was split into three separate rooms. One with a toilet and wash basin. One with a shower and wash basin and one with a bath and a large vanity with basin. The layout, which felt foreign to me, proved to be the best functional feature of the house. We essentially have three bathrooms and, as a small family, are seriously kicking goals on every level, every single day. No jostling for washing facilities in our house.
But we found the other half of the house to be problematic but perfectly positioned with lovely views and great light. But it just didn’t flow, was too small and not conducive to modern family life. We developed a short term and long term plan and spent our early days doing small redecoration projects agreed upon in the short term list. We sensitively decorated the bedrooms and bathrooms because we knew they wouldn’t be touched in any future works. We left the existing architectural features, doors, bathroom fittings and beautifully tiled floors and concentrated on making the spaces lighter and brighter. The best change was installing ceiling fans. We couldn’t gut the house. It didn’t feel right. We did however remove all 39 disability hand rails and found them a new needy home.
It wasn’t until four years after moving in that we finally started to discuss the problematic ‘back end’. The kids were not getting any smaller and international guests were still coming thick and fast. We knew a renovation & extension journey lay ahead. So I dusted off the plans I sketched up years before. The first thing that struck me was the plans showed my desire to change the bathrooms that were working so well. I hadn’t for-seen them performing for our family, but my experience of using them now gave me that insight. Although I could understand the plans I’d drawn, I couldn’t remember the rationale behind many of my changes. Most didn’t link to how we used the house today. So I did what all good designers do and let it go. I forgot those plans and started again. This time the plans were based on our practical experience and knowledge generated from four years of occupancy in the house. More importantly it was based on the problems we actually had, rather than perceived to have, in making the house our home.
Key to this was asking the following questions - Why did we need to extend? What was our top three aims in doing so? How could they (the aims) best be fit into the space we had? What was our budget? What was our sustainable focus? Did the spaces flow? Did each room have enough space to function properly? As the plans materialised I’d go back to these questions to make sure we hadn’t gone too far off course. Interestingly, as the plans developed I learnt several things -
our home had very good bones to work with and the changes we needed to make supported this.
our home was orientated and positioned very well on the plot, in terms of sustainability.
the new plans I developed looked very different to the plans I drew up four years earlier.
I know I would have ended with a very different house if I had planned and built it before living in it. The difference in the plans tell me so! Experiencing the space makes you see it in a different light. Which design would have been better? Who knows. I can’t live in the one we didn’t build so have nothing to compare my current experience to. That’s the funny thing about life, you never really know whether the other path would have been any better because, you didn’t take it and the moment has passed. What I do know is that as a result of living in the house I learnt to love many of it’s period elements, it’s fixtures and fittings and have, as a result, retained more of them. In addition those that I couldn’t retain, like the suspended cabinetry in the kitchen, I incorporated it’s design into the new space. I passed the designed forward. The design process was calm, steady and considered. The light, the trees, the windows, the garden, the link to the garage, how people moved through the house, how objects would do the same, how food moved through it … materials…. the list goes on. The cutlery tray in the dishwasher is right next door to the cutlery drawer, say no more.
As a result of living in it, we learn’t what needed to be done, developed a short term and long term plan and stuck to them. We’ve saved time. We’ve saved money and more importantly we’ve saved resources. When we asked “Should we?” we decided as the house hadn’t been touched in 45 years, then “yes we should”. Even then many of the original features and fixtures have been retained. I still have those gorgeous retro japanese-esq tiles on the bathroom floor. They’ve been there 45 years and are perfect. Who am I to dictate their end their life? Besides they’re right back in fashion as to are the 12mm grout lines!. Those elements that have been removed, have been upcycled where possible. Even the “gymnastic bars” on the disability ramp that was removed because they’re too close to the ground for head clearance, have found a new home. Phew!