Home renovations are often laden with hidden costs, challenges and legalities, but the end results can be 100 times more rewarding than starting afresh – not to mention that they add to the existing fabric of our streets and suburbs.

It’s pretty easy to see Australia is obsessed with home renovation –
just turn on the TV. If it’s not Channel 9’s The Block, it’s Channel 7’s House Rules, or Aussie stalwart Better Homes and Gardens. We’re so obsessed, in fact, that in the first quarter of 2015, Australia spent more than $1.8 billion on home renovations alone (Australian Bureau of Statistics).

“In the last couple of years, our experience is that the trend has changed from new builds to renovations,” says bathroom and kitchen renovations expert Tina Mills of Lavare. “This may be due to financial reasons or land availability, but home renovation shows seem to have been inspiring and motivating, too.”

When it comes to renovations, however, there are some things a half-hour TV slot simply cannot cover.  

“I think what’s happened since shows like The Block have come on television, is that everybody thinks they can renovate,” says Charles Arnott of Mulberry Homes. “Because they watch it all the time, they think, ‘Oh yeah, we can do that’, but they don’t know all the inherent problems.”

Charles says this DIY approach can lead to mistakes, which can prove quite expensive in the long run.

“Renovations are difficult,” he says. “They’re not just a square box that you throw up in six weeks and put a roof on it, and everybody comes in and does
their thing and goes. There’s all sorts of things happening while you’re building – you’re trying to make old walls work and fit in, make floors level and the ceiling fit, and make it all work.”

The potential difficulty of a renovation makes the question of whether you
should renovate, or demolish and rebuild a hard one. And quite apart from the
cost – which Charles says is the main determiner – you’ve also got to consider the most practical approach for you, your family and the future.

“More people are renovating, particularly if they want to stay in that area,” Tina says. “If they love where they live and their home is in good condition, it is generally more economical, timely and convenient to renovate. However, if they need to upsize, or their home needs a lot of work, it can be better to do a new build, extend, or add another storey.”

Money and future decisions aside, Joe Chindarsi of Chindarsi Architects says that, from an architect’s point of view, new builds are definitely easier and more straightforward. “There’s less work in measuring and drawing the existing structure, and we don’t have to think as much about connections between the old and the new structure,” he says. “The knowledge that we call upon is much greater for renovation work, as the old ways of detailing and styles of fixtures and fittings are so different, and this takes a bit more time and care. “However, retaining the existing structures can produce a much richer result, as one is combining and contrasting both old and new, and taking the best of both worlds.”

The question then comes down to whether or not you’re merely looking for a cost-effective way to upgrade your home, or if you are seeking to preserve the character of the house you wish to live in. If preserving is the way you want to go, it’s important to consider the viability of the renovation, and any red tape or road blocks you may hit on the way. 

“Look at the structural soundness of the home and the general flexibility of the plan,” says Joe. “If the plan is relatively simple – four front rooms with a hallway down the middle – it’ll be relatively straightforward. Complex and convoluted planning can make alterations and additions more difficult to do well.” 

You’ve also got to consider if the home is heritage-listed. 

“In this instance, one needs to check with the local government in relation to specific planning guidelines, which cover dealing with both heritage homes and heritage precincts, as this may greatly affect the approach to design and what you can and can’t do,” Joe says. “Put aside a construction contingency of up to five per cent to deal with unknowns that may arise on site due to dealing with the existing structure. If you don’t use it, consider it a bonus.”

HASSELL Architects’ Peter Lee, who recently completed his own renovation in the heritage-listed suburb of Mt Lawley, knows all about contingencies. 

“When I bought the house, it was a wreck – it was the worst house in the
best street, and I had planned on demolishing it,” Peter says. “It probably cost us twice as much to build what we built than it would have if we had just demolished it and built something new.”

The architect says the main costs came from fixing the structure and the parts of the home that you can’t see.

“Make sure you get a building report,” Peter says. “Luckily we didn’t have any termites, but we ended up replacing a chunk of the roof structure and all
of the roof cladding, changed the whole balcony, reinforced the ground where there was subsidence, and put up retaining walls.”

Despite this, Peter says he wouldn’t have had it any other way. “It’s not so much about money but how you can do something that adds to the streetscape and the place, rather than being selfish about just wanting the cheapest thing up.”

Perth architect Craig Steere says renovation bills do have the potential to balloon once you get started.

“With the old structures, a common problem is not necessarily being able to trust and rely on their load-bearing capacity – whether that be from the foundations of the earth works to their wall structure – so there can be a lot of hidden costs to play it safe,” he says. “Particularly try to investigate those before you go too far with your design and planning, so you’ve got an understanding of how much hidden cost you need to factor in.”

Craig says another challenge (or opportunity, depending on how you see it) is that you have to work within an existing shell, which may or may not be flawed.

“Over time, a building, depending on its age, might have had a number of renovation jobs done by the owner,” says Natalie Miller of Local Architecture. “They might be quite minor, or you might uncover a wall lining under a wall lining, and suddenly you’ve got to have asbestos removal. “I had a friend who had a house, they thought the stumps might need looking at. They discovered that half the house was on stumps and the other half was just sitting around on a sand bed. It was just floating there, which explains why a pencil would roll on the kitchen floor to one side.”

In this regard, it’s often easier to demolish and rebuild.

“A new build is great because it’s a clean slate, especially if you have a professional of some kind working with you,” says Natalie. “But there’s a lot of oversized new builds that don’t need to be that big, and I think they lose a sense of place. I think that’s what a lot of the charm is, and why people gravitate towards some of the older houses.”

Architect Simon Pendal argues that it’s not always more cost-effective to
start anew. “It’s clean to go in and demolish and rebuild, but that doesn’t mean that it’s less expensive,” says Simon. “Let’s say you’ve got a 200sqm house
that exists, and you plan to replace that with a 200sqm house, that’s going to come at a substantial cost. If you plan on renovating the existing house, it won’t be cheap, but it might come at half the cost.”

More and more architects are suggesting restoration or renovation of older houses across WA’s suburbs, in the hope of preserving Perth’s city fabric.
“Why knock down something that’s perfectly good?” Simon says. “It’s a bit like really old cathedrals – they’ve been adjusted and modified and built and rebuilt many, many times over six to seven hundred years, but they still feel cohesive.”

Architect Adrian Iredale says that the desire in many for new, oversized homes means WA’s suburbs fail to maintain their character.

“In older suburbs, renovating is often a contribution to the community and the street context, preserving the qualities of the street for the community to enjoy,” he says. “Unfortunately, the desire to build large new homes in older suburbs often results in the destruction of the very quality of the street that is desirable to all residents.

“The challenge is how to enjoy the best of both worlds without compromising the streetscape or amenity of neighbours.”

Photography Robert Frith, Acorn Photography.


Simon Pendal Architect’s Carine House shows how a building can have a new lease on life through a simple renovation and upcycling.

“We arrived there, and it was a really unremarkable house, but within a short period of time we realised we could do something substantial with it,” says Simon. “We literally worked within the existing shell, made kind of careful strategic moves, but didn’t make major modifications to it – it was more about inserting a new material palette, and light and special qualities.”

The refreshed interior of the 30-year-old home features plywood panelling, black laminate and polished stainless steel, used to create contrasting shades and hues, and invite light into the living spaces.


Photography Peter Bennetts.


Adrian Iredale and his partner, Caroline Di Costa, have always been attracted to the qualities of older houses – high ceilings; ornate ceiling roses; rich, dark timber and detailing – qualities that were once considered mainstream but are now increasingly considered exotic. It was because of this that they decided to renovate their own home, a 1936 Queen Anne Federation house.

“We renovated in stages over a five-year period, initially with smaller stages that were manageable by ourselves,” Adrian says. “These were treated as opportunities to test and refine ideas. When it was time for the larger renovations, we entrusted them to a builder and worked closely with our nominated builder, allowing space for some on-site change and development.”

The two-storey addition is barely visible from the streetscape, celebrating the history of the mid-century abode and surrounding neighbourhood. “Our house is an example of how to preserve the streetscape while adding new spaces and levels, and contributing to the preservation of architectural history.” 


Photography Emma Van Dordrecht.


The Kinder Shophouse, an old 1920s deli turned into a contemporary family home, is a perfect example of how a renovation can embrace both old and new. Chindarsi Architects incorporated a new double-height void between the existing deli and attached house to extend the home. To connect the new area with the old, the architects left the original brickwork and concrete of the shop exposed, and reinstated timber floorboards to the living area. Splatter stucco was employed on the walls, linking the spaces together. “I personally find renovating a home extremely rewarding as I feel like I’m playing a part in preserving a little bit of history for future generations to enjoy,” says Joe Chindarsi. “It’s also more sustainable to re-use these old homes and give them a new lease on life.”


Photography Johnathan Trask.


Peter Lee’s Mt Lawley home mixes heritage and contemporary design. It maintains the cottage charm of the suburb, with its traditional tuck-pointing, dappled render, cedar-lined ceiling and extended eaves and gables, but has the added luxury of modern fixtures, amenities and a new addition, connected by a glass link. The glass walkway is strategically positioned atop an old sewer, so if access to the pipe is needed, the rest of the home will be unaffected.




Photography Lavare.


We chat to bathroom expert Tina Mills of Lavare, about the ins and outs of bathroom renovation.

Why are bathrooms one of the first rooms renovated?
Bathrooms are definitely one of the first rooms homeowners want to renovate because they are high-usage areas and constantly exposed to water and moisture. Also, as family dynamics change, bathrooms need to be updated to accommodate different needs.

Where should someone begin?
A good place to start is to think about what they like and don’t like about their current space – what works, what else do they need to make it functional for the people who use it? For people who want to be hands-on with the renovation, they should take measurements of the space and do a rough drawing of the layout, as this will help with planning. Then, get some inspiration by looking through magazines and websites. If they want to use quality products, visit a specialist bathroom showroom to get ideas and inspiration.

Do you have any bathroom reno horror stories you can share with us?
We heard a story where the bath was too big for the space, and one where there was no water outlet to the freestanding bath. To avoid problems, you need a plan showing the dimensions of the room and fixtures.

What are your top dos and don’ts?
Do choose someone reputable to do your renovation, and make sure they know what products you want installed and how to do it. Don’t let work start until you’ve seen a plan.

What should people do to make sure their new renovation stands the test of time?
Choose quality products and keep the colours neutral. For basins and toilets, go for ceramic and wall-hung if you can. Chrome tapware and showers are still the most popular and versatile. Make sure the bathroom is waterproofed properly, and that you have enough storage. Have soft-close doors and drawers for your cabinetry.

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