Renovating: Green lights, red tape and heartbreak

Toby Johnstone March 31, 2012

Victorious .. Graham and Angela Davis with Amelie, 4, Lucy, 6, and Harry, 8.

Victorious .. Graham and Angela Davis with Amelie, 4, Lucy, 6, and Harry, 8.

A long tale of stress, strain, heritage battles and a new home in Balmain.

Renovating a property surrounded by heritage buildings can be as taxing emotionally as it is financially.

In some areas in Sydney, proposing a renovation is seen as an affront to our colonial legacy, an attack on all the Victorian quirks and charms that we have inherited, a negation of nostalgia … but it can be done right.

After nearly three years, a battle with council and persistent disagreement with neighbours, Angela Davis and her husband, Graham, have pulled it off.

The couple, who have lived in Balmain for 14 years, had no intention of leaving the area.

''The whole reason we decided to move was that we were having a third child and needed to find a bigger house,'' Angela says.

''We had a look around and couldn't find a house that would suit our requirement space-wise.''

What they did find was a two-bedroom Victorian cottage on a 386-square-metre block six doors down from their original house and they quickly snapped it up for $1.17 million in 2007.

But the hardest task was still ahead of them: they had the space but not the house. Now they had to transform their period cottage into a contemporary home big enough for a young family of five - without changing the heritage streetscape.

The plan(s)

In some suburbs, rebuilding is not an option and even renovations come under great scrutiny.

''We never would have been able to rebuild so we didn't even apply to do that,'' Angela says. ''The next-door neighbour is also an architect and was extremely opposed to any type of change to the streetscape or in fact any change at all.''

Although their architect, Joshua Mulders, says that ''initially we had an approach that was sympathetic to the existing Australian colonial building'', the first development application was rejected.

''That was probably one of the most challenging and heartbreaking parts of the process,'' Angela says. ''We had factored in the renting costs to an extent but we thought that the design and DA process would take 12 months but it was pushed out a lot.''

The DA was rejected based on bulk and scale. The plans would only get the green light if the renovated section of the house was not visible from the street. Having made amendments to the original DA, the couple had another go.

''When we resubmitted to council we had a different planner and he said it was fine, and we were able to go back to what the original DA was - same DA, different planner,'' Mulders says.

What it cost

''Originally we budgeted $500,000 for everything,'' Angela says.

But when they briefed Mulders on what he calls their ''wish-list'', he suggested it would cost more like $650,000, not including the pool.

''Josh was spot on,'' Angela says. ''And, looking back, I know if we had done it for $500,000 we never would have felt like we did a proper job.''

During the build there was only one real blowout, which couldn't be avoided. Builder Michael Marchione says: ''When we were excavating the cellar we hit rock a metre below ground and we still had three metres to go, so this affected the time by three or four weeks.''

The rest of the project ran smoothly, with Marchione following Mulders' plans meticulously to keep the neighbour happy.

The builder says that in his experience - particularly the inner west, around the city and the eastern suburbs - dealing with neighbours can be understandably tricky. ''Everyone is so close to each other that you're always fighting for a little bit of space but as long as you do the right thing there is not much anyone can really say,'' he says.

Worth it?

That the streetscape could not be altered in any way is what makes this property so interesting. It is a hidden renovation that one can only experience by entering the property.

''When people hit the open-plan area they are often quite surprised at what we've done,'' Graham says.

From the outside you would never guess this is a five-bedroom house. Four bedrooms are downstairs, with the sleek open-plan living-dining-kitchen area, while the main bedroom overlooks the garden and pool. Angela says: ''We didn't want to build a McMansion.

'' I think that's what makes it unique … it is a small little workers' cottage that gives way into something quite special.''

Mulders adds that the separation of the old and the new was important architecturally. ''It's about reading history quite clearly through the architecture.''

In a nutshell

Time Ten months (nearly three years including DA process)

Land size 386 sq m

Internal size 211 sq m

Builder Michael Marchione - Rescom projects, 9817 7095

Architect Joshua Mulders - Joshua Mulders Architects, 0438 539 116

Photos by Simon Wood of Simon Wood Photography

Favourite features

''The kids have a toy room so we don't feel like we are surrounded by children's things all the time,'' Angela says.

Green Points

"We had solar panels put on in time for the rebates so we get about $120 a month. It's definitely been worth it, they pay for themselves."

Insider's tip

"I would recommend fixed-price contracts: it stops things blowing out and it helps with the banks as well," Angela says.

What went wrong

- Original DA was rejected.

- When excavating the cellar they hit rock, which slowed construction by three to four weeks.

What went right

- The finished home complements its heritage surroundings.

Costs

Demolition, excavation and concrete $66,000

Brickwork and rendering $12,000

Carpentry including timber floors, doors and windows $160,500

Joinery $58,500

Steel awning and louvres $33,000

Roofing $23,500

Plasterboard $36,500

Electrical $20,000

Plumbing $43,000

Tiling and paving $23,000

Pool and landscaping $70,000

Client purchased appliances and fittings approx $50,000

Painting $32,000

General building work including steel $87,000

TOTAL $715,000

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