29 June 2014

Things I Learnt Whilst Renovating : My Top Ten Tips*

(*Alternative titles that were rejected: 'Renovating? Don't Make All The Stupid Mistakes I Did' or 'Renovating? How Not To Have Several Nervous Breakdowns. Like I Did'.) 

Guys! The house is starting to look really goddamn good! We've had the landscapers here this week so the garden is mostly done, we have lights where we are meant to have lights, and decking and bookshelves and a heater. There's still a longish list of defects and incomplete stuff that's being slowly ticked off but generally the whole thing is looking more house and less building site. This is really, really exciting. (I have a rule of not swearing online but I'm finding it pretty hard not to swear in this post because it's freaking amazing that we've finally gotten to this point. I want to swear, a lot, in happiness.). 

It's been quite a journey. I have learnt a lot. If we ever do this again (DEAR LORD NO) I will do so many things differently. If you're like me and are embarking on this kind of thing you'll probably just wade in blindly with optimism in your heart despite of all those Grand Design episodes you've watched. So, I'm actually not writing this for you. I'm writing this for future me. Future me - pay attention, okay?

1. Invest in a really, really good vacuum cleaner. Or just hire a full time duster. Or both. 

2. Be nice. To the various builders and the tradies, to the architect if you're using one. These people are building your house. Yes, you're paying them lots of money to do the job, but a smile and a thank you will go a long way too. If you're the have-a-cuppa-and-a-freshly-baked-biccie kind of person share that with whoever is on site. I'm not very good with that kind of hospitality - I blame my parents (that's a joke Mum, okay?) - so that's not me. I try to be nice in other ways. Basically if someone does something awesome, tell them

We've met some really talented, passionate tradespeople throughout this project who've variously worked magic with wood and plaster and bricks, and steel and sandstone and joinery (and I can't forget the upholstery whisperer; he takes cushions to a whole other level). They have unique skills and they are proud of their work. It's really great to let them know when you think they've done something really great

It also pays to be nice to your neighbours (even when they complain), and to the council rangers (who are just doing their job). Keep the neighbours in the loop. When things were dragging on a bit I dropped a thank you note with my contact details and a bribe block of chocolate in a few letterboxes. I also put a thank you hamper together for our immediate neighbours. Without patient and understanding neighbours your big build won't happen. 

3. But not too nice. You may not want to be the annoying person who says 'You know how you spent six hours yesterday building that thing? Well it's in the wrong spot / looks like crap / shouldn't be fluro pink and you need to redo it'. But sometimes you need to be that person; you're the one who is going to have to live with that thing.

I'm not very good at being the annoying person; I tend to avoid conflict. But it just ends in tears if you put the short term needs of a tradie ahead of the long term needs of you and your family. Trust me. (Side note: our architect was awesome here. He is passionate about getting everything as 'right' as possible. Which sometimes made us all roll our eyes (like when he got the builder to redo a particular bulkhead for the third time just days before we were meant to move in) but with every decision, push, annoyance I can honestly say the short term pain was worth the long term awesomeness.) 

To be honest the whole renovation process has forced me to really look at my idea of being nice and what that actually means. It's okay if you live in a bubble, but sometimes you do need to be the bad guy to get things done or get your point heard. Which sucks, because I like to believe that people are generally lovely and nice and do the things they say they are going to do. But sometimes they don't, and you'll need to hold them accountable for that

4. Don't be afraid to look like an idiot. If you're a newbie like me you will go into this having no idea at all of what to expect, and you'll spend most of the time having no idea at all as to what's actually going on. Two things I wish I'd done differently: 1) Paid more attention in the early months (I didn't because we were still living in Korea and I kind of thought it was all okay), and 2) Asked more questions from the beginning. I didn't want to ask too many questions because I'd look like a fool (so I didn't ask questions and felt like a fool instead). These days I ask a ton of questions, and I'm thoroughly enjoying being more involved in the process. (Related - this post by Lana of The Sharpest Pencil was all too familiar...)
5. Don't underestimate the importance of relationships. The biggest lesson for me? It's not bricks and wood and paint that get your house built - it's communication. The interaction between the architect, the builder, the foreman and you is vitally important. Don't neglect those relationships because when you do delays and mistakes happen. 

Make sure everyone gets along on day one (when things are easy), and do what you can to make sure everyone still gets along on day one hundred and one (when things may not be so easy). I'm not talking a campfire love-in with hugs and singing and toasted marshmallows. I'm talking a good, working relationship. There will be creative tension, there will be differences of opinion and there will be the occasional rolling of eyes - and that's all fine and part of the process. But if open and clear communication becomes a casualty, you're in for some rocky times.

6. If you're paying for an expert, take their advice. Be prepared to compromise. Our approach throughout the whole project has been that we are paying good money for the advice of an architect, so we better bloody listen to it. And it's been a good approach. The injection of light into the house, the clever resolution of some tricky spaces, the flow from inside to outside - all of this has come from the advice of our architect (and the hard work of our builder and many, many tradies). 

Obviously the first step is making sure you've got the right expert for you and your project. But, once you do, pay attention to what they're telling you. If you've chosen well it's likely they know what they're talking about. 

7. But don't compromise on everything. If you feel really, really strongly about something, fight for it. For me there were three things that I really wanted in the house - a black front door, a Coco Flip light, a marble waterfall bench top. Those three things are in the house, and I adore them. 

Our architect made it clear from the outset that there were some things he felt strongly about and would petition us to invest in, but equally he was happy for us to put the case forward for things we felt strongly about. I thoroughly enjoyed both sides of that equation.
8. It will never be perfect. Well, maybe if you had unlimited funds and you were dealing with a completely new build it might be perfect. But generally you will be working to a budget and a timeframe, and you'll be dealing with the legacy of many, many previous builders and do-it-yourselfers (we've discovered there's not a single straight line in our terrace house...). Your renovation might turn out to be awesome and amazing, it might be 'very you', but don't put the pressure on it (or yourself) to be perfect.

9. It will never be finished. A few days after we moved in to our (still quite unfinished) house we did a walk-though with the architect outlining the things we wanted to change (remove a pendant light here, get rid of a door there, build in some shelves here...). Three months later and I'm currently in the midst of completely reorganising our upstairs spare room / office space, and I'm already planning to get the painters back in a few months to give the house 'one last' go over. There will always be something more to do.

10. Don't buy all your furniture at once. See how you use the space, what the space actually needs, before you rush out and get everything. Spreading it out over a long period of time also gives you the chance to both: a) snap up a bargain when you come across one (our bedside tables were the one's on display in The Design File's Open House which meant we got a decent discount), and b) invest in some super special pieces (our couch is freaking awesome...and took more than three months to arrive once ordered).


So, that's a few things I've learnt - how about you? Have you undertaken a big renovation project? What did you find out along the way?


  1. Your enthusiasm and excitement are palpable Emily and I've become excited for you just reading this!
    I'm not sure I could undertake a reno with my partner because we come from completely different design and mess aesthetics, but if we ever do pop our feet onto that slippery path, I'll be sure to come back here and re-read this post.
    Happy day Clever You!

    1. Thank you lovely Felicity! Having my husband trust my (and the architects) aesthetic sense so completely was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it was a lot of fun working with Alex, our architect, to create each space and then unveiling it to the hubs. And a curse because I had a few major bouts of decision related panic...the bathroom tiles were the worst - sounds ridiculous but it was bloody stress inducing picking them!


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