Bones of contention: To renovate or not?

This Bondi house originally had a dysfunctional layout, was miserably dark and had abysmal orientation. Once we turned around to face the winter sun and let the summer sea breeze in, it became delightfully bright in summer and had much reduced running costs. Image: Studio 33 Photography
To renovate, or not to renovate – that is (so often) the question. Dick Clarke helps you decide on the best approach, posing some hard questions.

Renovating is now a national sport, the popularity of which seems to surpass all football codes combined. Testament to this is high-rating shows like The Block and Reno Rumble, which do much to feed the flames. Unfortunately much of what takes place on those shows is poorly thought through, and even more poorly executed. There’s a reason why most quality building projects take many months. A good portion of this time is wisely spent contemplating and decision-making, which brings us back to a perennial question: should you renovate, or knock down and rebuild?

Some of the following questions may help you make that decision.

What are your goals?

This sounds quite straightforward, but at the heart of it lie some big questions around life goals, aspirations and priorities. Some hard questions (and honest answers) might be needed, such as: To what extent am I trying to impress/compete with family, friends or the neighbourhood? How important is it to me to reduce my house’s impact on the world, through reduced energy and material consumption? The answers will steer a lot of design decisions that follow.

Good bones

Some houses have little potential for renovation, for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the foundations have sunk, or the structure is so far gone there is nothing left to work with. Heritage-listed buildings leave no option, but for most houses the state of its ‘bones’ is the first consideration.

If the site has a pleasant aspect and a mild micro-climate, then a range of construction types may be suitable for renovation. But if, for instance, the site is cold due to poor orientation and/or shading, the house has open subfloors, or there is extensive termite damage, it may be best to start afresh.

If the existing layout lends itself to better orientation without a total rebuild and the bones are good (sound foundations, and a structural condition that will allow added insulation etc), the next question is: will a renovation actually make it more liveable and sustainable? You may think, “Well of course, otherwise what’s the point?” But it’s amazing how many renovations fail to take advantage of the opportunity to actually make things better. Poor layouts, no response to the site and solar access and no added insulation, are just some of the things we often see in projects that have soaked up hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In one case, an older double-brick home on sound sandstone foundations had a completely dysfunctional layout, was miserably dark with abysmal orientation, and no insulation. But by flipping the layout, adding high-performance glass and judicious insulation where we could, it became delightfully bright in winter, cool in summer and had much reduced running costs.

Character and heritage

This may be a subjective decision, but is well worth considering, heritage listing or not. Many older homes help define their neighbourhood and carry a wealth of human stories. These qualities may well justify a bit of extra effort. Even if the verdict is ultimately in favour of a rebuild, there may be materials that can be salvaged and reused to carry at least some of that history into the future.

There was a recent case of an old Californian bungalow on Sydney’s lower North Shore which had effectively burnt down in its middle. The external walls were okay, but in spite of a hurried patch-up job with some new rafters and new roof tiles, the entire middle was a lost cause – a rebuild was definitely required. The new tiles were sold, the new timbers reused, but most importantly, all the bricks were deconstructed, cleaned, and reused in the new house. Several thousand retained ‘Eastwood blues’ – particularly beautiful highly-fired bricks – are now a strong feature of the entry and external living areas. Reusing the bricks also saved a whole lot of embodied energy and provided great thermal mass.

(Left) Lightweight timber-framed houses, such as this renovated cottage by architect Matt Elkan, where the roof was raised for light and ventilation, are generally more easily altered than brick and other high-mass house types. Image: Barton Taylor, first published in Sanctuary 27. (Right top) ‘Liveability Real Estate Specialists’ are trained to communicate the value of green features such as rainwater tanks to prospective buyers, rewarding the long-term commitment to reducing a home’s environmental footprint. Image: Calan Stanley, originally published in Sanctuary 31. (Right bottom) The owner of this 80s brick veneer in Glenhaven, NSW, hadn’t held out much hope for retaining and renovating. But on closer inspection its layout and orientation were found to be basically sound. All it needed was a lift of one part of the roofline to correct the solar access, a complete renovation of insulation, windows and doors, and new efficient appliances. It is now close to starting its new 8 Star life. Image: Envirotecture.


Some construction systems lend themselves to renovation more than others. Timber framed homes are usually easily altered, but brick and other masonry systems may be trickier. Builders altering lime mortar brick walls often end up chasing their tails, rebuilding whole walls as each time they remove some bricks, the next ones become loose, ad infinitum. Opening old brick buildings up to more open plan layouts can also cause problems if large spans require steel beams – the beams may need to be supported on steel columns and new footings.

Less common masonry systems such as rammed earth or poured ash-concrete may require whole walls or panels to be taken down, as there is no effective way to support these materials on new lintels inserted over new openings. Conversely, brick buildings built since the 1960s usually have such high cement content in the mortar that cutting a single doorway appears to require no added support at all (though it’s often added anyway!).

As good as new?

This is of course both subjective and objective. What is ‘good’ to me may be awful to you, and vice versa. However, we would generally agree on natural comfort, brightness, and response to a site’s natural attributes. Technical performance can be accurately measured too – in energy and water consumption, the embodied energy in the materials used or saved, and in running costs.

It is assumed that if the existing house has no potential, knocking it down and starting again will lead to a better performing home. If only that was always so! But even if it is better, will the savings repay the materials and energy that went into making them? This is an increasingly important question for many people, but it is not easily answered. It requires a full lifecycle analysis – a complex and specialised study beyond the realm of most home owners – even experienced professionals call in the experts. There are no rules of thumb other than a general truism that the new house must be a whole lot better than the old.

We recently had a client who was convinced their 80s brick veneer house had to go – it was hot in summer, dingy and cold in winter, and looked tired. But when we had a good look at it, we realised that its bones were good, and its layout and orientation were basically sound. All it needed was a lift of one part of the roofline to correct the solar access, a complete renovation of insulation, windows and doors, and new efficient appliances. Of course, all the finishes got the treatment too, and now it looks like a brand new home, rates 8 Stars, and the quarterly power bills are around $60. Yet 80 per cent of the structure and a huge amount of embodied energy was retained.

Old ‘blue bricks’ were given a second life when this Neutral Bay house was knocked down and rebuilt. Reusing the bricks meant a whole lot of embodied energy was saved, and some great thermal mass added in the process. Image: Envirotecture.

Jekyll and Hyde?

It is common for wonderful new additions to be added to poor performing older buildings, such that the new section is thermally comfortable and costs little to run, while the old part remains uninsulated and draughty.

It is worth considering whether that is the best use of available funds. It would make more sense to spend at least a modest amount upgrading the older part on such features as additional insulation and draught-sealing. The nature of the old rooms and their use will help steer decisions about how much of the budget to throw at them.

What about the costs?

This is where a lot of people come unstuck. The sad truth is, if a significant renovation is all that will meet the brief and satisfy the goals, then often a rebuild is cheaper than a renovation. We wish it was not so, but there are logical reasons why it is. The first reason is that demolition is still too cheap, in spite of what the building industry considers to be exorbitant tip fees. Houses should be deconstructed rather than demolished – vast amounts of valuable material continue to get crushed and dumped. Labour rates are such that it is simply cheaper to buy large quantities of a mass-produced material and put it together quickly and cleanly, than it is to spend hundreds of hours fiddling about modifying existing buildings.

But don’t rush to write off the old shack yet – consider what its potential is, and work to its strengths. You may even save money if you are able to reuse a lot of the structure and good materials. Here I must put in a plug for the design industry and encourage you to get advice from a design professional with a track record in rebuilds, new builds and renovations – that way you will not be tied down to one particular mindset or business model.

Fast forward

How will you feel in ten years time? This will clearly depend on a multitude of factors, but one perhaps warrants a special mention: that old chestnut of overcapitalisation and market value. It’s worth recognising that a return on investment can’t be guaranteed, no matter what decision you make or the timeframe. This is because your dream home is still a building, and buildings depreciate, deteriorate and ultimately need to be replaced.

The value of green

How the market values the design and selection decisions you make is radically changing. Until now, there has been a significant ‘missing link’ in the chain of good, low-impact design in the existing housing market: well-versed and on-board real estate agents. Aside from a few individual agents, they were out of the loop, but no longer.

The Centre for Liveability Real Estate (CLRE), founded by LJ Hooker, has opened up its framework to the whole industry, training estate agents to recognise, value, and sell the sustainability features of houses. Up-skilled ‘Liveability Real Estate Specialists’ are uniquely placed to communicate this to potential buyers, and they use a collection of property features called ‘The 17 Things’ to do so. These include orientation, zoning, insulation, double glazing, and energy and water-efficient fixtures. The emphasis is that, when used correctly, these features have the potential to increase comfort and reduce running costs.

The effect this is likely to have on changing the way the market values good design is one more reason to make good long-term design decisions, whether you decide on a rebuild or a renovation. It’s a good investment in anyone’s terms.

About the author
Dick Clarke is principal of Envirotecture, a sustainable building design firm in Sydney and Redland Bay, Queensland.
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