My Sustainable House Renovation: Demolition

We started the design process in earnest in 2017, but due to financial constraints stopped, then picked it up again in 2018. Our initial plan was to go up another storey, but we had a hard budget which meant that after spending many many thousands of dollars on plans and approvals, we had to re-start. It was obvious that the two-storey option was super tight from a financial point of view and we would have had to sacrifice all of our sustainability aspirations. So back to the drawing board (literally) it was.

I spent a long time thinking of what I could do then to maintain as much of the existing home as possible, while reducing the size to help meet budget and environmental goals. With new plans drawn up we went into full gear and looked to lock in dates for construction to begin. But something else happened in early 2020…..a global pandemic hit and we needed to pause. We needed to mentally gather ourselves because going into lock down and living in fear was not the mindset that is conducive to risky big plans. But with the situation in Sydney easing and us sensing some form of ‘normality’, we hit the ‘Go’ button in October 2020.

Moving out was hard work. We had over the years accumulated so much which I was not going to have space for funnily enough. We threw out way more than I was hoping to do, but eventually the house was ready for the builders to move it.

The first step was demolition and this was the first and most important lesson that I learnt about construction.

Bye Bye house. Note some of the 1940’s curved features. There used to be some ‘fancy’ brick work too

I went through painstakingly identifying walls to keep, walls to remove. It was this desire to keep as much of the embodied energy in the home that forced most of the design decisions. Well little was I to know that it meant diddly squat! But before I get to that, the demolition did show up some unique 1940’s features like windows which were hidden behind some joinery and a little nook in the wall for when milk was left by the milkman!

Post-war 1940s window feature

As for the rest of the demolition, well it kept going and going until I came back one day and there was pretty much no house left at all! Imagine my sustainable heart sinking.

Where did my house go?

This is also about when two big variations came in. As I am on a sloping block, the house was built on piers. Most of the brickwork was 80 years old and much of the lime mortar worn down, away or non-existent. So my builder convinced me that this was not on and that I should remove the piers and start again. I eventually gave way also because as there was no house left anymore, it allowed me to slightly alter the location of some walls to make my daughter’s bedroom and the kids’ bathroom slightly bigger.

You would have seen from my wishlist in Part 1 of these posts that avoid, reuse and recycle was really high on the list from a materials and waste point of view. The reality became that much waste was generated and while my builder meticulously separated and recycled, nothing was maintained, nothing was reused. Not that I didn’t try. I gave lists and excel spreadsheets and marked what I wanted to reuse. Things like my solid timber front door, kitchen sink, toilets, taps, showeheads. These items were removed and sat in the front yard, but eventually ended up somewhere too. So this was another lesson – if I wanted to keep stuff, I had to go myself, remove it straight away from the site and store it. I simply assumed the builder would keep  things on site until he needed it again.

It was also just as well that I had mentally let go of a lot of my garden because all of the garden beds around the house were destroyed, so a lot of money and love including a massive frangipani tree ended up in those skip bins too.

 What was I doing while all of this was taking place? I was living 10 minutes away in a pretty grotty small home, though visiting regularly to my builder’s chagrin. I was working (mostly from home because of Covid, and trying to keep on top of spiralling costs)!

With demolition finished within a few months, we moved onto construction. But then something else was been happening in Sydney the last few years – La Nina. Stay tuned for my next post on how that affected things.

The Sustainable House Renovation – Part 1

As I sit here in my renovated home, I am able to enjoy the changes I made to improve the life of my family and I.

To make it our own though we enlisted the help of family. My father in-law who has now passed away was an architect, so he set off coming up with some plans for us.  He came up with many different options. We pored over them from overseas and having never seen the house – but sustainability was always right up in the top of considerations.

This renovation was a long time coming. When we bought this 1940’s post-war house in Lane Cove we always knew we wanted to make changes. The house itself though was solid and had ‘good bones’, so we knew we wanted to renovate rather than knock it down.

We never actually saw the house as we were living overseas (Abu Dhabi) when we bought it.  My mum checked it out though and confirmed it was a ‘good one’. We were lucky at the time that prices has stabilized in Sydney somewhat and we could put in a bid that was successful.

He was able to research and came up with good options for us. Top of my wishlist at the time was solar hot water and keeping as much of the house as possible to reduce waste and embodied carbon.

But when we priced this up, it was out of our budget and reach, so we decided to live in it first when we moved back with our two children. We managed a few updates like a new kitchen, bathroom, laundry, painting, ripping out carpet, rendering and doing a lot of work in the garden. You’ll see all my gardening posts over the years.

But with a third child and growing kids, it was time to think about what came next. I spent some time looking into opportunities to sell and move somewhere quieter, but as anyone that has lived in Sydney the last ten years will tell you – that’s a pipe dream. So after eliminating that option, it came time again to re-look at the plans that we had. We realized that at the time, we were a family of four and are now a family of five, so we needed new plans.

Through a friend’s connection we found a builder who listened to us and brought on an architect he regularly worked with. Again I made sure sustainability was at the top of the wishlist and went so far as to draw up an excel of all my ‘must haves’. I gave this to the architect at the outset who seemed extremely confused and wasn’t sure what to do about my enthusiasm.

So what was I trying to fix with this enthusiasm?

We also installed solar and tried to look into efficiency measures like LED lights. BUT the house was always uncomfortable. We had tiled floors which were absolutely feezing to walk on in winter. The windows leaked like crazy. In fact some had even cracked. One of the rooms clearly had moisture issues. Our gas and electricity bills were always really high, particularly over winter. Needless to say efficiency and good designs was on the top of priorities.

Some of our wishlist items included:

  • Solar
  • Rainwater tank
  • Double glazed windows
  • Efficient showerheads and toilets
  • Low toxicity materials, paints
  • Certified timber and materials
  • Good construction waste management
  • Reused materials and reusing what we demolish as much as possible
  • Keeping as much of the house as possible
  • Disconnecting from gas – so going fully electric
  • Highly insulated (walls, ceiling, floors, roof)

You can see from this list that there is nothing too crazy on this list. My builder though listened politely, but not only saw dollar signs for variations, but also thought I was being kooky!

So there began the journey of not only educating the builder, but of the battle of realise a lot of my vision.

Stay tuned for more blogs as I take you through the year that was which included Covid lockdowns, supply chain issues and many variations.

Have you had a similar experience? I’d love to hear your stories and share what lessons you learnt.