First published in The Sunday Age, M Magazine
With the spotlight on five-star renovations, it pays to use as much of your existing home as possible.
WHEN architect Matt Gibson and his wife, Annabel Talbot, decided to fix up their South Yarra home, they took a thrifty tack. “We wanted to recycle as much of the existing structure as possible,” Gibson says, “re-utilise anything we could and use old materials from other buildings.”
With careful planning, a renovation goes hand-in-hand with the other three R’s: reduce, reuse and recycle. And Gibson is adamant that it doesn’t mean flower-power design. “You can have a contemporary space by reusing the structure and using eco-friendly principles, without having a shag-pile or stained-glass look.”
The 36-year-old is standing at the front of his narrow terrace home, looking smart and rumpled in jeans and a blue shirt. As he speaks, his 10-month-old daughter, Matilda, crawls to the courtyard at the red front door. “She loves it out here,” he says, picking her up.
She’s a wise judge. The small home feels spacious, thanks to clever use of natural light and mirrors. It also features a serene internal courtyard with an outdoor shower, opening from the master bedroom and bluestone bathroom.
The old house, built almost 100 years ago, had a hotchpotch layout born of two previous extensions. The kitchen was hidden away and the toilet was stuck in the lounge room. Despite the inconvenience, the couple lived in the home for two years before beginning their overhaul. When they did, salvaging the best of the existing structure seemed the natural thing to do.
“For me, I like keeping the old elements,” Talbot says, sitting on the couch in the airy living room. She’s from Britain, and her parents’ house was built in 1642. “I don’t understand having to pull everything down. In England you just don’t have the space to do that, and the planning rules don’t allow you to. We’re quite used to reusing whatever we’ve got.”
Although there were no heritage rules preventing demolition, the couple decided to keep the existing period front and the bedrooms intact, along with the entire roof and all the walls. “There’s a lot less embodied energy in revitalising the existing structure than in bulldozing it and starting again,” Gibson says. They reshuffled the back part of the house by moving the bathroom to the middle of the home and creating an open kitchen and living area facing the back courtyard.
It’s not just an environmental plus – the other big benefit is cost. The project outlays totalled $200 000. Gibson estimates that they saved about $100 000 by keeping the structure in place, and up to $20 000 more by using recycled materials.
They redesigned their old glass roof to become a contemporary skylight and re-employed three large bronzed mirrors – formerly wardrobe doors – in the rear courtyard. The floorboards were reclaimed from a demolished factory in Richmond and the long concrete bench was poured in place using aggregate gathered onsite.
Where possible, the couple also used natural or local products, such as sisal carpets, tree bark blinds, concrete tiles made in Brighton, and stones, for the chimney, sourced from Portsea.
Finding these salvaged and unusual materials proved the easy part of the six-month renovation. Amateur owner-builders can take comfort: working on your own house is hard going, even for architects.
“It was stressful,” says Gibson. “It was very stressful,” Talbot adds, laughing. Each of them was working a busy full-time job. They were staying with friends and labouring at the house in every spare moment.
Now that it’s finished, they’re pleased with the comfort and style of their home, and glad they stuck to the recycling theme. “It’s very poignant right now with the credit crunch because people are having to rethink they way they live their lives,” Talbot says. “And one person’s rubbish is another’s treasure, isn’t it?”
Gibson says that demand for salvaged building materials is growing fast. “There’s really nothing that can’t be recycled if you really want to.”
Should it stay or should it go?
Up to 40 percent of our landfill waste comes from building, according to yourhome.gov.au, and much of it could be reused. Recycling not only cuts demand for new resources, but also cuts your costs.
A renovation always means recycling, but just how much depends on the design. If you want to be green, save as much of the existing structure as you can and chose your materials carefully. Make sure your designer and builder understand your goals.
Doors, windows and cabinets are ideal for reuse, and look for bits and pieces with character – like Matt Gibson’s bronzed mirrors – that could be re-employed.
Material-wise almost everything can be reclaimed, from plasterboard, timber and glass, to metals like steel, aluminium and copper. Even concrete, carpet, plastics, bricks and tiles are good to go around again – if not for you, then somewhere else.
It’s easy to find second hand suppliers or trade materials online. Try sites such as eBay, Trading Post, or Construction Connect Australia.
Matt Gibson Architecture + Design
When Matt Gibson was just a kid, he chanced upon an architectural blueprint. “I saw it and just thought it was so beautifully drawn,” he says. “Once I saw that, I wanted to do architecture.”
He started his own practice, MGA+D, in 2003 following stints working for other architectural firms in both Melbourne and London. In 2005, Gibson’s firm won Australia’s Best Emerging Practice.
It has since expanded to include five staff. They work on new, retail and commercial projects, but specialise in existing residential buildings. Gibson says he is fascinated by the play between old and new, and storytelling through design features that recur through a home. “There’s a trend running through our work, which is about utilisation of light, continuity of forms and patterns of movement.”