Congratulations on purchasing your new home, but what should you do next? That’s a question I am regularly asked. This blog post will give you some guidelines to consider, however every home is different and the general information here may not be relevant to your home or situation. Now the hard (and exciting) work needs to happen. For most newly purchased mid-century and post-war homes there is so much to do, so many ideas, and so little money. Even if you have engaged a pre-purchase inspection here are a few of Dr Retro’s guidelines to that big question “Where do I start?”.
The worst and most expensive mistake a new homeowner can make before moving day is to try to complete major renovations prior to moving in.
When renovating in a sympathetic manner to the original architecture there seem to be about a million decisions to make, not just about selections, but about how true to the original architecture, and original specifications. Rushed decisions are often bad decisions, and compromises may be made in haste and regretted at leisure.
Due to the popular reality TV renovation competitions, many newbie renovators start under the misapprehension that a week’s work by a dozen different tradies takes about the length of a television episode, and that all suppliers carry all stock, which is available at a moment’s notice. While supply of stock is often quick and easy with some mainstream selections, such as the very common, plain, white subway tiles, if you want something that is not common, and perhaps a bit special and unique (such as a nice mid-century, pistachio coloured, hexagonal floor tile), you may have to wait 12 to 16 weeks for your order to arrive by boat.
This happened to one of our very patient clients. Now that her bathroom is finally finished she is thrilled that she didn’t make a mainstream, generic, contemporary selection, and waited for her perfect tile. A rushed renovation means that your selections are limited to the mainstream, most popular, most conservative selections that are currently available in stock, and will look like a flipped house when finished. Investors who purchase property to renovate quickly and put back on the market (flippers) often have finished homes that have a very similar, neutral look due to the availability and quick lead times of some materials.
I always suggest to my Dr Retro clients that they spend the first 12 months of home ownership living in and understanding the home. During this time they should research their options, before spending big money on a poorly-conceived renovation. This will help you to understand how the house performs through the seasons – where the sunlight falls, where the draughts come from, if the gutters leak, which aspect is prone to driving rain, if the stormwater has tree roots in it, and if the hot water system is adequate.
This is where a “Dr Retro House Call” can help. A Dr Retro House Call can be part of your pre-renovation research with a mid-century design specialist who understands the architectural style of your home, and who has had lots of experience with other mid-century and post-war home owners who have undertaken renovations and additions.
Some clients get distracted by the details without understanding and appreciating the big picture. There is no point in having a fun time selecting new tiles for the kitchen splashback when the box gutter is leaking, and causing internal damage to the structural timber frame. Don’t charge ahead and install a new bathroom where the old one was if you are planning on extending the house in the future and there may be a better location for it.
Pam Kueber, Retro Renovation blogger, offers some helpful insights about renovating: “Renovating, remodelling and living in our midcentury and vintage homes can be gratifying, but please always remember, there can be safety and environmental hazards in the surfaces, layers, materials and products in our homes. Anything old, even New Old Stock, that you buy also may have issues. We all care very much about managing safety and environmental issues properly, so when moving into a home … when undertaking cleaning, repair, remodeling or restoration projects … or when adding old materials (salvaged, used, new old stock, etc.)… be sure to get with your own properly licensed professionals to determine what you are dealing with/working with so that you can make informed decisions how to handle, become familiar with and use recommended best practices, and also learn about the proper disposal of debris, etc.”
Assuming that there are no issues for human safety and security, such as broken windows, missing balustrades, which must receive priority attention, then before moving day consider the following jobs:
Get an electrician to check your electrical wiring, including all power points and light fittings, to ensure that they are wired correctly with proper earths. Many mid-century and post-war homes still have their original wiring, and were built (or renovated) in a great age of unqualified do-it-yourselfers. The wiring insulation may have broken down, or been subject to damage by vermin. A new electrical switchboard with current safety switch technology may save a life, and can be installed to allow for future split system air-conditioners, solar panels etc. Think about your future plans, and if necessary replace the switchboard to accommodate your future electrical loading. Your house may need re-wiring, but it is best to know where you want additional power points, light points and ceiling fans before rewiring.
Consider if you can live with the existing floor coverings, or if you should remove them. Quite often the more formal rooms have good quality carpet that has received little wear, so you may want to keep it. If a carpet is badly stained or worn, get rid of it. Many mid-century and post-war homes have good timber flooring that has been protected over the years by carpet and will polish up well. To see what is underneath the carpet check the floor of the linen cupboard as these were often not carpeted and will reveal the bare boards.
Many homes had vinyl tiles in the kitchen as the original floor coverings. Be careful about removing these as some brands contained asbestos, and you don’t want to fill your new home with asbestos dust from smashed up floor tiles before moving in. There are professionals who specialize in the safe removal of asbestos.
Consider painting the plasterboard walls and plasterboard ceilings as a fresh coat of paint will make a big difference to your new home before moving day. DON’T paint exposed stone or face brick. DON’T paint any stained timber such as exposed timber beams, timber veneer plywood doors, timber skirtings and architraves. The timber, stone and internal brickwork are an integral feature of the design, often as a contrast, and once painted, they can’t be unpainted. Live with these natural materials for a while. Often a period feature will be appreciated in time as it’s an element that makes your home different to a generic, new build home. If you bought your mid-century or post-war home for its character, don’t white out the character before moving in.
You will be need to be very clear in communicating to your painter about what is NOT to be painted. Most painters are used to painting everything that is old in a house, and will do so unless told otherwise. You could use masking tape to identify period elements that are not to be painted. I have visited numerous clients who have rushed in to paint everything white, then after moving in, researching their home, and realising to their regret that everything they painted white looks like “Developer Contemporary”, and they have lost a part of their home’s history and character forever. If you need any help understanding how the various shades of white work, then checkout Secret Design Studio’s blog posting “What white is the right white to paint my Pettit and Sevitt Home?” which has links to lots of good resources about white paint:
If you have any completely original paint colours (often found in the back walls of built-in cupboards), then take careful note and photograph them before they are lost under paint. The “Dr Retro House Call” service has a digital colour matching service where we can complete an analysis of an existing old paint colour and provide some contemporary options as A4 samples from a range of 4800 colours.
Removing long grass, dead plants, big weeds, and cleaning gutters will help you clearly see the property that you have purchased. If you have kids then consider removing chook sheds and rusty lean-tos for safety, but be aware that these may be constructed from fibro asbestos sheet. Your home may have mature trees, such as liquid ambers, which have outgrown their yard space, and are causing problems with gutter blockages, roots in drains and blocking sunlight. Be open-minded about these trees and live with them for a while before deciding that they have overstayed their welcome. Large tree removal should be only be completed by professional tree loppers with the appropriate permits. Be aware that local councils may have requirements for tree removal and these can usually be managed by your tree remover.
Don’t move into a house with any damaged or broken asbestos, or asbestos with an exposed edge that is fraying. Your mid-century or post-war home will probably have asbestos in it, however the risk is increased if it is exposed or damaged. Asbestos eaves are in almost every home of this era, so be sure to visually check their condition. If they are damaged you will need to engage a certified asbestos remover, ideally before you move in. As mentioned earlier, some vinyl kitchen tiles contained asbestos, so keep an eye out for damaged tiles, and get any damaged tiles chemically tested for asbestos content.
Sometimes a home is purchased with a kitchen or bathroom that is unsafe to use, and which must be replaced before the house can be habitable. However, in most cases the kitchen and bathroom are functional, even though they may not meet be very appealing or meet contemporary expectations.
Generally speaking, don’t try to replace these rooms before moving day as they need careful thought, and considerate design to do it right, and do justice to your new home.
Don’t do a kitchen renovation in “Developer Contemporary/Greige” style as a quick fix before moving in. Often the kitchen in your mid-century or post-war home was built with narrower benchtops, usually about 450mm wide, in a smallish kitchen room that was well-separated from the living areas. Today’s appliances and fittings, such as dishwashers, stovetops, ovens, and sinks are designed for 600mm wide benchtops. By doing a “new for old” swap you will have less space, and probably less functionality than the existing kitchen.
I would suggest living in the house for 12 months to see how the old kitchen relates to the living area. When you understand and appreciate the flow of your new home then consider the options for making the kitchen bigger (or relocating it) down the track. Time allows for research, and then lets you engage a professional who appreciates the existing architecture of your home to design a new kitchen that is sympathetic. For some mid-century kitchen renovation design inspiration have a look at Secret Design Studio’s Pinterest page:
Don’t do a bathroom renovation in “Developer Contemporary/Greige” as a quick fix before moving in. Quite often there will be water damage to the timber house frame as typically a waterproof membrane (which is standard practice today) was not used. When you remove the bathroom the extent of any damage will become apparent, and the job will escalate to something bigger, more expensive and much lengthier than you have allowed for.
But the question you should be asking yourself is this ;“Is the existing bathroom in the right place, and does it have the right layout, for our future needs, and plans for the house?”. Quite often I have come across a nice, newly- renovated bathroom that blocks future extension options due to its location. Don’t splash $20K (or even more) on a bathroom renovation until you understand the addition potential of your house, unless you are in a financial position to scrap it when it comes time to extend.
In addition, most mid-century and post-war bathrooms are fairly cosy by today’s standards and there may be better options than simply replacing new with old. Don’t even try to fit a fashionable free-standing tub and a walk-in shower inside your old bathroom as these contemporary bathroom items are space hungry, and won’t fit unless you compromise on the functionality and usability of your new bathroom.
For some mid-century bathroom renovation design inspiration have a look at Secret Design Studio’s Pinterest page:
Many mid-century and post war homes used their brickwork as a feature. Sometimes the variation between cream bricks was subtle, and sometimes the use of clinkers made for dramatic walls. By comparison, many of today’s bricks are very uniform, with little contrast, or life. There are lots of cheaper options to generic render that should be considered before paying thousands of dollars to blank out the external character of your home. Just remember that a 1960’s home, due to its roof design, eaves, window style etc isn’t “modernised” by a coat of render, and will always look like one of the many 1960’s house with a coat of render that has lost its character.
For more thoughts on why you should never render your mid-century or post-war brick home check out Secret Design Studio’s blog on the topic:
Just like a home a garden should be understood over at least year before major expenditure. Where are the hot spots, where are the cool spots? Which plants provide spring and autumn colour? Which neighbours can see over my fence? Where is the best outdoor living areas, and how do they relate to indoors? Where will any future additions work best? When it is time to consider your garden design, then I can put you in contact with a landscape architect who understands the style of your home. For further information about engaging a landscape architect here is a link to explain what a landscape architect can do to improve your home and outdoor lifestyle, “Thinking about a mid-century garden that complements your mid-century home”,
Nobody wants to live in a museum piece, and everybody appreciates a comfortable home. The problem with modernising a period home to today’s contemporary fashion (as seen on your favourite reality TV renovation competition) is that it will date quickly. Ten years after a fashionable renovation it will look very dated, and a bit incongruous in an older home. Just look at the many 1980’s and 1990’s renovations that have ruined many mid-century homes.
However, many mid-century and post-war homes do need improvements to bring them up to contemporary standards of comfort, functionality and safety. The secret is to make sure that any improvements are sympathetic to the original style, so that in ten years time they don’t look like a dated renovation that was fashionable ten years ago. By following the original style of your home, rather than the current fashion, will ensure that any improvements will be much better value for money, with better longevity, as they won’t seem dated, but will still work with the original home.
To get a better understanding of this concept of style versus fashion, and the relevance to mid-century and post war home renovations, Kate Wagner, the creator of the viral blog Mcmansion Hell, has written an interesting opinion piece on “Curbed” called “Are home renovations necessary? Renovations have become a national pastime, but there is nothing wrong with your house”.
The best place to start would be to arrange a “Dr Retro House Call” which is a two to three hour in-home consultation. The many dozens of homes that I have visited range from the 1920’s art deco, the commonplace 1950’s triple-fronted cream brick veneers through to the post-modern homes of the 1980’s and everything in between, although my favourite is always the modest mid-century home.
For most people, the biggest question is “How do I prioritise if I can’t afford to do everything at once?” This is where my expertise and experience can help.
Every appointment is different, and I tailor each one to the client’s needs. I often suggest that a client puts together a list of their 10 most pressing issues, which I then research, prior to the appointment, and address during the appointment. For many people who know they need to do renovations, but are unsure of the process, the direction, their priorities and their budget, I can help with these. At the end of the appointment you will have a clear road map of where and how to take things to the next stage.
I am constantly surprised by how couples can have quite different ideas about their future renovation plans as they haven’t yet spoken to each other about their individual expectations. The appointment helps couples with different levels of understanding (and priorities) end up on the same page, which is why I insist that both people are available to meet.
For instance, if you need help with paint colour selections that are appropriate for your home let me know beforehand and I will bring my colour resources and work with you on selections. After the meeting I can organise some A4 sample swatches to be posted to you. In addition, I have my little black book of contacts. For instance if you need a furniture restorer who specialises in repairing mid-century furniture, he is in my contact list, and I am happy to share his details.
What I don’t do is complete a design for you, as this is not part of the service. I may talk to you about some design concepts and strategies to make the house work better for you, or the most cost-effective way to extend it, but design work is outside the scope of the consultation. When I do provide design services to my Dr Retro clients, the fees from their Dr Retro appointment are deducted from their design service fees.
The important thing is that the meeting is self-contained and there is no obligation to engage me for future design services. I also have a few “prodigal son” clients who return to me after they have been out in the mainstream wilderness where they discover that many draftspeople have no idea about mid-century design. They may have paid good money to be underwhelmed by the “design” response and their ability to resolve problems in a sympathetic manner.
The Dr Retro House Call service is the only service designed for mid-century and post-war home owners in Australia who appreciate the existing character of their home, who would like to renovate in a sympathetic manner to the original architecture, and who don’t want to modernise it to match the latest reality TV renovation competition. I regularly get enquiries from regional towns and interstate, which can sometimes be accommodated, depending on the location and timing with a site visit. As you can understand this takes a lot of time away from my design hours in my studio so I charge by a day rate, plus travel expenses, rather than for a two hour consultation.
If you need a pre-purchase inspection, a post-purchase consultation, a pre-renovation consultation, or a mid-century colour consultation then please fill out an enquiry form here:
https://secretdesignstudio.com/enquire-now/ or phone Dr Retro on 0448 579 707.
H. S. of Turramurra
“I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Alistair for anyone interested in keeping their modernist house in good shape. My wife and I are at the crossroads in terms of renovating or moving out (growing family) and having Alistair visit and provide advice was invaluable in terms of shaping our thoughts on this.
Not only is Alistair clearly very knowledgeable and passionate about these houses, he also has great ideas about how to improve safety, insulation and generally improve the living quality of these at times older houses. He provided great guidance to the whole design process and how we would think about an extension, while remaining sensitive to the special history of the house and its location.
Alistair is able to assist with taking the next step of any renovation and we will quote possibly engage him to provide concept drawings for a second wing to our house. These modernist houses are special and will continue to provide joy to families living in them thanks to the expertise and advice of Alistair aka Dr Retro. Nice work!!
Kylie B. of Jannali
“The Dr Retro house call gave us so many great insights into how to renovate and decorate our house now and further down the track. We’d started to renovate part of our house and have made a few wrong decisions along the way, Alistair has helped us to change direction with the renovations for the rest of the house, and make the most of it’s original features. Thanks!”
Veronica M. of Beaconsfield
“Absolutely delightful, lots of advice and assistance on a wide range of aspects for our home. His experience with other mid-modern houses meant almost straight away he could come up with solutions that have worked well for him & other clients previously-but more importantly suit the style of our house so perfectly. My partner & I feel such a relief that we will get the perfect rooms that suit us and our house.”
Jeremy B. of Pascoe Vale
“Alistair is amazing!!
We renovated my wife’s family home which is built in the Mid Century Modern style. Before we did anything we sought Alistair’s expertise on anything from colour scheme to materials and what to keep and what to replace.
Almost everyday we look at some feature of the house and say ” Alistair told us to do that or Alistair chose that colour scheme.
There is something special about walking into a house that has been designed by an Architect, you can’t always put your finger on it , it’s more a feeling of good design.
We can thoroughly recommend Alistair for your next project.
Regards, Jeremy & Geraldine”
J. R. of Boronia
“We are fortunate enough to live in and love our mid century home. We’d been delaying renovations and updates as we simply didn’t know where to start and didn’t want to make errors with design details. Alistair’s ‘Dr Retro House Call’ has given us the confidence to get moving! Alistair has also brought to our attention things that the average person would not consider with regard to safety, which is particularly pertinent as parents of a young child. Alistair provided us a very thorough overview of what work and repairs are necessary and then what we can do to improve our home aesthetically. His breadth of knowledge and enthusiasm for mid century homes and design is very inspiring.”
Kate H. of Upper Ferntree Gully
I engaged Alistair’s fabulous Dr Retro House call service to ensure that any renovations in our very modest 1965 built home were period appropriate. I wanted advice specifically for our ‘problem areas’ including a 1980s (awful) renovated bathroom, an outdated kitchen, and a generally gloomy living space which lacks sufficient daylight.
I prepared images based on what I liked and Alistair was able to not only respond to these but talk through advantages or disadvantages of each. He was also able to offer advice based on our budget (or lack thereof) in a way that means we can achieve the custom look we wanted using readily available products or manufacturers where genuine retro items are no longer available, to Australian Standards or otherwise unsuitable.
I have no doubt Alistair saved me many, many hours of research and unproductive project investigations.
We have recently completed the first of our projects – the much hated bathroom has become one of my favourite rooms in the house. Our next project – skylights – should literally brighten our lives.
When I’m ready to tackle the final major project – the kitchen – I know I’ll save money by engaging Alistair again early in the design process.
Thanks Alistair – you made every aspect of tackling this staged renovation less daunting. When the finishing touches are complete I’ll write a separate review about the bathroom and include photos.”
Jo. S of Heathmont
“I stumbled across Alistair’s Dr Retro house call service via google and could not believe how perfect this service was for me and my hubby. We love our little mid-century home and wanted to improve it without loosing all the little quirks we love, like the raked ceilings and ‘crazy paving’ open fireplace. Armed with idea bubbles but no clue where to start Alistair has set us on the right path.
Alistair is very knowledgable and knows the architectural vagaries of the period inside out. He was able to point out the areas of the home that did not quite fit with the style and give us real-world advice on making it safe, energy efficient and more practical for our family. I would highly recommend this service.
Margaret L. of Cheltneham
“Our house was a 1960s house and whilst we had vague renovation ideas, we didn’t want to ruin the house with renovations that were unsuitable. We knew the house deserved sympathetic treatment and when we came across Alistair’s website we thought here was someone who could point us in the right direction. The two hours spent with Alistair were absolutely worth it. For us as amateurs in renovation it clarified our thoughts, prioritised the tasks and when Alistair started to go through our house, it was apparent he knew what he was talking about. It was really helpful to get advice across the various parts of the house, whether about design details or construction issues. He was also able to suggest suitable contractors. We are very happy with Dr Retro House Call, and highly recommend Alistair’s service.”
Amanda and John E. of Heidelberg
“Well, at the risk of being accused of plagiarism, I concur and echo all previous sentiments. Dr Retro provided us with multiple services that were greatly appreciated; and even some that were a wonderful surprise. As an owner of a Mid-Century Very Modest House, his questions about our intentions were on-point, insightful and prompted a re-think of some existing plans – which he looked over of course.
He was honest in his appraisal and offered many suggestions that we intend to take on; he recommended subsequent contractors and did so with a great sense of humour.
Thoroughly recommend, time well spent.”
J C. of Beaumaris
“If you are in a mid-century home and you’re not sure how to proceed, don’t touch a thing until you have spoken with Alistair. Our budget was not large but Alistair gave us excellent advice on what would work best for our home and how to use our budget most effectively.”
Mark C. of Chirnside Park
“Alistair got straight into it on arrival, collecting our thoughts but more importantly, noting every feature and detail that could be improved for an enhanced home environment. Lots of suggestions were made and contacts supplied. We were very happy with Alistair’s thoroughness and outcomes achieved.”
Josh B. of Frankston South
“I engaged Alistair for a Dr Retro House Call to help my wife and I understand how we can efficiently modernise and improve the thermal performance of, and think about extending, our Merchant Builder home whilst keeping within the underlying design principles of the building.
Alistair is very knowledgable and his guidance has been invaluable to helping us think about how to approach improvements to our home. He was also very adept at managing our aspirations in line with our budget requirements.”
Emma A. of Coburg North
“My partner and I hired Alistair for a Dr Retro House Call, as we were a bit stuck on how to approach some minor renovations. Alistair walked us through a number of options, including some we hadn’t considered. He was very helpful and friendly, and now we have a much better idea of how to approach the renovations. Would highly recommend if you have an art deco/midcentury home that you want to renovate sympathetically.”
Sharles S. of Nunawading
“Alistair has provided us with an excellent design layout for our house that we never would of thought of on our own! Not only did he visit on the weekend (twice), but he also followed up with a Skype call. Very efficient in getting plans back to us with our changes too – Thanks”
C.H of Phillip Island
“If you have a renovation, extension or new build project and wish to incorporate aspects of mid-century modern architecture into that project then I would absolutely recommend Dr Retro. Even of the cost seems high (and it really isn’t) the insights, ideas, and inventive solutions that you will gain will more than pay their way. We are renovating a beach house and wished to inject a mid-century aesthetic into the extension. We got that and more. In a world where reality TV tries to convince people that they can do things themselves it is experiences like the redesign of our house that remind us that there is absolutely no substitute for experience and knowledge and professionalism.
If you have a mid-century house that requires renovation you’d be crazy to go anywhere else.”
Jenny G. of Mulgrave
“I hired Alistair for a Dr Retro House Call. We have an orange brick house built in the 70’s that needs updating, while still retaining some of its original features. There are a lot of small things that needing reworking – some opening up of walls and doors to allow more light, and increasing the size of the master ensuite.
Alistair was able to sort through all my ideas and give sensible advice in all areas that were a problem, and my husband and I can now put together a prioritized list of what needs to be done.
He also gave me some cost effective solutions that I had not thought of, in particular around the reworking of our steel and timber staircase.
I was delighted with the Dr. Retro House call and would highly recommend this service!”
M and R, Caulfield South
We worked with Alistair of Secret Design Studio Recently to design an extension for our home. We loved mid century modern architecture and had struggled to work out how we could incorporate that into our plans. Alistair listened to our ideas and spent time working with us to see what our family needed in terms of functional accommodation, look and feel. Right from the start Alistair gave us a fresh approach by designing an extension that included all that we needed, incorporated our ‘like to haves’ in terms of form and function and most importantly, the mid century elements that we wanted. He was mindful of our budget through out and was extremely helpful in providing us with product information and ideas. His knowledge of Mid Century Modern has no bounds!
T and C, Blackburn
The redesign and extension of our 1950s home located in a National Trust street in Melbourne required an architect with specific knowledge and skills. We needed someone who could:
1) design an extension that would meet our needs while respecting the highly restrictive Special Landscape Overlay guidelines for our area set by local council
2) create additional space while protecting and enhancing the unique midcentury character of the original home
3) consider the changing needs of our family to design a home for the future
4) redesign the front facade of the home in keeping with the “bushland character” of the street
Alistair McLean’s knowledge of midcentury architecture and his practical advice has been priceless to our design process. He is keenly aware of the way space and design can affect the “flow” of a home and the way individuals interact and relate. He has helped us understand how small design decisions can have big implications at different stages of family life. Alistair is organised, efficient and reliable and I recommend his services readily to those seeking an expert with specialist knowledge of – and passion for – midcentury modern design. His patience and sense of humour make working with him an easy and enjoyable experience.
We couldn’t be happier and thoroughly recommend Alistairs’ services. We contacted Alistair from Secret Design Studio to assist us in the renovation of our 1960’s home in Sydney. We loved the mid century architectural merit of the home and were looking to retain and celebrate its character whilst creating a modern, family home. From the first conversation, we knew Alistair was exactly the person we needed. He is very passionate about MCM design and his knowledge and expertise is extensive. We are thrilled with his direction, advice and support throughout the process.
If you need a pre-purchase inspection, a post-purchase consultation, a pre-renovation consultation, or a mid-century colour consultation then please fill out an enquiry form here:
https://secretdesignstudio.com/enquire-now/ or phone Dr Retro on 0448 579 707.