Mid Century Modern Death Trap (also known as the “Marriage Breaker”)
Alistair McLean
Alistair McLean
Category: Dr Retro House Calls, Real Estate

Alistair: Posted on Friday, 11 May 2012 12:58 AM

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It is always exciting to receive a call from a fan of mid century modern architecture, especially if we haven’t spoken before, and they are just purchasing a new property. I missed a call from Mrs O a few weeks ago, and when I returned it she was at the bank queuing up to make a deposit on her new mid-century modern treasure.

She was excited as she had been looking in the Emerald area for 12 months and this house was the first that she had seen that she really loved.  As a first home buyer she was doubly excited as it was her first property and was affordable with her modest first buyer budget.

The location of this home is in Emerald, which was used in the 1960’s as a weekend retreat for the well-to-do Melbournians.   Emerald is a charming little town, probably best known for being picturesque, fresh mountain air and the home of Puffing Billy, Melbourne’s only steam train.  While probably too far to commute to the CBD, it shouldn’t be considered as a suburb, but more like a nearby town.  From the topography and the trees, Secret Design Studio imagined that it has a similar feel to Marysville before Black Saturday.

The deposit was subject to various assessments and reports, and she had a week to finalise them before the remainder of her deposit was payable.  Mrs O wanted to know how soon would Secret Design Studio be available to give an opinion on the property on how easy it would be to restore the home to its mid century modern glory? She was also looking for any ideas for a sympathetic and creative addition to her new home for her family of four.

We agreed a time to meet on site, and as with any interesting mid-century modern home, Secret Design Studio is happy to give a verbal assessment on site, which Mrs O was happy with.  Secret Design Studio did a bit of research through the agent’s website, and the photos from the agent’s listing have been included in this posting. The parcel of land was large at around 1800 sq.m, with lots of mature and well-established trees. I would later discover that it had been owned by a landscape gardener. With a garden this size, which provides a park-like setting, it is appropriate to use some larger trees, such as liquid ambers, and firs, that would otherwise be over scaled for a typical suburban site, and our landscape gardener had certainly taken advantage of this space.

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Through the photos on the agent’s website I could see an interesting two level mid-century modern house that looked like it was in fairly original condition.  There was a striking skillion steel roof, that provided soaring high ceilings to the primary rooms.  A broad timber deck wrapped around the first floor with a great 1960’s style steel balustrade, which was a little bit more ornate than usual, but obviously completely original.  The large, full height windows that faced onto the timber deck that opened into the mature large ornamental trees gave the house the feel of living in a luxury tree house.

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To add to the appeal there was a great external steel and timber stair with the matching balustrade, cantilevered steps with open rises, and some beautiful mid-century modern detailing.  The original builder had used the classic mid century modern trick of semi-enclosing the under croft/carport area with a wall of concrete besser blocks which opened through to the garden. The high skillion roof over the projecting timber deck was supported by a pair of V shaped steel poles, another typical mid century modern feature. Unfortunately with the number of mature trees surrounding the property it was hard to see the house clearly in the real estate agents photos through the thick foliage.

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Internally the photos showed a clean, minimally furnished home, which had a beautiful warm, honey coloured floorboards throughout, which had probably been polished and finished just the week before the photos were shot. The interior was also freshly painted so looked trim, clean and very liveable.

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From the internal photos on the agents website I could see the functional, but unappealing kitchen and bathroom renovation which had probably been completed cheaply in the 1980’s. The kitchen was a knotty pine laminate, which looked so wrong with the strong mid century modern lines of the home.  The cabinetwork doors were sagging, it was looking tired, and while completely functional and usable did nothing to contribute to the style of the home.

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The spacious bathroom was a similar story, probably 1980’s, white tiles, polymarble shower base, and a floral decorative tile border – obviously a cheap renovation that was functional, usable and didn’t contribute to the appeal of the home. The floor plan could best be described as interesting.  Based on the modest size of the home, on a large block, with the mid-century modern architectural detailing in the balustrades, the besser block wall, the V-shaped steel eave supports and the open riser stairs, Secret Design Studio surmised that it may have been built as a weekender.

From the floor plan it looked like the home had been built with that typical mid-century modern look, particularly for sloping lots where the main floor is elevated, and there is an under croft area for car parking underneath, but no fully enclosed garage.  From the under croft area the external steel and timber treads with open risers linked to the wrap-around deck that had a number of doors opening into the house. From the agents plan I noticed that the under croft area had been enclosed to make two generous rooms under the house, but there was no internal stair link. The only way to access the downstairs was to go out the “front” door, along the timber deck, under the skillion roof, down the external stairs to the under croft and then in through the door.  In Secret Design Studio’s experience this is an ideal set-up for a home business, where there is good separation between a downstairs office and household life.

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In addition there is a strange little wing, which looked very much like a later tack-on at a funny angle with a laundry, workshop and bathroom. I also noticed that upstairs only had a single bedroom, a generous bathroom, a spacious open plan living/dining room, a separate kitchen room, and a central room that connected these rooms.  Secret Design Studio guessed that the original weekender may have been a two bedroom home, with a kitchen in the large open plan room (with the best views), and that at some stage the owners had demolished the original kitchen and put the 1980’s kitchen into one of the two bedrooms,  making it a one bedroom house.

Mrs O told me that she had met a local builder on site and together they had tried to design a concept plan for renovation but it wasn’t really working.  I wasn’t really surprised as trying to convert this T-shaped floor plan, with one bedroom where rooms flow into one another, with no halls into a 3 bedroom family home, wasn’t going to be an easy job for Secret Design Studio, let alone a first home buyer and a builder.

The builder had given a ball-park estimate of the work based on his discussions with Mrs O, but to Secret Design Studio they seemed very reasonable, especially with no resolved design.  Possibly small builders in Emerald have sharper pencils for quotations than their cousins from the big smoke?

In Secret Design Studio’s experience there are lots of lovely builders out there who are very friendly and approachable blokes, who are only too happy to lend a hand to sketch out a concept plan on the back of an envelope for a renovation to help secure their next job, and “save” their customer some design costs.  However while they may have lots of building experience they don’t have the design skills to realize the potential of a property, nor can think outside the square, and often the results are mediocre, disappointing and sometimes even devalue a property.  Naturally their ideas are very much from a building perspective, and not an end-user perspective, and certainly not from a mid-century modern fan perspective.

The back of envelope sketch is often “designed” to make the construction part of the builder’s job as easy as possible.   Secret Design Studio once saw a home with a supporting  timber post in the middle of a large square open plan family room, which had been located there to reduce the roof spans (it wasn’t a truss roof) to make it easier and cheaper for the builder to construct, which it did.  It was just a pity that it was in the way for TV sightlines, furnishing the room, and traffic flow through the room, but they did save on professional design fees, and it was cheaper to build! The builder didn’t need to bring in a crane for the roof structure, and could man handle the roof elements easily, which I am sure his customers appreciated when they were peering around the edge of a post to watch TV.

Secret Design Studio suspects that converting a usable and pleasant second bedroom to a kitchen may have been a back of the envelope sketch by a well meaning builder who didn’t think about the implications for the rest of the house, such as the flow and the relationship to the living area – you need to cross a central room to reach the living area from the kitchen. Secret Design Studio arrived a little bit early than the appointed hour for a bit of a poke around.

The pleasantly curved driveway through the substantial brick entry piers immediately rang alarm bells with Secret Design Studio.  One of the piers had subsided, and was crooked.  Vegetation had started to cover one of the piers.  The once beautiful and expansive garden had more of a haunted house/Halloween aesthetic and showed many years of neglect and running wild, but it had good bones.

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Mr and Mrs O arrived together with their excited children Mr 4 and Miss 2.  Secret Design Studio’s heart sunk – don’t get me wrong, I like families and kids, but judging from the overgrown nature of the garden I suspect that the O family would have a lot of gardening work ahead of them. We did the introductions, and started the inspection with the family.  I was immediately alarmed by the state of the house combined with the excited nature of the kids.  I even suggested we should move to a safer, more kid-friendly place, such as a cafe to discuss.  Mrs O offered me some Aerogard from her handbag.

We started downstairs which had been enclosed in large full height panes of glass – they looked like they had been sourced from a wreckers yard, as they didn’t fit, with lots of gaps, and crookedness.  For some reason the agent had omitted these downstairs rooms from the internet photos listing. The ceiling had suffered from some form of water damage and the plasterboard had collapsed.  I asked if Mr O was a tradesman, or a handyman as I was starting to think that downstairs was an ambitious project to make it water tight and habitable.  Mr O was not a tradesman, and was not a handyman.

Seeing the age and full height size of the wrecker-sourced windows I could see that it was most likely a “skip” job – meaning you hire a 10 cubic metre skip bin and put as much of downstairs that wasn’t original in a skip bin.  Apart from the ill-fitting windows I realised that they would not comply with the current Australian Standards for safety glass.  You could spend a fortune getting the full height windows to fit properly to the openings, but at the end of the day they were more of a risk, especially with the full height, non-safety glass and two excitable and highly mobile kids.

There was also some wide looking, structural cracking around the perimeter retaining wall and slab that didn’t look cheap to rectify. The non glazed ground floor walls and the concrete floor slab did not seem to be watertight, and there was a general feeling of mould and decay – however it did have the most wonderful garden panorama.  Probably a second 10 cubic metre skip bin to remove enough slab and soil to provide a proper water proof floor.  Mrs O said she would like to convert this under croft space to an open plan kitchen and family living area, and it was certainly large enough, which would provided a good visual connection with the fairy tale garden.  She could imagine generous bi-fold doors opening out from the open plan space to a mid century modern slate crazy paved terrace, flowing into the garden. Moving upstairs I had a closer look at the deck and balcony.

The timber treads looked solid, and had probably been renewed in recent years.  The timber decking had been laid in a chessboard pattern, with alternate squares of decking running at 90 degrees.  The home had obviously not been a cheap home to build with this sort of detailing.  There was some rotten decking, and rotten deck joists, which while not a deal breaker, would need renewal prior to habitation. Part of the appeal was the fantastic wrought iron balustrade that would be very labour intensive and expensive to replace.  It was rusting and wobbly, but this could be repaired.  The main issue was that it doesn’t comply with the current requirements of the Building Code of Australia – it was much too low at about 750mm high, and with the fall of land there would have been more than a 3 metre drop to the ground.

The balustrade design was also fairly open, with most of the openings being quite large and bigger than the minimum BCA requirement, and it would be easy for a small child to crawl through. For Secret Design Studio there was no easy answer for the balustrade.  It needed work, and the work required would be expensive and it would lose the appeal.  A replacement balustrade would be more cost effective, but wouldn’t have the mid century modern charm of the original.  Perhaps the answer would be to introduce some low terraces into the garden, and reuse the balustrading for the top of each terrace wall.  Providing the height of each terrace was less than 1000mm this could be a viable option, comply with the Building Code of Australia, but would still need some nice mid-century modern slate retaining walls for the terracing, which don’t come cheap. Unfortunately we couldn’t get inside the upper floor, so I had to complete my assessment from the upper deck.

From the windows the interior looked very much like the internet photos, clean, liveable, great tree-house views, with a bathroom and kitchen without any style. This prevented access to the rear concrete deck which was over the angled wing, complete with a low, unsafe besser block concrete balustrade – with no lateral strength. There was even one window that looked like it may have been a pair of French doors opening out to a 3metre drop!

I had poked my head through the doorway of this concrete block wing before Mrs O had arrived with her family, but fortunately hadn’t gone in.  The whole wing looked like it had been extended from a concrete block retaining wall on the northern boundary.  It wasn’t damp, it was wet, with water running down the internal faces of the walls and ceiling.  There didn’t appear to be any water proof membrane to the retaining wall, or the concrete slab roof, and suggested that a landscape gardener had built it without knowing about waterproofing – most likely the same person responsible for “enclosing” the under croft.

It had the atmosphere of a neglected concrete block jail cell in a third world country with a high rainfall with a rudimentary toilet room and neglected shower.  The spiders loved it, possibly due to the ample supply of mosquitoes. As the five of us tentatively pushed our way through the spider webs and neglect, Mr O asked me about the water under the floor.  He pointed towards some rotting flooring that had lifted, but it was too dark to see.  I returned from the Secret Design Studio Territory with my spotlight to the O family holding hands around the rotting hole, and shone in the spotlight, expecting to see the sort of dampness that comes with neglected houses.

To my surprise I could see my reflection in the inky blackness of deep water, about 30cm below the floor and I couldn’t see the bottom!  The source of the mosquitoes, and the need for Aerogard had been identified. Mrs O passed me a house brick, and with an enormous splosh I dropped it into the darkness, where it sank into the depths.  It looked like the angled concrete block wing had been built directly over something like a well or mineshaft.  It probably wasn’t an unused septic tank as it was slightly uphill to the house.

With the rotten timber floor over the deep water the inspection was over.  Secret Design Studio considers it bad form to have clients children drown in a mysterious underfloor mosquito metropolis during an inspection. Returning to our cars I told Mr and Mrs O that I considered their mid-century modern find a “marriage breaker”.  The house would need two stages of design and construction.  Stage 1 would be making the house habitable and safe for the family before they could move in – in her enthusiasm for the home Mrs O had just given notice to her landlord!  The family could “camp” upstairs with the one bedroom and functional kitchen and bathroom, all with great treetop views, until Stage 2 was complete.

Stage 1 work should include the usual items for a neglected house such as electrical rewiring, a new hot water system, asbestos removal,  a new sewage plant to replace the old, unmaintained, septic.  Mrs O had already seen an arbourist about the removal of some of the deciduous trees that were overhanging the skillion roof, which would reduce the leaf build-up risks, which would reduce risks for the Marysville factor.  For safety before habitation I suggested making good the rotting deck and deck joists, replace the metres and metres of wobbly , low, dangerous balustrade, demolishing the angled wing with underfloor mosquito metropolis, removing all of the dangerous full height non-safety glass, and replacing the upstairs full height windows with safety glass.

I could not recommend moving into this house with two small children, and the supervision they require, before the many obvious death traps had been removed.  A family of four camping in a one bedroom house is viable, but probably not for the long term.  While camping in stage 1 the unruly and neglected garden could be addressed, with lots of trimming and weeding. After the family had moved in then stage 2 could commence which would give the two extra bedrooms, the new kitchen, new ground floor entry, internal stairwell, new laundry and at least one extra bathroom.

I suggested that the safest and cleanest way to complete this would be to complete all of the ground floor work before opening up the floor above for the internal stair, so that the dust, noise and drafts from the downstairs building site wouldn’t affect upstairs family living.  Their concerns were that if they spent the money required to make it safe and habitable for stage 1 then it would be a considerable time until they could budget for stage 2 – they would be camping upstairs with only one bedroom for years. With such a damming verbal report, Mrs O also commissioned a formal, written building report, which she was good enough to forward to me.  The written report was less flattering than Secret Design Studio’s verbal assessment, although it didn’t use the terms “marriage breaker” nor “death trap”. While Secret Design Studio will not be getting any engagement from Mrs O for this house, we were very relieved to hear that the vendor had not accepted Mrs O’s reduced “land value” offer, which was based on the damming written building report.

She sent me a link to a beautiful home that she is considering which looks more suitable for a young family,  has been loved, maintained, and not subject to dodgy building practices, but is a lot more expensive.  However the expense is only a financial expense, and not at the expense of a marriage.  If she is lucky enough to secure this property she won’t be needing the services of Secret Design Studio. Are there any well cashed-up tradesmen, without kids, who are looking for an exciting, major, mid-century modern renovation project, who enjoy gardening, and want to live in Emerald?  Secret Design Studio has the house for you…