Renovate? Detonate? Significance and the Burra Charter in mid century modern homes
Alistair McLean
Category: Heritage

Alistair: Posted on Tuesday, 28 February 2012 1:51 AM


(Pic 1 above – an original pink bathroom from 1953, so rare that there is even a website and movement in America called “Save the Pink Bathroom!”)

Secret Design Studio had an interesting meeting the other day, which caused us to really reflect on what makes a building significant and worthy of spending money on renovating it to meet today’s standard of accommodation. The question of whether to knock-down and rebuild, or to undertake an expensive renovation is always a tricky one.  Each house needs to be ascertained on its merits, and there is no rule of thumb for every situation.

A new owner had recently purchased a 1950’s architect designed home in a good location, close to his children’s schools, in a pleasant, leafy street in one of Melbourne’s nicest suburbs.  He contacted Secret Design Studio after coming across our website and he was seeking a better understanding of what he had purchased, and what was the potential.  The house was sold by its original owner, now a widow, who was moving into a nursing home, and sadly the home had not been well maintained in recent years.

Since purchasing the property the new owner had given the interior a coat of paint, a clean-up, replaced the stove and some vinyl floor coverings, and had made it habitable and appealing for tenants.  Secret Design Studio is always excited to hear about such homes.  Fortunately his tenants were good enough to let Secret Design Studio and their landlord have a good look around, and complete a pretty thorough inspection, and a verbal report to the owner on the main concerns.


pic 2 above – original features include beautiful parquet floor, slate finished fireplace and an inset rug, fitted into a recess in the floor.)

Sadly the house needs lots or work, including restumping, reroofing and rewiring.  In addition there was an unfortunate, and insensitive addition that detracted from the clean lines of the home, and was very much the proverbial pimple on a pumpkin look.  In addition the floor plan did not work well for the secondary and service rooms, with a bit of a rabbit warren feel to the laundry, kitchen and utility rooms.

I asked the new owner and his wife why they had purchased the property, and it was because of the house –  they liked the style and the retro feel.  On entering the appeal is obvious, with 1950’s period features, with lots of light, and generous windows bringing the outside in.


(pic 3 above beautiful parquetry floors, full height windows, built in cabinetwork and pass-through to original kitchen)

The floorplan is like the letter “Y” with three wings opening out into gardens and courtyards.  Each arm of the “Y” is only one room wide, so the major rooms had garden views opening out on both sides.  This “Y” plan made the house seem larger than it was. Many of today’s houses are more box-like, the closer to a cube the cheaper it is to build, and only the wealthy could afford to build such an extravagant and spread out home.

Secret Design Studio could see exactly where the owners of this mid-century modernist gem were coming from.  They had purchased a house that was ideally located for them. They had paid land value for the property, and received a “free” house that they liked, and with quite a bit of work could be a great family home for the next 20 years.

However how much money would you spend on such a home in restumping, rewiring, replastering, reroofing and adding a new kitchen and two new bathrooms?  Secret Design Studio put forward a proposal to help them with this dilemma to take a brief and create a concept plan that would sympathetically adapt the home to their family’s needs for today and the future.  Once a new floorplan concept had been designed by Secret Design Studio a few ballpark figures could be put together to see if it stacked up financially.  No doubt the owner would be touring some of the local display homes to see the amount of accommodation they offered, and at what price.

Secret Design Studio worked out that if the property had been purchased at land value, and the owner spent about $500,000 on renovating, then the amount spent would be equivalent to the medium price for a house in the same suburb.  $500,000 may seem a lot of money to spend on renovating, however a lot of work would be needed – our 21st century housing standards and expectations are very different to those of the 1950’s.  But is a home just a financial decision, especially if it houses your family for 20 years?

Secret Design Studio was a little surprised to hear back from the owner, thanking me for my time and efforts, but didn’t wish to explore the option of renovating the home, or working out the ballpark costs.  All they really wanted to know was if it was “significant enough to be restored, or suitable for demolition”, and Secret Design Studio hadn’t addressed that in the proposal.  As it hadn’t been addressed then they were seeking other options.

Needless to say we were a bit stumped, and disappointed, as we had been quietly hoping that the figures would stack up, so that another piece of Melbourne’s mid century modern architecture would be saved from the demolition team. The house could then be renovated and adapted to meet the needs of a new family.

So what exactly does “significant enough” mean?  Secret Design Studio’s first reference point for buildings of significance and cultural heritage is “The Burra Charter”.  Or a more cumbersome name is “The Australia ICOMOS Charter for places of Cultural Significance”.  ICOMOS stands for International Council on Monuments and Sites.


(pic 4 – interesting alfresco style bbq with slate finish to one of the verandahs – quite charming)

While Secret Design Studio could see that the house was a good example of the period, and apart from the unfortunate extension, was largely original (including a pink bathroom), we could not identify the architect.  Preliminary research did not show up as being completed by Robin Boyd, or anybody else of his stature.  The new owner was not able to supply any information from the previous owner about the architect, so architect unknown.

From “The Burra Charter”:

1.1 Place means site, area, land, landscape, building or other work, group of buildings or other works, and may include components, contents, spaces and views. 2 Austral ia ICOMOS I n c The Burra Charter, 1999

1.2 Cultural significance means aesthetic, historic, scientific, social or spiritual value for past, present or future generations. Cultural significance is embodied in the place itself, its fabric, setting, use,associations, meanings, records, related places and related objects. Places may have a range of values for different individuals or groups.

Unfortunately with no documentation supplied by the owner, and no engagement to complete any research on the history of the home, it is impossible to decisively declare if a building is “significant enough” to avoid demolition from just an inspection of the property.  The house had many good features and a lot of charm, but as many houses were built in the area in the 1950’s it could not be declared as unique, or culturally significant.


(pic 5 one of the bedrooms with more built-in cabinetwork than some new houses have in their kitchens)

In the end Secret Design Studio contacted the owner and said that in our professional opinion the home, while a good example, could not be declared as significant, while bearing in mind the definitions  of the Burra Charter.  From a personal perspective Secret Design Studio would have embarked on a sympathetic renovation, but that is because we are fans of the mid century modern architecture, and can see the potential of the good bones for a beautiful home.

The question of whether to knock-down and rebuild, or to undertake an expensive renovation is always a tricky one.  Each house needs to be ascertained on its merits, and there is no rule of thumb for every situation.

It will be sad to see it go, and Secret Design Studio is sorry that it is unlikely we will be involved in its future.  I wonder if the new owner needs the phone number for Metricon?


(pic 6 one possible future?)

Secret Design Studio  hears of many families facing the knock down and rebuild versus renovate dilemma.  Please contact us if you would like an assessment, review or concept plan to assist with your thinking.