What does Secret Design Studio actually do? Four Houses in forty-eight hours
Alistair McLean
Category: From the Studio

Alistair at Secret Design Studio: Posted on Sunday, 26 August 2012 11:26 AM


With Secret Design Studio’s passion for all things Mid-Century Modern, some new clients ask exactly what Secret Design Studio does, as we certainly don’t fit neatly into the box of a traditional architectural practice. I thought it would be a good idea to get an overview of some of the things that we do by describing four houses that I have visited in 48 hours.  I try to make as many visits to houses over weekends, as this is the best time to catch clients in their home environment, and to get a good feel for how they live.

House Number 1, 3:30 to 5.00pm Friday 17th – Current Planning Application, meeting with council’s Heritage Advisor 


This house is Secret Design Studio’s longest running job.  It is located in one of Melbourne’s prestigious Bayside suburbs, and is subject to one of Bayside City Council’s Heritage Overlays.  This means that the council regards the property as “integral to the cultural significance of the City of Bayside, through architectural integrity and historical associations.”  Even though it is a single, detached dwelling on a large parcel of land, any extensions or additions are going to be subject to a town planning application, which is one of the negatives of owning a property that council recognizes has heritage value.


Unusually for Secret Design Studio the heritage value has nothing to do with Mid-Century Modern architecture as the front of the house was built at the start of the twentieth century, and extended numerous times since then, including a 1989 renovation that managed to make one of the later extensions appear much older than it actually was.

Preparing the documentation for a planning application, and navigating the heritage issues is the same process for a substantial Victorian mansion, as it is for a Mid-Century Modern masterpiece – although most councils would not readily identify Mid-Century Modern buildings as part of our heritage!


The town planning application was lodged back in April 30 2012, which is why it is Secret Design Studio’s longest running job.  Secret Design Studio’s application was complete and thorough, and no additional information was requested by Bayside to consider the application.  The Rescode requirements were not an issue, however the heritage aspects caused delays and concerns with council’s Heritage Advisor.

The proposal meant the demolition of a series of lean-to and secondary additions that had been poorly planned and tacked-on over the past century, and replace them with a single coherent structure that complemented the form and mass of the original home.


I later learnt that Bayside’s Heritage Advisor is a consultant who is only engaged one day a week, which is inadequate considering the number of heritage buildings and work happening in Bayside – hence the four month delay in processing an application for a modest single storey extension to a single storey house on a large block of land!

Finally the permit was issued subject to heritage conditions, which both the clients and I had trouble understanding the principles behind them.  Rather than blindly accept the conditions I arranged a meeting on site with the Bayside planner, and Bayside’s Heritage Advisor.  I wanted to give the Heritage Advisor an opportunity to explain in his own words to my clients his thinking behind the permit conditions and to clarify some of the conditions.  I also wanted the Heritage Advisor to get to see the house from the inside, instead of just an inspection from the street, to gain a better understanding of the parts that were renovated in 1989.


During the meeting, we looked at some proposed material samples, everybody got a better understanding of what was trying to be achieved, and that led to a few compromises that the Heritage Advisor and the clients were happy to accept.

House Number 2, 9.00am to 12:30pm Saturday 18th. Pre-purchase inspection and renovation opportunities.

From my Bayside heritage meeting I drove across town to Tullamarine airport, caught an evening flight to Sydney, and hired a car for my Saturday morning meeting.

Mr and Mrs X, are expats who are currently living in Asia, and are looking to return to Sydney to bring up their young family. Mr X had spent the week in Sydney, house-hunting, and had found a few very interesting properties.


Mrs X had discovered Secret Design Studio through this blog and Pinterest, as she shares a common passion with Mid-Century Modern design.  I offered to complete a pre-purchase inspection on my daily rate, plus travel expenses, as they had not had much experience as house-buyers, especially at the top end of the market.

One of my favourite architectural-bloggers Jody Brown, @JodyBrownArch, who has a great sense of humour, tweeted recently, “Everyone knows how to design a house, because almost everyone has a house. Then again, almost everyone has liver too”.

This sentiment can be extended to purchasing a house, and I am constantly amazed how many people will pay for a second-hand car to be checked before purchase, but not complete the same checks on a second hand house, which is vastly more expensive to purchase, and repair!

We had exchanged numerous emails about some potential properties and I had put them in contact with a local lawyer in Sydney who could advise them on the covenants and leases that affected some of the houses that they were looking at.

One of the property listings that they had given me had been recently renovated, but I was fairly disparaging of it, and suggested that it may be a bulldozer job.  The agent’s listing, showed no internal photos, which started to ring alarm bells with me.  The agent’s floorplan looked challenging and difficult to work with, as the house seemed to be spread across five levels with poor flow, and would be difficult to live in with small children.


The house also had a very exposed beachfront position, where it would be exposed to salt and wind.  My concern was that if the person who had completed the renovation couldn’t get the floorplan to work, what chance would they have of getting the detailing right to cope with the extreme exposure?  On the surface it looked like it could be a nightmare – the house had sat on the market for a long time, the original asking price had been dropped and dropped again, it had a poor floor plan, and it had a high risk of concrete cancer/maintenance issues.

In addition it had recently been “renovated”, but without any photos on the agent’s website of the renovation available. Some “renovations” are painting over the cracks and whacking in a cheap kitchen to help sell an old property.

Just before my Friday meeting (see above) I managed to get in contact with the architects who had been involved with the renovation.  They were a bit embarrassed by the job, as it wasn’t their style, but the client had been well paying, very insistent on most of the interior, and it had been a wonderful opportunity to work on a project of this scale and prestige.


However from talking to the principal, and getting a feel for their work through the website I realized that my original assumptions had been incorrect.  In fact a lot of the substantial renovation budget had been spent on the exterior to ensure that the house would withstand the elements.  The renovation had been completed, internally and externally, with no expense spared, with the highest quality fixtures and fittings.
The architects were also good enough to send me .pdf copies of the plans while I was in transit, so that I could review them before the Saturday morning meeting.  The first thing that I realized was that the agent’s plans were misleading, inaccurate and poorly laid out.  What I thought was a five level building was actually a three storey house, and a two level garage building.  Doors and doorways had been left out, which made the floor plan difficult to comprehend.  The agent’s artist had used standard templates for shower recesses and Aga stoves that didn’t make sense in the advertising, but made more sense when correctly drawn in the architects plan. I met Mr X and the agent outside and was led in.


The view from the entry hall was one of the most amazing views I had ever seen.  Amazingly good and amazingly awful, at the same time.  In the distance the beautiful blue of the ocean sparkled and shone to the horizon – the house was on the edge of a cliff, facing north, that dropped away onto rocks and the water, with generous picture windows, which could be seen from the entry hall. However the view was partially interrupted by a structurally oversized wall which was covered in what looked like a floral William Morris wallpaper, and a sickly, Meadow Lea margarine coloured built in cabinetwork which continued through to the kitchen/dining room.


A strange little pendant light, with a shade that looked like it had been taken from a standard lamp, dangled crookedly from the living room ceiling. It now become obvious why the listing agent had not published the internal photos – never had so many ill-considered, wrongly scaled, decoratively patterned and expensive, high quality finishes ever been assembled under one roof.  They were all screaming in competition with each other “Look at me, and ignore the ocean, look at meeee..”.



There was the navy blue, huge Aga stove, which dominated the dining room, which looked about the same size, weight and cost as your typical Toyota Corolla – it needs a mist enshrouded cottage in the southern highlands, not a north facing, ocean view, dining room. The petite powder room had every vertical surface covered in a blood-red Florence Broadhurst style aviary print which was overwhelming, claustrophobic, expensive and very inadequate for a wet area.


The house had not been renovated for resale, rather it had been renovated for an individual’s very personal taste with no thoughts to eventual resale.  It was sad that so much time and effort had gone into the property that had actually devalued it by millions of dollars and scared potential buyers away. Over the course of the morning Mr X and I went through the house carefully, I proposed a few options that  I could see that would work to re-invent the house as a family home, and suitable for Mrs X’s Mid-Century Modern style.

The architects had done a great job on the exterior and detailing.  Internally I could see why they were embarrassed…

House 3 Number 3, 3:30pm to 4:00pm Saturday 18th – Finished Job Inspection and Photos.

From the “Amazing House of Views and Wallpaper”, I sat down in a café with my laptop to commence my written pre-purchase report.  I contacted one of my old clients whose building work was finishing to see if I could take some photos of the finished job on the way to the airport.

Mr J had a 1970’s townhouse that was very compact, but had managed to squeeze in a ground floor powder room, a first floor bathroom and the world’s tiniest ensuite, and they were all internal rooms without natural light or ventilation.



Pics above – Before and after, but still waiting on mirrors and vanity basin.

They were all original, and pretty much a standard 1970’s developer specification.  They had worn well, but were utilitarian, a bit grim, and not really appropriate for a townhouse that had recently been upgraded externally with wonderful views of Sydney’s Harbour Bridge.


The brief was to try and get the opulence of a 5-star hotel bathroom into these tiny rooms. My original concept was to move the dividing wall between the ensuite and bathroom, to increase the width of the ensuite, which is used daily, and reduce the size of the bathroom, which is only used occasionally.  This would have been a difficult and expensive job, and after the client gave it some careful consideration asked me to make it work without moving any internal walls.

What many people don’t appreciate is that small, tight design jobs take much more design effort.  Fortunately my client had travelled in Japan, and was aware of the cleverness of carefully considered design in Tokyo houses where every centimeter is considered. Large houses are relatively easy to design, small houses are harder, and tiny, windowless bathrooms the hardest.  A good bathroom designer needs to juggle the conflicting needs of good lighting, good ventilation, floor wastes, plumbing, good storage, waterproofing, and electrical in a small bathroom, without making it seem too busy or cramped.


To achieve this the project required extensive documentation, which was completed at a large 1:20 scale, so I had peace of mind that that the towels didn’t hang into the toilet bowls, and that your knees didn’t knock the toilet roll holder etc.

To make these tiny rooms seem more spacious and light I borrowed a trick from passenger aircraft – concealing light fittings behind pelmets, and using reflected light as much as possible. Each of the rooms has a pelmet running across the ceiling which conceals a fluro tube that bounces light off the ceiling to give a daylight ambience.  Each of the wall-mounted shaving cabinets has recessed LED strips to the side which illuminates the space adjacent to each cabinet.


Sadly I was a week too early to take finished photos, with a few mirrors and vanities still to be installed, however it was all working and the client was thrilled.  He told me he had enjoyed the process by which Secret Design Studio had guided and helped him, and was actually a bit sorry the journey was over, which is the type of client I love to work with.

House Number 4, 11.00am to 3pm Sunday First inspection, fee proposal and preliminaries for a retrovation.

Mrs O first contacted Secret Design Studio about six months ago.  She and her family had made the tree-change to one of Victoria’s prettiest towns which was just in commuting distance to Melbourne.  Like many she had started to look at pretty, renovated Victorian style cottages, but found that they were often small and dark, not suited to her young family, and were generally not great value for their small size.


Fortunately this town had a well maintained Mid-Century Modern home that was for sale, and very uncharacteristic for the area.  Mrs O fell in love with the large picture windows that linked the expansive garden views to the main rooms, and was excellent value for the accommodation, the size of the land and its location.


So while the house was excellent value and had been well looked after, some unfortunate 1980’s renovations weren’t really working for the Mid-Century Modern look that Mrs O wanted to achieve.  She contacted Secret Design Studio, just after she purchased the property, but well before the settlement, and we arranged a time when I could travel up and meet her and the family to work out what to do.


Mrs O and her family had only been living in their new home for a couple of weeks, but they looked like they were already well established. Over a period of a few hours we discussed the wish list, which like many clients, exceeded what they may actually like to spend on the home.  Together we worked out a strategy and a logical order to the projects, so instead of one big messy renovation, which would turn their lives upside-down, we worked on an order to address smaller bite-sized projects that were more manageable and more affordable.


When working out priorities for a retrovation I always look at safety first.  For Mrs O the first jobs were to renew the wiring and fuse box, which was still the original ‘60’s ceramic fuses, and to ensure that a new balustrade was installed to the side of the ‘60’s style open-riser stair to prevent their stair obsessed toddler from falling on his head.


From our discussions I outlined a possible costing, and fee schedule, and then proceeded to complete a photo study and measure-up.  From experience I know that no matter how carefully you measure everything there is always a crucial measurement that doesn’t add up.  I know that when the plans for the retrovation are drawn up that there will be one more measurement to be completed.


So four very different houses, four very different clients, four different budgets,  and four very different jobs over a 48 hour period – it is no wonder that I get a bit tongue tied when somebody asks “Just what does Secret Design Studio do?”