In this column from the Last Word series, Duncan Stuart reflects on how renovation work can be a head-on collision between dreams and realities.
Renovation work is a head-on collision between dreams and realities. Your dream is to extend the house and enhance the quality of your life. The reality? Well that depends on what you find the moment you start removing the old Gib. You love a good mystery, right?
Growing up, I remember Dad’s anguished discovery of dry-rot behind the cladding of our old house. What began as a straightforward exterior paint job detoured into the discovery of one or two soft weatherboards and careered off the rails completely to become the Summer The Walls Came Off. We were 40 years ahead of our time. Our house was where leaky home syndrome got invented. At least it never rained that summer.
Actually, thanks to Dad’s stoic outlook, that particular project became quite enjoyable even as it grew more extensive and a lot more expensive. During the Summer the Walls Came Off he was bemused to find that in our house not a single stud was vertical, and not a single noggin was actually level. What had the original builder been thinking? For heavens’ sakes, we had a grand sea view, so even if the builder had forgotten his spirit level, he still had the horizon right there as a reference point. So, that summer, punctuating the creaking and wrenching of timbers under the power of Dad’s crowbar came his good-natured chortling: “Look at this one! Un-be-liev-able!”
The mystery factor always plays havoc with deadlines and budgets. The budget? The timeframe? Who can really tell until we rip into the project? In this respect, renovation is like a crime novel. You plan for one clean murder but pretty soon you have three grisly discoveries.
I noticed this in our own renovation job. We have a villa and the original mission was simple. First, we were going to remove the old lean-to because, really it had detached itself from the house anyway. Next, we’d build a new room on the back. In my mind it was as easy as Lego. Take off one bit, plug on another.
How long would this take? The builders, rubbed their chins, inhaled meaningfully, assessed the plans and surveyed the house. “Yes...you’re looking at five weeks on this one.”
What I learned over the course of the next 10 months was that ‘five weeks’ is code, used widely by all trades people, meaning: ‘beyond the foreseeable horizon’. Four weeks is within the horizon. You can hold somebody to a four-week promise. Five weeks: no chance.
When Queen Isabella asked Christopher Columbus how long this whole business of discovering America would take, he told her: “You’re looking at five weeks, your majesty.” It sounded close enough to a month for her to give the go-ahead. The rest, as they say, is history.
It was the same for our adventure. The repiling of the house? We knew we had to do something. The front of our villa had sunk so much over the previous century that if you gently released a bowling ball down from the far end of the passageway, it would have enough power to knock an adult over by the time it got to the front door.
The problem was, you couldn’t jack the house up – not quickly – otherwise the brittle 100-year old woodwork might split. The repiling guy inhaled deeply, assessed the timber and came back with a firm quote on that job. Five weeks. The new kitchen was going to be straightforward, except where it would back on to a rather skewed existing wall. Five weeks for that one, too.
Over time we’ve enjoyed our house, and have been really glad of the renovation work. But it was a reminder that you should allow at least 30 per cent more time and budget just in case you uncover something that needs fixing. And the big lesson comes from my father. Enjoy the mystery.
This column by Duncan Stuart featured on page 120 in Issue 03 of Renovate Magazine. Renovate Magazine is an easy to use resource providing fresh inspiration and motivation at every turn of the page.
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