To renovate or not to renovate?

Issue 32 Words: Dick Clarke

To renovate, or not to renovate – that is (so often) the question. Dick Clarke, principal of Envirotecture, a sustainable building design firm, helps you decide on the best approach, posing some hard questions.

What are your goals?
This sounds quite straightforward, but at the heart of it lie some big questions around life goals, aspirations and priorities. Some hard questions (and honest answers) might be needed, such as: To what extent am I trying to impress/compete with family, friends or the neighbourhood? How important is it to me to reduce my house’s impact on the world, through reduced energy and material consumption? The answers will steer a lot of design decisions that follow.


‘Liveability Real Estate Specialists’ are trained to communicate the value of green features such as rainwater tanks to prospective buyers, rewarding the long-term commitment to reducing the home’s environmental footprint. Image: Calan Stanley

Good bones?
Some houses have little potential for renovation, for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the foundations have sunk, or the structure is so far gone there is nothing left to work with. Heritage-listed buildings leave no option, but for most houses the state of its ‘bones’ is the first consideration.

If the site has a pleasant aspect and a mild micro-climate, then a range of construction types may be suitable for renovation. But if, for instance, the site is cold due to poor orientation and/or shading, the house has open subfloors, or there is extensive termite damage, it may be best to start afresh.

If the existing layout lends itself to better orientation without a total rebuild and the bones are good (sound foundations, and a structural condition that will allow added insulation etc), the next question is: will a renovation actually make it more liveable and sustainable? You may think, “Well of course, otherwise what’s the point?” But it’s amazing how many renovations fail to take advantage of the opportunity to actually make things better. Poor layouts, no response to the site and solar access and no added insulation, are just some of the things we often see in projects that have soaked up hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In one case, an older double-brick home on sound sandstone foundations had a completely dysfunctional layout, was miserably dark with abysmal orientation, and no insulation. But by flipping the layout, adding high-performance glass and judicious insulation where we could, it became delightfully bright in winter, cool in summer and had much reduced running costs.

Jekyll and Hyde?
It is common for wonderful new additions to be added to poor performing older buildings, such that the new section is thermally comfortable and costs little to run, while the old part remains uninsulated and draughty.
It is worth considering whether that is the best use of available funds. It would make more sense to spend at least a modest amount upgrading the older part on such features as additional insulation and draught-sealing. The nature of the old rooms and their use will help steer decisions about how much of the budget to throw at them.

Dick Clarke is principal of Envirotecture

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Cover of Issue 32
You can read more about To renovate or not to renovate? in Issue 32 of Sanctuary magazine.

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Sanctuary: modern green homes is Australia’s premier magazine dedicated to sustainable home design. More...

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Reducing your lawn area is the best way to save water as lawns can account for up to 90 per cent of water used in gardens.

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