Less is more when it comes to renovating homes

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Architects are discovering that keeping some of the old features of our homes can be more sustainable than installing new materials and technology.


Architect Luisa Manfredini has a new string to her bow these days: when trying to convince clients to save lovely old cedar skirtings, doors, floorboards and light fittings in their homes, she argues on the basis of sustainability.  

Manfredini, whose mainly “alts and adds” practice has a heritage focus, says that 10 to 15 years ago, clients wanted to rip out everything and replace it with new materials and features.

“You’ve got this beautiful [housing] stock, like artwork really, like an old painting or old vase … Keeping it adds beauty and value.” 

“An example stands out in my mind – a house in Manly, for which we did a first floor and a basement addition,” she remembers. 

“But the front [of the house] still looked in character, with a beautiful door that had a few knocks and scuffs. The owner said to get rid of the old door, replace it with a new one … It was 40mm thick, and solid cedar. You’d never replace that.”

In the end, the door was repainted, costing only slightly more than a new door and with all its character retained.

Birkley Road, Manly: the original timber lining boards were re-used for the ceiling and walls.

Manfredini says that as far as possible, we should re-use existing infrastructure rather than creating waste that goes to landfill. Using what you have can be more sustainable than adding solar panels to a building, for example.

“If you demolish the existing house, and send all that material to landfill, perfectly good bricks and timber, there’s all that waste and transport costs, and you use new timber and glass, probably of an inferior quality, which also needs [to be transported]. 

“In the areas where I work, in Mosman and Manly, you’ve got this beautiful [housing] stock, like artwork really, like an old painting or old vase … Keeping it adds beauty and value.” 

“You can’t always get what you want… you have to compromise.”

She says if a house is structurally sound and has character but is a little bit old and not quite suitable for a client’s needs, it doesn’t have to be knocked down or given a Cape Cod-style addition. You can have a design that is in keeping with the existing building that also adds value and improves the streetscape.

 “Less is more,” says Manfredini. “We keep, wherever possible, light switches, doorknobs, skirtings, wall linings. In Manly, in one house we took the timber lining boards off and put insulation in which made a huge difference. The owners weren’t convinced, and they ended up getting one air conditioning unit but not for the whole house. People want air-con because their friends have it.”

Oswald Street, Mosman:
“The owner wanted a new first floor addition but on measuring the attic I found he could get all the spaces required within the existing roof. Hence the roof was retained, a couple of dormer windows added and the project sits nicely within the streetscape.” 

It can be difficult to strike the right balance for the small practice which Manfredini shares with her husband. They lost a job in Manly because of their approach. “It was a most beautiful art deco house. It wasn’t heritage listed and they wanted to rip out beautiful solid timber fireplaces and windows to gain an extra 10 metres. Manfredini argued that doing so would lose them value if they ever wanted to re-sell.  

“Then we were pulled from the job and they went to another architect.

“You can’t always get what you want and some clients will insist on air-con or ripping out everything, and you are bleeding inside. It sounds very dramatic but we are running a business and do the best we can and at some stages, you have to compromise.”

Heritage and re-use, she says, may be the forgotten part of the sustainability movement that could make a big impact,  “a hidden gem” in the environmental agenda.

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