Renovating Resources

Sustainable architect Caroline Pidcock shares her own renovation challenges with a historic terrace home in Millers Point.

Caroline Pidcock’s Renovation Journey

News from the frontline

Renovating my own home …

After more than 2 years and 9 months, work has finally started on our home at Millers Point. While we aimed to start ASAP after buying the 99-year lease at auction on 2 August 2011, it took a little longer than we initially expected. Over this time, we have grown to understand our new home, and been able to refine the details of how we would like to live there.

So – how does it feel to renovate my own home? Is it different to when clients renovate? What were the main issues we encountered? And how is it going?



View from observatory hill over our home (the terrace with orange wall behind red car)


First of all, I now realise how important it is to follow the rules I give my clients. How do I know? Because I have broken nearly all of them! Like not fully documenting the project… and living through the renovation… and making changes on the hop… If you are a client reading this, please do not take this as licence to do as I do – those rules have been made for good reasons! I am fully aware of the potential consequences of these actions, and am happy to accept (and pay for) the difficult outcomes and possible additional expense they might incur. You do not pay me to put you in such a position.

One of the reasons we took this long to commence work was my husband is also an architect (although more recently an urban designer, planner and politician), and had very definite opinions on many design details. They did not necessarily coincide with mine, and we spent a lot of time finding mutually agreeable outcomes… I think this has enriched the project.

Do I care more about my own renovation than those of my clients? I can honestly say I care a lot about all the projects I am involved with. I think about them when I wake up in the middle of the night, or following the black line when swimming, or when I am walking – as well as at work. This applies to my clients’ projects as well as my own. Doing my own project has taken me deep into tile, bathroom and appliance shops to confirm our own selections. This has been very useful – it is not easy making these deeply personal choices that you AND your partner can agree on. It has given me renewed empathy for my clients as they go through the same process, and will better inform how we work with you going forward.

So what have the main issues been in my project?

Heritage listing of the property

When we bought our 99-year lease, it came with a Conservation Management Plan and Schedule of Works to be undertaken – about two files thick. This pretty much set out what we could do – basically fix the place – and what we couldn’t do – basically not much that is new. After much consideration, we eventually developed our own ideas, with the following minor changes to these documents. This included:

  • the creation of a large opening in the internal wall on the lower ground floor to open the two rooms to each other
  • an increase in the size of the bathroom on the bedroom level verandah to make it actually work
  • a decrease in the size of the bathroom on the lower ground level to open up the view from the inside to the back garden

The new kitchen, in the front room of the lower ground floor, will be very much of my own design. There was no original fabric left in this room as dampness and lack of ventilation had resulted in the floor being replaced several times and new water repelling render being added to the walls. The new plasterboard ceiling was removed so the termite “boudoir” could be removed, and damaged floor structure strengthened prior to our moving in in December 2011.

What have we done from a heritage point of view?
  • careful retention and restoration of the house in general so that it can continue to be a valuable part of the local suburb into the future
  • retention of as much fabric (internally and externally) as possible, only replacing termite and water damaged timber as required
  • use of paints and timber finishes that let the walls and timber breathe
  • working with paint experts to develop an appropriate external colour scheme
  • salvaging of any timber and brickwork that was removed for reuse in other parts of the work
  • reworking of the plumbing and electrical wiring so that it is more hidden as well as legal

Issues we thought might be an issue but weren’t:

  • 8 x PV panels on the northern house and verandah roofs, which have great orientation and can’t be seen from anywhere
  • 1 x 4,000 litre water tank that will sit quietly at the end of the garden

Sustainable technologies

With the changing goal posts of sustainable technologies, this project has made me think long and hard about the various options and what we should do. I know that whatever I chose, there will be something better available next week. Just like computers. So – I have made the best decision possible for now.

First up was renewable energy in general, and hot water in particular.

How should we heat our hot water? Should we take up some precious roof space for solar hot water heaters? A recent study by Beyond Zero Emissions recommends not using these heaters south of Queensland, as the amount of boosting needed in the sun-deprived winter months is similar to the amount saved in summer, and results in an uneven energy pattern over the year. They recommend heat pumps, with COPs of >3.8 (3.8 kW of energy produced for every 1kW of energy used), powered by renewable energy.

This way we can use all the roof space for photovoltaics, which can then create as much energy as possible. This power can be used for both the hot water and other appliances. The system needs a 270-litre tank, which weighs 270 kg… A bit of a load on the verandah…

Heat pump

Heat pump

Another option we considered was the use of an instantaneous electric hot water heater in each bathroom. This counter intuitive solution has the advantages of only heating water when it needs to be used, taking up very little space which is not in great supply and weighing virtually nothing, and needing only cold water pipes to be plumbed to each space. The main problem with this solution? When it is heating the water it needs a lot of power for that short time. This means the power from the PV panels cannot be used for it (even if the sun is shining when you are showering) and the house system is heavily loaded when anyone is showering. Ideally 3-phase power is required.

In the end we opted for a heat pump, with the tank located on the ground behind the lower ground floor bathroom. We will see if we can time the heater to work only when the sun is shining so that our own renewable power can be used.

This also enables us to use all the roof space available for PV panels. While the installer thought we should go for a smaller system as we would be exporting more energy in the day than we use and receive little or nothing for this, I was keen to create a situation where as much power as possible can be harvested so that we can attempt to reach net zero energy over the year. As an optimist, I live in hope that the current approach to renewable power will mature and the contributions of small roof top generators will be paid a respectable amount for any power put back into the grid. I think this is preferable to everyone getting their own batteries and going off-grid – a real possibility if the power companies don’t improve their service.

We will be using Solar Edge optimisers and inverters, which will enable us to accurately track the performance of each panel. Coupled with a WattWatcher to monitor all our electrical consumption, we will know exactly when and how we use our power! We will also be able to compare this with other friends and colleagues also using the systems – perhaps our clients would like to join us on this journey?!

Anticipating an electric future, which does not need to involve any fossil fuels, we chose an electric cooker with induction cooktop. Having said that, we still have gas room in the lounge-room and for the BBQ. We haven’t found good replacements for these yet.

Water tank

Water tank

Water tanks

This was simple. We have a space at the end of our garden between the current shed (which we are keeping in part) and the fence, which is perfect for a slim line tank. As it can extend across the garden and stands 2 metres tall, we will be able to harvest 4,000 litres to use in our toilets, washing machine and garden. The good thing about small houses is the distances are generally small so the distances for pumping are not large.

External paint system

Going along with the advice of our heritage paint person, we were seriously considering using a lime wash paint as was used in 1887 when the house was originally built. The first section of wall was painted with this system, and then promptly bled all weekend in the rain… Looking at this finish, and the four levels of scaffolding at the rear of the house, we realised we needed a more durable system that would not require repainting any time soon.

After seeking advice from the very helpful Peter from Murobond, we have now decided on a mineral silicate paint. It allows the walls to breathe while offering a better waterproof finish, and should last for at least 10 years.

The exact colour took many pots to check on site – they are SOOO different to the swatches. You definitely need to apply on site before confirming the final scheme.

Living with the building work

We have screened off a small kitchen space, and made the previously unused external bathroom and toilet workable. While this is very difficult in winter, it makes the prospect of an internal bathroom and kitchen with bench space even more exciting!

Another real problem: it is messy – really messy. No matter how hard you try, you cannot avoid the dust. It gets into every crevice of every room. This can drive people crazy and impact adversely on all relationships in the project – which is why I don’t recommend it. For us? I am happy to live with it, as it allows me to be close to the work and make decisions as we go along (again – so not recommended!). Plus, I am very focused on the final outcome and am more than happy to live with this for a while.

The early morning starts (7am the builders promptly arrive) are helping me get back into a routine of swimming and showering at North Sydney Pool before they arrive. A win–win!

The actual work

We are so excited with how the work is progressing. The opening between the two bottom rooms cannot be fully realised just yet (because of the screened kitchen section) – but it looks great. The bathroom will have the most wonderful views from the long window. And the upper attic room with toilet and en-sink will be great for when we use our harbor-view living space and when our guests come to stay.

Importantly, builders Darryn and Craig from Your Abode and their sub-contractors, and Marek our jack-of-all-trades, are doing a great job, which makes the excitement of the project all the more real.

I will update in the near future.

Caroline Pidcock

Caroline Pidcock

Caroline Pidcock, the curator of our Liveability ‘be inspired by design’ is founding Principal of the design firm PIDCOCK – Architecture + Sustainability which is focused on desirable, sustainable architecture. The practice aims to excel in ecologically sustainable design, documentation and advice and to demonstrate how such a focus can deliver potent influences in design and can produce delightful experiences. PIDCOCK is particularly interested in renovations, where it is possible to identify the best of what is existing and help to recognise, adapt and develop this to be part of a strong and relevant future.

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