30. The Lost Year


Yes we are still alive. It really has been a long and hard 18 months – in a first-world-problem kind of way. There literally nothing worse than a blog where every article starts with “sorry I’ve not been posing much lately”, but here I sit pondering how to break the ice over the radio silence imposed by actually having a life. Not the kind of social life insinuated by “get a life” or “get out more”, clearly neither of which we have done since buying this house. The kind of life where you suddenly look at each other, nod your heads and just jump in to a commitment full of challenges and phase changes, moments that bring you closer while tearing you apart. The life that spirals almost out of control, testing your every ability to navigate unknown waters completely but willingly out of your depth. And the kind of life that finally dumps you on the shore of a beautiful, glistening paradise in rags and blistered hands leaving you to realise that you did this – you got there, together.

So here we are emerging blinking into the sunlight of the second spring into the “DA Project” – and it’s almost over. We have a mountain of memories, a pile of photos, a few minor medical conditions and some stories to tell. I felt a little sad I simply couldn’t fit the storytelling into the moment but I’m sure some retrospective cherry-picking of the highs and lows will enable you to vicariously relive the more interesting parts – the historic discoveries, the epic fails, the lessons learned.

What did we find under the kitchen floor?

What is hidden in the chimney breast?

Was there really a convict connection?

Why did we make a portable kitchen?

How did we cope with going 10x over budget?

The answer to one of those questions is gin: lots of gin. Mostly standard Gordons, London or Vickers but some occasional well-earned rewards of Hendricks or Bombay Sapphire. But lets not get technical now. The answers are coming! We’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

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29. Hoops of Fire

When we originally came to plan enclosing the rear of the house we thought it should be a straightforward matter of hanging about four or five French doors and fixing the uselessly freestanding boarded-up window opposite the bathroom. Sounded like a couple of weekends’ work? What we naively failed to take into account was it would require 18 months of planning applications to even be allowed to raise the first hammer.

When we first moved in, Gen emailed a nice man at the council to find out which of the raft of ideas we had would fly; she was very surprised at his response. It seemed all the changes to the front of the house which we’d assumed would be vetoed due to the heritage listing were fine to just go ahead without further ado. But enclosing the rear verandah with french doors on the modern crappy extension which we though they wouldn’t care about really caught their attention and they demanded a full Development Application.

So we started planning it ourselves. My dad was convalescing at the time, so I kept him busy with drawing up the initial base plans. He used this incredible new technology call pencil and paper which might really catch on. While I waited, I researched what plans were supposed to look like by downloading plans that had already been approved from the council website – to get a feel for the minimum effort needed.

Curiously most of our electrical goods died when we moved into the house, immediately accelerating our drift into a new Georgian/Victorian way of life. So without a computer for the first time since I was nine years old I considered doing the whole thing on this paper thingy, but I just couldn’t help thinking there would be gains to be made having old-fashioned electronical plans. Luckily I was also learning iPhone development in my day-job, for which I was provided a shiny new Mac – that has so far avoided the electronic curse (touches wood, turns around, spits over my shoulder).

I found the architectural planning options on a Mac surprisingly limited compared to the glut of free PC software, but eventually found the truly awesome Sweet Home 3D (it really does have some awe). Although aimed predominantly at 3D (which I didn’t want) I found it could do 80% of the 2D plans I needed. Combined with the Gimp I had everything I needed to get down to business.

I felt partularly smug in working around one limitation in Sweet Home 3D: it can only make top-down 2D plans but I needed elevations and a cross section. After pondering the paper option briefly again, I realised I could make a cross section by re-building our entire house on it’s side! So I copied some of the walls, and all the measurement guides from one document to another, and found it was surprisingly easy to ‘build’ a sideways house and render a pretty professional looking cross-section from the “plan” view.

When I received the plans on lovely crisp A3 tracing paper from my father, cleverly overlaid in transparencies similar to Ye Olde Photofhoppe Layers, I set about scanning them and overlaying the next set of details. Of course, this took about four-hundred times as long as I’d initially bravely boasted it would take, but eventually I was ready to submit them to the council and was ridiculously confident that they were perfect and would pass first time with flying colours.

One of the many reasons they rejected the first batch, was the plans weren’t to scale and therefore we were implicitly breaking several Local Environmental Planning laws because they couldn’t tell how big or high stuff was.

“Yes they are!” I retorted, “I scaled them down 50% from Dad’s A3 to the A4’s I printed … oh wait.”.

Of course, although I just knew that A4 was half of A3 (I’m a bit of a stationery geek) I forgot that this is only true if you rotate the image by 90 degrees! Scaled down to fit without rotating – it’s more like 71%. So indeed our house appeared to now tower over our neighbours (and itself) by an additional 21%.

So I quickly did the maths required to scale them all correctly and we submitted a second draft, along with some other minor box-ticking, a modification application and $400 for the pleasure thank you very much. Surely this time it was perfect – we’d done everything they’d asked?

Two weeks later we received a letter which read

“We acknowledge your request to cancel your development application and have refunded your application fee…”

and a cheque for $410 was enclosed. WTF!? I honestly thought we’d been hacked. Maybe a disgruntled neighbour or perhaps it was that friend of mine at the council who I’d accidentally annoyed when I submitted a helpful website bug-report not realising he built their online systems until I received an email from him which replied to the complaint and just read “Leave me alone will you!”.

So after a few hours on-hold and Gen found out that we’d used the wrong application form and they’d refunded our money, cancelled the application and given us an extra $10 for the inconvenience. We were supposed to have submitted an “amendment” not a “modification” – of course! All I can picture when on the phone to North Sydney Council now is a Vogon receptionist saying “Oh no, you want a Presidential Prisoner Release form. Those are blue.”.

So it all started to make sense again, until we received another cheque from the council, this time for $325. So far we were $335 in profit, so we couldn’t really complain except we’d willingly have swapped this for an approved DA. We did of course consider rushing down the casino and blowing it all on blackjack and overpriced cocktails, but then we saw sense and rang the Vogons again. Apparently the “amendment” costs $75 so they’d deducted that from our refund and sent it again, asking us to please destroy the other cheque. Please?

Then there came The Visit. I was so tense when they arrived, after weeks of anticipation, that I could barely breathe and looked so extremely suspicious they took an instant dislike to me. The heritage inspector began randomly pointing at things and saying

“What about that? Are you knocking that down?”

“Eh? no… we…”

“What’s in here? Is this original?”

“But that’s not even in the appli…”

She began behaving like a Beagle who’d caught scent of a delicious dead cat – almost uncontrollably darting around our back yard peering in through the windows and doors and slapping verbal protection orders on features including those Gen installed only weeks before! Perhaps it was a loss for our freedom but it was a resounding win for authentic restoration!

We can’t justly blame the council for all the rounds of amends. Every time we submitted the plans we’d had little to do than mull things over, so had another ten great ideas on how to improve the new layout and so we snuck in a couple of additional changes each time. It must have been pretty frustrating for them to have been subscribed to our stream of conscious, but in a way it was good they rejected us so often as we ended up with a much better (yet more expensive) house plan.

Eventually – after four long rounds of amends – we got the plans approved – or “determined” in the council’s strangely indecipherable terminology. Hooray!

But what, in the beginning, we had thought would be the end, was in fact only the beginning of a very long and dusty road-trip into bureaucracy as we came to realise somewhere at the heart of local government is in-fact a giant paper-eating beast who ravenously punishes the civil-servants into inventing ever more tortuous ways of generating mostly-pointless forms in obscure but delicious official-sounding dialects.

28. Fakin the Skirtins

Warning. This story contains no humour, literary devices, anecdotal digressions, abstract tangents nor historical discoveries. It is entirely technical and DIY-geeky as is proper for a renovation blog. You are of course at liberty to interpret this is a good or a bad thing.

One of the last “easy” jobs to complete the living room was to improve the skirting boards, as the existing skirtings were made of cement very roughly and unevenly with no decorative moulding. At the time I didn’t have a angle grinder (and firmly believed I would never own one) and didn’t know the the technique of cutting them off. So when I was making the new step I had to remove a big arc of cement skirting which rose up alongside the steps which was in the way. I began chiselling it off but it started to take half the wall plaster off as the 100 year-old plaster is blown in some places – it was a nightmare. We realised then how hard it would be to remove the offending skirtings without damaging all the walls and ending up having to replaster the whole room. And we were so close to finishing!

So I decided to cover them up with “fake” skirtings. All I had to do was get skirting boards of the right profile with a 100×10-15mm rebate cut out of the back to match the meandering profile of the current ones and glue them over the top. Easy! But when I came to design them I quickly realised that the rebate would reduce a typically 19mm board down to 4mm thick which would be very fragile in such a long piece of timber. It would probably split or warp and one kick could mean a significant repair project when we’d already gone into renotirement and hocked our tools for gin.

So I decided to fashion a matching set of Frankenstein’s monsters from bits of moulding, ply and shims. The 4mm ply would be strong even though thin and I could shape the shims to fit the wandering walls and crumbly cement. On the eco side, I wouldn’t be wasting any wood as I wouldn’t need to route or rebate anything.

I tried using my new jigsaw, one of many reluctantly-bought powertools I reserve for special occasions, flicked the laser guide on and began ripping down the 3mm ply feeling all futuristic and cyborg. I was one with the machime; I had a new limb with magic powers but at a terrible price. It made a horrible mess! The blade wandered and tore the wood into a nasty splintered edge. I needed a dead straight, clean edge if I was ever going to fit this together so perfectly that you wouldn’t know it wasn’t a real single piece of wood. So I reverted to Gen’s trusty old tenon saw and spent hours cutting the huge floppy sheets into 3 metre long strips with incredible manual accuracy, putting the laser to shame.

Then it was a seemingly endless task of making up all the shims and bracing pieces to attach the flimsy ply to the moulding for enough length for the living room and dining room – about 24 metres. Mitring round the chimney breasts was interesting as I had to do the mitres on all the separate pieces in advance of gluing them together, and not get confused between inner and outer mitres. Luckily all the shims were made from reclaimed wood from the demolished Cabernet Monstrosity so any mistakes wouldn’t have the forest animals weeping into their decimated landscape.

But the biggest challenge was the sheer amount of peices to glue together and the sheer lack of clamping options in my toolkit once I’d use both of my clamps plus the mole-grips. So I set about the house searching for anything heavy including paint pots, rocks, bricks, books on surrealist art, my biggest plane, hammers, sandstone and very well trained possums. Soon the living room looked more like a Dada installation at the Tate Modern than a living room.

After an evening of carefully tip-toeing around this rather dangerous assault course of sharp heavy or fragile things, I set about solving the eternal paradox of the four sided-mitre puzzle. The secret of course is to gently bend the wood, like a reed in the autumn wind and be thankful you’re not renovating MC Escher’s house.

Of course the house threw one more dimensional spanner at us just to prove that no matter how hard you try to think things through there’s always another dimension you’ve missed. It turned out that the walls weren’t all straight, I don’t mean plumb or square as I’d checked that – some were actually curved! So we had to fill the gaps behind the skirts with hideous muck from a spray can which I’m sure I will live to regret.

One it was all done and fitted, sanded and painted I must admit it really did look quite smart. I’d matched the profile to the older plaster skirtings in the front half of the house so now there was this sudden feeling of consistency and integration between what had previously been two halves of the same house. It’s like playing music – if you do anything enough times it just starts to sound right.

27. Housey Knows Best

Shortly after buying the house we thought we had a pretty good idea of how things would pan out and what we wanted the rooms to look like. So we quickly set about bargain-hunting on eBay and Gumtree feeling very clever when we sniped a Victorian horseshoe fireplace for $150 and even cleverer on scooping five old doors and four sash windows for free from a cottage in Balmain. We bought a perfect triple-window from a demolition in Randwick to repair the bathroom corridor and started looking for Victorian hearth tiles in places like the Terrace House Factory in Chippendale and the huge reclamation yard in Brighton le Sands. Our poor shed began bulging at the seams but we knew it wouldn’t be long before these reclaimed period pieces would be slotted into their rightful places in history again.

Gradually over the coming months we came to a different realisation – the house knows what it wants to be. Every time we tried to enact our contrived plans, the house would subtely block our every effort until we were walking its path. Then it would drop us little hints, plant little seeds of design and style in those periods when it noticed us re-evaluating our options.

We started to find encaustic tiles buried in the garden, buried under the junk in the cellar and even buried in the attic. I discovered a beautiful flower pattern high up on a dusty rafter as if someone had just placed it there for a moment a century ago. We started to get a picture of how the house would have looked with chunky rimlocks and encaustic hearths. But we’d already committed to the Victorian restoration and has a shed full of fanciful, ornate and more wealthy looking features that the simpler rustic Georgian vibes we were getting from the house.

The main difficulty we had with this was simply coping with being wrong. We followed the usual pattern of denial, finding other people and things to blame and searching the empirical data for signs of the Victorian theorem we were trying to prove. But in the face of overwhelming data at some point you have to uncomfortably rewire your brain to make your picture of the world match the real one.

Gen has a theory about crying which I think is true. She proposes that crying is a signal to the world that your mainframe is down for maintenance while some of the core concepts are rewired after finally capitulating to the discord and accepting you are wrong. It’s like you need to do a stocktake and re-index your shelves so you can’t take any more deliveries of information until the warehouse is back in order. And so our home design planning ground to a halt as nothing made sense anymore, until after a quick sob and a deep breath we decided to go with the flow.

Originally we had intended to repair the colourful art-nouveaux hearth tiles in the study which had been badly damaged at some point by a sadly inattentive carpet-fitter who, not noticing that the nails were now making a crunching noise instead of the normal soft sound of wood, continued merrily smashing the entire set of tiles across the hearth.

We carefully tapped a broad bladed scraper under the broken tiles to see if we could get the worse ones out, leaving the few remaining wholes in place. However it turned out that almost all of them at best had hairline fractures and just fell apart. So – at least we weren’t tied to the design of these tiles anymore! We could choose from the hundreds of Victorian tiles at the reclamation yards. But then as we cleaned up further, the thin cement screed under the tiles fell away revealing something that surprised us both – a complete sandstone hearth looking as new as the day it was made!

This kind of spun us out a little. Of course we could cement over it and apply the new new nouveaux tiles and replace the Victorian horseshoe register but … what about leaving it as it is? We knew that the house had started more simple and rustic with the living room and kitchen fireplaces being left open sandstone – almost inglenook style. But we believe that the front room was upgraded to serve as the show-pony reception while the carthorse parlour washed in a tin bath in front of the hob grate round the back.

Gen starting researching encaustic tiles and found a great shop in Camperdown called The Olde English Tile Company with a verily greate range of olde worlde tiles. So we spent a Saturday afternoon down there with the ones we had found in the house, playing design-a-hearth-jigsaws.

I went off and researched corbels and mantels and figured out how to make my own mantlepiece. We bought a nice piece of cypress which took two hours to choose! The colour and grain had to match the floor and the future shelves and the corbels which were stupidly expensive in oak so we’d got them in radiata pine. I routed a slot for a strengthening bar underneath which I hid behind some mitred moulding.

After some quick repairs to the corner of the hearth to stop the bugs coming up from the cellar, and a little quadrant beading to finish the floor edge, we sealed the sandstone to keep it looking as fresh as the day it was masonned. Then we repaired the sandstone surround with lime render and a little sandstone paint mixed in to the top layers to blend with the blocks. The round edge to the chimney breast was originally made with a piece of half-inch dowel which surprised me.

What we ended up with was a lovely chunky but simple, somewhat rustic-looking fireplace nothing like what planned but very in-keeping with the rest of the Georgian working-cottage aspect of the house. We do think it was what the house was asking for and the study now feels settled and has stopped showing us surprises.

26. The Clams

One of the unlimited resources we got for free with our house is industrial-strength rubbish which seems to collect of it’s own free will in the alleyway slowly spreading and rising in vast drifts which threaten to obscure our neighbour’s house. It’s a highly multi-cultural creature happy to self organise from rubble, pipes, floorboards, giant clams. Wait, what?

One day as I’m walking past the 20-foot long detritisaur half expecting it to lift a brick-encrusted head and wail “Feed me Seymore!”, I spot a set of huge giant clams which had once lain buried in our garden. Thinking these potentially endangered relics shouldn’t be doing time on death row, I began rescuing them much to the consternation of the ever-minimalist Gen who had been purging the garden of bedsteads, iron baths, glass and tin roofing.

 “These are valuable!” I propose to an incredulous and ever so slightly pained looking Gen who is probably imagining me as an old man surrounded by junk in a shed muttering “these are valuable…” to an old jam jar of half-rusty screws.

But my logic was sound. You can’t trade in giant clams anymore but this won’t stop people with no taste wanting them therefore demand outstrips supply hence profit. It was basic economics which we covered at school in geography, for a reason I incidentally could never fathom. The closest I got to an explanation was that anything the teachers couldn’t categorise but which sat on the ground somewhere in the world (such as an economy) was technically a geographic feature and so could be taught by our chronically tired, despondently sighing but defiantly sarcastic geog teach we called Sarky. And like competing sweet shops, it seems giant clams come in threes.

“This is a rare opportunity to get three beautiful giant clam shells – in great condition. They were discovered in a Georgian/Victorian cottage amongst other artifacts dating from the 1930’s right back to the 1870’s. They would make a perfect addition to any nautical themed garden or even bathroom! They are a white to light cream/champagne colour with pink flushes.”

I was slightly nervous about going public with this sale. I could imagine CITES getting the wrong impression and swooping into our house with commandos in the middle of the night to bag themselves an illegal big-game mollusc trader napping. So I over emphasised the antique part – these things were already dead when I found them! Surely re-selling old ones will reduce demand for the live ones, at least in the short term? They are a thing of beauty (mostly to other clams) but perhaps in the long term they should be left forgotten in our garden or returned to the sea to decompose into lime for another renovator in a million years. But it was too late, the game was on, I’d already paid my dollar for the highlight.

A short week later while I was working somewhere in the house and Gen was about half-way through her two month architrave tour of duty, the auction drew to an end. I laid the clams out on a deck lounger in the sun so they could personally witness their 15 mins of fame.

“Come on clams!” I roused, as the price crept up to $150. This wasn’t about making money, this was about proving I did actually listen to Sarky’s bitter examples of world poverty and greed, contrary to what the headmaster was frequently informed.”Come on clams!!”… $250. I wondered if you could actually calculate the number of giant clams in the world by reversing the supply/demand equation and feeding the final price in backwards… $270, $300 … then in the usual flurry of sniper bids, too fast for the refresh rate of my eyes, $460!

I ran excitedly to tell a paint-splattered Gen who instantly joined my euphoria with that unfakeable cute nose-wrinkley laugh she only does when truly and unstoppably amused. “The clams went for $460!!” She simply couldn’t beleive it.

Ironically this was roughly how much the 1300 RUBBISH guys charged us to re-home our Audrey 2 rubble monster. It was a slightly sad day, waving goodbye at a rainy window, but I’m told we’ll grow another one soon.

25. The Recycled Roof

It’s funny how we think recycling is new. It’s possibly one of the oldest mechanisms on the planet, without which none of the beautiful madness of life would have emerged. We have been trying to do our best at making our renovation sustainable but we were truly amazed at the amount of material reuse we have found the “middle aged” part of the house.

It seems the very original house was made anew – the sandstone blocks were apparently quarried and dressed on site, there’s some impressive ironbark joists in the attic and the windows and architrave were all good quality. Then you notice the rear part of the side walls which “tooth” from sandstone into bricks in a crazy zig-zag boundary. Someone suggested they ran out of stone in the quarry in the garden and finished the house in brick but that doesn’t make sense! The toothed border between stone and brick is vertical, meaning they would have been building the house from back to front not from the ground up, which I’m pretty confident is the sensible direction! Also the sandstone extends further back in the higher courses – surely it would have been the lower? When you look a the bricks you see they are randomly covered in many colours of old house paint indicating they were already recycled themselves. I believe the whole thing was planned from the start. When you stand down the road and the slope of the next door house’s roof obscures our side wall, it perfectly covers the offending cheaper bricks towards the bottom giving the impression of a much grander and more expensive fully sandstone building. This is an amazing and effective cheat!

Over the years the use of the house has changed significantly and strucural modifications have been made to suit. The unexpected bonus upper floor had two boarded up windows and the remains of rooms, panelling and lovely old wooden floor boards. It has clearly had significant use in the past only to be abandoned and sealed up. At one point there were at least eight people living here as Mr Hepburn had five children by the end of the C19th! But there isn’t even a sign of a staircase except that the dining room ceiling is made of panelling rather than the lath and plaster found in the rest of the house. We have often wondered what happened to the stairs and where they would have been – mostly because we want to reinstate them!

One day I was pondering our extension and was inspecting the structure of the rear breezeway and verandah and noticed the roof is made of some rather strange collections of timber. The thin rafters have a rounded finish reminiscent of handrails, the posts have old dowel holes and the fascia beam has these strange diagonal slots at regular intervals. After rotating it 45′ in my head I suddenly realised it was a stringer – the sloping beam used to hold the stairs in a staircase! They rebuilt the new extension roof out of the staircase!

A while later when I rebuilt the ceiling in the bathroom to remove the asbestos and insert insulation I found more bits of the staircase and other odds and ends. Nothing went to waste.

Being a habitual anthropomorphist I love the fact that everything gets a second chance in our house and it’s certainly a tradition I have been respecting and intend to continue.

The hideous Cabernet Monstrosity we removed from the living room was actually really well built by a talented carpenter, and has provided us with almost two years supply of project wood, like some kind of timber organ donor. Luckily we’re just whittling down the supply in time to empty the once groaning cold-store woodshed before we need to turn it into another bathroom!

24. Time Capsule from the Clumsy

I guess we’ve all done it – coming home late at night after a few jars with some friends and struggled to get the key in the suddenly very fussy lock or just finding anything in that bottomless handbag in the dark without tipping it all out on the floor and shuffling the contents like a deranged croupier. Kebab sauce, lipstick, spare change, spoons, bullets – the average doorstep has seen it all.

Very few doorsteps ever get to tell their tale, but luckily I was listening while I worked on our threshold and heard some very strange tales indeed.