Travel insider: our regional boom

Originally published in Qantaslink Spirit magazine

A host of regional towns are stepping into the spotlight, offering easy commutes, plenty of open space and the lure of one thing money can’t buy – time. Alex Brooks zeroes in on the areas worth investing in.

When Peita Mages was a film publicist living the high life of premieres, press liaison and pretty clothes in Sydney, her commute was decidedly less glamourous than her job. She had a large mortgage on a three-bedroom California bungalow in the suburbs that required an hour-plus trudge to reach the city each day.

“I had to walk up a huge hill and walk a kilometre from where I parked for the train, get on the train, then change trains. I had to have my sneakers in my handbag,” says the 40-year-old who now lives in the regional town of Orange in NSW, where everything – shops, work, her kids’ schools – is within a five-minute drive of home.

“We used to go to places like the Blue Mountains to relax – commutable little weekend away type places and we’d go, ‘Oh, I wish we could move’ – but our biggest worry was always, what are we going to do? Our jobs don’t translate to these towns,” she says.

After the birth of her first child, Peita ditched her glamourous career to retrain as a school teacher and pursue an escape from capital city living. She has built her dream house on 40-acres of land and has opened her own business, Clever Cookie Academy, tutoring kids and training teachers from a barn-style shed on her property. Peita is not the only city dweller wistfully looking for a more relaxed pace of life in Australia’s regions – her sister soon packed up and sold her Sydney home to join her in Orange. There’s also increasing evidence that young Australians living in overpriced capital cities like Sydney, and to a lesser extent Melbourne, are moving to more affordable regions of Australia, where the lifestyle is good and a mortgage is manageable.

This means regional property – particularly in so-called lifestyle locations which are close enough to capital cities but far enough removed to be affordable – are likely to attract younger, permanent residents that drive regional economic growth. Propertyology managing director Simon Pressley says regional property is Australia’s price growth powerhouse, “The six and a half out of ten Australians who live in capital cities broadly have this perception that capital cities are best for property and nothing ever happens in the regions except bad news – that’s not the case at all,” he says, pointing out that 200,000 jobs created in 2017 and 2018 were outside the Australian capital cities.

ABS Census data shows NSW, SA, WA and NT are the states suffering the greatest population losses while Vic and Queensland receive the greatest population gains.

“The insecurity attached to work and rising house prices and congestion is making it difficult for people to establish security in larger cities so they are moving to regional areas,” says population expert, Dr Lisa Denny, a research fellow at the Institute for the Study of Social Change.

Dr Felicity Picken of the University of Western Sydney says ABS Census data shows younger age groups, particularly those aged 25 to 29, leaving Sydney for other states and regions as housing affordability bites. “People are starting to react to the inconvenience of actually living in the cities,” she says. Longer commute times, rising rents and competition from airbnb landlords who make more money from short term letting – along with increasingly insecure job opportunities – mean clued up younger people are making a move.

“The big cities are not delivering the economic promises that they have in the past. Under employed and unemployed people that are just as likely to move as those with the high end jobs,” Dr Picken says. “Younger people can’t see this situation improving in 10 years’ time. So it’s not just a case of I can’t afford a home now; it’s more that they don’t think they’ll be able to afford one at any stage.”

Regional areas with affordable houses are more attractive than ever.

The Demographic Group managing director Bernard Salt says regional areas “are a remarkably good buy in the market right now, especially in terms of quality of life and connectivity”. High speed internet means whether you live in Ballarat, Gundagai or Bathurst, you can be connected to capital city business and commerce.

“You are no longer tied to a geography by your address like you used to be. People don’t know whether you’re speaking to them from a swish Collins Street office in Melbourne or whether you’re doing something out on a property somewhere. I think that’s opened up lifestyle areas and areas within striking distance of capital cities,” he says.

But while some regions have an increasingly bright property outlook with affordable house and apartment prices, others may not have such golden horizons and can be vulnerable to population declines and economic volatility.

“It’s the very cute lifestyle change communities that are attractive,” says Salt. Character villages with good food and wine and rural scenery are appealing to capital city refugees. “There has to be a caché element to this – Facebook capital is important,” he reiterates.

“I think there is an entire generation of millennials coming out of their hipster apartments and terrace houses in the inner city. There was an anxiety in that generation about leaving home, making a commitment to a job and a commitment to a relationship or a commitment to a mortgage. All of a sudden, when you’re confronted with these issues in very overpriced cities, then regional Australia starts to look good,” Salt says.

University of SA dean of research and innovation Dr Andrew Beer says people’s prospects for better quality of life and new business opportunities become so much greater if they are freed from the burden of high house prices. He says export businesses, tourism and agriculture are in strong demand and are ideally placed for people to buy existing businesses or start something new.

He also says professionals like accountants and physiotherapists are abundant in capital cities, but choosing to work in places like “Albury-Wodonga, Shepparton, Bathurst or Orange is actually incredible with good income potential” and strong future job prospects – along with much more affordable housing.

When Adelaide winemaker David Feldheim and his wife Cynthea had their first baby, the siren call of Cynthea’s northern Tasmanian upbringing in the Tamar Valley lured them to give up capital city living for the cooler, pristine Tasmanian hills that offered better winemaking opportunities away from the heat of Adelaide.

There’s some evidence that the cooler Tasmanian weather is attracting a string of climate change refugees, keen to get away from the hotter summers, increased bushfire risk and prolonged heatwaves. Foreseechange forecaster Charlie Nelson says there is a statistically significant correlation between Tasmania’s net interstate migration and rising temperatures.

Australia’s typical interstate migration patterns involve people selling up in Sydney and Melbourne to move to the warmer (and cheaper) climes of Queensland to retire. Dr Lisa Denny suggests climate change could see that trend dissipate, as hotter and more unpredictable weather influences people to choose cooler areas such as Tasmania.

Fellow Tasmanian Sarah Coleman – who left the rural NSW town of Mudgee for the cooler temperature of Allen’s Rivulet outside Hobart two years ago agrees, saying the cooler weather and higher rainfall of Tasmania is attractive.

“There were so many reasons for moving to Tasmania: lots of wilderness to explore, more culture, different schooling. The heat (of Mudgee) was definitely increasing and was a big factor in us leaving. The rainfall was getting lower and more sporadic,” she says. “We have practically the same amount of animals we had on 40 acres in Mudgee on six acres here in Allen’s Rivulet.”

David Feldheim – who now runs Beautiful Isle Wines – says tourism in Tasmania is booming, along with the construction and food industries. “I know Queenslanders who come to Tasmania on their holidays so they don’t have to wear shorts,” he says. “It’s cool to be cooler.”

REGIONAL HOTSPOT # 1

Where: The Sunshine Coast, Queensland

Distance from Maroochydore to Brisbane: 103km or 1 hour and 30 mins by car

Population: Approx 300,000

The lure: The clean surf beaches, set in the shadow of the Glasshouse Mountains, make this coastal region attractive for lifestyle and business reasons. It’s close to Brisbane, but also has its own airport in Marcoola. The hinterland villages of Montville and Maleny are cooler while the beachside destinations of Maroochydore and Mooloolaba are popular with holiday makers and permanent residents.

Median value houses: $615,077; 5 year growth 28.5%

Median value apartments: $433,756 , 5 year growth 23.2%

Median weekly advertised rent for a house: $495

What $400,000 buys you: The average house price on the Sunshine Coast is driven up by the $2 million-plus beachfront and canal-front homes. Areas like Nambour and Caloundra are the most affordable locations, according to Buderim Mortgage Choice director Kaia Hunter, where you can pick up an unrenovated 10-year-old suburban-style home for between $400,000 and $450,000. An older weatherboard home can be snapped up for under $400,000, as can smaller brick homes with just one bathroom. Older-style units start at less than $250,000, but you need to watch for the sting of strata levies in cheaper units. Hunter says $500,000 to $750,000 will get you a beautiful home either in the hinterland or closer to the beach. “There is lots of new development going on, especially in Maroochydore,” she says, where brand new luxury units can be bought for between $400,000 and $700,000, depending on the ocean view. Older-style townhouses and units are easily snapped up for less than $400,000, with a three-bedroom, two-bathroom townhouse in walking distance of Ocean Street selling for $359,000.

REGIONAL HOTSPOT # 2

Where: Launceston, Tasmania

Distance from Launceston to Hobart: 200km or 2 hour and 30 min by car

Population: 80,916

The lure: This is Tasmania’s second largest city, set on the banks of the Tamar River (kanamaluka) and offering a range of historic homes in a clean, green city with an airport and a strong local jobs market. The CBD area and the river is undergoing more building, as investors build new accommodation to cater for the tourists visiting the Apple Isle. Launceston has its own airport and is just over one hour’s flight from Melbourne.

Median value houses: $327,094, 5 year growth 32.8%

Median value apartments: $250,562, 5 year growth 18.9%

Median weekly advertised rent for a house: $330

What $400,000 buys you: Launceston is a hilly city, and views of the river are coveted. Historic and well renovated properties are the most sought after, but you can buy a five-minute drive from town for between $300,000 and $400,000. Older Victorian buildings revamped as apartments are popular with investors, with two-bedroom apartments snapped up for less than $325,000. A charming 1920s three-bedroom weatherboard cottage with a new kitchen and bathroom and a prized level backyard in walking distance to the hospital was snapped up for just under $400,000 in May 2019. Brick and stone houses are more sought after – especially older-style Victorian era homes – and you’ll need to budget more than $500,000 for these. Units are the most affordable, with an old 1920s home converted into five separate units selling in the mid-$700,000s.

REGIONAL HOTSPOT # 3

Where: Barossa Valley, South Australia

Distance from Tanunda to Adelaide: 78km or 1 hour by car

Population: Approx 38,000

The lure: This semi-rural wine and grazing region has small towns like Tanunda and Angaston, with easy access to a new highway into Adelaide. It’s a hotspot for tourism, with plenty of wine making and microbreweries, as well as gourmet food operations. The region features a mix of modern and older-style homes and agricultural properties.

Median value houses: $366,788, 5 year growth 18.1%

Median value apartments: $232,411, 5 year growth 23.9%

Median weekly advertised rent for a house: $330

What $400,000 buys you: Nuriootpa has new subdivisions where blocks of land start at $160,000. You’ll get a nice three bedroom home for $400,000 in one of the main towns like Tanunda or Angaston. Smaller villages like Greenock and Bethany are attracting food and wine entrepreneurs and have older properties starting around the $300,000 mark. Agricultural properties range from 20 acres up to 80 acres and are priced according to their growing viability and income. Barossa Real Estate director Peter Fairweather says there are 70-80 local restaurants and the lifestyle is relaxed and rural, with a lot of investment from China, Europe and America to secure viticulture and food growing land.

REGIONAL HOTSPOT # 4

Where: Ballarat, Victoria

Distance from Ballarat to Melbourne: 115km or 1 hour and 30 min by car

Population: Around 110,000

The lure: Home of the Eureka Stockade, this old gold mining town was once the richest place on earth, and is now the third largest city in Victoria after Melbourne and Geelong with a population of around 110,000 people. The city, which has become a popular food destination for travellers, has a train link to Melbourne, which takes an hour and 16 minutes to travel to the capital. There are large employers like Mars and McCain foods, as well as hospitals and a range of private schools.

Median value houses: $404,949, 5 year growth 35.9%

Median value apartments: 285,660, 5 year growth 36.2%

Median weekly advertised rent for a house: $320

What $400,000 buys you: Beautiful period homes close to town and in need of a renovation start around the $300,000 price point. If you’re looking for something that’s ready to move into, that figure sits between $500,000 and $750,000. New blocks of land 10 minutes’ drive from the centre of Ballarat start at $160,000 and brand new three-bedroom brick homes can be purchased for around $400,000. Ballarat hockingstuart director Tim Valpied says his town is being flooded with young families from Melbourne looking for housing affordability and high quality public schools like Clarendon and Ballarat Grammar. Older-style walk-up units, which are more popular with investors than owner occupiers, can be snapped up for less than $200,000.

REGIONAL HOTSPOT # 5

Where: Orange, NSW

Distance from Orange to Sydney: 255km or 3 hours and 40 min by car

Population: Around 38,000

The lure: This historic fruit-growing district is where poet Banjo Patterson was born. Healthcare, mining and government administration are the main local industries, along with agriculture and education. It has tree-lined streets and a range of historic and new homes, as well as nearby acreage and larger agricultural properties.

Median value houses: $366,652, 5 year growth 35%

Median value apartments: $263,879, 5 year growth 17.9%

Median weekly advertised rent for a house: $370

What $400,000 buys you: “You won’t believe what you can get for $400,000 here – beautiful old homes but also modern suburban brick and tile places,” Clever Cookie Academy founder Peita Mages says. Older brick homes built before the 1930s are the prime properties, particularly if they are on more than 1000 sq m and close to town – you can expect to pay more than $600,000 for a renovated character home. Orange has plenty of old weatherboards as well as 1960s and 1970s brick homes in town, which are the most priced around the $450,000 or less, particularly if they are on a block size under 1000 square metres. Small acreage holdings just outside town with four-bedroom homes and swimming pools are also popular, but these start around the $700,000 mark and go up depending on the agricultural potential of the land. Units and villas in town are the most affordable, starting in the mid $200,000, and these are popular with investors.

The Hotspot Checklist

– Towns and regions that are in close proximity to a capital city are more likely to benefit from the infrastructure investments in roads, business and health that spill over from big city planning.

– Look for diverse local economies, and a range of different employers and professional service opportunities, ideally with a growing population base.

– Access to train links and airports is another drawcard.

– Look at the local hospitals, schools, businesses and services.

– Houses are a better long term investment than apartments.

Born again buildings

Originally published in Qantas magazine


Things change. Ain’t that the truth. From siloes, to breweries to hat factories and prisons, here’s a round up of some unique Australian spaces being given a new shot at life.


Pentridge Prison’s castellated bluestone walls resplendent with gothic-looking arrowslits and watchtowers, stand gloomily against sparkling new commercial high rise buildings and contemporary apartments.

Two white construction cranes dot the sky over the prison where bushranger Ned Kelly’s remains were buried, Ronald Ryan became the last Australian legally executed in 1967, and standover man Mark ‘Chopper’ Read’s ears were hacked off with a razor blade in 1979.

Soon, a cinema, piazza, shopping centre and hotel will be built on the Melbourne prison site, which closed its doors in 1997.

It’s now called Pentridge Coburg: “a vital hub of creativity and commerce interlinked with residential opportunities”, according to the marketing material.

Boot Factory bought the building cafe owner Henry Sciberras and his daughter Bianca were one of the first to restore an old prison store building at Pentridge and turn it into a cafe in 2014.

All manner of people – “hipsters, mothers, business people, old people, teenagers … and former inmates” – come to the Boot Factory to sip a coffee and soak up the prison ambience, especially the ghost stories.

“We’ve had clairvoyants out and they’ve seen a ghost near the red door in the cafe. It was a really friendly ghost, standing and waving to families,” he says, believing the spirit was pleased to have worked in the sunlit Boot Factory, rather than the dingy rock-breaking yards.

Lantern Ghost Tours owner Jacqueline Travaglia says an alcoholic soldier who earned the name ‘Brownout Strangler’ for killing three Melbourne women during World War Two haunts Pentridge.

Female singing has been heard in D Division and the Brownout Strangler murdered women to capture their voices. We believe the voices are his spirit,” she says.

From abused to used

There are no reports of ghosts in the four stark concrete wheat silos that have stood tall where Launceston’s Tamar and North Esk Rivers meet since the 1960s.

The silos fell into decline at the turn of this century, with rubbish and graffiti accumulating around their base after the nearby paper mill shut and the wharves were no longer the vital hub they had once been for Tasmania’s second city.

Local developer Errol Stewart wanted to turn the silos into four and five star accommodation to encourage day trippers to spend the night in Lonnie - as the locals call it - rather than skip off back to Hobart.

ARTAS Architects Director Scott Curran says the feasibility numbers stacked up and converting the silos was more profitable than trying to build a brand new hotel on a riverside site.

The silos were reopened last year as a slick new hotel and restaurant, with windows carved into the curved raw concrete walls, which reveal the different coloured pours of concrete.

“People ride their bikes and walk their dogs around the silos now because there is a destination rather than an old abandoned industrial site,” says Curran.

Numbers game

Repurposing buildings and recycling existing materials make it a no-brainer to revive an old building, particularly if a developer can earn new revenue by leasing out office space, shops, restaurants, hotel rooms or permanent housing.

But the dollars and sense of adaptive reuse developments don’t always stack up – some disused sites get bogged down in lengthy approval processes and send developers broke, as happened at Pentridge after the 2007 Global Financial Crisis.

In some cities, it’s also prohibitively expensive to remediate a site - which involves removing old lead or other hazardous pollutants - and then build or restore buildings.

Sydney Harbour Trust CEO Mary Darwell - who has overseen the transformation of iconic harbourside heritage sites like Cockatoo Island – says it cost $46 million to remove pollutants on Sub Base Platypus, which was a submarine base and torpedo factory for the Navy and a an old gasworks.

The Trust is now hoping commercial tenants will lease two of the buildings on Sub Base Platypus to help generate more revenue to restore harbourside sites.

Darwell says it’s vital to attract crowds of people to shop, eat, work, picnic, visit or stay at these new sites, or they can’t be reborn to live a new future.

“They need to be active during the day and into the early evening, with programmed activities but also opportunities for people to find their own leisure in the space,” she says.

“Reputation change is actually people-driven – gentrification is driven by people who take ownership of a place and create an improved environment,” says Knight Frank’s Head of Occupier Services Dermot Lowry.

Sustainability counts

At the age of 33, commercial property investor Chris Lock has snaffled up four quirky old repurposed buildings to start his portfolio.

He owns an old rubber factory in Melbourne’s Footscray - which Lonely Planet once used an office - and transformed it into a ‘makerspace’ with prototyping tools, workshops and 3-D printers which creators and inventors can pay a monthly membership fee to access.

“I’d rather repurpose buildings from an environmental perspective – it makes more sense,” Lock says.

Lock also bought an old beer brewery in Sydney’s Central Park that architect Alec Tzannes had transformed into a tri-generation plant to power the apartments and shops nearby.

The brewery has just been redesigned again to create more commercial space for lease, allowing retailers and office tenants to work alongside the power plant, which Tzannes says will save an estimated 190,000 tonnes of carbon over 25 years.

Architect Alec Tzannes - himself a vegan - is committed to repurposing, recycling and creating lower carbon buildings which not only help mitigate climate change and but beautify cities to make them more liveable and economically sustainable.

“It’s amusing to think about the conversion of the building from making beer to making lower carbon emissions energy,” he says.

Hip to be reused

Repurposed buildings also satisfy demand from Australia’s new wave of global technology companies, who want office spaces as hip as their job titles.

“Buildings with real character are critical to Canva,” says the software company’s Head of Vibe, Chris Low, who makes sure Canva is “a productive and inspiring workplace” for its 315 Sydney-based staff and 150 overseas employees.

Canva – established in 2013 and valued at $US1 billion – operates out of an old gas meter factory in Sydney’s Surry Hills and has spilled into the heritage-listed Globite suitcase factory across the road.

Canva has bought an eight-storey warehouse, where it will soon move its rock climbing wall, microbrewery, indoor plants and dog-friendly work policies, while subletting surplus space to other Australian start ups keen to attract good staff.

The design touch

Architect Luigi Rosselli - a devotee of transforming old buildings - says industrial buildings from the manufacturing age have a magic that new buildings do not.

“People look with great nostalgic eyes to history because it enriches architecture - it tells a story. So we look at those old large spaces like a power station with great affection.”

Rosselli did some of the first designs to reincarnate Sydney’s old White Bay Power Station as a “high jobs precinct” technology hub, where Google Australia was hoping to take up residence until sensible people realised there was no good public transport into the area.

The state government now refuses to release the heritage-listed power station to developers until transport is improved. And that could take decades.

Rosselli is now working to transform the heritage listed R C Henderson Hat Factory - where ladies straw hats were once assembled, glued and left to dry in the loft space - into a new boutique hotel, complete with rooftop gardens and vertical green walls.

“A new building is like looking at a baby - they all look the same. When a person grows and then you get a bit of character, they are more interesting. It is the same with buildings. Character comes with time,” he says.


The lingo of re-using property

There’s a jargon to transforming old buildings into something new. Here’s a guide.


  • Adaptive re-use: Once a building’s function becomes redundant, adapting it to a new use provides for its future.

  • Brownfields: Polluted sites - often used industrially - need to be remediated and cleaned up to remove it of pollutants like lead, tar or dioxins.

  • Greenfields: a brand new site waiting to be built upon.

  • Heritage listing: may prescribe the rules and development controls to preserve historic elements of the buildings so future generations can understand its significance.

  • Placemaking: the process of creating a unique sense of place or the economic development of a place through different community assets like retail spaces, parklands, squares and residential.


Pentridge Coburg

THEN: Pentridge Prison was closed in 1997, as it was deemed too archaic to keep prisoners in. Shantaram author Gregory Robert Phillips escaped from Pentridge in 1980.

NOW: The Melbourne Ballet is based in one of the new commercial highrises on the 6ha site, which has new houses, townhouses and apartments lining the fringes, a childcare centre and plans for a new shopping, cinema and hotel facilities.


Central Park Brewery

THEN: The Chippendale brewery was originally opened in 1835 by Tooth & Co and was so large it was called a city within the city. The brewery used to back on to Blackwattle Swamp, which the locals called “eu-de-cologne valley” due to the stink from the unsewered homes and slaughterhouses nearby.

NOW: Developers Frasers Property and Sekisui House transformed the 5.8ha site into a green oasis of high rise apartments, new shops, restaurants and a public square, all powered by locally-generated electricity from the heritage brewery which makes gas-fired electricity.


Central Hotel

THEN: The heritage-listed R C Henderson Hat Factory made straw hats fat the site until it closed in the 1950s, promising that “What a Gage hat is to the American woman, or a Jay hat to the English, a Henderson hat is to the woman of Australia.”

NOW: Architect Luigi Rosselli has created designs for a new hotel, with the heritage building at the centre, which will reuse bricks from the demolished buildings on either side and create a unique glass-faced swimming pool on the corner.


Sub Base Platypus

THEN: It was the gasworks that once lit up Sydney’s north shore before it became a submarine base and torpedo factory during the second world war. The site was closed in the 1990s, when the submarines moved to Western Australian

NOW: The harbour foreshore park has been opened up with new walkways and commercial tenants are now sought for two buildings.


Silo Hotel

THEN: Launceston’s river foreshores were a hub of industry in the 1960s, when it was the site of the Gunn’s paper and sawmilling operations and the grain silos were built to store wheat until it was ready to be milled to bake fresh bread.

NOW: The Silo Hotel has 108 rooms to attract day tourists to stay the night in Tasmania’s second city. The old Gunns site is now home to a Bunnings hardware store.


White Bay Power Station

THEN: Built between 1912 and 1917, this coal-fired power station electrified Sydney’s trams and then public transport until it shut down in 1984.

NOW: The NSW State Government did propose creating a technology hub, but that’s on hold until other areas surrounding the power station are redeveloped and better transport links are created.



Cottagecore: bringing it back

Originally published in Handyman

When Lisa Cowan bought an old cottage once owned by Human Nature singer Toby Allen, she knew she had to renovate.

“It was in rough condition – there was still an outside toilet,” says the public relations consultant who spent 18 months designing and project managing the renovation.

Cowan purchased the cottage with her mother as an investment, which Cowan would live in and renovate before eventually selling and splitting the profits.

“We always knew that we would knock down the back of the house to create something new because that’s what was going to add the most value,” Cowan says.

“This renovation is about return on investment. So while it’s a home for me while I’m living here, it’s got to pay back when the real estate market improves and we turn it over.”

THE PLANNING STAGE

The two-bedroom timber cottage had open fireplaces, high ceilings and original hardwood joinery but the layout was typical of its time, with a lounge room toward the rear leading into a lean-to kitchen and bathroom with an outside toilet.

Cowan took the organisational and planning skills learnt in her day job with PEPR – a boutique PR agency – and ploughed them into researching, designing and organising the renovation process.

“When I moved in, we were going to get an architect to come up with a plan, but after living in it for a while it seemed so obvious what we had to do that I designed the extension myself,” she says.

“I have always had an interest in design and am a closet stylist. Mum’s a real estate agent so she knows what sells and what doesn’t.”

The pair retained the cottage’s heritage charms at the front but built a modern open plan extension at the back containing a sleek kitchen with plenty of storage and an airy lounge and dining that had bi-fold doors opening to the garden.

CALLING IN THE PROS

Cowan worked with builder Glenn Wright, the managing director of Hodgewright Constructions, to achieve her renovation, doing as much as she could herself.

“Glenn was just fantastic. I had regular meetings with him to discuss how we would go about various aspects of the job, we’d talk about the options and which would be the best to go with,” Cowan says.

Wright invoiced Cowan on a “do and charge” hourly rate for his time, while Cowan co-ordinated most of the trades and materials to free Glenn up to keep working for his bigger clients.

Cowan credits Wright with some of the best design ideas in the new living room, including the window behind the kitchen splashback.

“It’s such a fantastic way to let the light in without losing a wall entirely to windows,” Cowan says.

PLANS AND PLANNING

Cowan designed the extension on an Excel spreadsheet, using Wright’s technical expertise as she needed. She then paid a draughtsman to draw up the development plans that had to be lodged with council, which was cheaper than hiring an architect.

“I couldn’t believe the fees the council charged for the approval – it was more than $1000 and I had to pay $3000 as a bond in case I damaged the footpath,” Cowan says (she got the $3000 back).

“The council took four months to approve the plans, so while that was happening I started going to all the best kitchen design places to get ideas and ask about finishes.”

Cowan chose a high-end 2-pak polyurethane matt finish for the kitchen cabinetry, which wasn’t the cheapest option, but looked better than a laminated finish.

“When you’re building to a budget, there are plenty of things you can try to do cheaply but spending $20,000 on a kitchen that looks like a $40,000 kitchen seemed like a good plan to achieve maximum resale,” she says.

“I shopped around for the appliances and bought the best quality at rock bottom prices, so I figure what you spend in one area can be saved in another.”

FLOORING FLAWS

One of the trickiest aspects of building the extension was merging the old timber floor from the lounge room with the new extension.

Cowan knew she wanted timber floors throughout the house and would have liked to retain the hardwood floors from the old lounge room – but Wright warned her against it.

“Trying to match old timber to new timber is very difficult and expensive,” Cowan says.

“So we went with the cheapest option, which was laying a concrete slab for the extension and then putting a new hardwood floor over the old wooden floor and the slab.”

Wright says laying new timber over old timber is not something a renovator would do if there were any dampness problems, but it is an easy solution provided the old floor is prepared properly.

“You have to sand back the old timbers of any old coatings because you glue-fix the new timber over the top before nailing them,” he says.

Wright ensured the old timber floors were level – “but if they aren’t, you just adjust them with wedges” – and proceeded to lay the new timber in the opposite direction over the old timber.

“We laid the new boards a crossways direction over the old boards, which gives extra stability to the floor,” Cowan says.

“It also makes a narrow room look wider and happened to match the direction the floorboards from the hallway went in.”

The new timber boards acclimatised in the house for a few weeks to adjust to moisture levels before being attached to the slab and old floor.

Wright selected seasoned and kiln-dried hardwood battens to lay over the slab to nail the new floorboards into.

FINISHING WITH AN ANTIQUE FINISH

With a plethora of timber flooring finishes to choose from, Cowan initially planned a clear oil or polyurethane finish for her 130mm wide blackbutt boards.

“But then I saw this beautiful antique finish that I really wanted. I just love the buffed look and I found a place that could do it for me,” she says.

The finish involved staining, oiling and hand-buffing the floor to give a well-lived in effect that matched the heritage charm of the cottage.

Wright points out that the finish looked fantastic, but could have been achieved on cheaper timber floorboards than those that Cowan had purchased.

“Lisa chose a Select grade of blackbutt which was handpicked for clarity and smoothness of the grain,” Wright says.

“She could have gone with a Natural or Australiana grade of blackbutt which would have had more knots and been rougher but might have saved her $400 or $500 on the timber.”

Cowan says the extra expense for the finish on the floor was worth it.

“There are certain things you pay more for and they really make the place look special,” she says.

“Renovating this place has been great for showing me how capable I am of project managing and designing but, believe me, living in it while doing it has meant a few tears have been shed.

“I’d get home from work and I lived in a bedroom for four weeks eating dinner from a microwave and sleeping surrounded by dust.”

With only the landscaping to be completed, Cowan says the renovation pain has been well worth it – and hopes it will be worth even more when the house is sold for a capital gain.

WORKING WITH BUILDERS

There are many different ways to engage a builder to work on your renovation projects.

DO AND CHARGE: Many builders charge a fixed hourly rate for their time (and that of their crew) and may encourage renovators to use this system as it keeps them free to take on other jobs and manage their time well.

“I think younger builders like do and charge because they don’t have enough skills quoting accurately,” says Glenn Wright.

“You should only agree to ‘do and charge’ if you trust the builder to work well with you and not go way over budget.”

FIXED CONTRACT: Most works over a certain dollar value require a written contract, usually with details of progress payments. Be careful not to weight too many payments in the early stages of the contract, as you want to encourage the builder to finish your job on time. Wright also recommends including penalty clauses if a builder goes over time.

“The thing to beware of is variations,” Wright says. “When owners start changing their mind after signing the contract, it costs more money.”

Wright says he has done rebuilds where owners change colour schemes, fittings or room plans and the variations cost an extra $80,000.

QUOTES: Smaller jobs can be done on the basis of a written quote estimating materials and labour. Specify small jobs as carefully as you would specify large jobs to stay on budget and get what you want. There are plenty of complaints from within the building industry that some builders deliberately quote low to secure a job and will try to extract extra money from the client with variations. It’s important to understand exactly what is involved in each quote and whether it is likely to run over.

STAGING STRUCTURAL WORK

Structural work like additions and extensions is best broken down into several stages:

Design stage

Deciding what type of renovation and living space you want takes careful planning. Architects can be an invaluable help, and it can be cost-effective to pay an architect for half a day’s work to come up with some rough concept designs for your property.

Council approval

Lodging building plans with council can be expensive, with some local councils charging more than $1000 just in fees. There could be additional costs such as surveys, environmental impact statements, shadow diagrams

Gathering quotes

Some renovators decide to pay an architect to project manage the entire renovation, others engage a builder on either a fixed contract or an hourly “do and charge” basis. Research your options to decide which will work best for you lifestyle.

Project management

If you hire a professional to project manage, you will still need to be on site regularly to check their work. If not, work out how often you can be on site to check work and which trades are called in at what time.

Gardening: Salad days

Originally published in G magazine

Mix your own seeds, soil and water and watch salad greens spring from even the tiniest of outdoor spaces.

Growing salad greens and vegetables in containers is the easiest way to produce your own food – and avoid supermarket queues. Imagine, instead of buying plastic-wrapped transported lettuce from the supermarket, having an abundant supply of fresh, organic salad leaves right at your back door.

There’s no need to wait until you have a large garden before you try growing your own ingredients. Salad vegetables are easily cultivated in tubs of rich, composted soil with plenty of water-saving crystals.

Growing edible greens on a balcony or window sill is a cinch in climates that aren’t too hot or humid. Most lettuce varieties grow well in rich soils that aren’t acidic, with red leaf varieties tolerating the heat better than iceberg, which tends to wilt in harsh sun. Salad greens need around six hours of not-too-strong sun each day to grow well.

Snails and slugs love munching on baby lettuces, so it’s worth laying beer traps in among the salad greens if you want to grow them to adulthood. You can also go out at night and play ‘stomp on snails’ if you like your pest control to be brutal.

Cultivating lettuce from seed isn’t as hard as most non-gardening types imagine. A devoted gardener would grow the seeds in a greenhouse or seedling box and then plant them out in neatly spaced rows, 10 cm apart. But simply sprinkling a pot of rich soil with lettuce seeds, covering the pot with plastic wrap and watering well until germination should also work.

You can harvest lettuce leaf-by-leaf as you need it, or chop it from the base to consume the entire head at once. Fast-growing varieties like rocket should be picked often to encourage new, young growth. The leaves are best picked young, when they are tender.

SALAD VARIETIES TO TRY PLANTING FROM SEED

Rocket, romaine or cos, iceberg, oakleaf, butterhead, mignonette, chicory, endive, English spinach, mesclun mix.

TOP TIP FOR GROWING YOUR OWN GREENS:

Container gardening lowers food miles and prevents transport emissions from entering the atmosphere.



The Know & Tell column

Originally published weekly in Sydney Morning Herald's Essential liftout

Q: NO WAY AM I USING THOSE ECO CLEANING PRODUCTS! CLEANING IS HARD ENOUGH WITHOUT MAKING IT TAKE MORE TIME THAN NECESSARY.

Good point. Cleaning sucks. But using cleaning products that are labelled as green or eco means you are introducing fewer chemicals into the home. A new book from Canadian researchers, titled Slow Chemical Death by Rubber Duck, reveals that everything in our house, from mattresses to frying pans, shampoo bottles and dozens of other objects, contains synthetic chemicals that build up in the human body, slowly crippling our health. Do you really want to add to the indoor chemical cocktail by squirting chemical cleaners around the house? Triclosan, which is found in products such as cleaners, wet wipes, hand wash, shower curtains and even toothpaste, has been linked to a weakening of the immune system. The founder of Fresh Green Clean, Bridget Gardner, has been involved with university research that discovered cleaning with warm soapy water can disinfect as effectively as stronger cleaners such as bleach or harsh chemicals. Plenty of people think that green cleaners aren’t as effective as chemicals but products made by market leaders such as Ecostore, method, Seventh Generation and Ecover are worth trying if you want to give your housekeeping a green makeover.

Q: HOW CAN YOU CLEAN A BATHROOM EFFECTIVELY WITHOUT USING BLEACH? ALL THOSE MOULD GERMS NEED TO BE KILLED BY HOSPITAL-GRADE DISINFECTANT, RIGHT?

Chlorine bleach is a great disinfectant but household bleach can also contain lye, which means skin contact produces caustic burns – that slippery feel of bleach on your hands is the chemical de-fatting your skin. There are better alternatives to clean the bathroom easily and effectively. Hydrogen peroxide is a cleaner that will whiten clothes and kill mould with slightly less impact on humans. White vinegar – especially if you clean with a smidge of bicarb soda first – will also kill mould by making the walls and surfaces too acidic for grime to grow and multiply. So does Bridget Gardner’s soapy-water cleaning method – scrubbing or washing with a brush or microfibre cloth then wiping the newly cleaned surface dry with an old towel to prevent moisture allowing mould to regrow.

Q: I HAVE A BABY WHO HAS JUST STARTED CRAWLING. HIS CLOTHES ARE SO DIRTY AT THE END OF THE DAY THAT I HAVE REALISED I NEED TO IMPROVE MY CLEANING BUT DON’T WANT TO USE HARSH PRODUCTS.

American writer Deirdre Imus, who founded the Environmental Centre for Pediatric Oncology and wrote Greening Your Cleaning, says the floor is often the most dangerous place in a house for babies and pets. Imus insists that the gases given off by cleaning products and our furniture, paint or curtains often hover down at floor level, ready for the most vulnerable household members to breathe in. Ick. Carpets should be vacuumed at least once a week and ideally with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter vacuum cleaner that won’t recirculate the dust and dirt. Hard floors such as timber, tiles or vinyl are easier to keep clean by sweeping daily and then mopping once or twice a week. One of the best ways to keep floors clean is to make like the Chinese and insist shoes stay off inside the house – that way dirt stays on the shoes instead of being tracked in to your floors.

Q: SOUNDS STUPID BUT HOW DO I HANG A FRAMED PICTURE ON A WALL WITHOUT IT LOOKING LIKE SOME CACK-HANDED TEENAGER HAS SLAPPED UP A POSTER?

Hanging prints and paintings is not an easy DIY task. There are two issues to tackle: the first is aesthetics – where is the best place to hang it? The second is functional – how will you fasten it? The nuts and bolts (and hooks) of hanging pictures will be dictated by the type of wall to which the art will be attached. Is it a gyprock or plasterboard wall, or is it a solid plaster or brick wall? Both are easy enough to hang items on but require different fasteners. The easiest way to hang a light picture (weighing less than two kilograms) is to grab those 3M removable hooks, which are available at hardware stores and even some supermarkets. I really like the Velcro strips and they are perfect for small prints or block-mounted photos. You can also buy Velcro mounting tape from places like Spotlight or art supply shops for a similar effect, but – be warned – don’t hang anything heavy with Velcro and expect it to stay in place. Most glass-framed prints or paintings will require a more secure hanging system. Gyprock or stud walls require a toggle of some kind to make sure the picture hook doesn’t pull straight out of the wall. If you don’t use a toggle, then make sure you have a stud finder and bang a nail or screw straight into the stud supporting the wall. A masonry wall requires a hammer drill and a wall plug for secure hanging. There is a range of expandable wall plugs you can buy at the hardware store for secure picture hanging, as well as myriad hooks and other systems. The best system will depend on how heavy the artwork is, the tools you already have and whether you feel comfortable permanently butchering your walls if you make a mistake or want to move the picture later on. Smaller picture hooks can leave dainty little holes that are easy to paint over if they need removing, but may not have the strength to hold a large artwork.

Q: I HAVE A GREAT PHOTO OF MY FAMILY I WANT TO HANG IN MY HOUSE – BUT HOW DO YOU FIND THE RIGHT PLACE?

Searching for the right blank wall to hang a picture can be harder than trying to take a great photo in the first place – it’s all about finding the best angle for the dangle. Taking time to plan where you will hang a piece means thinking about everything from the furniture, function and lighting of the room. Will the picture create the right mood for the room? Will it need a spotlight to be seen if you plan on hanging it in a dim hallway, or will the picture fade if the sun hits it for most of the day? Most people hang their pictures too high – a good height is often when your eye level is about a quarter of the way down the image. Will you be looking at the picture from a seated position or a standing position? If you want to hit the right balance then you need to think about how the art will affect the design of the room.

Q: I LIVE IN A WAREHOUSE APARTMENT AND THE LAST OWNER LEFT SO MANY PICTURE HOOKS IN THE WALLS MY HOME LOOKS LIKE A PINCUSHION. HOW DO YOU REMOVE THEM?

You will need pliers and good judgment, as well as a pot of putty, a spatula and a desire to repaint the wall. You need to work out whether the picture hooks have been inserted with toggles or not, as toggled fastenings are not so easy to remove. You can snip the hook that protrudes from the wall but the toggle that remains behind the gyprock will simply fall down inside the wall, to rust away forever. If you can live with the hook or find something to hang on it, then you have found a simpler solution than trying to remove the hook. Most walls that have been pricked with arty holes can be filled with the appropriate putty for the surface. Then lightly sand the wall and give it a fresh coat of paint. Yes, it’s a big job to remove a small hole.

Q: HOW CAN I HANG MULTIPLE PICTURES ON A WALL AND MAKE IT LOOK GOOD?

The first task is to design your arrangement of pictures on the floor. Decide which picture will be the first to hang, or become the “anchor” of the arrangement. Next, you need to measure the length of the wall, divide it by two to find the centre and then mark it with a pencil. Now, measure again and CHECK that you’ve done it right. Do you want the picture that anchors your arrangement to hang dead in the centre of the wall or off to one side? How far off? Use that centre mark to calculate the best place. Nail the anchor picture on the mark and place your first picture on the wall. Choose the spacing between your pictures – a tight arrangement always looks best (no more than 15 centimetres between pics) and then measure the correct distances for your next hanging points. Measure the distance from the hanging bracket on the back of the frame to the top of the frame. Add that distance to the spacing that you chose. For example, if the distance from the bracket to the top of the frame is three centimetres and the distance you chose for spacing is 10 centimetres, make your mark 13 centimetres below (or next to, or above) your anchor picture. Keep the second picture centred on the wall. Measure the wall again. Divide the measurement by two to find the centre and make a mark for your spacing intersect. It’s complex but you need to be meticulous. Hang each picture and step away from the wall to judge whether the arrangement looks as good once it is hanging as it did on the floor. Alternatively, there are some great track systems from which to hang multiple artworks. There are also services that will come to your home and hang pictures for you.

Q: MY HOUSE IS SO OLD THAT IT HAS MORE CRACKS THAN A POLITICIAN’S PRESS RELEASE – SHOULD I REPAIR THEM OR WILL IT COST SO MUCH THAT I WILL FAINT?

You’d crack up too if you were a brick house built on Sydney’s clay soils, which expand and contract with our rainfall faster than your local MP can say: “Photograph me with this baby.” Archicentre compiled a list of Sydney’s worst suburbs for cracking in 2008 and included some of our most expensive areas, usually where Federation-era houses abound, such as Roseville and inner-west Croydon. Most cracks are cosmetic but the danger sign is when you can fit a dinner plate through one. Building engineers are divided over whether expensive work such as underpinning foundations should be undertaken when cracking is severe – it’s an expensive and invasive renovation that can cost thousands. Archicentre recommends wetting the ground around the foundations of the house to restore moisture levels and stop the soils shifting about and causing more cracks. Other crack-makers are trees planted too close to the house. Fixing cracks with flexible silicone filler and painting over them should always be your first solution – much cheaper than calling in an engineer.

Q: MY DRAINS SMELL WORSE THAN A BABY’S NAPPY – DO I NEED TO CALL A PLUMBER?

Bad-smelling drains are a sign things are not good. Just like clogged arteries lead to heart attacks, stinky drains are blocking something more sinister and sending the smell back up to let you know. It could be tree roots, it could be broken clay pipes, it could even be a blockage further down the line causing the stink – and don’t be misled into thinking it’s only sewer pipes that stink. Black water – or the fat-laden water we throw down the kitchen sink – will often cause more stench than sewage. You can try traditional DIY drain-cleaning methods such as a plunger or drain-clearing products but if the smell persists, call a plumber who has an “eel”. It will cost a couple of hundred bucks for the call-out and then you can work out whether you are up for a bigger bill to replace your pipes or can find a cheaper, stop-gap measure such as water-blasting the pipes to clear them.

Q: HOW MUCH DOES IT COST TO GET A NEW CEILING? I HAVE THOSE BAD SPRAY-ON CEILINGS THEY DID IN THE 1970S AND THINK A NEW PLASTER CEILING IS IN ORDER.

False ceilings aren’t as cheap as we would like them to be. According to ServiceSeeking.com.au, the average ceiling and wall-cladding job costs about $53 an hour for labour, plus materials. Those old spray-on ceilings – which are made of vermiculite and were considered to aid with noise reduction and fireproofing between apartments – commonly turn grey or yellow with dust and age and start to make an apartment look particularly cramped if they become too dark. A new plaster ceiling gives a smooth finish that can be painted white but you will also need to pay an electrician to cap off the light fittings and work out whether you will paint the ceilings yourself or call in a painter. And beware the ceiling installers who get happy whacking long bolts into the ceiling – it can be easy to drill through a water pipe or fire sprinkler system pipe if you don’t know the layout of the plumbing through the slab. It always helps to obtain strata approval for the job and request the plans through the managing agent to avoid any floods.

Q: THE CARPETS IN MY APARTMENT ARE THAT RENTAL SHADE OF GREY, DAPPLED WITH STAINS. WHAT CAN I DO?

If flooring didn’t dominate the appearance of a room, living with ugly stuff beneath your feet would be so much easier. The simplest solution is a rug, one that will cover as much of the room as possible. Designer Rugs owner Yosi Tal says a quality rug should be made of wool, a fibre that resists stains and wear. There are plenty of cheap acrylic rugs. These are available everywhere, from the two-dollar shop through to high-end furniture retailers. Some cost as little as $200 and are perfect for renters who want a short-term cover-up. You can also beg the landlord to try dyeing the carpets a different colour to blot out the stains. Revive Carpet Dyeing says it costs about 20 to 25 per cent of the price of replacement and the dye will clean the carpet. Wool, silk and nylon carpets can be dyed but some synthetics refuse to absorb colour.

Q: I HAVE A RUG THAT STARTS THE WEEK AT ONE END OF THE LOUNGE ROOM BUT MOVES TO THE OTHER END BY SATURDAY. HOW CAN I KEEP IT STILL?

Ah, you have a case of rug creep. In 99 per cent of cases, buying a non-slip underlay should keep your rug anchored to the floor and prevent buckling. It also helps to place heavy furniture on top of the rug, such as a couch or a coffee table that requires the help of Hulk Hogan to lift. Rug creep usually happens when a rug is placed on top of carpet and those tufts of carpet beneath the rug are pushing the rug in the direction of its pile. A quality rug should not creep if it is on timber floors although rugs on tile floors can get slippy. Again, an underlay is the solution and most rug shops will sell something to solve the problem.

Q: I’VE JUST MOVED INTO A HOUSE WHERE THE CARPETS ABSOLUTELY STINK. WHAT CAN I DO?

Stinky carpets are a no-no. If a good vacuum doesn’t lift odours, it might be time to try some drastic action. Sprinkling bicarb soda over the carpet and leaving it for half a day before vacuuming should be a good odour remover but you will have white powder floating around. Carpet experts suggest avoiding any spot removers or shampoos that don’t rinse out, as these can ruin the fibres or attract more dirt to the area. The best thing to do is use your nose to find the super-smelly bits and try washing with cold water and then standing on a folded towel to reabsorb the water. Otherwise, try cleaning with methylated spirits or a white spirit but test an inconspicuous area first. Carpets can be steam cleaned but a quality wool carpet may lose some of its natural stain resistance. One of the best odour removers is sunlight. If you can let the sun stream into your rooms and air the carpets, that may help. Rugs can be taken outside, turned face down on a blanket or sheet and left in the sun. But sunlight will bleach and fade colours, so be careful.

Q: I JUST BOUGHT A NEW RUG BUT MY PUPPY HAS CHEWED A HOLE IN ONE CORNER. WHAT CAN I DO?

There are plenty of invisible mending services for carpets and rugs but the quality can vary and it’s good to check some pictures of your service provider’s handiwork before committing to one. Just Google rug or carpet repairs and ask for a quote. The prices can be as much as $500 a repair, which is fine if that is cheaper than replacing the rug or carpet but a bit of a waste if it’s only a $500 rug. If the puppy keeps chewing the area, sprinkle some cayenne pepper on the rug. Better still, remove the rugs until the puppy has grown out of the destructive phase. Yosi Tal says there are only two stains you can never get out of carpets wee and cordial.

Q: I HAVE ONE OF THOSE SILLY LITTLE HIDEAWAY LAUNDRIES IN A HALLWAY – IT WOULD BE FINE FOR A SINGLE PERSON, BUT WE HAVE FOUR PEOPLE IN THIS HOUSE. WHAT CAN I DO?

The laundry is an underrated room. In recent years, someone deemed them a waste of space and architects and builders happily squished them behind folding doors in the hope we wouldn’t notice that we’d lost a laundry room while gaining a large, open-plan living area. Laundries however have an important function. They are not just a space to store a washing machine and perhaps a clothes dryer, but they are also a stash room – a place to store brooms, boots, cleaning products and the assorted gumph that goes with living in a house that needs to be cleaned. To make the most of a small space, it might be worth investing in a washer-dryer – one of those marvellous inventions that requires just one machine to do both tasks and is easy on energy. Be warned, though, most washer-dryers will not dry the same size load that you can wash, so you still need to find a place to hang smalls.

Q: I LIVE IN AN APARTMENT WITH A SHARE LAUNDRY THAT’S SO DARK AND HORRIBLE ONLY SPIDERS HANG OUT IN IT – HOW CAN I CONVINCE THE BODY CORPORATE TO UPGRADE IT?

Laundries are oddly spooky places, especially if the spiders take up residence. Every apartment building will have its own bylaws governing the common property of a shared laundry – some buildings are extremely well-run, with private washing machine spaces for each apartment, while others have a horrid coin-operated communal machine that instantly screams “dirty grundies – wash here”. Improving lighting, installing energy and water-efficient washing machines and investing in a gas-powered communal clothes drier (if natural gas is available) can lower the ongoing energy bills that all apartment owners pay as part of their strata levies. A well-planned and inviting laundry that stops owners hanging their underwear out on balconies can also make a building more appealing and valuable. It’s all about common sense and doing a cost versus benefits analysis. Fresh paint and lighting would probably immediately make a shared apartment laundry more appealing for relatively little cost – you may even be able to get other apartment owners to join you in a DIY day to reduce the costs.

Q: WHY CAN’T CHILDREN (AND HUSBANDS) EVER MANAGE TO PUT CLOTHES IN THE DIRTY CLOTHES BASKET? IS THERE ANYTHING THAT CAN SOLVE THIS PROBLEM?

There’s nothing like a room littered with dirty laundry to make you wonder why you ever bothered buying a hamper or bag for dirty clothes that stands empty. The dirty clothes basket is avoided for two reasons: one, it is rarely stored at the point of first use; and two, it usually requires two motions – open the lid and put the clothes in. The more motions it takes to use something, the less likely we are to execute and enforce using it. Remedy this by thinking like a frightening army drill sergeant. Store items as close as possible to where they are used – so if your kids take off their clothes in the bathroom each night, put the basket in there. If they strip off in the bedroom, put it there. And try to use an open-topped clothes hamper without a lid – it might not look as nice but let the kids throw their clothes in and get a goal every time.

Q: MY HOUSE IS STILL COATED IN A FINE DUSTING OF CENTRAL AUSTRALIA’S BEST SOIL AFTER THE DUST STORM. HOW CAN I GET RID OF IT ONCE AND FOR ALL?

That dust storm has a lot to answer for. The problem with inexperienced housekeepers is they tend to swish the dust around the house so it can recirculate, rather than clean it away. To get rid of all that dust, make sure you open your windows for a good few hours to air out the house the day before. Then close all windows and doors, ideally blocking out drafts and airflow as best you can for about half a day. Allow dust to settle before tackling each and every surface in the house you can go over everything with a static or feather duster (ostrich feathers come highly recommended for their dust-attracting capabilities) and then wipe surfaces with a microfibre cloth, which will actually suck up all the dust. Fold the cloth in four and keep changing the surface as you move about the room so the cloth remains clean. Keep changing the cloth as more dust is collected (throw it in the laundry or seal it in a bag so the dust can’t escape). You need to start at the ceiling and work your way down the room to the skirtings and floors. Once you’ve done the dust, whip out the vacuum cleaner, put a clean bag in it and go for your life. Use the brush attachment to go over curtains, lampshades and furniture and make sure you empty the vacuum bag as it fills up (ideally into a sealed plastic bag to stop that dust gathering momentum and coming back to haunt you).

Q: CLEANING MY HOUSE DEPRESSES ME. HOW CAN I AVOID IT?

Hiring a cleaner is the only way. But beware the trap of cleaning up for the cleaner a complete waste of time and money. If you’re ashamed of your household grime, it’s likely you will spend just as much time cleaning your house for the cleaner as you did before you were forking out money for someone to do your dirty work. ServiceSeeking.com.au, a services website where you can ask local cleaners to quote on your job, says cleaners start at $15 an hour but larger agencies such as Dial-An-Angel charge more for professionally screened cleaners. Dial-An-Angel still has a waiting list for people wanting spring cleans after the dust storm a team of two cleaners will cost $336 for a four-hour spring clean plus an extra $66 an hour. For regular domestic cleaning on a weekly, fortnightly or monthly basis, it’s $118.50 for the minimum three-hour booking and $27.50 an hour for extras. Most cleaners run their own business and rates will vary according to whether they bring cleaning equipment and cleaning products and how much time it will take to clean your house. And apparently, Friday is the hardest day to get a cleaner booking as everyone wants to clean up before the weekend.

Q: WHAT IS THE QUICKEST WAY TO CLEAN UP THE WHOLE HOUSE?

Shut your eyes. Imagine the house is clean. Don’t open your eyes again until someone has cleaned up for you.

Q: NO, SERIOUSLY, I DON’T WANT TO SPEND FIVE HOURS ON A WEEKEND CLEANING. HOW CAN I MAKE IT MORE TIME EFFICIENT?

The art of effective house cleaning is all about routines, good tools and simple techniques. Gabrielle Simpson, the founder of Clean Queens, a domestic, commercial and forensic cleaning service, says a two-bedroom unit that’s cleaned weekly should take no more than two hours. A family home with three bedrooms and two bathrooms should take no more than three hours. “Bathrooms take the longest to clean, followed by the kitchen,” she says, explaining people who have dogs, cats or kids will have to spend longer cleaning. “Pet hair and greasy fingerprints slow you down. And teenagers who leave clothes and underwear all over their bedroom are the worst.” Clean Queens relies on simple cleaning tools 99-cent scourers to clean oven racks and sinks, static dusters rather than feather dusters, cotton tea towels to polish surfaces and the all-important scourer with a plastic handle to clean the bathroom. Her speedy technique is due to her “dry first, water last” method, which means tidying and dusting, then vacuuming and then finally spraying all surfaces and mopping floors. “The last thing you do is add water, mop the floors and scoot out the door,” she says.

Q: I CAN’T STAND THE SMELL OF BLEACH AND ALL THOSE CLEANING PRODUCTS BUT HOW ELSE DO YOU GET A BATHROOM CLEAN?

Fresh air and sunshine are actually natural cleaners. The more fresh air you can get into a bathroom, the easier it will be to clean. It’s even better if sunlight can enter the room as the UV from the sun is a great germ killer and deodoriser. Ecospecifier founder David Baggs recommends white vinegar as one of the best disinfectants and mould killers for the bathroom and it won’t harm your lungs. Sure, you’ll smell like a salad for a while but Baggs says the acidity of vinegar actually makes it impossible for mould to grow. Wiping bathroom surfaces with a small amount of bicarb soda (small you don’t want a white dust storm) and then wiping over with white vinegar should be enough to clean up even scungy showers. If you really don’t trust the natural approach, there’s a great range of environmentally friendly and low-allergy cleaners on the market, with brands such as Earth Choice, Seventh Generation and Ecover all making bathroom cleaning products that shouldn’t have any toxic smells.

Q: I BOUGHT MY FIRST HOUSE AND THE URGE TO COLLECT TOOLS AND SPEND WEEKENDS FIXING THE HOUSE HAS KICKED IN WHAT DO I NEED TO KNOW?

Tools are like black shoes you probably already own as many as you need. It’s best to buy tools as you require them. Roaming the aisles of the mega hardware stores can seem daunting. Grabbing a nice salesperson by the throat and never letting them go until they have answered your questions is a good way to gain knowledge about which tools offer the best quality for the price. Sandra Dobbin, the managing director of DIY Woman, which makes tools especially for females, says women need tools with handles that are comfortable to use. Most tools are designed for hunky males, so tools with smaller handles and comfortable grips are often better for women. And just like shoes, price is an indicator of quality. Cheap paintbrushes that leave bristles in your freshly painted surface are actually an expensive and time-wasting choice. Buy the best quality you can afford.

Q:WHICH TOOLS ARE VITAL AND WHICH AREN’T?

Most of us need some basic hand tools to hang pictures, assemble the Ikea furniture or put together a child’s bicycle on Christmas Eve. A German newspaper report found that 70 per cent of females put together the maze that is Ikea flat-pack furniture, so a set of Allen keys, a good Phillips-head screwdriver and a comfortable hammer are a good start. Hammers are a tricky purchase, because the best ones feel heavy and uncomfortable when you try them in the store but often give the greatest power when you need to use it on a job. A pair of slip-joint pliers is also handy to help you get a grip on bits and pieces like pipes and nuts. Dobbin also suggests investing in a sharp pair of scissors that are kept for special use rather than thrown in the top drawer.

Q:WHAT ABOUT POWER TOOLS?

There is something scary about a loud, throbbing thing that makes holes in walls. But once you get the hang of it, drilling is strangely thrilling. A cordless drill is a tool that even the laziest DIYer would pick up once a year or so it is a valuable aid to assembling furniture, putting up shelves and hanging pictures. They are super cheap now that China has started manufacturing them but the more expensive brands have better battery life and grunt. You’ll probably need to collect a few drill bits, too. Again, price is the indicator of quality.

Q:I GREW UP IN AN ALL-FEMALE HOUSEHOLD WHERE TOOLS WHERE KEPT IN A PINK TUPPERWARE CONTAINER. IS THIS NORMAL?

Who said tools have to reek of testosterone and hang on a pegboard in a garage? Tools can be kept anywhere the third drawer down in the kitchen, an ice-cream container or even in the top of the wardrobe. Naturally it makes sense to store tools in a manner where one can access them as needs dictate. Not everyone has a requirement to store masses of tools and simple containers can work best for those with small collections. Kmart sells a good range of plastic storage crates that stack on top of each other or have slide-out drawers. Those who really want to create a storage palace for their tools should head to Supercheap Auto, where large lockable metal toolboxes on castors can be picked up for less than $200.

Q: I HAVE DUCTED NATURAL GAS UNDERFLOOR HEATING BUT IT TURNS ITSELF OFF FOR NO APPARENT REASON, LEAVING US FREEZING IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT.

Be grateful, that toasty underfloor ducted heating is probably turning itself off so it doesn’t gas you in your sleep. Modern gas heaters automatically cut out on detection of any hint of a fault, so while the shutdown mechanism does make for a cold night, it could well be saving your family from going the way of poet Sylvia Plath. Best get a gas plumber or heating expert out to have a look. Natural gas, which is normally odourless, has a distinct smell added to it so leaks can be detected. It is one of the best forms of energy for heating; it is cheaper and more effective in large spaces and has about one-third the greenhouse emissions of coal-fired electricity. Natural gas, especially when used for heating without a flue, can, however, create higher levels of indoor air pollution than electric heating.

Q: I TRIED LIGHTING AN OPEN FIRE IN MY TERRACE’S FIREPLACE BUT THE GRATE WAS SO TINY, THERE WAS NO ROOM FOR FIREWOOD. HOW ON EARTH DID THOSE ORIGINAL TERRACE DWELLERS EVER USE THE THING?

Coal was usually the heating fuel of choice in Sydney’s worker houses and the tell-tale sign is those tiny cast-iron fireplace grates that have the same space as a peanut bowl to burn fuel. It’s likely your terrace had a coal fireplace rather than a wood-burner. Be happy, burning coal in your lounge room creates house dust worse than Sydney’s traffic pollution and would leave more than a smudge on your white CaesarStone benchtops (which was why Victorian houses tended to be painted in those dark colours). It’s no use trying to use your coal fireplace to burn firewood, even if your chimney is in good enough condition to draw the smoke. Open fires are much more about atmosphere than heat, with experts estimating that 80 per cent to 90 per cent of the heat from an open fireplace goes straight up the chimney. If you like the look of a natural flame, you can retrofit a fireplace that burns either natural gas or methylated spirits. Check out realflame.com.au for pictures of modern fireplaces. Not bad. And so much cleaner than coal.

Q: MY HUSBAND OBJECTS TO ME USING THE WOOD-COMBUSTION HEATER IN OUR RUMPUS ROOM, CLAIMING I WILL POLLUTE THE NEIGHBOURHOOD. SURELY BURNING TIMBER IS A BETTER WAY THAN USING GREENHOUSE-POLLUTING ELECTRICITY?

The carbon stored in timber and that used to get electricity into our homes both create greenhouse gases when burnt. But your hubby might be right – wood smoke creates large-particle pollution, which can be a real problem in urban areas. Launceston used to have the highest levels of particle pollution in Australia thanks to the city’s reliance on wood-burning fires to stay snug in winter. A federal government initiative to give residents rebates to use less-polluting forms of heating resulted in a 30 per cent decrease in the use of residential fireplaces and an even more significant reduction in air pollution. Environmental experts such as Ecospecifier’s David Baggs say wood-combustion heaters are perfect for rural and semi-rural areas, where pollution is not such a problem and there is an abundant supply of timber and fallen trees to gather a sustainable source of firewood. In urban areas, however, heating by burning wood isn’t always the best solution to improving the environment.

Q: WHAT SHOULD YOU DO WHEN TRADESPEOPLE STOMP MUDDY FOOTPRINTS STOMPED THROUGH THE HOUSE?

Naughty, naughty. A nice tradesperson would clean up after themselves. And say “please”, “thank you” and “what a nice home you have”. Unfortunately, not all tradies are as well bred as we home-loving types expect. The correct thing to do is ask the installers to clean up their mess before they leave rather than let them escape to take their muddy boots elsewhere. Most tradies carry some basic cleaning tools or will obligingly ask to borrow yours to leave a job spotless. But be nice to those insulation installers. There’s going to be a rush on, given the Government is handing out $1600 freebies, and they probably have to hire a heap of fresh, muddy newbies who are willing to wear those silly overalls and climb into ceiling cavities.

Q:I WAS CHARGED $380 BY A PLUMBER JUST TO FIX MY GARDEN TAP! I THINK THAT’S OUTRAGEOUS.

Tradespeople are a delicate breed and should be handled with the utmost care, especially if you don’t wish to undertake a four-year apprenticeship or invest thousands of dollars in tools to do the job yourself. It might seem as though $180 is a large sum to pay for such a paltry job but did you have the tools and training to complete it? Even if it only took five minutes, the tradesperson had to drive to your house, speak to you (probably on a mobile phone) and try to make a living being self-employed. Yes, there are dodgy rip-off merchants but those who hold a licence which all plumbers, electricians and air-conditioning and refrigeration tradies must have and other tradies may apply for are usually pretty good. You can check their licence first at www.fairtrading.nsw.gov.au or on 133 220.

Q:I CANNOT FIND A BUILDER TO GIVE ME A DECENT QUOTE SO WE CAN GET STARTED CONSTRUCTING THE ADDITIONS TO OUR HOUSE. HELP!

NSW builders seem to be a rare and dying breed. In fact, many may not even build houses any more but spend their days co-ordinating building projects and tradespeople and running around handing out their quotes while putting ice packs to people’s foreheads. You see, building and renovating are expensive. NSW builders also have to pay heinously expensive home warranty insurance as part of a scam, err scheme, that supposedly protects renovators from builders who “disappear” from a job. Not only does the insurance add to building costs, it rarely helps consumers. You just have to be patient and keep asking builders to quote the best ones will have a waiting list.

Q: WHERE CAN I FIND ONE OF THESE ELUSIVE SPECIES KNOWN AS TRADESPEOPLE? I CALL BUT NONE OF THEM TURN UP TO QUOTE.

In the old days, you simply looked in your local paper and found the plumber or sparky who worked in your suburb. While the internet might have changed a few things, word-of-mouth from experienced renovators is still the best way to find a quality tradesperson. Ideally, though, you need a tradie who works regularly in your locality. The founder of homedesignplus.com.au, Chris Herrmann, also suggests contacting your local real estate agent to find out which tradies they recommend. Most local agents commission building and renovation work for the properties on their rental books and have a good idea of who is reliable and who isn’t.

Q: I’M GOING TO TRY PLANTING A FEW HERBS BUT WHICH ONES ARE THE EASIEST TO GROW?

Most of the Italian and French herbs are a cinch to grow – mainly because the best culinary herbs were weeds that would grow in all conditions. The Green Room’s Jock Gammon says thyme is indestructible and can actually be planted as a groundcover. Parsley – both flat leaf and curly – will grow in pots but don’t let the pots dry out or they can be difficult to return to good growing conditions. Chives and mint are a cinch in most areas of Sydney, too. Most herbs need plenty of sun and well-drained soil. They also need regular watering, although not excessive amounts. Basil grows best in sunny positions. All herbs like a weekly watering of seaweed solution, which gives them a nutrient boost to keep the leaves flavoursome.

Q: WHY CAN’T I GROW LETTUCE? I PLANTED SALAD GREENS BUT MOST OF THEM DIED WHILE TWO PLANTS GREW INTO STEROID-PUMPED TALL SHRUBS WITH FLOWERS.

Lettuce remember there is a reason we don’t ALL grow our own food in gardens and try to subsist from grow-your-own greens. Unlike its good friend the tomato, lettuce is much easier to buy at the supermarket than grow in our own garden or courtyard. While it is true lettuce will grow in pots, a humid Sydney summer is rarely kind to leafy green delicates. Lettuce has a shallow root system so reacts quickly to heat, humidity or water stress. Cool-weather-loving lettuce varieties tend to bolt to seed when planted during a warm Sydney summer. And most lettuce can’t stand being blown about in the wind. It’s best grown by those who can offer tender loving care and understand the growing conditions needed. There are some easy varieties to grow, like cos or rocket, which have tougher leaves and can withstand Sydney heat but it’s important to select the right plant for your soil, weather conditions and patience.

Q: I READ ABOUT PEOPLE GROWING VEGIES ON THE STREET OUTSIDE THEIR HOUSE. DO COUNCILS ALLOW THIS?

The short official answer is “no” but many councils will turn a blind eye to lovingly tended public spaces bursting forth with greens, vegies and herbs. As long as the publicly grown gardens don’t cause a safety hazard or become too obtrusive, most councils (especially the eco-loving variety such as Marrickville or Sydney) will not send their brown bombers out to rip them up.

Q: I HAVE A BALCONY AND A FEW POT PLANTS WHAT CAN I GROW?

Anything you want. If you want an edible garden, then you need to stick to hardy plant varieties that you can water easily. There are new vertical wall systems that are being marketed to unit and inner-city dwellers who want greenery without it taking up much room. These are a series of modular boxes that can be planted with seedlings and grown horizontally for a few weeks before mounting the boxes to the wall and having them grow vertically. Most require a solid wall or structure to anchor to. They can also be used to disguise ugly walls and are great for those who want to grow something without losing all their floor space to pots. Some apartments have a sunny window sill large enough to install a planter box. If you don’t have enough sunlight, try boosting a window box with a UV light.

Q: I CAN LIVE WITH EVERYTHING IN MY UGLY BATHROOM EXCEPT THE BAD WALL TILES WHAT CAN I DO?

Bathrooms are a lot like women’s fashion: what you consider passe right now could be fashionable in another two minutes. If those brown 1970s tiles or sappy 1960s pink, blue or green mosaics are getting you down, think how lucky you are to have a bathroom that is such a classic representation of its era! It’s better to accept your bathroom for what it is than try to make over just one part of the room and risk it looking like some awful morph between modern minimalism and Tupperware party. Embrace its era if it’s pink and gaudy, then find some kitsch accessories to play it up. If it’s twee timber and ye olde cottage with 1980s brass fittings, then crack out a basket of potpourri and some Norsca bath gel. And real estate experts like L.J. Hooker managing director Warren McCarthy will tell you that most buyers can handle any style of bathroom as long as it is clean and has plenty of natural light.

Q: I READ THAT PAINTING TILES IS A CHEAP WAY TO MAKE OVER MY BATHROOM.

Eager do-it-yourselfers may be bold enough to use specially formulated tile paints available at the hardware store but it’s only for those who are a dab hand with a paint roller. Painting over tiles sounds so easy but involves putting your bathroom out of action for a couple of days and spending tedious preparation time to make sure the paint bonds properly with the surface and doesn’t bubble off after the first shower. And it’s way too easy to leave brush marks, scuff marks or dusty bits in the coating. Bathroom resurfacing will give a more professional look, although it costs more. For about $80 a square metre, the room can be entirely resurfaced with coatings that spray over the old bathroom and look like new porcelain, laminate or enamel. Worldwide Refinishing’s Ray Bush says resurfacing takes only 48 hours to dry and costs about one-quarter to a half the price of stripping out the old bathroom and replacing it with new fittings and tiles.

Q: HOW CAN I MAKE MY REALLY SMALL BATHROOM FEEL LESS POKEY?

Space is like money there’s never enough to go around. Adding natural light and a sense of openness creates an illusion of more room, even if it doesn’t actually add square metres. Solatubes which can be installed for less than $500 are a great way to add a sky light to a bathroom and flood it with sunlight. Another trick is to fit a mirror to an entire wall of the room, ideally the first wall you see when you walk in, to reflect more light. Mirrors are relatively cheap with Palmers Glass in Gladesville saying it’s $200 a square metre to supply and install them in a bathroom. The company can even laser cut designs on them from $15 a cut. Interior designer Garth Barnett says he always makes the basin or vanity the focal point of a bathroom to draw the eye away from toilets, clunky showers and big tubs and make the room feel more generous.

Q: MY BATHROOM IS A MOULD MONSTER AND ALWAYS LOOKS GRUNGEY.

If it’s not your bad housekeeping skills, then it’s likely your bathroom has waterproofing failure. Once a bathroom turns into a black monster that not even harsh bleach can keep at bay, then it’s likely your old bathroom needs some repairs. In old houses and apartments, it’s common that water gets behind the old tiles and wets the wall, creating a mould-tastic breeding ground that cannot be cleaned. There are new waterproofing solutions that involve cleaning out the mouldy grout, re-grouting and spraying over a clear waterproof coating, sometimes for less than $500. Some in the industry doubt these solutions last very long but it’s cheaper than stripping out all the tiles to renew a waterproof membrane.

Q: MY KITCHEN LOOKS LIKE IT THREW UP ALL OVER ITSELF – THERE ARE TILES FROM THE 1970S ON THE SPLASHBACKS, ’60S TIMBER CABINETS AND A LAMINATE BENCHTOP CIRCA 1992. HELP!

Long-term rental properties are notorious for containing bitsy, piecey renovations – perhaps due to landlords being able to deduct the improvements as “repairs” rather than capitalise renovation costs? Whatever, tenants either have to shut their eyes or do something to make it bearable. You don’t want to spend a lot of money but there’s plenty you can do. Shiny new accessories can brighten a bad room instantly – a new dish drainer, tool storage and tea towels in the kitchen; or try getting creative with the overhead cabinets. If they are timber, unscrew the doors and openly display your nice things to draw the eye away from the rest of the kitchen. The backs of the cupboards may be unfinished timber or plywood, so buy cheap, sturdy paper or decorative card to tape over the top of the cupboard backs. Hanging a pot rack or pegboard is usually within renters’ rights and will give you more storage. You’ll need to keep the doors (and screws) somewhere safe to reattach when you move out.

Q: OUR CARPET HAS RAINBOW-COLOURED SWIRLS AND A BLACK CHEWING GUM STAIN IN THE MIDDLE OF THE HALLWAY.

Rugs. There are cheap and cheerful Chinese-made options around that don’t have to break the bank. A good steam-clean works wonders on a carpet and most managing agents will ensure carpet is clean (if stained) when tenants move on. If your carpets don’t look as though they have been done, put in a request. Patterned carpets tend to make a room look busy and overwhelmed, so a big, bold rug or runner in one block of colour might be the best option. Cheap woven cotton rugs often don’t stay in place, so you may need a grip or underlay to keep it down. Some people resort to double-sided tape. That might be what you think is the gum stain. Have you tried rubbing ice over it to harden the gum and brushing it out with a stiff brush? Eucalyptus oil can also work wonders on gummy stains.

Q: THE LIGHT FITTINGS ARE HIDEOUS AND WE DON’T SEEM ABLE TO CHANGE WITHOUT THEM SPENDING A BOMB.

Light fittings always, always, always require an electrician to remove or connect. If you’re lucky enough to have daggy hanging pendant lamps, you can try removing the shade around the fitting. Many simply unscrew or can be removed for cleaning. That leaves you with a bare hanging bulb. You can then pop into IKEA and pick up a cheap light shade to self-install around the bulb. Just make sure you don’t accidentally buy a whole new light fitting that needs wired installation – you will only want the shade. Fluoro light fittings and recessed lights are more difficult to work with. Sometimes it’s best to simply leave them off – you notice light fittings more when they are the illumination source – and invest in floor and table lamps as a light source that will stop people looking up at the ceiling.

Q: DARLING, I’M A DESIGNER AND I CAN’T STAND THE IDEA OF PEOPLE TRYING TO FIX UP THEIR PADS WITHOUT EXPERIENCED HELP.

Oh be quiet. Decorating is about adding warmth and your own style to a house. Work with the colours and textures that are already in place, even if they aren’t your idea of perfection.

The outdoor room

Originally published in Australian Women's Weekly

When Jamie Durie created this urban courtyard for longtime friends, he made magic in a miniscule space by creating a water feature that was also a plunge pool and spa. Alex Brooks writes.

When you walk through the front door of the smart inner city terrace that belongs to Anna and Tim Pope, the eye is instantly drawn out the back to the courtyard.

The rear wall makes a bold statement – three flute-style lights shine on a planting of stark yuccas and dark pebbles covered in a dainty moss, made even more dramatic by what looks like a cascading water feature.

The water feature is actually a plunge pool; a small and compact-looking box of deep water that doubles as a 10-seater spa when the weekend arrives and entertaining becomes a priority.

This tiny 55 square metre courtyard is more like an outdoor living room than a backyard – it has a dining area, an outdoor shower, planter boxes, bench seating, a barbecue, a wall-mounted outdoor heater as well as the very glamourous water feature, come plunge pool, come spa,.

The tall walls not only make the space private, but create a cradle that makes what could be a stark and minimalist area feel cosy and snug.

On the ground, stone paving is in-laid with a timber floor that looks as though it is a rug beneath the hardwood dining setting.

Anna enjoys the design-impact of the garden the most – “It hits you straight away. I love that it’s the first thing you see when you walk in the house,” she says.

The couple use the garden for outdoor dining, entertaining and relaxation.

“The plunge pool isn’t purely for aesthetics. We are in it all the time – after the gym, at weekends when we have friends over,” explains Tim, who had known Jamie for 10 years before getting him to design his garden.

“It gets quite hot in these tiny backyards of back-to-back terraces so the pool keeps everything cool. And in winter we heat it to 40 degrees so it’s always used.”

An outdoor shower is nearby – complete with hot water – to allow an easy wash-off after a dip.

Jamie admits it helped knowing his friends well to create this garden.

“I know how busy they are and how shocking they are at looking after their gardens,” Jamie says.

Jamie selected the bamboo and yuccas for their vertical architecture which saved space, and also because the Popes insisted they didn’t want to irrigate their garden or spend time watering.

“The house has everything that opens and shuts so when these two come home, they just want to press a button and make everything happen. And they don’t want to spend any time on maintenance.”

But Jamie could have been wrong about the Pope’s dedication to garden maintenance.

The original native violets that were planted beneath the yucca trees were ripped out when Anna deemed them too weed-like.

“The native violets were supposed to soften the look of the masculine yuccas,” Jamie explains.

“The violets were just not to my wife’s liking – she preferred the minimalism of the yuccas. Much to Jamie’s glee, though, some moss has started growing in its place,” laughs Tim.

TIPS TO MAKE MORE OUT OF LESS

Double up on function – this water feature is also a plunge pool.

Create an inlaid flooring design on the ground to separate functional spaces like dining areas from general seating areas.

Use small and compact lighting and heating that can be wall-mounted. Select a small and mobile barbecue.

Sleep dreams: bedroom design

Originally published in New Woman

Interior designer Shellee Gordoun is a woman who knows a thing or two about beds and bedrooms, even though she reluctantly admits that she doesn’t make her own bed.

“I make so many beds for the showroom and for my clients but I just don’t have time to make my own bed,” she says, aghast at being caught out.

Shellee and her husband Gavejn own Zest Lifestyle Bedroom Gallery and Shellee spends most of her time working with architects, designing interiors and bedrooms, sourcing homewares and styling.

The self-taught interiors expert has personally designed more than 100 bedrooms across Sydney and estimates there may be more than 1000 bedrooms that have a Zest touch somewhere.

Shellee’s unique style uses liberal doses of soft furnishings, curtains, cushions, throws and upholstered headboards to create a bedroom that is a sanctuary from the busy world.

“We started Zest because we thought there was just so much emphasis on people’s living space and outdoor entertaining space, but no-one was paying attention to the space that people weren’t showing off – the bedroom,” she says.

“A bedroom is about pampering yourself and creating your own sanctuary.”

THE BEDROOM SQUEEZE

With most houses and apartments squeezed for space, the bedroom has been rapidly shrinking in the last ten years.

“The old houses have those huge bedrooms with fireplaces and space for armoires and chests of drawers and large rugs, but modern bedrooms don’t usually have a lot of space at all,” Shellee says.

“That makes it harder for designers because you somehow have to fit everything that people want in a room but also make it appear large.”

Shellee’s recipe for successfully using small space involves lowering the bed to make it look sleek and removing any hint of flounce, frill or frippery.

“A lot of people don’t like curtains because they think they are frilly and drapey but the way I use them is a lot more contemporary and really finishes a space,” she says.

Shellee designs curtains with recessed tracks and uses a sheer fabric in front of a heavyweight lined fabric – the exact opposite to most curtains which have a privacy sheer across the window and a heavier fabric in front for opening and closing.

She also insists on dressing a bed with cushions and throws, even though many clients fear it makes it too difficult to make the bed in the morning.

“I have to tell them that it is easier to make a bed look good if you have the right tools and accessories – it’s quicker to put the cushions on the bed than spend 15 minutes trying to fluff up just two pillows to get them to look right,” she says.

With a low upholstered bed set against a mirrored wall reflecting harbour views and wide leather side tables, Shellee’s own bedroom has a contemporary, spacious feel.

“This is not really my dream bedroom, simply because of the size. I’ve done my best with the space and I like it, but I’ve created better bedrooms for my clients than I have for myself,” she says.

THE FENG SHUI WAY

Shellee’s biggest bedroom no-no is computers in the bedroom.

“No matter how little space you have, it really is better to move a computer out of a bedroom,” she says.

“It creates bad energy to combine work with relaxation. At the very least the computers should be covered, but it’s better to move them out of the sleeping space altogether.”

Shellee – who has studied numerology and incorporates Feng Shui into her designs – has changed the spelling of her name by deed poll to create a better life energy.

“I firmly believe in the principals of energy flow, especially in bedrooms,” she says.

“Often I have to get architects to change their drawings if they have an exit door with a bed in front of it – that would create an energy drain from the room.”

Shellee’s own bedroom has a hideaway cupboard for a television, which means the “energy draining” appliance can be put away to allow for a better night’s sleep.

“When I ask people who have computers or televisions in their room how they sleep, they always tell me that they are terrible sleepers – you are not meant to have these things in bedrooms,” she says.

Shellee transforms the showroom of Zest Lifestyle Bedroom Gallery in the HomeMakers SupaCenta Moore Park every eight weeks to keep the energy flowing.

“I style and merchandise the showroom every eight weeks – the only constant in this world is change and I think you have to embrace change,” she says.

Zest offers a range of beds, mattresses, linens, bedroom furniture, small homewares and also exhibits original art.

“I think original artwork is just so much nicer than things like posters or prints,” she says.

BEST BEDROOM ADVICE

DO:

Select interesting side tables – “think Chinese, leather, Japanese or stools – there is a huge range out there”.

Use lamps to create a mood, not just a reading light.

Put a dimmer switch on the general overhead lighting.

Dress up the bed with cushions and throws with contrasting textures.

Use a day bed or chaise lounge in the bedroom to make it a place to escape in the daytime without getting into your bed

DON’T:

Buy “matchy matchy” bedroom suites, choose individual pieces that go together rather than plain old storage.

Place computers or televisions in bedrooms, they drain energy.

Clutter up your side table with rubbish – find another place to store the clutter and keep the side table for books, lamps and water only.

Use harsh Roman blinds as window treatments when curtains look better.

Have a high bed in a small bedroom – beds that are closer to the ground create a bigger sense of space.

KIPPERS - an explanation

Originally published in Good Weekend

AREN’T THEY SMELLY FISH?

No, they are Kids In Parents Pockets Eroding Retirement Savings. Closely related to the adultescent and the boomerang kid, kippers are the children of Baby Boomers that never leave home and defer traditional adult milestones – or millstones – of marriage, mortgage and making babies.

HOW MANY OF THESE LAZY SO-AND-SOS ARE SPONGING OFF THEIR PARENTS?

More than a third of 20 to 29-year-olds still bunk in with mum and dad, according to Quantum research’s 2005 AustraliaSCAN survey. Even worse, most Boomer parents actively encourage their kids to remain at home. A Wizard Home Loans survey found 62 per cent of those with adult children living with them don’t want their kids to nick off any time soon and half don’t even charge them any board.

WHAT! YOU MEAN THE PARENTS LIKE IT?

Oh yes. The minute their Kippers abandon them, they become Empty Nesters. Then it’s only a whisker away from Winnebagos, Jason recliners and enjoying talkback radio. Much better to keep the kids at home so you know that Wolfmother is a band and not, like, a wolf’s mother.

JUST HOW MUCH DO THESE KIPPERS COST?

There are no hard and fast estimates, but more than half a million Australians aged over 55 have adult children still living with them – so it ain’t chump change. The Wizard Home Loan survey found 30 per cent of parents stuck with Kippers are likely to delay retirement until their children finally leave home. What’s more, the Boomers with Kippers apparently work harder than the Empty Nesters, averaging 36.1 hours a week compared to 34.6 hours a week.

The cost of the things we covet

Originally published in Sunday Life

Economist and social researcher Clive Hamilton likes to tell a story he first heard 10 years ago. When a Canberra retailer couldn’t shift a swag of woollen jumpers that had been discounted and left in the bargain bin, he doubled the price and sold out in a week.

A hand-painted Smurf figurine that came free with Kinder Surprise chocolates before 1990 can now fetch between $1500 and $2000 – provided its skipping rope is still attached. And last month actor William Shatner sold what might be the ultimate Star Trek collectable – his kidney stone – for $33,000. Prices may be in dollars but do they make sense?

As we have become richer – the Australian Bureau of Statistics says the average weekly wage has grown from $544.80 in 1995 to $784.50 in 2005 – the idea that price reflects the cost of making an item has been upended. People now use price to assess the quality of an item, says Hamilton, co-author of Affluenza: When Too Much Is Never Enough and executive director of the Australia Institute think tank. “People are prepared to pay more for a product if the price is higher, regardless of intrinsic value,” he says. “Economists think a market becomes more limited as the price goes up but today that is just not true.”

Now all kinds of products from toilet paper to movie tickets have their own “luxury” niche. At the same time, supermarkets sell basic food products with virtually no retail margin, preferring to offer low prices and petrol discounts to attract as many consumers as possible, says Ross Honeywill, a director of the Melbourne-based Centre For Customer Strategy, a research and marketing agency that advises on consumer behaviour trends.

Price is a topsy-turvy concept in today’s wealthier world so just how can the everyday person work out the value of things?

RULE OF VALUE NO. 1: MARKET FORCES DICTATE

“It only takes two people to want something and you have a market” – Susanne Koppon, founder of GS Trading International

Susanne Koppon is sick of chocolate. Until five years ago, she bought five to 10 Kinder Surprise eggs each week to amass her collection of toys, which is worth between $10,000 and $50,000. “I have a few rare toys in the safe deposit box but I don’t have them for the value of them,” says Koppon, 43, who lives in Brisbane. “It’s about having something special.”

Koppon’s affection for Kinder toys (“I love to assemble things”) drove a desire to trade her “overs” in the hope of finding better toys for her collection. So in 1993, the former bank worker started a website (www.gascp.com) listing the toys she had to trade. That website has proved so popular that she and her husband, Gunter, formerly an IT worker, have all but abandoned their own collecting to start a web-based business specialising in low-cost collectables – from The Lord Of The Rings merchandise to McDonald’s Happy Meal toys to Care Bears and Pez dispensers.

“For years I traded and swapped toys from all over the world but now the business is so busy I don’t get a chance,” says Koppon. “People will collect everything. Once there are two of them after the same thing, it becomes a market.”

RULE OF VALUE NO. 2 KNOW THE BASICS

“We are looking for something more unique, worthy and rare than any other people have” – Rob Parsons, PR and marketing manager.

Christie’s Cultural and heritage valuer Simon Storey says everything has a value. Even the rarest item that will never be sold has a dollar price. It has to, according to Australian accounting standards that require all of our nation’s cultural goods to be valued.

Phar Lap’s heart? $1 million. The splinter of propeller from Charles Kingsford-Smith’s Southern Cross plane? $15,000. And the value of that same piece of propeller after astronaut Andy Thomas took it into space in 1996? “Anything between $30,000 and $40,000,” says Storey.

Australia’s museums and art galleries hire Storey to independently value their collections to comply with government accounting standards. He makes a living valuing the priceless and “trying to keep the auditors happy”. Sometimes, there is a formula to create the value – Storey is now calculating how much it would cost to re-collect 350 body parts on loan from a museum to Sydney University’s medical faculty.

Other items are so rare that only “gut feeling” creates the value. “With Phar Lap’s heart, I had to create fair value by asking taxi drivers and people in the street what they thought it would be worth,” says Storey, who was a fine-art auctioneer before he began valuing art and artefacts when accounting rules changed in the 1990s. “The valuation came from what I thought it would cost this country to wipe away the tears if the thing ever got pinched.”

Prestige property valuers such as Andrew Tunbridge from Sydney’s LandMark White say while there is no science to valuing, there is a whole lot of art. “It comes down to a purchaser’s personal tastes and what they perceive as value,” says Tunbridge, who points out the fundamentals of valuing property are location, aspect, topography of the land, the architectural significance of the house and the identity of the previous owners.

“The prices are determined based on comparable sales and supply and demand,” he says. But even the best property – such as the Vladimir Chernov-renovated castle on the beachfront at Brighton in Melbourne – will fetch less than its “intrinsic” value if the market dictates.

Take last year’s sale of the prestigious Rona, the Bellevue Hill, Sydney, property of financially troubled businessman John Schaeffer. Rona was listed with expectations of $30 million but eventually sold for just over $20 million, far below its longstanding valuation of $28 million. “It was well known that Rona was a forced sale and that usually warrants a discount because there is a range of superstitions that go with that,” says Tunbridge. “With high-end properties, the marketing has to be very discerning. It has to appear hard-to-get and exclusive.”

RULE OF VALUE NO. 3 SEEK RARITY, PROVENANCE AND PREMIUM PRICING

“We had 14 Paddington bags [by French fashion house Chloe] in store and they sold out in a week – although they cost $2500 – because Sienna Miller was photographed with one” – Ann-Maree Kelly, marketing specialist publicity, David Jones.

One thing that will almost invariably force up a price is rarity. Koppon says the reason the Kinder Surprise Smurf with its skipping rope is worth more than a run-of-the-mill Kinder Surprise toy is that it is so rare. The skipping rope is easily damaged so very few are available to trade.

Melbourne-based Rob Parsons, from Christie’s auction house, says coal-hole covers – a cast-iron drain at the front of Victorian-era houses – were sold for scrap until the 1990s when their rarity made them collectable enough to start buying. Now that the pieces sell for upwards of $200, some areas of London have problems with the theft of items such as coal-hole covers and drainage grates, leaving gaping holes in pavements and walls.

“Things like teddy bears were never auctioned at Christie’s until the mid-1970s as they weren’t perceived to have a value but now the record price for a teddy bear is half a million pounds,” he says. Storey also points out that provenance – the origin of an object and its past owners – has the ultimate bearing on value. “A flea is just a flea,” he explains, “but a flea that has been owned by Charles Darwin is worth more than the flea off Spot the dog. That’s provenance. Tiepolo’s Banquet Of Cleopatra is Australia’s most valuable painting – I would say it’s worth $200 million – not only because it is rare and beautiful but because it has a wonderful provenance, having been owned by Catherine the Great.”

However, provenance is not just about a famous owner. Often, says Storey, “collections that have been owned by someone discerning and diligent have a better provenance than something that has just been hoarded by a collector.” He explains that collecting is about more than just amassing objects. “Some hoarders have no dedication to collection.

A heap of scissors that have been hoarded in a box and kept in a shed is not necessarily a collection. It’s about a great collection of scissors. Does every pair of scissors in the collection tell a story?”

RULE OF VALUE NO. 4 LOVE AND DESIRE ARE THE ONLY RULES

“Price is only the cost of falling in love” – consumer behaviourist Ross Honeywill, Centre For Customer Strategy.

“The price,” says Honeywill, “is just the cost for deep desire.” An authority on consumer behaviour since he was a director of KPMG in the late 1990s, Honeywill adds that the rise of “luxury” to describe even the most unlikely products is an opportunity for people to stay ahead of the Joneses. “Everyone’s trying to work out where they stand in relation to everybody else.”

Clive Hamilton is more blunt. He thinks humans are happy to pay over-the-odds for two reasons: they are wealthier than ever before and they just want to be loved. “The irony is that it often doesn’t work,” he says. “If you buy a red Maserati, you will probably receive more comments about what a wanker you are than how loveable you are.”

The architects: exploring their own home

Originally published in Sunday Life

They eke out a modest existence designing homes for their clients but what kind of houses do architects live in? And what do their partners think? Alex Brooks took a peek inside the houses of six very different architects for Sunday Life magazine.

If mechanics have the worst cars and doctors have the sickest children, what can be said of architects’ houses? Surely an architect’s home – more than those of any other profession – is a dream made real; a chance for the maestros of the building world to strut their designer stuff, free of the constraints of conservative clients, nagging neighbours and interference from the in-laws.

Not always.

It is an industry joke that architects rarely finish building their own houses. In North Bondi, architect Yvonne Haber is finalising the last of three stages of construction on the semi she bought in 1999. She shares the house with her bricklayer husband, Nic Carroll, son, Leo, and two stepchildren. “Don’t bother wiping your feet,” she says as we duck underneath the timber gantry that blocks the front door.

“There’s so much dirt that a bit more won’t matter.”

Haber, 42, says she has invited house guests to sit and chat in her bedroom as it’s been the only room safe from the perils of construction. Her husband once resorted to phoning talkback radio to detail what he’s put up with: “We didn’t have a back wall for eight weeks and that was while we had an 18-month-old toddler,” he says, shaking his head.

“I can’t make decisions,” admits Haber. “We’ve been here more than five years and we still don’t have curtains. Every time I see those poor builders, I have to tell them I’ve changed my mind about something. I kept saying all construction should be finished by August – what I call finished. Maybe that’s not what everyone else would call finished. I’ve got just one more wall to paint.”

Not all architects have the opportunity to build their dream house. Trish Croaker, spokeswoman for the Royal Australian Institute of Architects, says the average salary for an experienced architect is between $50,000 and $60,000 a year – “hardly enough to build a mansion”, especially in Sydney or Melbourne.

But most architects can’t help but showcase their artistry and design skills in their own home. Melbourne architect Sean Godsell’s dramatically austere house sits high on a hill in a suburban Kew street.

Some say it’s a metal and glass box; others have rudely compared it to Auschwitz.

Godsell’s wife, Annemarie Kiely, has certainly had to adapt to her husband’s chosen environment. She told the ABC-TV series In The Mind Of The Architect that she felt she lived in a fishbowl, forced to dress in the cupboards because there were no blinds on the windows. In the series, Godsell said his house “forces socialisation that we need to deal with as a society in Australia. It forces tolerance within the house.”

Living with an architect can certainly be trying. Take John Henry, 60, who has spent five years designing and building his home in Research, on the outskirts of Melbourne, with his partner of 10 years, Deb Ganderton, who works in media relations.

“Architects should just do what they want to do and call it what it is: fun,” he says. Henry’s whimsical home is a vast, cavernous industrial shed with an interior of white concrete platforms that has an 18- by 12-metre wall of windows overlooking a bush gully. The space is dotted with bright artwork and colourful modernist furniture. There is an indoor waterfall and several interior gardens. The entire project, including the land, cost less than $350,000.

John Henry with partner Deb Ganderton in their open space home in Research, on the outskirts of Melbourne.

For an architect who designs retirement homes and hospitals, Henry’s own house couldn’t be further from the stuff of his day job. “It’s my own personal interest to create a space with a daredevil factor,” he says. But this isn’t a house for the faint-hearted: the stunning white steel steps throughout the house have no rails and hover over rocks and gardens – one foot wrong and you could end up in the fish pond.

How on earth does a man, who says he is only going to move out “in a box”, intend to live in such a house if he ever gets as old and infirm as the people he designs hospitals for? “Deb’s younger than me so I’ll just get her to carry me up the stairs,” he says, laughing. Ganderton goes along with her partner’s jokes: “I’ll buy one of those independent living units he designs and stick him in it out the back.”

Ganderton believes that Henry designed the house with traps, gaps and trip-ups to stop her drinking wine. “I know that the fish pond near the front door is there to warn John when I’ve had too many chardies – if he hears a splash, he knows I’ve had a few,” she says. “To be honest, this is a house you live in at your peak – it’s not an inclusive, access-all-abilities home – in fact, it’s probably a reaction to the things John does in his grown-up work.”

Ganderton and Henry had many “debates and board meetings” during the building process; Ganderton insisted that walls and a door on the guest bathroom were “not negotiable”. Henry baulked. He wanted the entire space to be open. Their ensuite bathroom is part of the bedroom and can be seen from the lounge platform.

“Guests don’t need to be seen sitting on the toilet,” says Ganderton. “Guests need to be able to relax – you don’t want them to have to wait until they go home to wee. I like our open bathroom and showering in the bush but should I impose my bohemianism on the house guests? No.”

“I was disappointed that Deb insisted on the laundry and guest toilet,” says Henry, “but it’s a practical consideration and architects have to be practical. Now I think it works well. It’s a black box and it recedes. We hang the optic art on it – it all looks great.”

David Luck, a 43-year-old Melbourne architect, understands what Ganderton means. Luck and his administrator partner of 20 years, Robynne Kinnane, have created two homes together and are working on the renovation of a home and office in inner-city Melbourne. “It’s not easy being in a relationship when you design intimate spaces – there are fundamental disagreements,” he explains as he sits in the black and red lounge room of the Mornington Peninsula retreat that took more than three years to complete.

The couple admit they have argued about their own ensuite bathrooms – she likes the idea of a dramatic, open ensuite but he is truly appalled at the thought, and sound, of such a thing. “It’s like a dentist when the spouse has bad teeth or the horror stories about plastic surgeons and their wives. You’re spending $500,000 and, actually, it’s all about the toilet.”

Luck also builds the houses he designs. “There is the house you dream about living in and then the house you actually live in,” he says. “Architects’ houses are a third thing: we want to live in them, we dream to live in them and then we have to live in them.

David Luck and Robin Kinnane’s home on the Mornington Peninsula.

“Architects aren’t the world’s richest people, so our houses are like our superannuation; we shift around our capital to make them happen.”

Sydney architect Dale Jones-Evans – who has designed award-winning houses, as well as nightclubs such as Sydney’s Victoria Room, the Loft, Bungalow 8 and Melbourne’s Metro – became a property developer when he built his two-bedroom warehouse apartment in Sydney’s Surry Hills.

The former surfing champion, who quit school at 15 before returning to study, bought an old factory and created nine other apartments that he then on-sold when completed in 2000. “First and foremost I am an architect, not a developer,” he says. “But clever architects value-add by creating good design.”

Jones-Evans’s apartment has 180 square metres of space over three levels. He wanted it to be a gallery for his art collection and pared back the original three-bedroom design to make two spacious bedrooms with sensual curved plaster walls that cost an extra $40,000.

Jones-Evans spends most of his time travelling, especially to outback Australia, where he paints. The 50-year-old insists his apartment is merely a space that he can easily come and go from: nothing spiritual, nothing sacrosanct.

Mind you, he looks wounded when the Sunday Life photographer says the precious bamboo-screened roof of his studio – where he used to create canvases until he realised what a paint-splattered mess he had created – might look like a fence in the photo. “A fence? It’s about letting the light in. It’s beautiful,” he says, touching the sliding screens that took a builder six weeks to construct.

A comment on the dramatic black ceilings in the living space prompts Jones-Evans to pull a face and point out that the ceilings aren’t, in fact, black but eight different shades mixed together. What colour would that be, then? “Difficult,” he says.

Australia’s revered godfather of minimalism, Ian Moore, formerly of the partnership Engelen Moore, dresses entirely in black, with groovy round black glasses and a neat Zero Halliburton silver briefcase.

Known for his love of white spaces, the 48-year-old designer of some of Sydney’s most famous apartment buildings – such as Altair and the Grid – lives in one of his own buildings in Darlinghurst during the week. On weekends, the New Zealand-born Moore retreats to an unrenovated 1970s clinker brick house near Noosa in Queensland, where his artist wife, Catherine, and two children live permanently.

His 62-square-metre city apartment has grey floors, white walls, a wall of grey cupboards and startling fluorescent red paint on the bathroom “pod”. Moore describes his Sydney apartment as “monastic”, furnished with one Charles and Ray Eames chair and ottoman, a sleek Eames dining setting and a bed. Hundreds of architecture books are in the cupboards, along with two foam mattresses the kids sleep on when they come to Sydney. The only other items on display are a Dualit toaster, two silver pots and a kettle. Oh, and a pepper grinder

“The house in Noosa is not at all like this,” he sighs, looking around in pleasure at the tidy space. “My kids have been tortured by me over the years. Things needs to be put away. My daughter has had her moments of leaving things all over the floor but now she colour-orders her clothes in the wardrobe. There’s hope for her yet.”

The neat, ordered emptiness of Moore’s apartment is in stark contrast to the higgledy-piggledy house of renowned restoration architect Clive Lucas, who has worked on Elizabeth Bay House and the Mint in Sydney and Tasmania’s historic Port Arthur.

Lucas and his occupational therapist wife, Sarah, live in an 1887 weatherboard cottage in Sydney that they bought in 1975 and restored themselves. The arrival of three children – who have now left home – prompted extensions to the cottage and eventually the purchase of the 1905 brick house next door. Lucas designed latticed verandas to link the two properties, creating a five-bedroom, two-bathroom house with outdoor living rooms.

“It was fun in the early days,” says Sarah. “We were painting with a nine-month-old crawling around. There was the old geezer gas heater in the bathroom. We used to sit outside on the veranda to dine. It’s a tragedy that the modern house does not have a veranda.”

Wearing a shirt, tie and navy-blue jumper with leather elbow patches, the bearded Lucas, 62, is delighted to show off his house with its vivid displays of antiques, paintings and endless shelves of books. “It’s all rather confused, really,” he says as we walk into yet another room, this one a second kitchen, used as a wine cellar and pantry.

His favourite room is the sitting room, which he created by knocking down the wall between two smaller rooms and installing the marble fireplace he’d carefully removed from a front bedroom. The wildly patterned Victorian-reproduction wallpaper and frieze on the walls are left over from Lucas’s restoration of the InterContinental hotel in Sydney. Antique chairs are covered in a William Morris fabric that he and Sarah bought on their honeymoon in England in 1971.

“I am a great collector of colonial architecture. I like to live in a traditional setting. When I was a student, I was seen as quite eccentric. I would go to look at all the historic houses around Windsor and Parramatta but everyone else was going to look at a [modernist Harry] Seidler house,” he says.

Lucas despises modern houses. “It’s all very well to have large open-plan spaces if you have 100 people for a drinks party but there is nowhere to go when you are on your own. It might look good in a photo but…” He shivers at the thought of having to live there. “I think it’s ill-mannered to have architecture that screams at you. I want my own house to be timeless. People wouldn’t necessarily know when this room was done. It won’t date because it was dated before I put it in.”

1950s inspires more than mere nostalgia

Originally published in Sunday

The dazzling allure of the1950s era is charming the dollars from people who never even saw the decade first hand.

Demographer Bernard Salt says that today’s city-dwelling Generation X-ers – the oldest of which were born in the 1960s – have a strange interest in 1950s accoutrement, which is inspiring a range of successful small businesses.

“It’s not nostalgia in the way it is for the baby boomers,” he explains. “It’s more that today’s cynical, Blade Runner-esque world finds comfort looking back at this era that shone like a crystal between the mean wartime 1940s and the 1960s.”

The 1950s is looked upon as something innocent and wonderful, with images of women cooking and men coming home from work with smiles straight out of central casting.

“It’s not just the 1950s fashion, it’s a quality you can’t really put your finger on – it’s the subliminal messages associated with the happiness and paraphernalia of 1950s,” Salt says.

Salt, who is also a consultant to KPMG and author of The Big Shift, says the trend is nothing more than the tribalisation of markets – something that will continue into the future.

“When you’ve got big cities and you have less people having children, people try to find a tribe to belong to,” he says. “The biggest challenge for business in the future is to identify these themes and exploit them.”

THE CARS … REBEL RESTORATIONS

Father and son Gary Chivers and Adam Chivers opened Rebel Restoration Services 12 years ago on the NSW Central Coast and have a solid small business restoring 1940s and 1950s cars.

To the uninitiated, Rebel Restorations could easily be mistaken for a place where cars go to die – there are truck cabs, hub cabs, car seats and bits of chrome and metal lying everywhere.

It is only when the dust covers are pulled back that you can see what really goes on in this workshop.

Up the back is a 1955 DeSoto which has been chopped and lowered and will one day come to life as a ‘lead sled’, which is an in-the-know term for a classic car that’s been modified for speed.

There is a 1946 tractor awaiting restoration, along with a 1960 Hillman convertible which has already had more than $20,000 worth of body work excluding the paint job.

“Hot rodding was big in the 1950s – it was about getting speed thrills from every day cars,” explains Gary, a trained mechanic and machinist. “Hot rodders would take a Ford V8 engine and modify them to run at the highest speed they could. They might also alter the body or chop it or whatever to make it look fast.”

Gary has always been a car enthusiast and passed his infectious love of the automobile on to his son, Adam, who became a panel beater.

When Gary was retrenched from the Civil Aviation Authority in 1991 and Adam was seeking more of a challenge, the pair decided to open a business restoring the cars they truly loved.

“For us, this isn’t just a business where we pack up and drive home in our Commodore,” he says. “It’s an extension of our lifestyle. We listen to 50s music, we have our houses furnished in 1950s style. I was born in 1944, so I saw the fifties first-hand and that makes Adam pretty jealous.”

Adam, 34, drives a 1951 Ford Mercury “which has only been rained on twice in 12 years” and is restoring several other cars, including a 1946 Chevrolet.

“A lot of the cars that people drove in the 1950s were actually from the 1940s – back in those days, no-one could afford new cars so they drove stuff that was a bit older,” he says.

The business is doing well and can barely handle the workload that comes through now.

“There are only two of us and this is a very labour intensive business. It can cost $40,000 or more to restore a car,” Gary says.

“Some people might say, you’ll never get your money back, so what’s the point in restoring it – but I say those people aren’t real enthusiasts.

“I mean, what golfer goes and buys an expensive set of golf clubs and expects to get his money back when he sells them?”

THE DANCING … SWING PATROL

Business partners Claudia Funder and Scott Cupit founded swing dance school Swing Patrol six years ago, and now teach more than 40 classes a week in Melbourne, Geelong, Albury and Sydney.

When Scott Cupit came back from America eight years ago, infected with the urge to learn swing dancing and Lindy Hop, he could not find a single dance school to teach him.

“I had been playing big band music and when I went to the States, I went to a ball and finally saw there was a dance that matched the music I loved,” he says. “But when I got home and rang every dance school in the Yellow Pages to see if they could teach me Swing, all I found was one teacher – who happened to be Claudia – who only touched on it.”

Scott paid for private lessons with Claudia, who was a ballroom and rock and roll dance teacher, and eventually convinced her to go into business with him to start a Swing dance school.

“I got sick of Claudia and I being the only ones in Melbourne who could do this dance and we’d have to go to these lonely RSL clubs and be with old people – so I talked her into opening Swing Patrol,” he says.

The school was a hit and the swing scene is alive and thriving in Melbourne, something that hasn’t happened since the 1950s when there were big balls at venues like Ivanhoe Town Hall.

“The dance actually started in the States in the 1940s but the American soldiers took it around the world and it took off in Australia in the 1950s,” Scott says.

“Nowadays we think of a swing era and a rock and roll era, but back in the 1950s there was no division – there were big bands, but no-one could afford them so they started shrinking.”

The business expanded to Sydney earlier this year, with Scott and Claudia flying up from Melbourne on alternate weeks to teach classes in Newtown and Paddington.

“Things have gone amazingly well for Swing Patrol,” Scott says. “I’ve had dance schools in the US contact me and tell me that Swing Patrol is probably the biggest dance school in the southern hemisphere – most dance schools are happy with 20 or 30 students, but we have hundreds.”

Claudia says the classes are made up of people aged under 40 who want to try something different – they pay $12 a class and just turn up when they feel like it.

“Oddly enough, there are a lot of IT people who want to learn to dance – I don’t know what it is, maybe it’s that they need to do something physical,” she says.

Scott has a different explanation – “The whole boy girl thing is definitely a bonus. You get 30 girls and 30 guys in one class and there are bound to be sparks flying,” he says.

“Claudia and I have already been invited to two weddings and we know there is a Swing Patrol baby that’s been born.

“Partner dancing is really a bit like speed dating – you can go out, spend three minutes dancing with twenty different women and there is absolutely no pressure to take them home.”

THE FASHION ACCESSORIES … FASTER PUSSYCAT

When Tim Chillingworth and Carrie Phillis were married by an Elvis impersonator in Las Vegas in 1995, life changed.

“It was only when we were in the States and we saw all these great shops selling stuff we really loved that we realised we had to do something over here,” explains Tim.

The pair, who met playing in 50s-style bands, set up shop selling an eclectic mix of books, clothes, furniture and accessories that were inspired by the 1950s.

“I hate it when people say we are retro, because there is nothing old in here – everything we sell is new, it just celebrates an older era,” Tim says.

Faster Pussycat sells pink flamingos for the garden, coffee tables with hot rod-style flames on them, brothel creeper shoes and stickers and books celebrating pin-up girl Betty Page.

“The shop is named after the Russ Meyers film which is about three strippers who go on a road trip – it’s one of those iconic movies that they just don’t make any more,” Tim says.

The best-sellers are the $59 button-up cardigans, which Carrie designs herself, and the books about hot rods and furniture.

“The shop is an extension of our lounge room, really. I’ve been in this scene for years and most people grow up but I just kind of grow across rather than up,” Tim, 38, says.

Tim and Carrie cannot put their finger on why the 1950s are so popular – they just know that it makes good business sense.

“A lot of people are into a lot of different eras – I mean, we love the garage bands from the 60s and that whole thing too – but the 50s definitely has the broadest appeal for the mainstream market,” Carrie says.

The business has grown nicely since it first opened on the anniversary of Elvis’s death in 1996.

“We are not about to retire tomorrow, but things are turning over nicely for us,” Tim says.

The couple have bought their dream house down in Mollymook – a 1959 flat-roof fibro cottage which they plan to renovate in authentic 1950s style.

In the meantime, they will keep living in the city and hope to open another store, which will specialise in 1950s-inspired t-shirts, sheets and accessories for children.

“After we had our own daughter, we got started doing singlets and t-shirts for babies and they were just selling like hotcakes,” says Carrie. “I think people in my generation are having kids and they want to keep this whole thing alive for their children – no-one wants it to die.”

FIVE-STAR FIBRO

Looking at Christine Lewis’s restored 1950s holiday shack on the NSW south coast will make even the harshest Style Nazi smile.

The stone pelican, pink plastic flamingos and garden gnomes in the front garden are just plain kitsch.

The Marilyn Munroe bedroom has posters of the movie goddess and is lit by black lady lamps on the bedside chests.

And the watermelon pink and turquoise blue exterior can’t help but brighten your day.

“There is lots of stuff in this house to tickle your fancy and laugh at, so it’s really like an adventure,” the ex-hairdresser says.

Christine turned her passion for 1950s furniture into a holiday house business in May last year, when she decided she needed a beach house as extra storage for her furniture collection.

“I am the original Miss Steptoe and when I found this little fibro cottage that was just like the one I holidayed in with my Grandmother on the Gold Coast, I had to have it,” she says.

Christine renovated the Culburra Beach shack in authentic 1950s-style and rents it out as Five-Star Fibro for $200 a night. The place has been so popular that it is booked until February and Christine has just expanded the business and bought a beachfront holiday house.

“As a child of the 50s, I know that they didn’t make any good cars, music or women after this era,” she says. “As you get older, holidays are never as exciting as when you were a kid – everyone loves coming here because it reminds them of being a child.”

When time is more valuable than money

Originally published in Sunday Life

John Churchill used to thrive on chaotic busy-ness, where a slow week meant working 70 hours. The result was that he was made partner in a law firm before he reached the age of 30. But it took its toll on his family life: for the first nine months of his daughter’s life, he confesses, he only ever saw her asleep.

“Large organisations are prisons where the walls are built of money,” says the former chairman of PricewaterhouseCoopers Legal. “People make trade-offs they will just do it for a while but it’s hard to break out of.”

Churchill gave up his fancy Sydney office in 2001, when “it just wasn’t fun any more”. “Now our family has a hobby,” says the father of three. “We collect memories.”

He no longer talks about his career – his business card bears his name only; no job title – but he works pro bono, acts as a mentor and directs several company boards. “Every night, our family sits down for dinner and we take the phone off the hook,” he says. “Sometimes dinner takes half an hour; sometimes it takes three hours.”

TIME IS THE NEW CURRENCY

Last year, after conducting polls throughout Europe, America and Australia, advertising agency JWT declared that time was the new currency.

“People aren’t sitting around trying to figure out what to spend their money on,” spouts their research. “They’re frantic deciding what to spend their time with.” Nowadays, says the agency, the most powerful thing a marketer can offer any customer is the opportunity to save a minute or two.

“People rate time ahead of money,” explains Craig Davis, JWT’s chief creative officer, citing his company’s finding that 88 per cent of Australians were happy to pay more money for any brand they identified as a “time-saver”.

Davis says it’s not just lack of time that’s stressing us out – it’s the myriad choices we are offered. Should I buy a plasma TV or go on a holiday? Have children now or wait until after a master’s degree?

“When there is a lot of choice, there is pressure because every choice you make has an inverse cost in lost opportunity,” says Davis. “If you sit and read the newspaper, that means you miss out on kicking a ball with your kids.”

THE COST OF LOST OPPORTUNITY

Advertisers have cottoned on to this by selling us the seductive illusion that we can buy not just status or sex appeal but time. Virgin Blue billboards promise more “you time” thanks to web check-in services. And Berocca’s manufacturer declares we can “get more out of every day” as it shows us two girls popping a fizzy vitamin tablet and crossing four time zones in just one weekend.

Retail expert Anton van den Berg, who works for consumer research giant ACNielsen, points out that even with a declining birthrate, disposable nappies have increased in sales and breath-freshener strips that make it possible to sweeten your mouth without stopping, chewing or gargling are now a $10 million segment of the market. “Three years ago, that market didn’t exist.”

Now that marketers battle for a share of our time rather than plain old vanilla market share, could visions of relaxation and time to spare replace the seductive images of sex and status that advertising has relied on to flog us products?

“I don’t know if time will ever be as powerful as sex at selling things,” Davis says. Although he does wonder whether even sex has become a victim of time poverty. “I bet it has gone the way of cooking. What used to be a slow-cooked meal is now a zap in the microwave.”

Former corporate high-flyer Geoff Small – who has worked in retail, banking and advertising – says there is a good reason the advertising industry wants us to treat time as a precious, dwindling commodity: “People feel they need to entertain themselves all the time so they consume more than people who are taking life easy.”

Small admits he used to be “addicted to speed”, running companies that ate giant chunks of his time and sent him on crazy missions such as flying to Munich for the day. Even in his time off, “my to-do list used to read like 15 volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica,” he says.

Social researcher Clive Hamilton agrees. “Even our leisure activities have been commodified,” says the economist and executive director of the Australia Institute. “All the ‘take a break – you deserve it’ ads, with men and women walking along a beach with their cuffs rolled up. The powerful message is that you have to engage in expensive activities, then go back to your hectic life just to pay for a snatch of leisure time. It’s absurd. Why not take it easy in the first place?”

As British marketing consultant Simon Gulliford points out, “Work used to be a place you went but now it’s what happens when you open your eyes in the morning and look at your mobile phone. It’s why people like me find it makes business sense to actually hire a driver so that I can work while I am stuck in traffic.”

He says the on-hold messages, time-robbing bank forms, queues and inadequate public transport are the reason the iPod music player is so successful: “It turned time-robbing activities such as queuing up or catching trains into an opportunity. People feel in control of their lives when they are listening to their iPod.”

For many people, the only way to feel less time-poor is to “downshift”, by giving up a busy job or moving out of the city.

“We have studied downshifters in detail and discovered that it’s not just a matter of rearranging your time or earning less money,” says Hamilton. “Downshifting is all about reclaiming time so that you aren’t beset with obligations. The big obstacle people face is giving up the status that your job and money gave you.”

THE STATUS OF BEING BUSY

Small concurs. “I think downshifting is a bad word because you ‘up-shift’ your quality of life when you do it,” he says. Now working as a life educator, Small runs a program called Slow to teach people how to “find new meaning in just being who they are rather than what’s on their business card”.

Fabian Dattner, author and partner in Melbourne-based training company Dattner Grant, says Australians have never been richer nor more unhappy.

(Australia Institute research has found that 30 per cent of full-time workers know they neglect their families but think it will be worth it in the end when they have more money; this is called “deferred happiness syndrome”, with high- and middle-income households more likely to suffer from it than low-income earners.)

“Life is not a ride to get off; it’s a mind-set. Lift your head from the feed bin and if life is too complicated, start to say no,” she says.

Small suggests throwing your wristwatch away and stop using the clock to dictate what you should be doing. “I also get people to draw up a list of all the things they want to achieve in your life – then focus on only one of them. Most people have 37 things they want to achieve, and that’s impossible. One or two goals? That’s possible.”

Dr Adam Fraser, a Sydney-based workplace trainer, says slowing down is good in theory but incredibly difficult to achieve. “Because we are time-poor, we tend to give up the things we enjoy to get more time for work and family,” he says. “But if you add something that gives you a sense of enjoyment – a musical instrument, charity work, whatever – that will juice you up and give you more energy.”

Hamilton scoffs at the traditional business and workplace approach to time management. “All those tips to manage your life tell you to pay someone else to do your boring household tasks. That just shifts the pressure on to some other poor bugger,” he says. “Paying people to walk your dog seems utterly pointless to me. Surely you get a dog so you can spend time with it.”

Dattner says she is staggered by the number of people she sees walking dogs while talking on their mobile phones. “Dogs never fail to greet you with unbridled love,” she continues. “This is a gift on your plate. Some people talk on the phone through their best moments.”

MINUTE MANAGER: HOW ONE WOMAN MANAGES A BUSY LIFE

She writes books. She is a university administrator. She teaches evening classes. She has two children. She spends three hours a day cooking, cleaning and washing. She does voluntary work. She meditates. She paints. She is studying for a phD. She swims three times a week.

Meet Jennifer Brassel. She’s busy but doesn’t feel pressured. “Like everyone, I do get stressed from time to time. But I have an approach that works,” says the author of romance novels such as Honour Bound.

The 48-year-old, who lives in Sydney, writes a daily to-do list after her morning meditation. “I get a sense of achievement if I have more than half the list scratched off by the end of the day; a completely done list makes me feel like I am in control of my life,” Brassel says.

But she is unfazed when she doesn’t achieve all she sets out to do. “I don’t feel guilty if I take a day off and sit on the couch. I allow myself to recharge.”

Brassel says rather than think of the tasks she undertakes as a chore, she sees them as an opportunity to do something exciting and different. “I enjoy cooking. It’s like a creative outlet for me and then I get to sit with my family and spend time with them,” she says. “There is only one thing that I pay someone else to do because it doesn’t help me relax and it’s dull: ironing.”