Floored: a living room makeover

Creating an open plan living area at the rear of an inner city timber workers’ cottage blends the old and new on a tight budget. Alex Brooks finds out more for Handyman magazine.


A living room makeover

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 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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.



Lisa carefully managed the renovation budget to make sure the work ultimately adds value to the property.

Plans and council: $5000

Kitchen cabinets and installation: $20,000

Floorboards and finishing: $10,000

Bi-fold doors: $6600

Lighting and electrics: $5000

New walls and roof: $22,000

Rubbish removal and demolition: $10,000

TOTAL $78,600 


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.


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

  1. 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.

  1. 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

  1. 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.

  1. 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.