I’ve always had an interest in interiors, but before we started work on our place, I was a complete renovation-rookie. It was lucky, then, that Damien is quite handy and grew up helping his dad put various extensions on their family home. In a bid to do my bit, I enrolled in Design School at Coco Republic. The week-long intensive course not only gave me a TAFE accredited certificate in Interior Design, but it also gave me the confidence to do much of the styling myself. Between the two of us, we thought we could do a lot of it ourselves (Damo LOVES a project). However, as we learnt, some things are best left to the professionals. Here’s a round up of what we did – and what we learnt along on the way.
First, here’s a little video that I filmed part way through to give you a bit of an overview …
So the overall objective of our renovation was to convert our upstairs study into a usable bedroom, to enlarge the kitchen, add storage and to apply a fresh clean Scandi theme throughout the apartment. We were aware that builders can charge a lot for renovations, so we wanted to see what we could achieve without spending the earth.
The downstairs is a combined living, dining and kitchen that flows out to a balcony at either end. We had a very shabby light grey carpet throughout and black tiles on the kitchen floor – which was the same flooring from when it was built 19 years ago. I knew I wanted blonde wood floorboards to help increase the sense of light and space, and so the search began. After a bit of research we decided to go with laminate floating floorboards. We initially intended to get timber, but the laminates now look so real and are not only much cheaper but are much more hard-wearing. With my penchant for heels, and the fact that we were using them in a kitchen, I didn’t want to worry about denting them or getting them wet. Hardwood floors can be soft and can warp if they’re used in a kitchen or bathroom. Since laminate is more affordable, we could go with the best quality option, which was a German engineered over-size board. We chose Trendtime Oak Castell Limed from Carpet Call and pared it with a carpet in Barely Beige for the upstairs bedrooms and the stairs.
LESSON 1: Laminate floors will save you a bucket of money and look great.
We removed the old carpet and tiles ourselves which wasn’t too much trouble. The only problem? You have to have a really flat concrete surface underneath before you lay down floating floorboards, otherwise they spring and creak when you walk on them which feels a bit cheap. Our concrete subfloor was pretty flat, but there were some low and high areas, so we didn’t want to risk it. It was going to cost $2k-$3k to get someone to level it out, so Damien and his dad thought they might save some money by doing it themselves. He said “it’s called ‘self-leveling concrete’, so it must just level itself out”. As it turns out, the name ‘self-leveling concrete’ is a bit misleading. So one hot day in the middle of January they bought 10 bags of self-leveling concrete from Bunnings and got to work.
They soon discovered that this stuff sets pretty quickly and it’s really hard to get it smooth. Once you’ve poured out the concrete in a few areas, you realise a previous area isn’t smooth and it’s very hard to get back to it without messing up the areas around it. The saying painting oneself into a corner comes to mind, although I think concreting oneself into a corner is surely much worse. The result was pretty bad and they had to get a professional in to fix it up. It cost less to fix it than it would have been for the whole job, but it certainly wasn’t worth the effort.
Damien said the only thing worse than spending all weekend leveling a concrete floor is spending all weekend leveling a concrete floor and then paying someone else to level it again. Once the concrete was level, the floorboards went in pretty easily. Most floor board installers will want to put a quad around the skirting board to give a clean finish, but we thought this looked a bit cheap as though it was an after thought, so we chose to remove our skirting board and then put a new skirting board in once the floorboards were installed. We actually got the floorboard guys to install as part of the cost because they budgeted to put the quads in, so we said the skirting board was just like a large quad and should be included which they agreed to.
LESSON 2: Get a pro to do your floors. Especially leveling out concrete sub-floors!
The carpet was quickly and easily installed and I’m really happy with how it feels underfoot. The whole project cost us $3,000, and we were so happy with the results.
We turned a small open mezzanine study into a proper bedroom by closing off the walls and moving the built in wardrobe over to some new floor space we created over the stairs, adding around two square metres in space. We found a builder online who understood our vision and showed us pictures of similar work he’d done. The first few days he was pretty good, but on day three he didn’t turn up citing some convoluted excuse about not having access to a suitable car. The next six weeks were a disaster. It was December – which is traditionally tricky time with tradies anyway – but his attendance was sporadic it best. We kept going to meet him on site, we’d wait half a day, calling him and getting no response. Over the weeks he casually told us some pretty dramatic details of his personal life and one day the police showed up to take him to court – he was in some kind of battle with an ex girlfriend. He eventually finished the job – over two months late. Thankfully the work he did was sound and we managed to only go $750 over our $10,000 budget.
LESSON 3: When it comes to builders, try and get a personal recommendation. Work ethic and trust is all important when someone is working on your home.
Our walls were a taupe shade that we had actually painted ourselves about ten years ago. I was totally over the colour and just wanted everything to be fresh white. But who knew how many shades of white there were? After some extensive online research and asking friends who had renovated, we settled on Dulux Lexicon in half strength. While it was tempting to save the money and paint ourselves, having two young kids running around made it pretty impossible to dedicate two or three full weekends to painting. We also have a loft apartment with some pretty high ceilings. Last time Damien had to rig up some homemade scaffolding which was pretty dodgy and nail biting so we decided to call the experts in. We found our painter on Hipages and managed to do it for $4,000 by only doing two coats.
The bedrooms were a bit darker and in retrospect I wished I’d gone Lexicon quarter – which would have made it a bit brighter. We were painting over a grey/blue colour that we’d had in there, and the effect was that it was still a little bit cool-tinged for my liking. It still annoys me a bit when I go in there.
LESSON 4: Adjust your paint colours to the lighting of each room. If a room gets less daylight you may need to brighten the paint.
I was also really keen on painting the metal door frames on the large glass doors that led out to the balcony from beige to black. We had quotes from professional painters around the $1,500 mark and I was convinced we could do it ourselves for much less. After some research (Bunnings has some great videos online) we decided to tackle it ourselves. We decided on spray paint because it gives a neater finish without brushstrokes, but there’s a lot more prep work required and things can get a bit messy. We bought several cans of black matte spray paint and all the equipment then spent a day just masking and preparing the surrounding area.
I took the kids out of the house while Damo sprayed. It was a bit windy, which he didn’t realise until he was a few hours in that the black spray paint was blowing further into our apartment then he’d laid the drop sheets and it had settled over every available surface downstairs. It wasn’t obvious to the eye, but if you moved something, you could see a faint black outline around it. We then had to frantically wipe down every surface in the place with paint removal wipes before the paint set.
LESSON 5: Put dropsheets down further than you think when using spray paint indoors and it’s good to have paint wipes handy!
Our biggest coup was the kitchen. We went to a few kitchen reno stores and were quoted anywhere between $10,000 and $50,000. Since we didn’t need to replace the white cabinets we didn’t want to rip the whole thing out and start again. We wanted to move the pantry and create a hutch for all our appliances as well as redo the island and the benchtops and add a big rectangular sink. We managed to save a lot by buying materials direct from suppliers and doing some of the work ourselves with the help of a carpenter friend. It suited us to have him working nights and weekends when Damo was able to help him.
For the benchtops, we wanted a white marble with grey vein but decided against it because of how careful you have to be with marble – you have to wipe up citrus spills immediately and we knew with young kids and a plan to rent it out that would be a nightmare. We decided on Quantum Quartz and managed to find a supplier on Gumtree who sell slabs. Our existing benchtop was made out of a heavy stone and had a high ledge on it, which hid any sinktop mess but really closed off the room. We wanted to remove that and put on a longer benchtop in with a bit of a bar to have seating for the kids to eat at. We found a really affordable sink and a gorgeous black tap on eBay. I love that I can throw the whole baking dish in the sink and the sink has a hose on it to make washing a lot easier. We managed to do the whole kitchen project for under $5,000 which was a great result.
LESSON 6: Be creative with your kitchen. Use contractors and suppliers to break the job up into manageable chunks and – if you’re handy – help them where you can. eBay and Gumtree can turn up some great finds.
We had a big space under the stairs that we turned into cupboards for extra storage. After getting several quotes we went with Academic Wardrobes who my dad had used for his office fit out. They also did the wardrobe in the office/bedroom conversion. We were really happy with the quality of their work and with their pricing. Under the stairs we created a big pantry (with a stone benchtop from the off cut from our kitchen slab) with shelves. We also built into the cupboard a desk nook with pull out drawers and a set of book shelves for more storage. At the low end of the stairs is a mini wine cellar. It’s a great place to store kids toys, deliveries and for quickly storing mess when people drop by. We placed a few heavy duty hooks on the insides of the doors for school bags and coats.
Being an apartment meant we had to think really creatively for other storage ideas. When we were moving the built in wardrobe in the study / bedroom, we found a void above the bathroom that we were able to turn into a little attic storage room. We carpeted it and added doors above our bedroom mirror and it’s great for storing things you don’t need too often like ski gear, kids clothes, and bedding. We access it with a little telescopic ladder that we found at Sydney Tools that folds away.
I also needed somewhere to store my beauty products and books so we bought a bed with drawers built into the base and that was an amazing use of space. We found ours at Sleeping Giant. It worked so well that we bought single ones for the kids room. We found some good well-priced ones online on eBay from Young Bedding.
In the kitchen, Damien had a creative idea of using one end of the island bench as an open bookshelf for my cookbooks. He found these two silver towel rails from Bunnings and used them as front-facing book holders. We also put some open industrial style shelves from Ikea (the Svalnäs Shelves) next to the front door to hold keys, candles, coffee table books and picture frames and popped a couple of seagrass baskets underneath for shoes.
LESSON 7: If you’re tight on space, use any available area for storage. Build cupboards into your roof or basement and buy bed bases with drawers.
This was the best bit! After my interiors design course at Coco Republic Design School, I felt I really had the foundations to play with the design aspects. I did a mood board of the space, adding swatches of colour and furniture styles I liked and gradually honed my eye until I knew what I wanted.
I knew I wanted a palette of grey, cream, white and green with plenty of natural textures throughout. I had my heart set on a linen slipcover couch (washable – so very practical with kids) and while the MCM House one was out of our budget, I found a similar one at James Lane. We sourced a very minimal white entertainment unit at Ikea, which is laminate so I don’t love, but it fit the space and hides all our mess. I bought some indoor plants, some coffee table books and candles to disguise it and added a Fiddle Leaf Fig on a plant stand to add even more greenery.
In keeping with a Scandi vibe I was going for, I wanted a marble table and wishbone chairs. We were inspired by a table we saw at Globe West and Damien decided to try and build something similar. We found a round marble tabletop on Gumtree for $380 then bought some Tasmanian Oak from a timber yard. Damien spent a weekend with his Grandpa building the base. It’s my favourite piece in the house. I found my wishbones online – there are similar ones at Temple and Webster. We found a round rug at Unitex (they’re suppliers to many of the major rug stores and my Coco Republic Interior Designer accreditation meant that I could access wholesale rates).
LESSON 8: If you’re interested in interior design consider taking a course. Not only will it give you confidence in your choices, it can allow you to get wholesale rates with suppliers.
The next project was the balcony – we’re almost finished and when we’re done I’ll report back… stay tuned for the next instalment!