My Mum, a Serial Renovator, always made one decision before buying a home. It was the only way to buy a house as far as she was concerned. What was it? Read on …
My mother, Maryland (like the American state, not the chicken!), who has always had a creative streak, loved changing our home on a regular basis.
Painting walls, being creative with furniture arrangement, making things as comfortable as possible. (She did this a few times over the years we lived there – always on a shoestring. No sooner was the paint dry on one coat around the house, she’d start up with a new ‘look’ – a serial renovator!)
However, what was important was the decision my mother made first.
Before she even looked at the house, and well before she bought it.
She decided she wanted a house with a north-facing garden.
She wasn’t going to look at anything else.
The only way to buy a house (as far as my Mum is concerned)
It’s the only way I’ve ever known her to buy houses (she’s onto her eighth one since I’ve been around – renovating and selling!). She knows that when you buy a house with a north-facing garden (south-facing if you’re in the US), it enables a better quality living environment, through creating the opportunity for light-filled living spaces that open out onto these gardens.
In her opinion (and I tend to agree with her), it sells better too, when the time comes. Her ability to establish her own financial independence through renovating and selling, with this approach as a key strategy, is testament to this.
I’ve explained before that one of the true joys of designing a home is that the movement of the sun across a house, a block of land, is predictable down to every minute on every day of the year, with an understanding of location, topography, season and time of day.
The sun rises in the east, and sets in the west, and in the southern hemisphere, moves through the north. So if your garden faces north (and the living areas that open onto it), it will be sun-bathed for most of the day.
Yes, Australia can be hot. Moreso in certain locations. Let me be clear – what I’m NOT talking about is capturing heat.
What I’m talking about, what I’m singing from the rooftops, and dancing in the streets about is … EVERYONE! LET’S LIVE WITH LIGHT! Natural, lovely, beautiful light. Natural light that keeps your energy bills down. Natural heat that keeps your winter heating bills down. Beautiful, gorgeous light.
So my Mum bought this little brick house with a north-facing garden and made it our home. About four years after we’d been living there, she’d saved up enough to put a room on the back.
It was a fairly boxy space which provided a large, casual living area, dining area, bathroom and a study zone. She positioned it so its long side faced north, with two sets of simple, sliding glass, aluminium framed doors. These opened out onto a paved area with outdoor furniture.
You stepped down from the existing house (which was elevated above ground level by about 1m) and she kept the ceiling of the new extension fairly high, so you got this great sense of expansion – of things opening up – as you moved from the old part of the house into the new. You moved down 3 or 4 stairs into the new extension and immediately felt the openness, which was created and enhanced by the glass sliding doors that opened up the view of the garden, and let in lots of light.
Delayed gratification is always an option (when you don’t have the budget for instant results)
Outside, over the paved area, was a timber pergola.
She couldn’t stretch her budget to roof it, so she grew a deciduous vine.
In summer, when it was thick with leaves, it provided cool shade over the paved area and the interior of the new living area. In winter, the leaves dropped off and winter sun warmed up the room.
This was enhanced by the floor structure being a concrete slab (covered with carpet), so it warmed up during the day, and gently let off heat in the winter evenings. This is called using ‘thermal mass’ to naturally heat and cool your home.
In summer, the room was well-shaded, keeping the slab cool, which helped keep the room cool, particularly into the end of the day when normally everything heats up. Yes, it took a couple of years for the vine to grow but she’d chosen a fast-growing species, which took off with some care and love.
That extension wasn’t anything that would win architectural awards or be photographed for a magazine.
Far from it. However, it was affordable to build. It was basically a rectangular floor plan, with a couple of internal walls to partition the bathroom. Fans provided additional air circulation to help air move when the doors were open. The floor was carpeted, and it had basic oyster light fittings. Mum painted it inside and outside herself.
However, it dramatically improved the quality of our life in that home – it gave us a place to be together, and also gave her a place to put us and be away from us when she needed to!
It provided several different functions in one space. It was able to be furnished in zones that created places within it: a place for lounging in front of the TV, and a place for studying and using the computer, as well as a place to sit around a dining table to eat, do homework, read.
When I started studying architecture, I set up my drafting board in a corner to work on it during the day because the light was so great to work in.
It really cracked open the existing old house and greatly extended its functionality. It felt cosy when you were in it on your own, and it also managed a party or several. It saw Christmases and slumber parties and 21sts and first kisses and all-night uni projects.
It suited us as a family from my age of 12, to when I moved out at age 23. It had flexibility and functionality built into the design so that it suited our lifestyle through the stages of our life.
First things first – set your priorities
And the best thing about it … my mum set the parameters, and chose consciously. She chose intentionally. She decided to care. She put first things first. She bought a house with a north-facing garden. And then she created a flexible, functional extension that made the most of that orientation. On a shoestring.
I still remember seeing her in that room, on winter Sunday afternoons, stealing a moment to read the paper in front of the glass doors, where the sun was particularly warm, and then having a quiet snooze. She’d swear she wasn’t, but most of the time, you could hear a quiet snore. That’s ok – the rest was well-deserved.
The most significant thing you can do to create a well-designed home is to design to the orientation of the site. That is, to create a design that responds to where the sun moves. Respecting this, responding to this, and designing for this, will keep your house cool in summer, warm in winter, cost you less, lower your energy costs, AND most importantly, will dramatically improve the quality of your life in your home.