The Can of Worms, Part I

That’s what the builder said, a couple of months into the Project.

You don’t open a can of worms, and not expect to find any worms in it…

In September 2017 our Australian Real Estate Adventure came to an end. We had signed the papers for Salter House, negotiating a long settlement (January 15) in exchange for fifty grand off the price. That gave us lots of time to think about what we wanted to do.  Continue reading

The Can of Worms, Part II

You may recall, in the last episode, I was lying awake fretting about neurotoxic mould and wondering if we had made the biggest mistake of our lives.

Well, morning arrived and the house was still ours. We went by to meet the project foreman, Andrew. During the night a large branch from the gum tree in front of the house had broken off. These eucalyptus trees are known as widowmakers, for their propensity to unexpectedly shed branches at random moments and kill people. Fortuitously, this one missed the roof and it happened at night, so no one got hurt. Was it a sign? As in Yes this project is going to be full of scary surprises but no one will die. Continue reading

The Can of Worms, Part III

I left you after the last post about to rip the carpets out of the bedrooms. We’d tried to peek at the state of the floor around the heating/AC vents earlier, but given the presence of mould on the east wall, I wasn’t too optimistic.

Continue reading

The Can of Worms, Part IV

At this point in the narrative, I’m a little worried you might think that the restoration of our Priceless Piece of Australian Architectural History was an unmitigated nightmare and that I was on the verge of catastrophic sleep failure.

So let me reassure you. There were many, many things that were going well. Sure, the completion date was moving away from us at a fairly steady pace and our starting budget was only a rosy memory. But with Jane and Christopher on the scene, we were spared the majority of the minutiae.

They designed the new bathrooms and chose a tile scheme, for example. Have you ever gone into a tile showroom? It’s a complete nightmare. If you haven’t, then don’t. Fake stone, real stone, shiny, matte, bumpy, skinny, wide, retro, contemporary. It’s all there for you to put into the great bathroom in your imagination. A decision is impossible. Unless you’re an architect with a decent sense of style.

The choice they made was perfect. We simply said great, love it! and we all moved on. Same with the door hardware, the lighting, and so many other details. They’d pass it by for our approval, and we’d pat ourselves on the backs for having been able to foist yet another difficult decision into such capable hands.

We also got a huge boost around this time: At the request of Jane and Christopher, Sam Cox, Melbourne’s best native landscape architect, had come by to see the house, and he agreed to take us on. This was so exciting! The surrounds of old Salter House had been rigidified over the years in an attempt to keep up with the neighborhood. In Toorak, original homes are continually being flattened and replaced by faux-french palaces and boxy edifices of gargantuan proportions to appeal to the riche, the nouveau riche, and the wanna-be nouveau riche. (Paling house, another Griffin gem, sadly met that fate in the 1990s.) The pool, the bluestone slate pavers, the box hedges, the tropical plants… But like a nerd at a pep rally, Salter house was never going to fit in. It needed to be in a native habitat, as we were certain Walter and Marion would have wanted. And Sam was the man who could make that happen.

The other thing keeping me sane was the presence of my brother Rob, who had come over to do some hiking and biking with me. We escaped the mayhem with three wonderful adventures — hiking the Rees Dart track in New Zealand, the Overland Track in Tasmania, and a six-day guided trek on the Larapinta Trail in the outback. We also did a 145km bike ride on the Great Ocean Road. Maybe I’ll write about those some other time.

So it definitely wasn’t all bad news. It also wasn’t all house, all the time, which was good both for me and for the architects. I’m guessing that meddling, angst-ridden clients aren’t a whole lot of fun.

Back to the worms. Where were we? Right, the laundry room-to-be. Stuart had removed some bit of a wall and discovered the thing you really, really don’t want to discover when you’re looking at wood: termite damage.

It wasn’t extensive, basically just one small board, but I didn’t know that at the time. Predictably, I freaked out. Termites! We’ll have to fog the house with toxic chemicals!

Why is it that I always assume the worst?

A termite inspection was thenceforth conducted, and no further damage was found. Andrew explained that in that crappy post-war period a board would sometimes be sold with a termite or two in it. They’d munch away, but in the absence of a queen, the problem stops there. Sweet relief!

The fireplaces were up next. Or maybe they were up before, I can’t remember. I have to impose a chronology for the sake of a narrative. In reality, a lot of this stuff was happening simultaneously, in waves. Nothing for a while, then one thing after another.

The living room fireplace was ostensibly functional, but the mortar between the bricks was disintegrating, there were moisture issues, and it would have to be re-built. The other two fireplaces — one in the TV room and one in the dining room — had been boarded over. The dining room flue was filled with rubble and the guts of the HVAC system. We could never use it as a fireplace, but it could be cleared out and an insert placed inside it.

Legend has it that the living room fireplace originally held another Griffin invention — a trapdoor system through which the ashes could be dumped directly into the crawl space under the house. That innovation was apparently deep-sixed when the house nearly caught on fire.

Did I mention the windows? The mechanisms for working them, another Griffin innovation, had all been coated in layers of paint. They were dipped in acid, hung out to dry, and then I sanded them all down. They worked again!

From here on in, most of the worms that were going to come out of the can had done so, and the rest was just little stuff. The fascia around the courtyard was rotten, and would need to be replaced. The roof pointing was sub-par, and should be replaced. The plumbers stepped on the fragile knitlock roof tiles while installing the gutters or flashing the chimney or some other such thing and broke a few of them, causing a leak. The bathroom tiles got held up at customs, pushing the completion date back another couple of weeks, which meant we had to find yet another Air BnB as the one by the Botanic Gardens was booked for August. The bathtub that arrived wasn’t the right size for the spot it was supposed to go into. The stormwater drainage was completely blocked. The usual kinds of things that happen when you’re renovating or building.

On August 24, 2018, we moved in to Salter House. The final engineering works for stabilizing the front wall had not been completed, and the outside painting was not yet done. I’d be getting up before 7:00 every morning until Christmas to welcome the landscaping crew (and Jim’s adorable dog Indie). But for the first time in fifteen months, we were not living out of suitcases. Correction: I was not living out of a suitcase. Marc was traveling. So the first few nights, I was alone in the house. I wondered briefly about ghosts, but nothing came to disturb me as I slept in my mother’s bird bed in the guest room (our bed being backordered). Home sweet home at last.

Me being me, I periodically went over to inspect the front wall, to see if the crack had gotten bigger since the last time I had looked at it, say, fifteen minutes earlier. It didn’t ever change. I know the contours of that crack like a London Taxi driver knows his A to Zed. I am happy to say that now, more than a year later, it still hasn’t shifted an iota.

And so we come to the end of The Can of Worms. The landscaping was great fun, and I’ll share that story next, along with many more pictures. Thanks for coming along on the adventure!

The Can of Worms, illustrated

As a bit of an epilogue to the saga of our restoration of the bit of Australian Architectural History, I promised to add some photos.

You can see the professional ones done by the good photographers at the Design Files. Those are amazing, much better than anything I could take.

Our architects also had someone come in and “stage” the house. It was 44 degrees out that day, the AC was unable to keep the house cool, and I felt bad for the team. But it wasn’t my idea to move all the furniture around (I thought we had placed it nicely) and take all the books off the shelves (why bother with bookshelves?) and replace the books with forgettable objects. Never mind. Design is a thing, now, and it’s the domain of those under forty. You can see the shots they took on Jane Cameron’s website.

I have a policy of only putting my own photos up on this blog — very long story involving a copyright troll operating from underneath a bridge in Las Vegas — but I’ll make a small exception here to include some publicly available real estate photos so you can see what changed. Keep in mind they used a wide angle lens, which I can’t reproduce.

Here are a few Before/After of the same basic shot. So, front of the house:

View of the house from the side:


View from the front door down towards the driveway:

The inner courtyard (zen garden impossible with constant leaf litter):

The back deck (note the aluminum wall which became a brush fence):

Of course the photos don’t do it justice. The garden is a dream. It’s private, peaceful, all native, soft edges, full of birds (and fish!). I told Sam Cox to do whatever he wanted, as long as it didn’t involve an expanding budget. He is basically an artist who uses a backhoe and spray paint in place of a paintbrush or pen and paper. He didn’t draw up any plans, didn’t give me a computer rendering, didn’t plan out all the plants and zones. He and his team showed up with a backhoe and huge boulders, which he expertly placed so it looks like the house is nestled into its surroundings.

Over the course of the next few months, they tore out and gave away the bluestone tiles, box shrubbery, and tropical plants, built a new deck out of spotted gum to replace the painted and rotting jarrah deck, a brush fence to replace the aluminum wall, a storage bin and platform to replace the rotting cupboards (that the possums had been using to get up onto the roof), a bike shed and brush fence and gate down on the driveway for privacy, and poured a concrete pond in the front. Dean, his expert slate layer, spent backbreaking hours laying acres of Castlemaine (local) slate on our patios and building a rock wall to replace the purple pool equipment hiding wall (See below) and I think he might still be suffering a little PTSD from the experience.

Another major project was to cover the pool with a slab of reinforced concrete. The picnic table is now sitting atop a 27,000L water reservoir. The rain that falls on our roof is pumped in, and then another pump runs an irrigation system out. Here’s the before and after of that:

And of course at the back of the house, where the water issues had resulted in a mould issue, the patio had to be torn out and re-built with the right drainage, with an extra “aggie” drain run underneath. They transplanted the rare Yuzu tree, which was sitting in an odd well-like structure (below), out by the deck. It’s thriving and recently hosted some Dainty swallowtail caterpillars.

Not long before Christmas, we had a brief discussion about plants — me basically saying “whatever you think will work and maybe some kangaroo paws” — and now it is a thing of beauty and a true oasis. You must come and visit. In the pond, five tame goldfish and oodles of little invisible native fish (to keep the mosquito population under control) endlessly entertain me. Little scrub wrens and wattlebirds hang out and chatter all day long. The native plants are starting to fill in and wander around. When it’s warm enough, I spend all my time outside. I’m sitting at the back table as I write this, listening to the whispering of the breeze in the gum leaves overhead.

So that’s the house, wrapped. Looking back, I can’t believe we actually did it. If I had known at the start what would be involved, we probably wouldn’t have taken it on — we’d have been too intimidated by both the scope and the price. So I’m glad we didn’t know.

I like to think that Marion and Walter would be pleased to see the care we have taken to try and stay true to their intentions, particularly with respect to the garden. We love the simple lines of the house and its practical layout. It has lived up to the sense I got when I walked in the door that very first time: This is a place that can become a home.