Extending your home is an exciting prospect, but for many it is quite daunting too – we’ve all heard horror stories shared by those who have gone down that path. It doesn’t need to be that way though. With a little bit of planning, the right advice and some discipline, you can take control of the process and ensure your extension improves your lifestyle for many years to come. Here are 10 questions to get you started and heading in the right direction.
1. What is the first step?
No matter how big or small, every extension project requires a custom design solution. It is an opportunity to improve the liveability of a house, and a chance to add value to the property. Therefore, it is critical that you get professional help at the design stage of the project, to ensure you get the best possible outcome for your given budget. This should be your first step.
The options in most cases are to engage a draftsperson, a building designer or an architect, and generally speaking the fees associated will increase in that order. However, rather than focus on the exact profession of who you might engage, I would suggest you get familiar with the type of work they do. Ask friends and colleagues for recommendations and when interviewing your shortlist of preferred designers, ensure they are able to demonstrate experience in working with a brief and a budget that is similar to yours.
2. Who am I building it for?
This is an important and often overlooked question. Too many people get into an extension project without enough clarity about what they are actually trying to achieve.
You need to think carefully about who you are building it for and what the purpose of the project is. For example, are your children still young and likely to be at home for a long time, or are they grown up and more likely to be leaving home soon? Do you want them to leave home, or do you want them to stay on for a while? Maybe the kids have already left and you are approaching retirement; in which case you should ask yourself if you really need any extra space at all.
Your design brief should clearly address these very personal and unique aspects of your life, rather than being a list of random thoughts and ideas you have seen over the years. Clarifying these questions and their answers will help you create a detailed brief, which is also more likely to help you avoid overspending on unnecessary spaces and items.
3. Do we have enough space to extend?
To answer this question you’ll need to think about what it is you actually need. One extra bedroom may not take up a lot of room, but a new family room and kitchen is a bigger extension that may have an impact on the amount of space you have left over for a backyard, for example.
You can start to visualise how much space you might need by using rope or other markers to map out how big the new spaces will take up on your property. Use the size of your existing rooms as a guide to how big each room should be. Then stand back and assess what you have left and if you are happy with the open space that remains.
4. Maybe we need to go up?
If you don’t have enough space to extend at ground level, you may need to consider going up and adding a second storey. Adding another level is great for retaining backyards and open space. However, extending up is rarely the most cost-effective option as there is a lot of work in removing the roof structure, replacing it with a new floor structure and supporting the new upper-floor walls.
Another important consideration is what it will look like. Investing in a second storey addition has the potential to enhance the look of your home and give it more appeal in the streetscape, but to avoid the look of it being ‘tacked on’, you should consider the benefits of engaging a good architect or building designer to help you balance the practical solutions you require with the aesthetic considerations.
5. How do we make it cost-effective?
One of the dearest elements of an extension is demolition work, and the knock-on costs that tend to follow. Keep in mind that for each wall that is demolished, there will also need to be a lot of rectification work done involving several tradespeople.
A major potential cost of demolishing walls is the likelihood that structural modifications will be required if the wall being removed is load-bearing. But regardless of whether the wall is load-bearing or not, repairs will still be required at the base of the wall where it connected with the floor, and at the top of the wall where it connected with the ceiling. In each case there are several tradespeople involved, including carpenters, plasterboard experts, and painters.
Plus, depending on the rooms affected, electricians, plumbers, ceramic tilers or timber floor installers may also be required. Think very carefully during the planning stage about how to design your extension with as few existing walls removed as possible.
6. Do we need to match the existing house?
One of the exciting things about extending a home is the opportunity to have some fun with the design. Who says you need to match the existing style of your house (other than the council if you happen to live in a heritage area)?
By choosing to adopt a contrasting building style to that of the existing house, you are opening up numerous possibilities for material choice, roof style, use of texture, glazing proportions, ceiling height and much more. Modern materials are better suited to the open-plan living style that we generally desire, enabling more natural light and ventilation, as well as the ability to personalise your colours and finishes.
One of the key considerations when choosing to extend in a contrasting style is to make the change from old to new as deliberate and concise as possible. This may include contrasting the roof style, exterior finish and colour, as well as associated details. Ideally it should be very obvious where the old home finishes and where the new part of the home begins.
7. Can we get more sunlight and natural warmth?
Older homes aren’t generally known for their solar passive design qualities, so one of the key considerations when extending is to investigate ways to get more sunlight and warmth into the house.
Understanding where north is will give you a good idea of where the sun will be at different times of the day; and if you have already lived in the home for a while, you will know where the sun will enter the property from season to season. Capturing northern sun should be one of your key priorities when extending, especially if you are adding a living room or family room that you spend a lot of time in. More natural sunlight will make it a much more comfortable space to live in, and will also reduce the amount of artificial heating required.
However, when adding larger windows you must also be very aware of how exposed the windows are to summer sunlight, especially the west-facing afternoon sun. While having sunlight beaming into the space in winter is a lovely outcome, the opposite can be said for scorching hot summer sun as it can make the space unliveable. This is where a thorough understanding of the orientation, appropriate glazing specification and good use of shading elements is critical. Once again, a good architect or building designer will help achieve the best results in your circumstances.
8. Would we need to move out?
The financial benefits of living in the house throughout an extension are obvious, not to mention the convenience of not having to uproot your life and routine. Unfortunately, it may not be that easy. Any extension project that also involves a significant amount of renovation work to the existing part of the house will be very difficult to live in throughout the build. In these circumstances, the project may be able to be staged so that you can move from one part of the house to the next.
But you must also be aware that staging a building project will generally mean it takes longer to build, which also means it will cost a little bit more.
9. How do I find a builder?
Recommendations are important when looking for a builder. As mentioned earlier, you should choose a builder who is experienced in doing similar work and within similar budgets to yours. Your building designer or architect should be a good source of advice, and be able to recommend builders suited to your project. Some will even offer a service that sees them administering the building contract for you, and acting as your agent on site.
You should also ask friends and colleagues for their recommendations, with a view to creating a shortlist of builders to get quotes from. The final selection of builder tends to be the builder who is cheapest. This is an acceptable outcome only if you are completely satisfied that all of the quoting builders have quoted the same thing.
10. How long will it take?
How long is a piece of string? A quick and simple extension might only take four to six weeks. Say, for example, you happen to be adding only a small amount of space under an existing roofline, and the full range of tradespeople aren’t required for the job. A similar timeline would apply if you were adding a kitchen or bathroom.
However, as most extensions generally do include a wet area – and assuming that the extension is of a decent size – the time frame is probably more like three to six months. Large extensions that also involve a lot of renovations to the existing house may take even longer; especially if they involve second storey additions. Six to nine months might be a more realistic time frame in that case.