I'm often asked if I'm an avid watcher of TV home renovation/ design programs. The short answer is not really. The longer answer takes a lot longer to explain.

Here in Australia we've just finished another series of "The Block", which is the top rating home renovation show here. For overseas readers, the show's premise is that there are 4 nearly identical properties - a small apartment block, or small terrace houses in a row or on the same street. Couples (brothers/ sisters/ married/ unmarried/ friends etc) renovate one room a week which are judged by three judges in which the 'winner' of that weeks room reveal is given extra money to spend on their renovation. At the end of the series the properties are all auctioned, and the winner is the person who receives the best price on the day. The show has been running (with a long break in the middle) for around 11 years.

I haven't watched it much in recent years, despite two properties being located around the corner from my old house in Melbourne. I can remember those properties selling - some 3 years before the shows went to air.

The reason why I don't much like this show, and other shows like it, is that I think it has encouraged a really unpleasant side to Australian design and real estate. Firstly the show should not be viewed as a design show - it's a real estate flipping game show. The contestants are all very concerned about what "The Market" wants (this is constantly invoked by contestants, hosts and judges) so that they can maximise the money they get at the Auction. This is reinforced by the three judges who award points each week (giving the contestants more money to spend on their project). One week in the series last year one couple were told to go back to their Real Estate agent and talk to them about what "The Market" wants as they just weren't getting the design right. I'd also add that the judges are not eminent designers in the field of Architecture or Interior Architecture - there is a Decorator, the Editor of one of Australia's top Interiors magazines, and a TV personality/ Decorator who features on "Selling Houses Australia" (another show where they do up properties that are unsellable to finally achieve a sale). These are all disciplines that deal with the surface, rather than the substance behind it.

And the problem with focussing solely on what is "saleable", and what photographs or films well is that it follows all those trends that won't necessarily have longevity, often at the expense of good design. In these types of programs the Design is purely driven by re-sale, rather than good design, which tailors to an individuals circumstances and needs.

The other major problem I have with The Block (and other shows like it), is that it gives an unrealistic idea of how much it actually costs to renovate a property in Australia. The contestants last year were reminded that the Rules stated they "were to pay a minimum of $47/ hour for their tradespeople, and not to negotiate more than a 50% discount on goods". I have never met tradesmen/ women who will work for that sort of money in a city like Melbourne. Australia has very, very high labour costs for building. Crane drivers were earning $150,000 a year back when I was working on large construction sites in 2001. You'd be hard pressed to find even a newly minted labourer to work for that sort of rate, let alone a specialist tradesperson, such as an Electrician or Plumber. As for a 50% trade discount on goods - I've only managed that when I went to a (public) one- off warehouse sale. Trade discounts are nowhere near as generous on items like appliances, sanitary ware, taps or cabinetry hardware etc. So when these contestants are filmed saying things like "we only have $2000 to do our terrace" you should more than double it if you want what it would actually cost someone at home with normal resources to do it.

Before any of the teams set foot on the property, they have had all the Council development approvals go through, which has involved Architects, Engineers and other specialists consultants (Heritage or town planning) and all the fees that they command - none of this is ever mentioned or disclosed in their total "budget" that they spent on renovating the properties.

The unrealistic time lines displayed are laughable. A "room reveal" of an ensuite bathroom for each contestant had one couple in the last series getting a very large custom mirror installed on the morning of a public holiday with about 8 hours notice. The glazier worked overnight to cut it to size. If only this happens in the real world... Another week I heard the contestants sigh and say, "big week next week, we have to do the kitchen". Stone bench tops are not cut and installed in a week in the real world (the cupboards have to be completely in, a template cut and then it goes off to the stone yard to be cut to size before being brought onto site and installed). Nor can you get custom cabinetry measured up at the start of the week and installed 4 days later. Appliances usually take several days to arrive and be installed if you choose only what is in stock, and you need your appliances already selected and delivered to your cabinet maker for cupboards to be made around them at any rate.

So the main problem with all of this is that, sure, people realise this is entertainment TV, but there is still a large percentage that think they could do this at home too and in a not too dissimilar time frame. And they can't. In the area we used to live in in Melbourne (Albert Park), I would see the entry level single fronted cottages selling for a premium. They were the places that were completely run down. The purchasers were usually a young couple, who would live there for 2 years. In that time they'd do the place up a bit with a facelift (white paint throughout, polish the old floor boards), hire an Architect and get some development plans through the council to do a big gut and renovation (this part alone used to take around 6 months with the local council). They they'd cost it up with a builder once the approvals had gone through, find out it was going to cost them more than it would be worth once finished and sold, and usually they'd then sell it unrenovated…. to the next couple who would do the same thing. I saw several properties pass through 3 buyers in the time we lived there, ultimately never being renovated with the big extension as it cost too much and they'd paid too much to start with to ever be able to recoup their costs.

It is very difficult to make (genuine) money in residential property in Australia unless you have a way of leveraging your skills and experience - you're a Designer/ Tradesperson who can use their own time and skill in the project and/ or you have really good trade contacts so can get product a lot cheaper than a normal customer. A lot of people think they make money in property, but often it is just normal market rise if you take out costs (insurance, interest, stamp duty etc).

So I'm not hugely fond of TV property flipping entertainment shows that masquerade as Design/ renovation shows. They give a completely unrealistic idea of how much things actually cost and how long it takes to deliver completed rooms, they drive design toward what "The Market" wants (things that Agents can write in a short paragraph that sound impressive "Miele Kitchen/ Polished Boards/ Full Home Automation" etc), and they encourage the cult of what looks impressive in a photograph having been styled to death, rather than the practicalities of how we live. They are also shameless in their tie in deals with large retailers who place product in the show, and with the station that runs the program themselves (Australia's Channel 9) who have their own online shop where you can purchase items used for prop styling in the show.

Sigh. It frustrates me no end… but there is the beacon of hope - the highly credible Kevin McCloud of Grand Designs UK who has been doing his trick-free show for around 15 years now. His thoughtful commentary on design/ budget/ construction following real life renovation or new build homes is in a league of its own and much more representational of what renovating a property looks like. Give me that over the silly games added for content filler, the drawn out sagas of the personal lives of the contestants and the "fast fashion" decorating that is packaged up for mass entertainment in the guise of being Good Design.

All images via Channel Nines "Block Shop"

Long term blog readers will have seen it all before - I'm afraid there are no cupboards full of different china patterns in my house. As I've previously explained I was given (excellent) advice by my Aunt 15 years ago when I was registering for my wedding at David Jones. She encouraged me to choose a very nice everyday set of china that could be dressed up for formal dining, but that was dishwasher friendly and that I could also have the pleasure of using every day. Rather than splitting purchases of china between two different sets and the subsequent gaps that this would cause in complete settings, I was fortunate that family and friends combined to purchase a large and complete dinner set of Villeroy and Boch's Tipo Blue (since discontinued). It's not the most exciting China (you can see it at the end of the post, and also on the bread and butter plates above) - I wanted something with longevity, so no pattern. But the quality is lovely, it has a subtle self-dot on the rim, and the blue stripe around the edge went with a lot of the blue things that I have in my kitchen (le Creuset, kitchen aid mixer etc… I am a blue person from way back).

So, that said, after 15 years it is looking slightly worn (not bad enough to get rid of it), and of course I suffer boredom from the whole thing as I've been dining off it for so long. So, I decided to apply the same principles I apply to my wardrobe to the China. I've accessorised. Long term blog readers will also know that I'm a lover of Isis Ceramics (one of my very first blog posts was on Isis), and I was excited to see that Isis Ceramics collaborated with Juliska to produce a range called Country Estate. Isis is very expensive (hand made), so a complete dinner setting is a total luxury. The Juliska collaboration is a good alternative - the same feel of Isis, but it's less expensive, dishwasher safe and easily available via Saks in the US with free shipping. I purchased 8 chargers (there were supposed to be 10 but two were broken in transit - Saks refunded me). A charger, for Australian readers, seems to me to be an American invention (I'm not aware of it being used elsewhere in the world commonly). Essentially it is a platter sized plate, and is used instead of a place mat. You set entree and main plates directly on top of it, and then it is removed with the main plate for dessert. At any rate, I decided it was a relatively inexpensive way of breathing interest and new life into my existing and aged V & B set without purchasing a whole other set of china.

So, two weekends ago we had 7 friends over for dinner, and I set the table with all the nice things - white linen tablecloth and napkins with a simple hemstitch detail, the antique sterling silver cutlery, the new Juliska "Country Estate" chargers, Blue (also ancient wedding gift) Villery & Boch water glasses, and all the Waterford Crystal I purchased very cheaply at a couple of local estate Auctions last year. I put out some candles and scattered a few olive branch prunings down the middle and it was done - there is no room for a flower arrangement as the table is too narrow.

I also decided to buy a set of place card holders recently. This does seem very formal, but I find that the moment where you ask everyone to come to the table, and there is a crowd - they all freeze and wait for you to tell them where to sit which holds things up unnecessarily… I'm usually trying to get plates out at that point, and Mr AV is pouring wine. People like being told where to sit rather than shuffling around awkwardly trying to work it out themselves so I've been on the lookout for a place card holder for a while. These little silver watering cans were perfect. They're from a collection by Bunny Williams for Ballard Design in the US (currently heavily reduced). Being a gardener and with the design on the chargers these were perfect.

Dinner was fun - I did a simple menu with a loose Italian theme - Tuscan white bean soup, Veal Osso Bucco on Risotto alla Milanese with a couple of different sides, and Lemon & Lime Tart for desert. Main and dessert were Jamie Oliver recipes - I do like his recipes as they always work. The tart was from the first cookbook he put out, the Osso Bucco and Risotto from his latest (Comfort Food). All done in advance (aside from the risotto) which meant I spent minimal time in the kitchen.

usual table setting for a family dinner - silvery jug just seen is Georg Jensen Pumpkin water jug, everyday stainless cutlery and napkins, everyday water glasses from Market Import

The other dinner setting improve I've made recently concerns every day dining. Like most small children mine make a mess, and a wipe clean placemat is essential. All the kid ones I've purchased have  gradually had the designs scrubbed off them, so they look quite tatty. Additionally as we dine as a family so often I really wanted something that could be used for either Adult or child for a nicely cohesive table setting. The ones we had been using were round rattan, which tended to get bits of food stuck in the rattan and they were looking tatty as well after around 6 years of use. Bunny Williams again to the rescue - while purchasing the Watering cans, I thought I'd also try out these placemats that were designed for indoors/ outdoors and were supposed to be child friendly. These things are genius! They are really large, which is perfect for catching mess from kids, but it also means they easily accommodate plate, cutlery, glass and napkin without moving any of those things onto the table surface. They're woven out of a thick tape that seems pretty much indestructible, and I can give them a good scrub in the kitchen sink if they've got pasta sauce or weetbix stuck on them and it all comes out. My only complaint is the lack of colour option - there's a blue/ white or orange/white. Bunny needs to do a neutral. I'm planning to use these for outdoor dining as well in Summer, but for everyday dining they are perfect indoors too. Highly recommend them.

a little bit more dressed up for casual dining

Apologies for the photo quality at the top of the page - I snapped them just as everyone was starting to arrive, so used the iPhone...
I was thinking about the best things I did in our new extension over the weekend and thought it might make a good blog post… I tried to keep to 5, but a sixth snuck in. Really there are probably another 10 more I could list, but in the interests of keeping it short(ish) here are the top 6 things I'm so happy I included/ did in our renovation in no particular order:

1. Underfloor heating
You feel warmer if your feet are warm, and underfloor heating put heats at human level, rather than trying to force it down from the ceiling as ducted air does (hot air rises and all…). We have hydronic heating in the house (water moving through tubes in the slab heated by a boiler unit), and putting it in the concrete slab was one of the best decisions we made - no draughts, no movement of dust, constant comfortable temperature that is economical to run.

2. Hanging Laundry maid
Using the principle of hot air rising as you winch the line up to ceiling height, I can dry a large load of washing overnight on this. Saves energy, and I avoid having mobile drying racks all through the house to trip over. I also like being able to hang it up late at night without having to go outside to the outside line and also being able to dry something overnight in winter that I might need the next day (late night school uniform washing…). Cheap, but effective, saves wear and tear on your clothes from a dryer, and makes my life easier.

3. Two dishwashers
This also goes into the making my life easier category. It seemed extravagant when I first considered it for the kitchen, but it's one of the best decisions I made (I had many people suggest this to me when planning the kitchen). I never have dishes out waiting for the dishwasher to finish, and it's particularly handy when entertaining and you have a lot of plates. I was watching a Real Housewives of Melbourne episode recently (yes, I occasionally watch trash tv!) and Chyka (a caterer) said that some houses in Melbourne they go into now have 4 dishwashers - 2 in the butler's pantry, 2 in the kitchen so that caterers can do loads of dishes as they go for big parties.

view of the kitchen when sitting at the dining table - not a lot to see

4. Separated kitchen
This was a controversial component of the design and something my husband and I had many terse discussions about - open plan living is a non negotiable in Australia, so it was hard to get it over the line. I love not being able to see the mess in the kitchen when eating in the dining area. On Saturday night we had 8 friends over for dinner, and the kitchen was in a pretty chaotic state. No one could see it, including me.

5. Linoleum floors
A decision made based on budget cuts (you can read about it here), it turned out to be the silver lining. I love these floors so much - easy to clean, comfortable underfoot, perfect for hard wearing family living, and they look so good. They are the perfect neutral backdrop. Plus they're dirt cheap.

6. Natural Light from multiple directions in the living areas
This is something I've written a little about before on this blog post, but having natural light coming from multiple directions makes for a great living space - as detailed in the Architects unofficial bible  A Pattern Language.  The changing light through the day moving through the space makes for a much more dynamic living environment. Highlight windows in the sitting area add to the experience - in the living area the light comes from North, South, East and West. The children's playroom also has East and West windows which gives the room a similar feel.

Some of these things are expensive (like the ceiling lantern in the Living area), others are cheap (laundry maid and flooring) but they all highlight what makes life easier or more enjoyable in the new extension.

Online reviews can be both good and bad. I know that when ordering clothes online, the reviews can be very beneficial - other customers telling you that the sizing is out, or that the fabric feels cheap can be very helpful when making a decision on whether to go to the effort of ordering online. J Crew in the US, for example, weathered the storm of consumer protest over their lack of online review for many years up until fairly recently. Certainly I know that I avoided ordering anything from them for a few years as their vanity sizing saw me apparently shrinking on a seasonal basis, something that made me hesitant to order anything as it would most likely be too big compared to the same size the previous season. And contrary to whatever J Crew seem to think, I am not stupid enough to believe I've miraculously lost weight and shrunk numerous dress sizes, so the point of vanity sizing seems to be lost on me…

However, sometimes online reviews are not helpful, at all. I was just looking at ordering lamps online from overseas, and this was fairly typical of the reviews I saw "I have just got the lamps and they look good, but I haven't set them up yet to see if they work". Or this one "I really love these lamps and can't wait for them to arrive!". Well, thanks for the excellent review… very handy that you've had exactly the same amount of experience with these lamps as I have (i.e. you've not actually seen them in the flesh, plugged them in to see if they work etc etc).

Trip advisor is an obvious pitfall and it is the first place anyone travelling will go to check their future hotel's reviews. I hate to say it as it is an obvious prejudice, but if a reviewer writes with poor grammar, a lack of punctuation and/or text speak I will most likely discount any negative review posted. I will also generally discount any negative rant from someone talking about how this was a "special" occasion and that they asked for "special" things to be done for their arrival and were then outraged when said special things were not done and they were not treated with the special reverence that they believed their 3rd wedding anniversary deserved. Sure, I agree that it would be nice if these special things occurred as you'd requested, but if you've taken a base level room at a large resort I won't blame the staff for not attending to the many special requests you've put in.

Hayman Island

And then, I fell down the rabbit hole of reviews - Amazon.com. I have been aware of the infamous Playmobil (kid's German made role- play toy) reviews...see here for the Playmobil Security Check Point  reviews on Amazon, it's a cult collectable (as reflected by its exorbitant pricing). And if you're interested in seeing what the 17 most inappropriate Playmobil sets are then read here for a good laugh.

But I found instead these "Bic Cristal For Her" pens reviewed which proved that the marketing team at BIC are geniuses…

and then Amazon recommended that other buyers of the Bic Cristal For Her pens also bought the Hutzler 571 Banana Slicer, which also had hilarious reviews….

and finally after reviewing the banana slicer, Amazon recommended this to me, the reviews of which had me in stitches, and after which I decided I wouldn't see what else Amazon suggested I should purchase...

Enjoy the weekend!

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Architect & Interior Designer. Mother of three. A sometimes Cook, Baker, Reader, Gardener, Fashion Lover, Renovator, Writer of random things in South Australia email me on anadelaidevilla@bigpond.com
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