How to Choose the Right Renovation Designer: My Inside Tips from 25 Years Experience

Janita Norman
September 2022

Any renovation, big or small, can be a challenging and stressful experience. Nasty surprises and unforeseen difficulties are part-and-parcel, but a good partnership with a building designer who understands the difficulties of renovating old buildings can give the project structure and direction, and help you to avoid common pitfalls. But all renovation designers are not made equal, so here are my top tips for picking the right designer for your project.

Norman House in Echuca is a grand home in the classic Queen Anne Federation style.

Over a 15 year timespan this pristine period home has been extensively renovated to suit the needs of Gary & Lara and their two girls while preserving the many beautiful period details.

Tip 1:
Find someone experienced in renovations

Renovations can be a cruel beast, with many pitfalls – both avoidable and unavoidable – to trip up the inexperienced. We've all heard the horror stories of renovations that tripled their original budget, or ended in a home that is simply unlivable.

Sadly in most cases these problems could have been averted by the homeowners working with experienced professionals who understand the specific demands of renovation works.

If I were only allowed to provide one piece of advice in this article, it would be this: 

For the love of pete, work with someone who knows renos!

Tip 2:
Look for a comprehensive service

Renovations are by their nature complex and demanding, especially if you are working with a home that has not been previously renovated, or is in a state of disrepair. If you have the time and energy you can by all means coordinate the renovation yourself: planning each element, finding contractors, and managing them on your own. But in my experience self-managed renovations, especially major ones, inevitably stall and never reach completion as it all becomes too much or more pressing life priorities get in the way.

Engaging a renovation designer to plan, design, document, and assist throughout the construction phase of your renovation can save you countless hours, sleepless nights, and even perhaps a few grey hairs!

If your designer is not going to stay with you for the duration of the project, then you are back to square one after the initial planning and design is completed; left to find contractors and personally contend with every single issue that comes up.

And the last thing we want we all want is to live in a half-renovated house for the next ten years!

Tip 3:
Speak to previous clients

When selecting contractors, nothing weeds out the wheat from the chaff better than speaking to their existing customers. We do this as a rule of thumb in our own practice, but too many skip this vital – and admittedly awkward – step.

I don't think I've heard of a renovation that went off completely drama-free: there are always curly problems when working on any established building. But the measure of a good building designer and project manager is how they handle such problems when they occur.

The past clients of your potential renovation designer will tell you how they handled the problems they encountered and whether they were considerate, flexible, and collaborative, or stiff, gruff, and combative.

Adaptability and clear communication is at the heart of completing the project with your relationship intact.

Tip 4:
Insist on a clearly defined scope of works

In line with the previous tip, I suggest that it is vitally important that you have a detailed and easy to understand scope of works, and even more importantly: clear terms under which out of scope works will be undertaken.

As I've said before, unforeseen issues and cost overruns are to be expected in a renovation project. But you don't want to be paying extra for things that are already accounted for due to fuzzy quoting, or left to foot the bill for things that were within the power and responsibility of your designer or individual contractors.

So when you sign that contract:

Know your commitments, know your rights, and be clear on what happens when that curveball comes your way.

Bathrooms are a critical area of any renovation project, and when you are dealing with a period home, you should tread carefully and design a new bathroom that respects the established home while adding modern amenities.

Sometimes a renovation can be as simple as fresh paint and a carefully-selected tile, like these sage green subway tiles that frame and accentuate the original timber window over the sink.

Tip 5:
Heritage listed? Get a qualified specialist

My final tip – and I may be a little biased here – is that if your home (or commercial property for that matter) is heritage listed, you need to work with a qualified heritage designer who is trained in the ins-and-outs of heritage status and adept at navigating heritage submissions and approvals processes.

Breaches of the Heritage Act 2017 attract severe fines and even jail time in some cases, with minor breaches of owner obligations starting at $22,190 (2022-23 rates) for individuals and $44,380 for body corporates. Major breaches of heritage protections on properties with state heritage status can attract fines as high as $887,616 for individuals and $1,775,232 for body corporates that fail to comply with a stop order.

I touch on all of this not to scare you, but to illustrate the importance of respecting the heritage of our important buildings and places – these penalties are absolutely nothing to worry about if we follow the correct procedures and submit our proposed changes to the governing bodies prior to commencing works.

As a qualified heritage designer myself, I am passionate about preserving and promoting the valuable heritage places and object that exist around us, and if you are the lucky owner of such a place, then you have the obligation – no the privilege – to protect and secure your piece of Australian history for generations to come.

Period elements add character and charm, giving your home a unique personality that a new dwelling cannot hope to replicate – keep these features in place where possible.

Renovation is all about adapting the house to the needs of your family while respecting the fabric of the established dwelling.

I hope this helps you to find the perfect partner to realise the dream of your home makeover.

I truly wish you all the best and hope your renovation brings you joy in the years to come. I hope my tips have been enlightening and informative.

I know that I would have appreciated this advice all those years ago when I was first starting out, so maybe there's something of value in there for you too!

In case you're interested: I happen to be an experienced renovation designer who will stay with you through the whole project, has a deep roster of happy clients, provides simple and clear contract terms, and is qualified in Australian heritage regulations.

Funny that! Seriously though, I'd love to hear from you if you're looking at renovating your home, especially if you're in the Echuca/Moama area or broadly in northern Victoria or southern New South Wales, and especially especially if you are working with a period or heritage listed home! If that's you, I look forward to speaking with you soon.

NOTE: all of the images on this page are of the Norman House, a project that is dear to my heart, having been a recurring effort on-and-off over the last 15 years. Click here to read the full project profile
10 Heritage Design Tips

Practical tips for designing your next heritage renovation.

Our clients are often surprised when they find out just how much they can do with their heritage listed building. We created this document to dispel some of the most prevalent myths about working with heritage buildings, so that you have a solid foundation on the can-dos, can't-dos, and things to be aware of.

Designers of renovations and extensions that increase the functionality of your home while respecting the fabric of the existing building.

How to Design a 7 Star Energy Rated Home: My Top Solutions

Janita Norman
June 2023
New Homes

With 7 Star Energy Rating requirements coming into force in October, homeowners and builders need to be prepared for this significant change in the design and build process. We've been handed an exciting challenge with these new standards, but with knowledge and planning, most homes can comfortably get there.

So, you're eager to understand the most effective strategies for achieving the new 7 star energy rating?

Well you're in the right place! In this article, I'll dive into the specifics of designing a home that meets these requirements, covering topics such as building orientation, construction system, insulation, glazing, and energy-efficient appliances. Along the way we will learn how 7 star accommodations don't have to break the bank, especially when integrated right from the beginning, during the design stage.

So without further ado, here are my top solutions for designing a 7 star energy rated home...

White Arrow White