Q: We have an old home that's had several additions over the years. Is it possible to renovate it ourselves to obtain a more cohesive style?
A: Home renovation isn't a recent phenomenon - it's just become more glamorous recently. Apart from the appeal of many older homes, they are usually well-located and provide real opportunities for capital growth if carefully handled.
Older homes have often been altered or added to since they were originally built. It's not unusual to see houses, particularly period cottages, which have undergone several face-lifts over the years as families have moved in and out, as lifestyles have changed and as repairs have become necessary. A common sight is the "cascading skillion" - a series of lean-to additions at the rear of a home with each roof tucked under the eave of the previous one.
The first priority of any renovator intending to retain previous additions should be to ensure that they are safe. One in four of the homes inspected by building inspectors has some form of illegal building evident - a low ceiling, steep stairs or inadequate natural light or ventilation, for example.
It's reasonable to assume that such work was done without the necessary permits or inspections so the condition and adequacy of the structure, the wiring or the plumbing is uncertain at best. Some investigation should be carried out to establish the extent of any reconstruction work required (and its likely cost) before decisions are made about retaining that "charming attic" or the "sun-filled sitting room".
This done, the design process can begin, taking into account circulation, zoning, orientation, views, materials, lifestyle needs, the form of the house and of course the budget. It's sometimes useful to think about the building objectively...as an empty vessel within which your particular requirements need to be accommodated.
Style is clearly a matter of individual taste and preference. Many renovators want to preserve or recreate period details while others enjoy the freedom of more contemporary materials and spaces. The choice is yours and it can be worth exploring the possibilities of both approaches.
In any event, it's important to do your homework first. Objectively assess the home so you can decide what to keep - don't assume it's condition or it's adequacy for your needs.