I've been wanting to write a post about the Dining Room for quite a while. In Australia, it's become virtually redundant in modern design to have a formal Dining Room. Our casual lifestyle means that more people have embraced the concept of open plan informal living… and devoting a space solely for formal Dining (and which will often only be used a handful of times at best per year) seems to be a waste of space.


Of course there is the other problem in that eating a meal from an actual dining table has become rare, and that more and more people fail to actually sit at a table for a meal together (or alone even). Many families, particularly those with teenagers or young adults in them, will have family members running on such varying schedules due to part-time jobs/ studying/ sport/ extra curricular activities that the act of actually sitting at one time together at a table has become a special occasion in itself due to rarity.


We all know the benefits that come with sharing a meal with others, so this post is not going to become a lecture on the importance of sitting down at a table while eating/ table manners/ placement of cutlery/social history of the dining room etc. I thought I'd instead discuss the selection of dining furniture.

Firstly: table size. Generally speaking you require 60cm per person in length for a long dining table. For a round table, you'll need a 135cm diameter to seat six, 150cm diameter to seat 8 and so on. When working out furniture placement in a room and table width, you'll need at least 1 meter behind a chair for push out/ pull in and general circulation space. It is always a good idea to get out a tape measure in the actual space and measure out your proposed table size, and use newspapers on the floor to mark it out properly so you can visualise it and make sure it works.


In terms of width of a table, a 1metre wide rectangular table is quite narrow - you won't be able to put much down the centre of the table if you like to put out dishes/ platters/ bowls with food on them. 1.2m wide is ideal, however it is better to go narrower if you don't have the 1m clearance around the table for the chairs as noted above.

John Stefanidis design circa 1990's

Tables can be very expensive, and generally it is they that make the most impact in a room in a decor sense. But I have to caution that the money you should invest in your setting should be in the chairs. If you consider how much wear and tear the chair gets, along with the fact that if you may end up sitting down for a long meal with friends for many hours (and therefore experience a sore back from a poorly designed chair), the chairs are the item worth investing in. You want something that is comfortable and durable with some degree of aesthetic flair.


If you buy cheap chairs you will get the same result that I have had with my horrible Eames replica chairs. They are uncomfortable to sit in, most are on the verge of collapse, and we are one short as one collapsed completely and could not be resuscitated. When we have people over we have to caution them on how to sit in the chairs so that they don't fall through the backs (it's happened a few times). We then spend most of the meal in a heightened state of anxiety as our guests's chairs creak and make cracking sounds, terrified they may end up on the floor. They were cheap, they are 6 years old, but I am not happy that they are going into landfill so soon after they were made. Such a waste on so many levels. The chairs were $100 each, which is pretty cheap in Australia for a new dining chair. So having said that, we bought 10 chairs, and $1,000 seemed like a lot at the time considering that the dining table was so expensive and we were paying for the entire new dining furniture all at once. Now, six years later… it seems like we've wasted the money. With hindsight I'd far rather have bought fewer, more expensive (durable) chairs and gradually built it up to a set of 10 then have bought the cheap ones all at once, with an end result of broken, uncomfortable and essentially unusable chairs. The saying "when you buy quality, you only cry once" is pretty apt.

my broken Eames Replica chairs

So the short version of that tale of woe is that now I advise people to put the money into the chairs. A cheaper dining chair that is well made is around the $400 mark when new (in Australia) with prices going up from there. $850 will buy you a real Eames dining chair, and there are of course chairs that are upwards of $3000 each depending on who designed them.

Another consideration when looking to buy your dining furniture is to consider who is using it. If you have a young family, or a family of teenagers then buying a highly polished "perfect" looking dining table may end up causing you a lot of angst if your family are not terribly well behaved with it. While I do not advocate waiting until your children leave home to buy good furniture and making do with the shabby in the meantime, you just have to buy wisely so that your choice reflects your lifestyle particulars and also has some aesthetic value. Our dining table is made from recycled wood and has a distressed finish. This has worked well with babies and small children who have scratched and banged and added to the general distress in a way that works with the original design. It was not my first choice of table - that was a more perfect looking modern designer table…. but having returned from a day of looking at tables in showrooms and then watching my oldest child (who was 2.5 at the time) smash his little fork into the existing dining table a few times that night while having his dinner, the distressed finish and more rustic table was chosen.

 my rustic style dining table in our casual living area

Similarly, buying upholstered chairs when you have toddlers or young children is a recipe for disaster. There are a lot of chairs available in either plain timber finishes or in polypropylene that are wipeable, and it's far better to accommodate the actuality of your life, than to have chairs that are encrusted with the remnants of meals past.

my Sideboard

 my sideboard with food served buffet style for a dinner party

I'd also suggest that if you can possibly accommodate somewhere else to serve food off, you'll be very pleased to have it for larger meals. We have our French antique cherry wood side board, which is extra wide. It's perfect for putting out platters of food and doing a meal buffet style, or for holding all the bottles of wine and extra things for meals that are already plated and served to table. If you're in an open plan living room your kitchen island bench may double up for this, but if you can accommodate the extra bit of furniture it's well worth it as it will keep the kitchen free for the actual act of cooking.

rustic table dressed up for a dinner party

In terms of formal dining in a separate room, things have changed drastically in the formal dining room in the past 10 years. For a start, as more and more people have done away with having a special dedicated stand alone room, the very formal furniture has naturally been jettisoned as well. Auction rooms are awash with Georgian, Regency, Victorian and Edwardian era Dining furniture from extension tables that will accommodate up to 14 or 16, sets of balloon back dining chairs, and large and heavy sideboards. In the early 1980's Victorian furniture was highly fashionable, as were large formal dining rooms, and now with our more casual lifestyle they are most definitely not. Like anything, it's cyclical so if you're after a bargain for the future and have room to accommodate it then a formal table and chairs might be a good investment. The big tip is that "brown furniture" as it has been called in a slightly derogatory manner for the past 15 - 20 years is starting to become fashionable again, so if you're interested in antiques these are the things to buy now. And if you're someone who has adult children that have stated they're not interested in inheriting your cherished family antiques, sit tight as they may yet change their mind.



Princess Marie-Chantal of Greece's Dining room in London via

It always feels special to me to be invited to someone else's home for  meal - no matter if it's a simple Lasagna and a salad (as one friend used to make for us in Melbourne - she would say she wasn't a good cook, so would make what she was good at, and wouldn't use the excuse that it wasn't gourmet fare and multiple courses to not have people over). The act of hospitality is a great pleasure when we are living in a world so rushed, and in which it's becoming so difficult to make meaningful connections due to the pace of life. It's most definitely something worth celebrating with some decent dining furniture.


This is the part 2 of the Where to Spend/ Where to Save, and these are the things that I feel are worth spending money on when you're building or renovating. Part 1, Where to Save is here


Lighting always makes a real impact and gives a designer feel to any house, so allow a decent amount in your budget for some really good feature lights. Not just feature pendants/ chandeliers, but up lighters, art lights in walls, wall sconces, outside lighting - these really personalise a home and give a lot of wow compared to other things. 


Most people cut their lighting significantly as it's the last thing that is purchased and generally building costs overrun by the stage you get to lighting. Putting aside a decent amount, or purchasing your lights at the start before starting construction will ensure you have a really polished feel in your renovation. A perfect example of underwhelming lighting can be seen below - this pendant is a little insipid design-wise, it's under scaled for the size of the room and table, and to me looks like an afterthought and a totally missed opportunity to put something in with impact that would anchor the table and create a focal point. 


Don't do masses of downlights in the ceiling - it makes it look like swiss cheese, and you'll likely use lamps more as you'll want light at your height rather than overhead (overhead is less flattering, and much harsher). If your living area has sofas that are away from the wall, get some floor boxes put in under the sofas - these have power points in them so you can put your lamp cords into that rather than having cords running across the floor. We have no overhead lighting in our casual living area, so it's all wall lights and lamps. The lamps are connected to the floor boxes and then switched on and off from the wall light switch, just like in a hotel. Doesn't cost a lot extra when you're already wiring up a new house, but it makes life much easier. 



Taps are worth spending money on. Anything you touch and use every day should be the best quality you can afford, as you'll really appreciate it. Taps are also something you really notice in a bathroom or kitchen from a visual standpoint too, so are definitely worth spending money on as they're part of the overall design impact. You should not purchase your taps directly from overseas where they are usually a lot cheaper - we have very high plumbing standards in Australia for water conservation and other regulatory reasons, and plumbers are unable to offer warranty and certification on overseas taps, so you may find it hard to get the installed at any rate. The cost of sanitary ware (toilets/ hand basins etc) can be in the bargain sector (I do think you can get high quality no name sanitary ware for low prices), but the taps are worth spending money on.


Allow enough money for wallpaper or feature finishes. There is a massive variety out there from subtle to bold, but it will give your home more of a finished look if you use it in a couple of rooms. Even using it on the back of built in bookshelves is fabulous (like grasscloth) and makes a big impact. 


Natural light is an excellent thing to spend money on - skylights such as the Velux ones are invaluable to bring it into dark hall ways or rooms and these are the ones you can see sky through (sky windows). They make a huge difference compared to the solar tubes with those plastic diffusers you can't see through (although if you have to use them due to your roof line profile, that's better than nothing). I use them extensively in bathrooms - in our ensuite bathroom we have an openable one with a remote, the powder room has a fixed glass one. Our living area has the ceiling lantern which brings in masses of light and ventilates the rear extension effectively, and a friend recently put one into her dark Victorian hall, and it made an enormous difference to the whole feel of the house by bringing light into a previously gloomy space. 




Choose a standout feature in your project and spend the money on it. For me this was our steel windows. It could be you make a special feature out of a staircase by having a special handrail made…. it could be a fireplace, a wall of natural stone, built in wall panelling or library shelves, or a really special feature light. But if you balance out the special feature by being more restrained in other places you'll highlight the feature, and save money on simplifying elsewhere. It will give your feature maximum impact and distract from other budget saving measures you've employed.


If you put carpet in, choose the best quality underlay possible rather than skimping on it. It makes more of a difference to the way the carpet feels and performs long term than you'd believe. 


I really feel strongly that you should spend money on good insulation. Always put in much more than is recommended - having lived in a house for a year that had terrible insulation in it, I can attest that you will be permanently uncomfortable in your home if you skimp. There's no joy in staring at acres of 2pac joinery and beautiful marble while you shiver, and are then hit by astronomical electricity/gas bills after running your heating and cooling 24/7. It's invisible, but completely worth it. The recommended r value in South Australia for your ceiling is 3.2. I don't feel this is adequate at all… I'd suggest an r value of 4 at a minimum (the higher the r value the better the rate of insulation), and if you can put in double layers of insulation to get to 6 you'll be very happy in the long term. 


Finally, the most obvious is that it's always with spending money on an Architect. It is always tempting to cut out the fee you'd be spending on a designer when looking at a tight renovation budget… but Architects will give your renovation all the intangible things that you won't get through using a builder or draftsperson alone. Good design does not come about from building a large physical space to maximise the floor area that you can get for your budget - it is a strange truth that you can have a much smaller space that will in fact feel larger because of the way the space and light is manipulated by ceiling height/ window choice etc …. this was something I touched on in a blog post about the Modern Australian renovation, and which are all the things that will make a difference to your experience and enjoyment of a renovation. The potential saving you will make from choosing not to use an Architect or Interior Designer can wind up costing you added light/ space/ overall experience and the elusive x factor. 
I've written a few posts on budgeting for a renovation, however after recently writing out a long email to a friend after she asked for advice on what was worth spending or saving money on in her upcoming renovation project I thought it might be a good idea to put it in a blog post and it's ended up being so long that I'm splitting it into two, and will do part 2 on Where to Spend separately. 


Like anything in life renovating is a bit of a tightrope walk where you're trying to work out how to give maximum impact for the money you have to spend. And just as you can mix high and low cost fashion in an outfit and still give the overall impression it's expensive, so too you can do this in a renovation or new build with the materials you choose, and the design elements you decide are worth spending money on.


Most people are blown away by the cost of the joinery (kitchen/ laundry/ wardrobe cupboards)  when they receive a builders quote. It's one area that can quickly add an enormous amount of cost to a house renovation, and is therefore a great starting point to save a lot of money by looking at using cheap finishes like laminate. Your Architect/ kitchen designer may be really surprised if you ask for it, and may well try to talk you out of it (I've had many friends that have had this experience), but it's a favourite finish of mine and I've used it all through our house. It gets a bad rap now, as everyone likes 2 pac (real estate agents in particular), but frankly no one can tell the difference when they walk through your house in a couple of minutes, and it's much more durable so far better with families as it will withstand bumps and knocks. It also looks good if you pick wisely (in the cheaper ranges such as Laminex I like the solid colours rather than faux timber grains), and is so much cheaper than 2pac, and a lot nicer than vinyl wrap. I wrote a long post about the pros and cons of kitchen finishes here

My dressing room with Laminex Stipple Seal

I once used laminate in a very high end house that I did in Melbourne, and we had the Poliform rep (high end Italian Kitchen/ Furniture company) come through the house to discuss some furniture and walk in wardrobes, and she pointed at the kitchen and referred to it as 2pac… so even she couldn't tell. In my house I've used it for our walk in wardrobe in a dark colour (Stipple Seal), and I use Parchment a lot, which is a good white and is in our Laundry. I'd also suggest using a laminate bench top in the laundry area. The difference in cost between stone and laminate in our laundry was $1200 for a reasonably small stretch of bench, so things like that add up quickly. Use stone on the kitchen bench tops though if you can afford it as it's more durable (you can't set hot things directly onto a laminate bench top) and is better for resale if you end up selling down the track.  


 my laundry - laminate cupboards and bench top in Laminex Parchment with a mirrored splash back (mirror cost the same as doing standard tile, but was a much better choice for bouncing light and adding interest)


You can also save a lot of money in kitchen handles, door knobs etc by ordering direct from the US. Our kitchen handles were $12 US each, and aside from the more limited selection in Australia, comparable handles here sell for around the $70/ handle mark locally. So that was a massive saving (and there was no compromise on quality). If you look at how many handles you have in a kitchen/ laundry/ bathroom/ wardrobe you'll be ordering in the region of around 50 plus, so that adds up quickly. 

cheap brass handles in my kitchen


You can get carried away with appliances in the kitchen and easily blow your budget - go mid range in whatever brand you choose. The top of the range tend to just have more features (like auto cooking selections where you choose that you're cooking a lamb roast and it works it out for you). They don't necessarily give you better temperature control or change the taste of the food magically. But they can end up being a few thousand per item more depending on the brand you're looking at. 

La Cornu range via

Regarding appliances in general, really think hard about what you'll use when cooking and be realistic about how much you life will change with a new kitchen. I have had clients that have had a fantasy in their head of entertaining large family gatherings regularly, and then have not actually had anyone over after completing their home. The purchases for their new kitchen involved multiple ovens/ steam ovens/ combination microwave ovens etc. which all sit idle. If you don't enjoy cooking and don't entertain much then a new steam oven will not prompt you to start doing more of it. It is also my experience that people that have bought steam ovens do not use them, with many regretting their (very expensive) purchase. If you're someone that steams food all the time, then this is a great option for you. If you don't do a lot of steaming (the majority of people), you'll likely not start just because you bought it.  The combi microwave/ ovens you can get also fall into this category. Combi ovens are around $3,000, which is a lot for a very small oven, or a microwave. You'd get more use from a second full sized oven or a double wall oven (which is what I got as it saved space) and which is actually cheaper than buying a combo oven. Built in coffee machines are also incredibly expensive for the quality of coffee they deliver. We had one in our house in Melbourne, as I felt it was a good sales tactic for when we went to sell the house - and it was as the new buyer wanted it written in the contract that the built in coffee machine went with the house. But if you're not planning on moving, then a bench top coffee machine will likely give you better coffee for a fraction of the price. Kitchens are a really easy place to blow through a lot of money - as many home renovation tv shows can attest where people put in kitchens that cost $70,000-$100,000 and which would not add on that sort of money to the sale price if the 
house were to be sold.


Don't go overboard with home automation - it all dates so quickly it's just lost money, and you can absolutely burn through money installing it. The technology is generally completely obsolete within 10 years. We have none of it in our house, and every Architect I know won't put it in their own homes for this reason. They always have problems  - we have a friend that couldn't open their front door for a month (it had keyless entry that malfunctioned), or another house I worked on had the blinds going up and down in the entire house at 2am every night and no one could work out why (a bug in the system that had the automation people and the electrician blamed each other). Realistically you're unlikely to regularly check in on your home to turn on the lights and air-conditioning on your way home from work (and all the other fabulous things they say you can do), so if you're looking at prioritising expenditure, cut it out of the budget. It's great when it works, and a nightmare when it doesn't.

my kitchen with linoleum flooring

Flooring was one area we saved a lot of money in our renovation. I wrote about it here. If you look at finishes that have become popularised due to Architects using them in the renovation of their own home, you'll often find they use commercial materials in a domestic setting to save money, which is what I did with our flooring in the extension. This was how polished concrete floors originally came into popularity, why industrial style windows/ off form concrete walls/ alucobond cladding and all manner of other materials have been used in house design. The average Architect is not well paid - Design in general does not generate huge riches (of course there are superstar Architects doing well, but your average professional does not fall into that category - it is the worst paid profession in Australia when compared to Engineers/ Accountants/ Doctors/ Lawyers/ Dentists). Architects and designers have great houses because they have to get creative with stretching their budget and therefore investigate using materials and building techniques that are not 'normal' domestically. If you pick one thing like that for your house and use it to cut costs, it doesn't give an overall feel of budget to your renovation. What does give a budget feel to a house is if you try to use a material that imitates an expensive finish - so a stone look-alike rather than real stone, or laminate flooring rather than real timber boards. They never quite look like the real thing - it is far better to use a different finish entirely to cut your cost, rather than trying to imitate the more expensive finish, and this is what most Designers will do. Think of it a little like seeing someone with a designer bag over their shoulder that you see from a distance - it might look great, but as you get closer to them you'll notice it isn't leather and looks like vinyl, the seams aren't well sewn, it doesn't sit the same over the arm of the wearer, and that it's clearly a cheap fake and then it becomes a distraction from the rest of their outfit which might otherwise be perfectly nice.

 concrete floors via

So coming up later in the week, I'll add in Part 2 - Where to Spend. This is naturally not an exhaustive list... it's a pretty broad topic, so I'm really just scratching the surface and of course this is all coloured with my personal viewpoint. But hopefully it will give those of you planning building works some things to think about. Ultimately if you are keen on a 2pac finish for your kitchen having considered all options, or really think you'll use a steam oven, then go ahead and put it in - it's never a one size fits all approach to design, which is why a good Architect takes so many factors into consideration when planning the design of a house for their client.

I touched on this topic a few weeks ago when discussing that people often now enter their house exclusively via their lock up garage, or their back door and that in many homes a front door has become completely unused. A lot of modern design often gives a fairly perfunctory experience for the welcome to a house with the front door as well - many Australian townhouses give priority to a double garage and driveway with the front door being pushed to the side, often recessed, and the garage ending up being front and centre of the design.

fairly standard modern Australian townhouse via

While this may be practical, it's not the best way to welcome people to your home. If anything this says that you're not interested in having visitors, as you've essentially made it hard to find the front door, given an unwelcoming vibe by having a visitor walk across the driveway to get to it, and if it's not softened in any way (interesting door colour, plants etc) it can most definitely give off a "go away" feel.



There's a lot of psychology behind the traditional entry. It's a transition point between the public and private realms, and it's the first clue you give anyone to your aspirations in life (Grand/ Informal/ Unassuming etc). I've mentioned before the book A Pattern Language, which is a bit of an Architectural bible. It talks a lot about the best way a house relates to the wider community via the design of the facade - and the one thing that is consistently stated is that a garage should not be given priority. Unfortunately though, sometimes practicality dictates that this is the only way a house can be designed… but if you can at least balance it out by giving a good Front Door experience, you can alleviate some of the lack of welcome you can otherwise experience.


Adelaide cottage front garden via


Greenery
Soften an entry with greenery. If you have acres of paving leading up to the front door (which is what it will feel like if you have a large driveway taking up most of what would otherwise be a front garden) you need things in pots. Living things always make everything feel more welcoming.

London town house planters via 

One of my favourite things about London are the window boxes and planters prevalent in the houses and apartments in the posh areas (Belgravia, Kensington, Knightsbridge, Chelsea etc). These are usually tended by specialist window box gardeners (really), who will change the plants over seasonally and create quite amazing variety in tiny little boxes. The people who live in these houses understand that even when you have no opportunity to plant things in the ground, greenery will always give a more welcoming entry to a home.



Front Path
Overscaling the width of the path, as demonstrated in the image below gives more prominence to people, rather than cars. I did this with our front path, which is fairly short (we don't have a deep front garden). The prior path was extremely narrow - I made ours around 1.6m wide, which gives a feel of generosity of space, even when there is a short transition from street to door. Consider a different material to construct the path out of from the driveway, and have a separate gate for foot traffic. This will give emphasis on the person, rather than the cars.

Paul Bangay design via


Door mat
Get a decent door mat! This seems obvious, but often you grow so used to what you've had for years you get a little blind to how others will view it. Large sized ones are always good for the reasons I've mentioned above with the path. If you have a front door with sidelights around it, a wider than normal doormat works well, as the photo above also demonstrates.



Front door colour
People love a colourful front door. In Australia this is not common at all for a few reasons. If you're in a group of townhouses, you'll need Body Corporate approval…. which will usually mean you won't be allowed to change the colour. If you have an old house, and live in an old suburb, you'll likely have local council heritage restrictions on what colour you can paint your door. It will be restricted to the heritage colour palette, which means you won't have a lot of options… but anyone else not restricted by these two things can have some fun.


Lighting
Lighting will add a lot of ambience to a home, and if you're pushed for space in your entry way to do much else to soften it, it may be one of your only ways to add a bit of personality. The 3 lanterns below give a really nice warm ambience to the entry (as do the plants in their zinc planters).


Finally, just making sure it's clean is always a good idea! If you're entering your home via your garage or side door all the time, you need to go out and check how the front entry looks - piles of dead leaves and a dusty front step does not make for much of a welcome. We all become used to our homes but trying to see it through the fresh eyes of a stranger might prompt you to give it a clean once a week, so get out the broom!

Belgravia town house via

I was going through my draft posts today, and realised I've got around 7 half written posts on Design or Interiors sitting there… so I'm going to try to get them finished off and up on the blog at last… stay tuned for a bit of a design month (or two).
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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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