From Fibro to Fab – Knockdown and Rebuild

Featured in the Sydney Morning Herald

Toby Johnstone
April 28, 2012

The Webbs replaced an ‘unrenovatable’ Depression-era shack with a modern beach house – and learnt some tricks along the way.

Katie Webb and her husband, Tristan, have been on struggle street for a little more than a decade. When they bought a one-bedroom fibro shack, complete with asbestos, in Freshwater the first thing they did was nickname it struggle street: it was a struggle to pay for and a struggle to live in. Twelve years later, their struggle looks as if it’s coming to an end: they’ve listed it for sale for more than $1.6 million. It’s up for May 8 auction through McGrath Manly.

Let’s backtrack a little.

Early days

Although they grew up on the northern beaches, in early 2000 the couple found themselves living the student life in Surry Hills: in a terrace, income swallowed by rent, property ambitions stunted by financial constraints. However, a call from mum and dad, a few rushed decisions and a little financial help later, they found themselves the not-so-proud owners of a $430,000 fibro cottage.

Katie estimates the property was built during the Great Depression, and hadn’t changed hands in about 70 years. ”It was one of the original fibro cottages in Freshwater,” she says. ”In fact, the title deeds that came with the property when we bought it were written in copper plates.”

The couple lived in the property for eight years and had two children before they were finally in a position where they could transform their home. Why didn’t they renovate?

“It was unrenovatable,” Katie says. ”You know when you rip up the carpet in old houses to reveal beautiful floorboards underneath? Well, when we ripped up the carpet it was old wooden fruit boxes that formed the floor. There was nothing worth keeping in the house at all.”

The build

The couple turned to northern beaches architect Max Lanser to draw up their new house plans. ”They call the northern beaches the insular peninsula; he is the father of a girl I went to school with,” Katie says.

It was a similar story with the builder they picked. Having taken the same set of plans to four different builders and got four different quotes ranging from $450,000 to $950,000, the couple took a mid-range option and stayed within the peninsula.

”The guy we picked was a local builder; he had local references, he had local houses I could go and see,” Katie says.

But even the most local of builders couldn’t do anything about the rainy weather. The planned six-month construction dragged on for 10 months.

Council staff were also sticklers throughout the build. Those considering a knock-down rebuild should keep in mind the plethora of rules and regulations governing what you can and can’t do.

One such rule that plagued the Webb family was for two-car off-street parking. People with a small block who need to fit two cars behind the building line run the risk of building a car park with a house attached. The couple hired a private certifier who helped them negotiate around this clause.

Katie says: ”Even if you just keep one wall and call it a renovation, you get away with a lot more than if you do a complete knock-down rebuild.”

Struggle street?

It appears that this property is in need of a new nickname. The four-bedroom weatherboard house has been designed not only to complement the beach house-style streetscape, but also to allow for easy family living. The open-plan kitchen and living area open on to a sunny deck, making it ideal for outdoor dining. All of the bedrooms are upstairs and the main one features built-in wardrobes and a large north-facing balcony.

My favourite room is the study with a custom-built library, which cost, you guessed it, $10,000. And let’s not forget the children’s pick – the large back lawn area, which has DA approval for a pool.

What now?

Along with the theme of the new build, the family are staying local and looking for another project on the beaches. However, this time round Katie is planning on a smaller renovation project. ”I don’t know if I would do another knock-down rebuild; my husband might divorce me,” she says, laughing.

However, this is all pending what happens at the auction next week. Until it sells, Katie is under strict instructions not to jump into another purchase. But Katie says it’s not going to be easy. ”Real estate is my porn,” she says. ”It’s really tragic.”

In a nutshell

Time 10 months (due to bad weather).
Land size 405 sq m.
Internal size 192 sq m.
Architect Max Lanser Architect, 9938 5744.
Builder Bleyer Constructions, 9982 4042.
Building certifier Stephen Pinn – Insight, 9999 0003.

Green points

Katie says: ”We’ve got two 3000-litre water tanks. It’s quite a low-impact house. I would have liked to have put solar panels on, but unfortunately we ran out of money.”

Favourite feature

Katie says: ”There is a certain style in our street that mirrors what we’ve done. There is a lot of beachy sort of houses and I really like that our new build goes with the rest of the street.”

Insider’s tip

Katie says: ”Hire a private certifier. I did not have one conversation with council. Having a private certifier made it faster, easier and less stressful. I would not have done it any other way.”

What went right

The house complements the other properties in the street.

What went wrong

The build took nearly twice as long as originally expected. This was due to the bad weather and constant rain

Budget $550,000.

The costs


Architect fees $6000
Building certifier fees $3500

Main build

Demolition of existing house and new build $616,216
Variations to contract (on completion) $37,471


Kitchen $25,000
Kitchen appliances $18,000
Dressing room and built-in wardrobes $17,340
Tapware, sinks and bath $19,880
Sisal carpets $10,350
Plantation shutters and curtains $17,500
Security garage door $10,000
Library $11,300
Rear deck and pergola $20,000

TOTAL $812,557

Click here to see the photos of the property

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