Where people go wrong in kitchens and bathrooms, according to a top designer

Davinia Sutton spoke to Stuff Homed as part of our new podcast on home renovations, First Rung: Reno 101. Listen to the full episode by clicking play above, or check out the full series here.

Christchurch-based designer Davinia Sutton's 2021 NBKA award-winning kitchen is like a work of art.

The splashback and island are made from creamy, white stone, shot through with seams of golden quartz glowing with hidden lights.

The floor to ceiling cabinet doors, two-toned treacle and toffee coloured timber, suggest a forest; the warm, hidden lighting hinting at dappled sunlight through the lattice of overhead branches.

It's more like a rocky grotto in the heart of an alpine wood than somewhere to heat a can of baked beans. A magical, sacred space where the culinary arts are worshipped.

It looks incredible. But Sutton says, when starting your kitchen or bathroom reno, the look of the space is the absolute last thing you should be thinking about.

It's important to have “clarity right at the start with your budget”.

“Once you start, don't make changes. Do your groundwork first. Because when you make changes, it usually costs either time, money, or both.”

Then it’s crucial to do enough research into what products are available to achieve your vision within that budget.

“When you open everything up, you can find hidden surprises,” says Sutton.

“I've seen a bathroom opened up, and there had been a fire through the homestead, and it had just been [Gibbed over].

“In bathrooms, there's been a moisture build up, or wet spaces have had rot or dry rot come through as well. And sometimes, you open it up and structural elements that have been affected by this. So it's really about allowing for the possibilities of what you think is there.”

As soon as you touch a space, it's an investment back into your home. Questions you need to ask yourself are: what are you trying to achieve? Is it a long term fix? Is it a quick fix?

There are a lot of cheap products on the market, and Sutton says you get what you pay for when it comes to fixtures and fittings, as well as materials.

Rein in the dreams

Possibly the hardest part of renovating a kitchen or bathroom is keeping a lid on your dreams.

Instagram and Pinterest often highlight the pinnacle of kitchen and bathroom design, and trends have been for higher, and higher spec, spa and luxury-style rooms.

Sutton says those images can be misleading.

“I think bathrooms and kitchens are getting harder and harder to DIY. It's been really feed into our mindset, and you get this lovely images that portray gorgeous bathrooms, and 'we renovated this'.”

In a bathroom or kitchen, you need so many trades to work in harmony in a small space, and there are so many rules for using certain materials, it’s often beyond the skill of the average weekend DIYer.

Where people go wrong in kitchens and bathrooms, according to a top designer

"[For example] if you've got a really large format tile, which is really on trend at the moment, you've got to have a substrate to take that.

“When I say substrate, if you're using anything over a 450 by 450 [mm sized tile], I would encourage using Villaboard. Then you've got expense with that, rather than just Gib Aqualine.

“So there are a lot of elements that DIYers possibly might not be aware of."

Be a clever first-timer

There are a few ways first-timers “could be clever” about renovating what are usually the most expensive rooms in the home.

“If you're wanting to just do a tart up, that might be just changing plumbing and fittings and fixtures, which means purchasing them and then getting the plumber to put them in, or engage with a tradie, and they might be able to get you better buying rates.”

Sutton recommends engaging with the subtrades, tilers, painters and the like, to get good advice that will help you “get the job done right" first time.

"Our rule of thumb, regardless of the client's budget, as do it once, do it right, and you're going to save time and money down the track as well."

Make sense of consents and codes

Some types of work will automatically trigger the need for building consents. The rules around this are quite rigorous in Aotearoa-NZ.

For example, any time you need waterproofing you will need building consents, and an induction hob will often take a different power supply loading to a freestanding range or ceramic hub, and you need to know this before you buy or install anything.

"Try not to touch exterior facade like window placements in it because again, it's such a flow on effect and can trigger building consents – just to make people aware there are hidden costs."

You also need to be aware, when searching for items online and overseas, they may not work with Kiwi power or sewerage loadings.

Most electrical components, such as lighting or heating, put into a bathroom need to be IP, or ingress protection, rated. That means you need to know how well the items are insulated against moisture getting into the wiring.

"[Building codes] are a bit of a minefield at the start, because there's quite a few regulations to consider and if you don't, it's my understanding that it starts to have a bit of an impact on insurance.

"For instance, when you think of a bath, depending on the type of bath, some can weigh 180kgs plus, then once you put water and a person in, you're getting up there for 400-500kgs.

“If you're putting it into a first-floor bathroom, you've got to consider, ‘well, what structural elements and members have I got underneath this to take the weight?’.”

Top tips

* Consider your budget and be really clear on that right from the start as reno – especially DIY – can be a minefield once you open things up.

* Do your research on what's available out there within your budget, and what's needed.

* Stick to your choices, and once you start, don't make changes because when you do, it usually costs either time, money or both.

* Allow for the possibility of finding problems when you open an older home up. There could be anything lurking behind the Gib.

* Be aware of the costs of things, and what subtrades need to be involved. Again: do your research before you start.

So before you get carried away with beautiful grotto-like splashbacks and magical lighting effects, there's a lot of research and homework to do, possibly in conjunction with a builder or project manager who knows the process well.

"It's not just pretty colours, and paints and in finishes.

"It's really just coming back to the basics of what you require. And just making sure that we've really done your homework before going out and purchasing.”

Hear more from Davinia Sutton in episode 3 of Stuff Homed’s podcast First Rung: Reno 101 - listen below or subscribe and download all the episodes here.