RENOVATING is never straightforward at the best of times.
The bigger the build, the bigger the demands and the hurdles.
Lauren Charge faced it all during the two years she spent designing and overseeing luxury Port Stephens holiday rental Salt at Shoal Bay, the most extensive project she and husband Michael embarked on in their 10 years of renovating.
And it didn't stop there.
The Bobs Farm-raised graphic designer is also a mother to their three children, Lillian, 7, Evelyn, 6, and Claudia, 1.
Their youngest arrived in the "middle of the chaos", as Charge recalls, after a tumultuous 18 months that not only included pregnancy and birth, but a serious medical scare for one of their daughters.
She juggled it all, performing a balancing act that eventually paid off.
Salt at Shoal Bay is booked out for all but two weekends of the rest of the year.
The house has featured on the cover of Inside Out magazine and boasts 42,000 followers on Instagram.
When she meets with me at Talulah in The Junction to have a coffee and talk about the project and the events that unfolded, it's clear that Charge's incredible drive and emotional strength is a key factor in the success of Salt.
She recalls the moment she met with the project's tiler on-site less than 24 hours after giving birth to Claudia.
"I was standing there in the shower niches, with Claudia strapped across my front in a baby carrier, and I was looking at my phone trying to get a picture for the tiler that I'd just spoken to," Charge says.
"He asked 'How old is your baby?' and I said 'Um, 20 hours' and he's like 'What? You mean you had her yesterday morning?' and I said 'Yes'," Charge says.
"It was just funny. I said 'It's OK, she's the third child, it's fine'.
Later that day, husband Michael posted the candid photo he caught of Lauren in that moment on his social media account with a quote from Beyonce's female empowerment anthem, Who Run the World.
"It said something along the lines of 'Strong enough to bare the children, then get back to business'.
"Then he said 'Girls certainly run my world now. Baby number three, Claudia'. It was a really sweet thing and made me go 'Aw, thanks, darl'.
"It was a good little excerpt out of the song.
"At that moment, I felt empowered, but when I was asked about this in another interview, it made me think, 'There's so many women in the world that don't have the luxury of hospital stays. They just do it. They get out there and do life, and have babies, and move on'.
"I was like 'It isn't anything special, really. It's just what you do'."
SALT launched in March 2018, two years after the couple purchased the house at auction on Valentine's Day in 2016.
Driving along Shoal Bay Drive toward Fingal Bay, it is impossible to miss the spectacular bright white modern beach house positioned on the corner block.
It's a slice of Byron Bay in Port Stephens.
An enormous gable window at the front of the main house - known as Salt One - provides panoramic water views across the bay.
Charge says the view sealed the deal for her husband, who was initially skeptical about putting in an offer on the house.
The couple, who both grew up in Port Stephens (Lauren is originally from Bobs Farm and Michael was raised at Salt Ash), drove past the property in January 2016 on their way to visit Michael's grandmother for her 93rd birthday at the retirement village she lives in on the same road.
They had discussed the idea of renovating a holiday property in the area and Lauren recognised a golden opportunity.
"We saw the house for sale and we started thinking 'What if we did this?' or 'what if we did that?'," she recalls.
"I booked a viewing to see it and Michael said 'We're not going to be able to afford that. It's silly. Don't even think about it' and I said 'Let's just go and have a look'.
"We went along and had a look at it and the moment that we walked up those stairs and saw the view, it literally takes your breath away. It is just phenomenal.
"We thought 'This could be something so amazing'."
Amazing is one word to describe the what the couple have achieved.
Once they purchased the house at auction, they began drawing up plans for the house straight away.
Lauren teamed up with her brother Kain Bliss and his business, Greenbuild Constructions, to complete the build, and enlisted the company's in-house architect to fine tune her sketches.
No detail was spared.
"I gave him sketches and plans of how I wanted it to all work and he put it all together for us and tweaked a few things.
"I was really fussy though. I would go in Pinterest and find the exact shape of the gutters that I wanted and the exact shape of the window architraves. All those tiny details.
"Then I would lay it out in InDesign in my graphic design program, so I'd almost approach it like it was a 2D art work.
"I just pointed to all of the things that I wanted things to be like, right down to 'I want these tiles in this spot and that spot' and lots of little sketches and hand drawings.
"Eventually it came together."
After settling the purchase in May 2016, they submitted the plans in June that year having gained permission from the owners to submit a DA prior to settlement.
The project did not come together without hurdles though.
A month after work began, the couple's daughter, Evelyn, was diagnosed with a rare auto immune disease after she experienced two seizures.
The family, along with first-born daughter Lillian, had moved from their home in Newcastle and in with Lauren's parents at Bobs Farm in order to be closer to the site at Shoal Bay when the seizures occurred.
"One night I was on the computer working and I heard Michael say 'Evvy, what are you doing with your hand?'. She said 'I'm not doing it, it's doing it by herself'. My ears pricked up and I said 'What?'
"I got up and came into the bedroom and Michael asked if she could open her hand up and then it stopped but Michael said 'I think she's just had a seizure'.
"Her left hand was doing this repetitive ticking type thing and then my dad said 'Maybe it was just like a spasm, or a muscle cramp'. It just didn't feel right though."
Evelyn, who was three at the time, tried to pick up a pencil, but she had no control of her hand.
The family rang the ambulance, but by the time it arrived, Evelyn's hand was working normally again.
"They had a look and they said 'It sounds like it's a seizure. Seizures are actually really common in kids'.
"We talked to the ambulance and they said they could take her into the John Hunter [Hospital] or you can keep her close by and take her in the morning.
"So we kept her at home. I'm not a worry mum. I said 'Look, she's perfectly fine now. If they're saying it happens frequently in kids and it's nothing, let's not worry about it and go in in the morning."
Evelyn hopped into bed with her parents so they could keep an eye on her.
Two hours later, she had another seizure.
Michael woke up and said 'It's happening again' and I jumped up and turned the light on and looked at her and her whole left side was paralysed. She was ticking and her eye was twitching.Lauren Charge on her daughter Evelyn's second seizure
"Michael woke up and said 'It's happening again' and I jumped up and turned the light on and looked at her and her whole left side was paralysed. She was ticking and her eye was twitching.
"She was sort of paralysed on her mouth as well, so she couldn't really talk and her eyes had rolled back in her head.
"It's only in hindsight that you look back and go 'Shit, that was really scary'."
It took 20 minutes for the ambulance to arrive again and for 17 of those minutes, Evelyn was gripped by the seizure.
"I called a friend of mine who is a doctor and I said 'I just don't know what to do. It's taking a really long time for the ambulance. It's been 10 minutes and this seizure is still going'.
"My friend was like 'Shit'. At that time I knew it was bad because 10 minutes is a long time for a seizure. She said 'Loz, they're going to want you to film it - just film everything so they can get a good picture of everything that's going on'."
She maintained her composure until the reality of the situation dawned on her.
"My mother said 'I can't believe this is happening," Lauren recalls, with tears in her eyes.
"It just put me into shock. I was managing and then I just thought 'Shit, I can't believe this is happening'. It just removed me from the situation and I got all shaky.
"I was like 'It's fine, it's fine, it's fine'. I just wanted to sit there with my daughter and be there for her. I got back up and then the ambulance arrived.
"At 17 minutes it stopped and then she foamed at the mouth. It was horrible. The ambulance arrived just after that finished."
After two weeks without an answer, doctors diagnosed Evelyn with ADEM.
The rare auto immune disease attacks the brain and central nervous system, causing inflammation which led to the seizures.
"The doctors did a second MRI which showed she had lesions all over her brain and down her spinal cord.
"That hadn't shown up in the initial MRI."
The disease is treatable and, after a round of steroids on an IV line, followed by further treatment a couple of months later when the symptoms presented again, Evelyn is now going strong.
Lauren says they consider themselves lucky. "Some kids who suffer from ADEM never walk again. There are kids where it has so far progressed before any symptoms show and that's when they end up with really traumatic issues.
"So we were really, really lucky."
At that point, construction at Salt had been put on hold.
The family decided to reset and return to the project in January.
Eldest daughter Lillian was set to start kindergarten the following month, so they moved back into their home at Hamilton South to get her ready for school.
"We started Salt back up again in mid-January. Financially, we had to," Lauren says.
"If we left it for too much longer it would have killed us. Already it was hard."
Already behind schedule, they aimed to have the project completed in time for Christmas.
Not long after the work recommenced, Charge fell pregnant with their third child, Claudia, who was born on November 1.
Funnily enough, babies always seem to coincide with when we're just about to start a renovation or just about to move in somewhere.Lauren Charge
"Funnily enough, babies always seem to coincide with when we're just about to start a renovation or just about to move in somewhere," Charge says.
"We got married just after we finished renovating our first house in Cooks Hill and fell pregnant straight away.
"We built a house out at Ashtonfield and I still remember Lill strapped to me as a newborn, out pushing dirt to try to landscape the place.
"We renovated our current home and we had Evelyn just two weeks after we moved back in after the renovation was finished.
"Then with Claudia, she was literally born in the middle of the chaos when it came to Salt.
"We were still driving an hour each way at that point. She was planned but we thought we would be well and truly done with Salt.
"We were two years in the making for that and we fell pregnant with her and thought we would be done by the June/July and then November, I'd have a baby and we'd be open, and have our teething issues out of the way, and then Christmas would hit.
"We really needed those Christmas bookings as well. But it just didn't work out like that."
Charge refers to "juggling" several times during our conversation.
Juggling the building project, driving deliveries to the site daily in order to get things moving along quicker, meeting with tradesman, getting the kids to school, spending time together as a family and, last but not least, giving birth.
On the day she had Claudia, Charge got up early that morning and knew the baby was on its way.
She had a bath, told the girls they could have the day off school and asked Michael to call their electrician.
Business as usual.
"I said 'Michael, can you call the electrician and postpone until tomorrow, because we're going to have a baby'.
"I knew it was critical that we met them. Everything was critical. If we held them up then the gyprocker, who was coming the next day, would be pushed back.
"At 5.30am we called the electrician and then at 6.30am, I said 'Can you call the midwife?'. Then at 7am we got to the hospital and she was born at 7.20am."
She checked out three hours later and returned home where she was back to business within the hour.
"My brother rang and said 'I'm so sorry . . . oh, congratulations by the way . . . I just need to get the balustrade design from you. The boys are here now and we've got to push on. What do you want them to do?'.
"He emailed a sketch through and my mother-in-law was like, 'Are you seriously on emails three hours after you've had a baby?'
"I said 'I've just gotta do this one thing'."
After opening in time for Easter last year, the popularity of the house - which can be booked out entirely for a group or as three separate homes - spread, particularly on social media platform Instagram.
Even the winter months, which they did not expect to fill, booked out.
"We are so grateful because we didn't expect it to go as well as it has." Charge says.
"We budgeted our first year would be no winter bookings and when people started sharing it on social media, we were like 'Oh my God, we need this! Thank you, thank you universe'.
"It was one of those moments where it was a big relief."
Promoting the property on social media has proved a winning formula.
She invested zero dollars on marketing, but has amassed 42,000 followers on Instagram, mostly through photos of the property and its perfectly styled interiors being shared on other accounts.
"We didn't expect it to go like that. I don't know how it happens and I still can't tell why some images gets shared and why others don't," she says.
"We were a bit savvy with ways that we did some things, I guess. Someone from [Melbourne-based online interiors store] Design Stuff in the early days contacted us and said 'Hey, can we share your images?' and we said 'Yes, please do. Here's our Dropbox. Let us know if you need anything else'.
"Then they asked if we would ever like to run a competition and we said we would love to. We picked up 3500 followers in a week with that competition.
"There were little things like that where we found it worked, but it has all been trial and error."
Charge is set to host a workshop in the coming months alongside Inside Out writer Natalie Walton, who featured Salt on the cover of the magazine recently.
She will share her experiences, offering tips on styling and the do's and don'ts of renovating.
Lauren and Michael have already begun their next project, renovating a newly-purchased family home in Newcastle.
"It has definitely been a labour of love and, some days, I felt like we were just dropping all the balls and not juggling it at all," Charge says.
"It was a nightmare at times, but we came out the other end. Then you start considering doing it again.
"That's the reno bug for you."