A Little House at No. 18

The ins and outs and inbetweens of building a new house in Little Howard St, Fremantle


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Sustainable House Day!

Sometimes, time gets away from you….. for us, it’s because it has been a hectic couple of months at work, at home, away from home and socially.  So hectic in fact, our latest project update was in February! Sorry.   So what’s been going on with Little House you ask?  Here is the much anticipated and requested update.

Earlier in the year we were immersed in an intense couple of hours when the Owner Builder Support Network in Perth featured our house in one of their regular bus trips.  This gives people who have decided to (or are thinking about becoming) owner builders, the chance to visit a few houses under construction and talk directly to the folk who have already embarked on the journey that is owner building and to learn from their experiences.  Our involvement was an extreme honour and pleasure.

Sharing our learned knowledge and skills felt like handing down some form of cultural precedent.  It was well worth the time by all who attended, the wisdom that was being passed to eager and apprehensive enthusiasts, eyes and ears wide open, soaking up all the information like sponges.  Some dared to dream wildly and shared with us their project visions and asked some very “out of left field” building questions, of which (lucky them) we were able to provide suitable answers to.  It re-iterates and affirms the enormity of the project we set ourselves and just how far we have come whilst explaining our way through our unique journey with all its facets.   Above all, the most amazing feeling of the owner builder Bus tour visit to our little house was to ignite imagination, encourage alternate and “thinking outside the box” mentality, demonstrating that you can build your dream home and that it is not really a journey but more of an adventure.    The difference being is that an adventure is a journey with an unknown outcome.

The tour is an invaluable experience that is highly recommended and of which Alice and I participated in 2012 before we started our project.

March was a busy month too.  We decided that a priority needed to be completing the back yard.  There comes a time as a project nears lockup or completion where the presence of dirt and sand becomes more noticeable than it ever has before to a point where something really needs to be done about it.  Plus the fact that this is the last real masonry work to be done on the project and requires materials like sand, stone, brick and cement to all be carried through the house and the creation of a lot of dust, mud and mess.   We concluded that, although having a completed backyard is not critical for moving in and living in the main house, having a completed back yard is going to make an enormous difference to the available living space given the nature of the living area layout and continued tidiness in general.  It will be a shame to see the cement mixer need to leave site but it will be a bitter sweet and momentous day. Given that I think it may nearly have spent half its life on our work site! I shouldn’t get ahead of myself, we haven’t finished with it yet.

So over the month, the cement mixer did get a good working out.  I decided that 24 months of watching a master craftsman stone mason in action had taught me enough to be confidently itching to give it ago myself.  And let’s face it, I’m not tackling a building structure here, it’s merely garden walls…  Oh and a set of brick steps.  Plus, I couldn’t ask anyone with a masonry profession to possibly build something out of what they would all probably call rubbish but I call (waste not – want not) recycled building materials.  Over the past 4 years we have consumed over 5000 recycled red bricks, over 4000 limestone blocks and over 10 tonne of limestone rubble. At no time have we needed a skip bin on site for waste materials.   The remaining small pile of materials in the backyard, that has been through the rejection process several times over is going to be just enough and perfect for building creative garden walls.  Left over broken concrete rubble and slab offcuts were used for making the garden bed wall footing.   Broken crumbly limestone block pieces, not fit for house construction, were used to build the outer layer of the eastern wall and spalls have been laid randomly as a front layer and the finished surface of the wall. The 6 steps from the rear laneway to the back yard have been constructed out of the remaining recycled bricks, most of them with missing corners that couldn’t be used in other places but could be hidden to the bottom of the step.   Some of the large foundation stones from the old house (most probably quarried from the immediate local area over 100 years ago) were painstakingly rolled, levered and manoeuvred manually from the laneway ,where they have been patiently waiting for nearly 4 years, to be re-incarnated into garden walls.   The remaining broken brick has been used in several different creative ways to form the garden beds.

So since the end of March till July there hasn’t been a lot happening.  Winter certainly set in.  The 22500lt rainwater tank filled up in under 4 weeks much like it did last year.  Which is driving us continually closer to want to have it connected up to flush toilets and water lawns (it will be by this summer).  The winter days in the main living area truly need to be experienced as the house warms up so nicely as it is flooded with sunshine and warmth that is held well into the evening.  But some nice winter days also gave us the opportunity to work on the roof and we were ready for some solar panels.

In 2012 we negotiated a contract with Solvation, a local solar installer for 3.3kw of solar panels. At the time this was 14 x 240w panels and a 5Kw SMA inverter.   By mid 2016, now finally ready for an install, we revisited the market and found some bi-sun double sided solar panels that can catch an extra 25-35% energy from the underside.  I hear you laugh.  I was a bit dubious on the idea as well at first. So why did we decide to go with them.  Firstly, they are rated at 270w and this is only for the top side. They are sealed inside a glass panel so are of extremely good quality and made in Germany, they are only relatively new to the market and hailed to perform exceptionally on a shiny tin roof which lends itself perfectly to our roof (and I don’t recall seeing too many corrugated iron roofs in Germany either). What sealed the deal is that they were also considerably cheaper than the inferior panels we chose 3 years ago.

Combined with the new solar panel choice was a new type of battery ready, power management enabled, smart inverter called Symo, made by manufacturer Fronius, capable of communicating our power production, consumption and exports in real time to the web for limitless divulging. This system sets us up nicely to monitor, record and study our power consumption habits over the coming months and will assist us in making an accurate investment decision when it comes to storing our power (hopefully in batteries) and becoming completely self-sufficient.

Having run all the cables and installing appropriate hardware when constructing the roof, the final mounting of inverter and panels was quite a straight forward, but exciting, two day operation. On the morning of the second day I asked Alice…” Do you think that this will be the last day of our 2 year old daughter’s life that she spends living in a house that doesn’t have solar power generation?”  “Highly probable” and “I hope so” were promising, enjoyable, exciting and heart-warming answers.

On the 2nd of August, our solar installation was made live to the grid and from here on in we begin to learn, becoming ever more aware of our impacts and dependencies.  At the flick of the switch, I can see (from over 2000km away) our new solar array delivering over 2000 watts of electricity.  But the most significant realisation of the moment was not the numbers that we were creating, but what we were consuming.  Our house was drawing only 300w!   This information surely requires a blog of its own and I’d be happy to bring you an update soon. Watch this space.

As you may or may not be aware.  Sustainable House Day is an annual event held throughout Australia and New Zealand around the second Sunday of September every year.  It gives sustainable house owners the opportunity to demonstrate and showcase the environmentally considerate attributes of their dwellings.  We attended several houses in the greater Fremantle area in 2010 and 2011, looking for inspiration and ideas during the period of time we were designing our house.  It has always been a dream of ours to share our experiences, failures and successes of building our own home. Both from a sustainable and an owner builders point of view.  11th of September 2016 is going to be hopefully the first of many Sustainable House Day openings for us and we are looking very forward to it.

shd-logo-2016

If you would like to see our profile and other sustainable houses open on the day you can visit;    Sustainable House Day website

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The Ikea Effect

Have you ever heard of the Ikea Effect?   I heard about it for the first time the other day and was immediately attracted.  Interestingly, it was introduced to our conversation by somebody who had little knowledge of the fact that we are on the trailing edge of building our own house!     Surprisingly, it has a whole lot in common with Owner Building.  Unfortunately, further discussion unveiled that it’s quite a shame that it has ended up with such a commercially influenced name, however appropriate.

But, in Ikea’s defence, I am truly amazed by their product’s level of engineering and having installed an Ikea kitchen in our old house (that we demolished) then built the same recycled kitchen into the short stay in our new house; and then kitted out the basement workshop with 12 Ikea kitchen drawers,  I’m quite in awe of their quality.  In fact, I haven’t found anything yet that comes close in ease of construction and quality.

Anyhow, there goes 2015 and another Christmas.  The start of 2016 has been remembered for its extreme heat and an unseasonal amount of humidity and rain.  There was quite a leap ahead in the final months of 2015 and then a quiet period over Christmas and now we are ramping things up again.  As this was the 3rd Christmas we have been building for I can tell you two things for sure.  One.. If you are owner building, you can completely give up getting trades on site from 15th December till 15th January… every year!   Two… We will be moved in by Christmas!!

In order to get a few more of the messy jobs out the way, we arranged for the bathroom to be screeded and tiled sooner rather than later.  This was done by Bob the Tiler, who’s name wasn’t actually Bob.  Despite the lack of name clarity, he did a wonderful job over two weekends.  Between the weekends, I applied a couple of coats of waterproofing ready for the tiles.     The pictures can speak for themselves but we chose a randomly patterned hexagonal tile for the floor and handmade Spanish subway tiles for the shower walls.  We purchased two sizes of subway tiles ( 40% are standard sized subway tiles and 60% are double length).  Being handmade, every tile is slightly different to the next which compliments the other materials used throughout our house.    The pattern of laying these tiles at random gives a slightly more interesting texture to the wall.  We also decided to add a splash of colour by using some Mexican handmade tiles.  These were made  in Puebla, Mexico by a small business owner (Maria) who sells them online via Etsy.

The other reason for doing the tiling now is so we can get the shower recess frames built and installed.  Yes, you guessed it, we are custom building the shower recess too!  We could not measure up for the frames until the walls had been screeded and tiled.   For the upstairs shower, we settled with the idea of having the entire shower enclosed in glass to prevent the moisture escaping into the general living area.  A velux roof window has been installed above the shower to scoop the breeze through or vent the steam (rather than the employment of an extraction fan.)  The bathroom itself doesn’t have a ceiling, it is just three walls and is open to the main roof above. I don’t think it was designed like that but it seems to work for us for now, however it led to the need to enclose the shower.   The steel frame we have constructed houses 6 pieces of glass, totally enclosing the shower recess.  An inward opening glass door will be mounted on the wall to finish it all off.

So now we are onto the third glass installation.  This time, it’s all the glass for the north wall, the bi-fold doors and the sets of triangular outward opening windows at the front and rear of the house.   In total, there is nearly 38 square meters of 24mm thick IGU’s (insulated glass units) on the north wall.   In preparation for construction and installation there was a need to make 20 templates out of plywood to send off to the manufacturers.  Each of them had to be a nice fit with a 5mm gap all around the edges.  Double glazing needs this for a few reasons.  The unit is very rigid and can fail if pressure is applied around the glass edges, particularly with steel window frames.  The IGU’s also require a breathing space left around the edges.   Once all the templates were made, the frames were all cleaned and inspected before being prepped and given one final coat of paint. The mind was boggling thinking about how long this glass could potentially be in these frames for.  Hopefully a very long time if the preparation work is done well.     The 4 triangular windows have had their 24v chain winders installed to enable them to be remotely opened and shut.   The bi-fold doors have also had a final check over.  Once we put the glass in them they weigh nearly 750kg collectively so it was very important that they work effectively before the glass went in.   Finally, up goes the scaffold again.   This was all rebuilt to help with the preparation but required mainly for the installation.   Some of the larger panels are nearly 1m wide and 2.2m tall.  They weigh about 75kg so manoeuvring these manually into position required a fairly permanent stable platform where one normally doesn’t exist.

Personally, being involved in installing the glass units in the 4 outward opening windows was another rewarding milestone.  We have invested hundreds (possibly thousands) of hours in getting these windows to this point.  Firstly, if you think about it, a side hinged outward opening triangular window cannot be done.  But defying impossibility has become our specialty and we not only made it happen but we built them, installed them, made them air and water tight, automated them and installed 24mm double glazing units in them!! But above all, the most unforeseen challenge came when we installed the glass.  As the glass unit didn’t have an edge at the bottom (to rest into place), but instead a point, the weight of the unit needed to be held vertically and manoeuvred into its final resting place in its frame millimetre by millimetre until it was stuck in place.  Each one of these took us about 2 hours per window to install but the final outcome has been ultimate success and will be hopefully be long lived.

After all the challenges of the triangle windows high up by the ridge we eventually found ourselves at the start of another day and the time had come to tackle the bi fold doors.   In total, 21 pieces of glass (this time all 4 sided with 90 degree corners thankfully) had to be installed.   The problem with square steel doors is they don’t stay square…. They sag easily and become parallelograms.  This can create issues with a concertina door system as the hinges must all be square and line up perfectly to prevent excessive friction forming when they are opened and closed and also risking popping the glass out over time.   Luckily the glass units themselves act like a diagonal brace in the steel frame and once installed, the door will not sag.  We spent a few hours with the doors in the closed position ensuring that they were all completely square before installing the first row (the largest upper ones) of glass. Once they were in place and before being sealed into position, we tested the free movement of the doors to check them for square with good results.   The final result looks quite amazing…  With the north wall of glass all installed the main living room is all closed in, the sound inside the house is noticeably different and the wind can be prevented from blowing through for the first time  Are we finally another step closer to a habitable house?

I take two camp chairs from their bags and set them up at the camp table.   There is a bottle of nice wine open, and the fish in the oven is almost ready.   The last bit of the day’s light is almost gone and the hanging light globe above the camping table is our light tonight.   As we sit down at our familiar camping dinner table we toast to peculiarity of the situation.  This may well be the first family dinner we have had in our new house and a toast to the realization this is the first “living room” we have ever owned!  The one we have built ourselves!  And that feeling you get when labour turns to love?  That is the Ikea Effect.

Footnote: according to Wikipedia, the Ikea effect is a cognitive bias in which consumers place a disproportionately high value on products they partially created. The name derives from the Swedish manufacturer and furniture retailer IKEA, which sells many furniture products that require assembly (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IKEA_effect).


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Just add art

Put down the hammer and the drill for a minute, it’s time to tear up the plans! This is what owner-building is all about! The hard yards have been done and the house is feeling more like a home every day. It’s time to get funky and add some Art!   And by art, I don’t mean it’s time to hang some crazy-ass, psychedelic, indie, post-modern, Van Gough-esk paintings on the walls!… (That will come later)  I mean, let’s do something a little bit more different.

As you could probably tell by now, Alice and I certainly have had a fair bit of creative input into what this house looks like. From memory, we were sitting at the table one Sunday morning having breakfast when we first discussed building a house and we were living at 7a Bellevue terrace at the time, long before 18 Little Howard street was a deal we had a chance on. It must have been some time in 2008. We drew sketches of the façade and how we wanted the layout. I remember the imagination running wild, realizing that if we were going to actually design our own house then we could put on the blank piece of paper anything we wanted to. Anything we liked.  Then from that sketch (I’ll have to pull it out and post it here one day because I did keep it … somewhere!) things have evolved to where we find ourselves today. It is overwhelmingly mind boggling to recall where we have creatively been on this project from that Sunday morning breakfast to here. We are still dreaming and creating.

Maybe it’s better to see ourselves as instigators or creators rather than artists. The artists are the people whom we choose to transform our visions into material form (and in most cases, the results are much better than we had expected).   Mike Richardson, our architect, who melded all of our crazy ideas into an aesthetically balanced building of appropriate function, scale and form.   Nick the Stonemason, whose passion for his trade and attention to detail, makes him an artist in his own right. Peter the carpenter (or more appropriately “jack of all trades”) who I should correctly refer to as a wood-smith didn’t just help us build a roof but a timeless piece of amazing art.

Recently we have taken a few of the “art” aspect to a different level and “commissioned” if you will, several locals to help us with some aspects of the house that demanded a little additional attention just because of what they are.

The Balustrading

When we built the short stay living area, Alice and I came up with the idea of adding a bit of “Fancy” steelwork to the set of double doors that looked out into the court yard. The initial reason for this is we wanted to create something that occupants could look “through” that was of some interest rather than just a plain door which drew attention only to the courtyard.   A fair bit of time was spent on this design with drawings being sent to and fro for a few weeks. We wanted something that was never seen before and what Wayne (GWM steel fabrications) provided to us on paper, then in material form, was exactly that.  So I suppose this was probably the influential moment that tipped us in the direction of creating some balustrading for the main living area in a similar style. The balustrading has always been on the plans as being made of steel with some small amount of fancy detail but primarily, a practical and simple design. I had always wanted to build the balustrading out of timber. Find some big “sticks” with natural curves and shapes and make it “rustic” looking. But, once the doors were finished, it didn’t take us long to decide that if we were to ask Wayne to make the balustrading in a similar style of design, we probably would not be disappointed. To say that Wayne was enthusiastic to put his skills and creativity to such a task was an understatement. He has literally been itching to get started on them for the last 18 months! And near the end of August 2015, that day came and Wayne started.   His creativity and imagination, coupled with the skills of welding and working steel gives a result that I’m going to find difficult to gratify. (This is where I need to thank the wonder of pictures!).

The “look” we wanted for the balustrading was by now a no-brainer. Sorting out how we were going to combine the practical function, without losing the essence of the art led us down another path of problem solving. Normally, balustrading has a stanchion or post to support the top rail at regular intervals. Our discussion concluded that to use a different (larger) diameter steel post, with decorative steel art work in panels would interrupt the aesthetic flow of the design. By using 4 pieces of 10mm square steel bar welded as a hollow square column would give the same strength as a much bigger bar but wouldn’t stand out. Each of these hollow stanchions were then free to “grow” away at the top like a tree, and all different directions of course, before they connect with the top handrail plate. As ideas evolved, so did the function and what we were essentially creating was a two layer balustrading with a 20mm gap. Another previously un-planned advantage of doing this was that the decorative detail now took on a quite 3D appearance. The planned use of recycled steel ball bearings on the ends of the steel art also plays a very practical role where the two layers of the pattern are “locked” together by welding a steel ball between the two layers. From a distance, the steel ball bearings seem to be sitting or floating in the design. As I write, the final pieces of the balustrading for the stairs are being completed. In due course, the top plate of the steel work is going to have a lovely smooth recycled jarrah handrail fashioned for it.  The results have already spoken for themselves. Recent visitors have been totally wowed by the steel art balustrading and we think they have turned out pretty awesome as well.

Glass Art

So with the recycled Jarrah front door installed, the attention moved to glass. We have designed the front door and side windows to take 18mm thick double glazed units but have also left a little bit of room for a bit of coloured glass. Even before we decided to go for a timber front door over steel we had discussed coloured glass design. When the time came we were presented with a few options. We could opt for a style of painted or even printed coloured glass. We could have gone old school stained glass windows done with proper lead seams and all. Or we could try something that I have only ever seen one example of (Upstairs at the National Hotel, Freo) . There was this little shop at the Freo Markets where a glass artist melts different coloured glass together to make bowls, platters, coasters and other arty little (and not so little) pieces. I wondered if Kooky Glass Art can do coloured glass that we can put in our front door?

Most of our initial communication with Amanda (Kooky Glass Art) was actually by email. By the time we met on site face to face, Amanda had a pretty good idea of where we were heading. It seemed like after the first 20mins of meeting her the ideas were flooding in quickly. I could tell Amanda was pretty excited with the prospect of this commission and to be honest, we were pretty excited at the fact Amanda was so enthusiastic and the ideas and possibilities became engulfing. We were going have to give this a go. Let’s take a moment to not forget that building your own house is hard work. Engaging in this process with Amanda was like a big reward and a celebration of how far we had come. With pens to paper again, Alice and I discussed form , function , colours , meanings, shapes , symbolism and pretty much everything in between to come up with some concept ideas we could present to Amanda. Without a doubt the standout concept involved, a rugged vast and unforgiving ocean juxtaposed by a sunset or sunrise, warm colours in abstract images.   Amanda was immediately onto the ultimate creation. The only problem was that I was having so much difficulty imagining the finished product. Amanda was so enthusiastic about the creation that at one stage she told us that it is going to look so awesome that she was going to make it whether we were going to buy it or not! In situations like this, I had to remind myself that we are the creators, not the artists and we should just let it flow.

We took the commissioning of this art in various steps. Firstly, from our original design discussions, Amanda made some life sized drawings of the design. Once this was finalized, we spent another session going through the many thousands of options of colours and types of glass available. Then, from the life sized drawings, we decided which colours were going to go where and Amanda cut templates out for each piece of glass that needed cutting. Before cutting commenced we had to completely commit to the design, as once the glass pieces are cut there is no turning back. Next, we met with Amanda again with all the pieces cut and assembled loosely. This was the last opportunity we had to change our mind on anything or discuss adding any additional detail to the design. From there it was into the kiln for fusion into single pieces of art. Amanda texted us pictures of the glass just before the kiln door was closed just to create the suspense and excitement of the process.   Our final visit to Amanda was to see the pieces all completed and the four glass panels together for the first time.

A long and detailed but rewarding and exciting process all the same. A fascinating process to go through and learn about at the same time too.   So all that was left to do now was to see if they fitted in the front door! Of course they did (once we had taken a slight shave off the sides)!

The glass art panels were installed by Matt (glazier). The morning he saw them, he was so excited about installing them that we got straight into it. The whole lot went together so nicely and look so great. A wonderful process and long journey from concept to fruition but now they are there for us to enjoy forever!


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Fitting in the fit out (or ‘in theory, this is not the easy way’)

Well we are definitely in that phase of the building where there are a lot of things keeping us busy still yet to the passer by, nothing much is changing.

By the last time we had posted, the street (and its regular visitors) were now able to enjoy the house with the fences down.   To a large extent, the front of the house looks finished albeit without glass, a few wooden doors to the mezzanine and some decking on the veranda. But all of those will come in due course.

By now we have passed the 3 year mark of commencement of construction We are living on site, which has had a huge effect on the way we are approaching things both financially and social life wise.   The goals now involve getting the main house to a stage where we are ready to move in.

I have set up a workshop in the basement underneath the house. This is also the place that now hosts a rather large stack of recycled timber, recovered from our old house. It has always been my intention to do the timber fit out of the house myself. The first thing on the list was the wooden doors across the front upstairs.

The “openings” for said doors have been completed for a while but the first task was to build some door frames to host the doors.   In all there are 8 doors and 3 windows that I’m building out of recycled Jarrah.   Two lots of French doors (inward opening) and a four panel outward opening set of bifold doors, split in the middle.   What better material to recycle into door frames than “old” door frames! The only difference being these door frames needed to be as twice as deep as a normal owing to the thickness of the walls.   So after plenty of machining, glue laminating, sanding, filling and oiling we had some door frames ready to install. Having the frames installed then gave me the final measurements to work with to build the doors.

The doors needed to be designed to hold double glazed units. These were to fit in behind the front panels of each of the door. I needed a fair amount of material that was 100mm wide and about 15mm thick to make the outer frames so I started about machining down some of our old floorboards and was amazed at how much character the boards displayed once the years of varnish and dirt was removed. Laminated to the back of the outer boards are 80 x 39mm pieces of old roof timbers. This leaves enough room for the 24mm insulated glass unit (IGU) and a 15mm x 20mm bead of timber to hold the glass in.   Notably thicker than a standard door.

With a bit of fiddling around with the design and getting the first door fully constructed and glued took a while. But to my advantage and for aesthetic value the remaining 7 doors were made exactly the same way so I essentially created a small production line.   In all the construction of the 8 doors and frames took about 10 weeks, spaced in between the many other things going on onsite.

Completing the bifold doors was a milestone for me. I can’t say it was a long term life ambition of mine to build a set of these doors but it has most certainly been a challenge I knew at some stage I was going to be confronted with on this project and I admit I was looking forward to it. There is something about these challenges that seem to evolve as you progress. And with the evolution, solutions appear and so do little problems. But they are the sort of challenges that are what they are because they are extremely hard to sit down and plan with absolute certainty of success. You just have to start the journey without knowing where the path is going to take you. So with the magic door hardware from Brio and their amazingly detailed installation instructions, I finally constructed a set of four bifold doors out of recycled jarrah that not only open and close effortlessly, but look great and most importantly are water and air tight when locked. Now all we need to do is put some double glazing in them.   A lot of work but well worth the effort and I’m sure they will be there for many years to come.

Selecting the materials to build the outdoor extension of our living area was one of the more difficult tasks of the build.   In the “well resolved” working drawings done by our architect, a combination of pavers and grass is shown And for several reasons this is no longer achievable. Firstly we have added a underground rain water tank which needs access plus we have added a little “storage space” next to the tank and under the BBQ. Also,   I have a concern about pavement, particularly in the summer. The high mass of the masonry absorbs heat and if it can’t be kept in the shade can feel sometimes like you are sitting over a hot plate, even well after the sun has gone.   My thoughts then moved to timber and a hot “oiled” deck sprung to mind.   From a practical point of view, the solution required, needed to be as light in colour as possible, low in mass (as not to hold the heat) and in an aesthetic point of view needed to be raw materials (ideal if recycled) , blend somewhat seamlessly with the internal living area and create a space that is neither all inside or all outside.     Like jetty timbers! That are not on the land or on the sea.   The idea sprung from a brainwave thinking about light coloured surfaces that are often fully exposed in the sun. So the idea came about to create a wooden deck from bulky timbers which we would not oil but instead secure down with big screws or bolts to eventually let the sun take the natural colours out of the timber to leave the light silvery grey similar to that of an old jetty.   But unfortunately 6m x 4m jetty’s don’t come up for sale on Gumtree much so we had to keep searching until we came across some railway sleepers that had been cut down the middle (like a hot dog bun) to create two flat surfaces and two raw faces. So we ended up sourcing around 60 half sleepers from which to build a deck.

Now, there is an easy way and there is a hard way to build a deck. In theory, this is not the easy way! In practice, all of the sleepers had a fairly flat sawn face. But the edges , widths and thicknesses varied considerably meaning to make a flat square deck was going to be a bit of a challenge. To get the deck nice and flat, each plank had to be the same thickness, but only where it rested on the bearer below. So we set about laying out, marking and “trenching” the sleepers down to a determined 45mm. In all we did about 140 trenches which admittedly did take a bit of time but (this was by far the most logical solution) and the result was a surprisingly and satisfyingly flat deck.

To overcome the crooked edges and varying widths of the sleepers we invested an hour or two laying out all of the pieces, in what could best be described as a big jigsaw puzzle. If the gap between boards was too big then we turned the board end for end or replaced it with another one to essentially work through and “edge match” the sleepers. Doing this, I think, is what gave the deck a lot of its character. The idea was to keep the sleepers in as original condition as possible.   You can see there is supposed to be a straight line there, and at the glance of an eye, it is a straight line. However to look a little closer you notice the shape and the character of each sleeper. The square nail holes serve as a reminder that these sleeper once supported rail and the trains that run people and freight across the vast open plains of outback Western Australia. At the moment the deck is fresh and new. Without oiling the timbers we are looking forward to watching it turn a silvery grey as it weathers in the sun.

The initial drawings of our house showed timber front windows and a steel framed front door. What sold us on the idea of using recycled timber for our front door was the amazing job that Barry the carpenter did on the double hung sash window for the front of the house nearly two years before. If the front door turned out anywhere as near as nice as the windows then we were not going to be disappointed.   Barry came up with the idea of arching the door head to match brick vault above.   We wanted to give it a “federation” style feel (which is synonymous with the surrounding area) but incorporate openable side lights to let the sea breeze in and also fit double glazing (plus a splash of decorative glasswork – but that’s a photo for another blog post). Once we had a plan, Barry provided us with a list of materials he would require and we were able to find and machine from our piles of recycled timber.

It is very unusual to spend any great deal of time away from the building site but still working on your own house. When these opportunities arise they are often very memorable. On this occasion I was back at Barry’s workshop, to see the front door and frame for the first time and give it its first coat of oil.   A truly magnificent piece of work. I had the pleasure of watching the features show themselves in the timber as I spent a few hours pottering about in the workshop with a paint brush and oil in hand. Barry arrived early the following week with the door and frame and we spent a few hours settling it into its permanent home. Then hanging the door. Certainly everything we had imagined and more.


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Reclaim the Street

The next step in this little project of ours was to reclaim the footpath for pedestrians and get rid of that, let’s face it, rather ugly site fencing. With the door frame for the garage and the front door done we were finally able to lock up the front of the house and no longer needed the site fences to provide security.

The first task was to get the bobcat back in to dig up nearly three years’ worth of compacted road base from the foot path and cart it away. We were then able to get the truck to bring in a load of clean, yellow sand to replace the dirt we just got rid of! A bit of leveling and a few passes with the compactor and we were able to start laying the concrete tiles down. These were the same concrete tiles that we pulled up in October 2012 and have stored on site all this time with the hope of replacing them. It’s nice to see this sort of plan come to fruition.

But what’s a footpath without a street tree? We had saved and potted our old street tree as well but, unfortunately, it didn’t fair as well as the concrete pavers in the intervening years. Here’s where it is good to know your neighbours. Ours just happened to be installing a new driveway and had a lovely, mature tree right in the way. The council couldn’t put in her cross over until she had removed the tree and we needed one – a match made in heaven.

One Sunday Greg got in and dug around the roots, keeping the ball as big as possible. He then rigged up some scaffold on the back of the ute to make a small crane. A chain block on the scaffold and a strap around the tree and we were able to gently pull the tree out of the ground and swing it onto the back of the ute. It wasn’t a long trip to get it to its new home (only 20m up the street) but it sure was better than carrying it! The scaffold crane made it easy to lower the tree into a new hole. Then heads down, bums up (literally) to back fill the hole, making sure there weren’t any air pockets around the roots. Our other neighbour provided some much needed and helpful advice on pruning the tree and we are pleased to say that at the time of writing there are new buds and shoots starting to show on all of the branches.

There was still one piece missing – a driveway so we can access the new garage. We wanted to continue the red brick pattern from the path up the side of the house, with the wavy pattern ending in a big circle. The council require pavers on a cross over laid in either a brick bond or herringbone pattern. By this stage, brick bond was a bit old hat for us so herringbone it was. A bit of leveling, a few lines in the sand and we were ready to go (and use up a whole lot more red bricks, freeing up a little more space!)

It was a cold, wet and rainy day when the granos came to do the kerb – perfect for concrete! We certainly made them work this day. Pouring the concrete was one thing, stopping it from running down the street was quite another. We ended up rigging up a makeshift tent from scaffold and a big tarp to allow them to finish off the shaping and for the concrete to set.

It was much sunnier the following days, which made laying the bricks for the rest of the driveway a lot easier. Once all the bricks were cut and laid we swept some dry, fine sand mixed with a little concrete over to set them in place. As we were laying the bricks, Greg noticed that some had thumb prints in the corners of the bricks at various angles. A bit of research on the internet tells us that these were probably hand made bricks, over 100 years old, with thumb prints made by the person pushing the bricks out of their moulds. I wonder if that person ever imagined that they would be used 100 years later in a driveway, driven over by an automobile?

We’re pretty pleased with how the pattern turned out and the feedback from our neighbours and everybody else who walks up and down on our street on a regular basis indicates that they like it too. We are also very pleased to be making a (we hope) positive contribution to the streetscape now that we can see the front of the house and verandah unobscured. Greg and I would like to extend our heartfelt thanks to everybody who put up with the road base on the foot path for far longer than we had intended with good grace and good humour.


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Roof, floor and ceiling in one

The next cab off the rank was to install the ‘wet-area flooring’ for the balcony. The balcony is at the front of the house and is formed by setting back the second story in relation to the ground floor. This means that the floor of the balcony is also the ceiling of the garage and the front sitting room. That makes it a fairly critical little piece of infrastructure as it has to be water tight.

Greg tackled this task himself over a couple of weeks. The first step was to lay floor boards on top of the joists to form the ceiling below. This was purely aesthetic as we weren’t keen to look up at fibre cement sheeting when sitting in the front room. Then he cut batons to put on top of the boards that provide the appropriate ‘falls’ to make sure that water shed from the surface and didn’t puddle anywhere.

Next step was to insulate using the same foam board that we used in the walls. Each piece was cut to fit and then the edges were taped to prevent early degradation from moisture etc. It was just like ‘old times’ getting back into cutting and taping foam insulation – it’s been a while since we were doing that for the walls! We also put a bit of conventional ‘wool’ type insulation in over the brick vault.

Then Greg had to measure and cut the water proof fibre cement sheeting. This was all a bit fiddly in the tight spaces of the balcony but Greg managed to get it millimetre perfect and perfectly calculated. It was touch and go for a bit but we came out with about half a sheet to spare.

The other big challenge was to build a gutter and drain to funnel the water to the down pipe. This is yet another ‘bespoke’ solution that we needed and the problem solving process went through a few iterations. Plan A was to build a square drain out of fibre cement sheeting but this was very fiddly and would have been hard to water proof and to get the correct falls. We thought about using pvc pipe cut in half to form a spoon drain. This was also going to be hard to water proof where it met the rest of the floor and also difficult to achieve the required falls. Having scrapped that idea we then moved to the idea of building a drain out of tin (as we had the material handy). Greg worked out that by making a straight box section but then cutting the edges on an angle he could create the required falls. What’s more, the drain could be built out of a single piece of material, with a lip to tie it into the floor and up the wall to tuck in under the flashing. Multiple sections could be overlapped, riveted together and water proofed with relative ease. Bingo! There is a certain satisfaction when a simple, elegant solution presents itself.

Once the drains were in and the fibre cement sheeting was laid, Greg then went around with a tube of polyurethane and sealed all the joins. He also tarred the walls under the drains and made sure everything was stuck down properly. Then came an undercoat/primer and a big tub of green ‘goop’ (otherwise known as a water proof membrane). The green goop got painted on none to soon as the weather had been threatening all week and the following weekend the heavens opened and Perth was subjected to a wild and wooly weekend. We are pleased to report that the balcony didn’t leak a drop. Which is pretty good since our soak well (which is currently taking a lot more storm water than it is designed too) nearly over flowed!

The green goop isn’t intended to be used as a final covering but we haven’t quite decided was to put out there in the long term – tiles? decking? something else? In the short term we thought we might start with astro turf and a couple of pink flamingos (Alice’s choice) or pot plants (Greg’s choice) or maybe both…


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Think about thinking a lot more or think again

The seasons have changed with what seems like the flick of a switch. Or maybe I have had my head down for too long.  We have been living on site for 6 months now and settling in to living in the little short stay quite nicely.   We have seen the hottest months of summer and are now seeing the autumn sun day by day creep further into the house. It warms the bedroom so nicely at a time of the year when it is becoming welcomed. And now with the onset of the colder days and frosty south westerly breezes our house has proven it can be reasonably comfortable to live in without the need of artificial heating or cooling.

Progress on the house has been steady and a days work on site has become somewhat of a normality given the duration of the project thus far.   Nevertheless, still always something to be learned, a problem to be solved, an unforseen decision to be made and just the general make things up as you go along.

With no exception was the addition of the verandah. Given the tight space and the lack of room on our block it was decided early in the project that we would leave the verandah off the front of the house till later. It’s now apparently later. First job was to clear the front yard of excess dirt which meant getting in a bobcat and truck to move away 11m3 of dirt, leaving a generous void under the verandah and lowering the levels to later install the driveway. We then got a concrete truck to bring in a couple of cubes of concrete to pour the footings for the verandah posts and a footing for the east wall of the back yard.   It was great to have Pete back on site. (He helped us build the roof). This time his task on site was not as mammoth. I had spent a few days and evenings cutting pieces and laminating up four “hockey stick” rafters for the bullnose tin, so with all ingredients on hand it was a 5 day job from go to… Ahhhhh! A new lunch spot, a place for a quiet drink and maybe a little verandah warming party! With all the flashings now installed and completed is has transformed the front of the house. The only problem is it is still hidden behind a site fence!

We started building the chimney in November 2013. First with a hearth to take the fire box, then a fire place to support the mezzanine floor. Now that the roof is on we were able to complete the chimney right through to the weather cowling on top. Nick was quiet very correct to point out that our chosen method to build a chimney was somewhat out of the ordinary, going on to explain that the chimney is traditionally built first and then the roof is stood up and constructed around the masonry. In our case we did the opposite, and in my mind this was the most logic approach. This was until the task of constructing a work platform / access scaffolding on top of a 36.8° tin roof (capable of holding the stone, materials and tools for building said chimney)!! Within a few days, Nick had progressed past the shoulders of the chimney and had reached the timber roof truss and ceiling level. To see the limestone reach this level was a milestone in the project and all were happy to see it reach its final height. The bold and solid stone structure both competes with and compliments the truss as one folds over the other.   I was just happy to see all the many house of work and planning covered in stone…   Within the stone chimney there is more than meets the eye. We have insulated the evacuated tube solar hot water heating pipes and run them up inside the chimney. There is also piping to vent the hot water “thermal store”. Within the stone chimney there is also an air cooled triple skin flue. In a “normal” application, this would draw air from the ceiling space to cool the flue. However this is not the case in a cathedral ceiling so in order to have the option to bring cool air to the flue we installed a section of rectangular zincalume downpipe beside the chimney flue to bring air from the outside of the building. We have built a little “hatch” in the back of the chimney which will allow us to regulate the flow of cool air being drawn up through the triple skinned flue and hopefully allow us to not let the chimney get too hot but let us capture as much of the flue’s heat into the stone chimney as possible. For 5 days Nick worked on the roof building the stonework of the chimney. Luckily the days were cooling and a few days of easterly winds made for good conditions to be working on a tin roof. As we approached the final centimetres at the top of the chimney (and the whole house) we discussed a corbel with red brick and entered into a discussion on what would look good. So here we found ourselves looking over the Fremantle roof scape, admiring the various styles of chimneys. Most of solid red brick and far senior our age. There have been some very pleasant moments on this project but to be standing up on the roof in the warm Autumn Fremantle sun looking over the roofs up the hill and down the “flatlands” to the ocean admiring en-mass the architectural masterpieces that are the chimneys of this town, discussing in detail each one was something that I found quite fascinating and took great pleasure in.

 

We love the outdoors and one of the major features designed into this house was the seamless transition from indoors to outdoors. Achieved with a 6m wide opening in which we ambitiously decided we wanted to install a bifold stacking door system. Now if you know anything about bi-fold doors (and I realize now that I knew nothing) that is, something so seemingly simple is actually so enormously complex. Firstly, we have specified double glazing. This equates to approximately 14m2 of glass weighing nearly 430kg. Then, given the estimated frequency of opening and closing we wanted a smooth and lightweight operation that could be manually done with one finger. Of course we wanted it to be weather and air tight and last but not least, we wanted somebody who could custom-make the whole installation from steel out of non standard bits of material! Easy right? Without a doubt in the world, the single most important part of this system is the Brio door hardware. These are the precision engineered track, rollers and hinges. They are amazingly well engineered.. Followed closely behind by Wayne’s millimetre perfect doors which were fabricated in a custom made jig. Wayne spent over 100 hours fabricating the bifolds, starting with the top track and bottom track, the main door “Frame”. Brio have produced a wonderful worksheet that helped us to then establish accurate door height and widths for each panel, taking into account the allowances for the dimensions of their hardware . The task would have been many times harder without this worksheet. We initially spent a whole day drilling and tapping the 150 threads to fasten all the hinges to the six doors. Once they were all fitted and working we designed our own drop bolts with some stainless tube and rod, took all the doors down again to do the last bit of fabricating before the “Final” fit.   So once the doors were all complete we had to disassemble the whole lot for a third time so that we could lay them out and give them a good coat of paint. Although the glass is not installed yet, we are very happy with how the doors work and look. In fact, we could not be happier. So if you are thinking about Bifold doors… think about thinking a lot more or think again.

Once the steel bifold doors were completed we moved onto brackets for the door shader.   We all know that a solar passive house, when designed optimally, experiences an abundance of winter sun. Similarly, the design means that in the summer time, no sun will get in the building at all. During the “cusp” months however, a little bit of sun can get in when you really don’t want it, or maybe you do want that sun to heat the floor. This had therefor led to the designing of a 1.1m wide set of brackets that can in the future be set up to support a series of louvered boards meaning they can lay flat and create a shade awning or be pivoted/ rotated to allow light/heat to pass through. We are initially going to deck the shade awning with timber boards but would love to experiment with a louver system in the future.

 

As we have been building the limestone walls over the last two years we have been scraping/raking out the mortar joints as we go along. At the beginning of the project, Nick the stonemason provided us a few options as to how we could finish off the joints on the stonework. We opted to go for a flush joint. As you may or may not know, cement dries slightly different shades and colours depending on the air temperature , humidity and ventilation during the drying process. The sourced location of sand, bags of cement and even the way we mix it on site all leads to its different colours. I’m still yet to provide you with an exact figure (which one day I will folks) for the number of bags of cement used but Nick estimates its between 300 and 500 bags. So over two years and hundreds of bags of cement you could imagine the variations of mortar colour over 300m2 of internal wall would look like inside the house.   To overcome this we have recently had the team in to “point up” the limestone. By doing this to the whole house over three days means the mortar colour is consistent throughout. Firstly the walls were water blasted with a high pressure washer to remove the slurry left behind in the quarrying and cutting process. This took 3 days. Then the walls were cleaned up with any mortar dags chipped off with a chipping hammer or scutch. The final mortar joint is delicately applied with a thin slicking trowel and the wet mortar left just proud of the block surface. Once the mortar has had a few hours to dry, a flat steel blade can be used to scrape the excess away leaving a flush mortar joint. All that is left to do at the end is give it a soft bristled brush to soften the edges and remove any residue mortar. Sounds easy doesn’t it? This process of finishing off the exposed masonry on the inside of the house has completely transformed the look of the walls and the spaces as a whole. It looks great and is yet another little tick in the finished box. But there is still plenty more going on. It’s now time to focus on the timber windows and doors and the glass.

 

 

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