A Little House at No. 18

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

1 Comment

Finishing the flooring – part 2

Over 3 years ago we vaguely remember laying a concrete slab which would one day would become the floor we now call home. It seems so long ago. Just enough time to increase the surprise when we recently had the concrete polishers back to run their wet diamond polishing machines over the floor again to reveal a nearly forgotten treat. If you were to skip back to the earlier blogs of May and June 2013 you will get the initial concrete floor project happenings.

But now at the pointy end of our project we have an exposed aggregate slab with 3 different colour mixes raked together, seeded with resin filled cowrie and cone shells, river stones, bauxite (pea gravel), random trinkets (distinctively visible forever more) and our houses position, expressed in Latitude and Longitude shaped out of brass and embedded in the concrete at the front door.

Besides the plumber, the concrete polishing guys have the privilege of visiting a construction site well in its infancy, long before the scale and form of the building have begun to appear, and during the “icing on the cake” stage, just before the “keys are handed over”! It must be a real perk of their trade. It certainly was for them on our project anyhow. When we last saw them, they covered the honed concrete surface with a screed which acted as both a filler for bubbles and pitting and to protect the surface throughout construction. This final step of doing the polishing and sealing has been more of a psychological completion than we were expecting.

The boys from APCG (All Polished Concrete Grinding) must have a good memory because they arrived and immediately recalled the detail and features of the floor that we all discovered for the first time, 3 days after the slab was initially laid. They run a very well organised and methodical operation and within a short period of time had the large polishing machine up and running on the floor to start the final steps of the process.

This involved grinding the surface several more times and another layer of screed in the process to fill any newly appeared cracks, pits or voids. Starting with quite a course (80 grit) diamond polishing disk and working up to 400 grit, each time the surface became smoother and with it more physical texture would disappear as the visual texture would show greater and finer detail.

It was fascinating to see the many and varying “ingredients” making up the contents of the floor conform to the actions of the polishing stones, all developing a uniform smoothness as one body of mass. There is so much fine detail in every exposed piece of aggregate. The closer you looked the more amazing things you see. However, on a larger scale, from the mezzanine floor the subtle transition from dark black concrete to the lighter “natural” concrete can be seen more obviously.

The final day saw the application of several coats of sealer before we could stand and admire our efforts in all its glory. The journey to complete this floor has been a process to say the least. Being laid on pre-cast planks, with hydronic floor heating water piping, to laying the one floor using 3 different coloured concrete mixes, seeding with an array of trinkets, shells and unique stones as we went along and including a feature brass inlay have all involved many hours of research to allow us to tackle our ambitious dreams. Now all we have to show for our efforts is a floor we get to call our home and enjoy for many years to come.

I have found myself saying a little bit lately, “if I knew then what I know now, I would never started this project” but the comment itself by no way reflects any regrets. It just highlights how crazy and alternative some of our ideas were and in hindsight it was great that we were not as wise in the beginning. The ideas were purposeful and original. And achieving them was only limited to the time and effort we wanted to invest in solving them and transforming them into a reality.

One example was that we wanted a homemade end grain parquetry flooring in the kitchen, similar to that of chopping boards. Made out of scrap timber offcuts, it sounded like such a practical, good looking, hardwearing solution for all the small bits of timber remaining, it just ticked so many boxes that there seemed like no better alternative. Now that we were ready to install a kitchen, the time had come to build the long foreseen floor. Plus, the main slab had been poured with a 25mm stepdown in the kitchen to allow for the floor so it was not a matter of what we were going to do but how we should tackle it!!

Best place to start was by going through the “scrap” pile and finding all the offcuts that were about 500mm long. Chunks varied from 30 x 30mm to 150 x 200mm offcuts from the main truss beams. The aim was to find as many random dimensions and colours of jarrah possible. We started by planning and thicknessing the pieces smooth so they had square corners but removing the minimum amount “waste”. Once we had a large enough collection of machined pieces, we cut a 19mm slice off the end of each to create a random collection of tile-like blocks. For reasons of unimportance and reasonlessness we decide to arrange the pieces to fit millimetre perfect into a 325mm square pattern. In the big picture, this would eliminate the possibility of ending up with tiny voids between randomly placed blocks, working across such a large floor area.

To a great extent, the pattern “made itself” quite easily and fashioned “appropriately random” to end up about 90% resolved. To complete the puzzle, some of the remaining tile-blocks were marked down in size one or two dimensions to fit snuggly, completing the large square tile, each one consisting of about 24 individual pieces. The longer bits of pre-machined timber that corresponded to the re-sized blocks were then re-machined to bring the whole piece down to the required dimensions (more often than not, this meant only removing around 5mm or so).

By now we had 24 pieces of random timber that were all about 500mm long. If you laid them down in a neat stack, and in the right order, they would form a perfectly solid cuboid (a rectangular cube) with no gaps. If each of the individual pieces was then meticulously cut into approximately twenty 19 mm slices you would then have 1) Lots and lots of little blocks of wood everywhere. 2) Enough blocks to make twenty 325 x 325mm squares of end grain timber that just oozed character. You could seriously hang them on the wall as a piece of art. By the time we had completed this stage of the production we were two days into the process and we had just made 2.2 square meters of end grain parquetry. As we had over 8 square meters of floor to cover, all we had to do was repeat the process another 3 times and we’d have enough blocks to do the kitchen floor!

After 6 days of machining, measuring, cutting and sanding, we had hand produced around 1,560 pieces of end grain parquetry flooring. Enough to pave our kitchen floor.

In order to fix it permanently to a concrete pad underfloor we used a Sika primer MB (moisture barrier), a bright blue epoxy resin, that when spread over the concrete floor dried like glass and provided a perfect surface to glue the parquetry to using Sikabond T55, a highly flexible polyurethane timber flooring glue. The parquetry was laid like tiles, one piece at a time. We made a few jigs to help us pre-arrange the pieces from the piles nearby and transport them to within easy reach of the waiting, glue smeared floor. Within 2 days we had the nearly 1,600 pieces arranged and firmly set onto the floor.

After leaving the floor for a good 5 days to let the glues set, we got the floor sander black to gently run over the end grains with a large 120 grit rotary sander to lower any corners and give it a pleasant feel under foot.  The final task was to preserve the timber and protect it from the potentially staining liquids it’s likely to endure in the future. The finish was largely experimental but also, research showed, historically commonly used on strip parquetry. This technique involved rubbing warm bees’ wax (I used our Jarrah bees wax) across the finished surface before warming it with a heat gun until it melted into the grain of the timber. By also “scrubbing” the waxed surface with a plastic scourer whist the wax was still liquid aided the penetration and even distribution. I then used a buffing cloth to wipe the residue off. This initially left a very shiny and slippery floor but made the timber grain water resistant, bright in its colour and feature and a good start to its life as a solid hardwearing floor. Since the initial waxing I have applied several coats of linseed oil and bees wax cold liquid mix (home made) and the floor “evolves” with each application. We are very pleased with the kitchen floor and how it looks and feels beneath bare feet. We are also very excited to see how the floor will mature over time. Unlike most flooring types, end grain parquetry has a real reputation for outlasting generations, reportedly only ever getting better looking and feeling with constant use and wear.

Leave a comment

Finishing the flooring – part 1

Part of building the mezzanine floor was the installation of a temporary work surface which was installed over the exposed jarrah joists in April 2013.  A dozen or so large sheets of 19mm particle board flooring was sourced second hand from a salvage yard for a good deal.  This floor has served us well and enabled us to build the roof structure with greater ease.

Mezzanine cleared out and ready to remove the temporary particle boards flooring

Mezzanine cleared out and ready to remove the temporary particle boards flooring

However the time has finally come for the temporary flooring to be retired and make way for something a little more appropriate.  This has become to be known as an “icing on the cake” type moment in our project.  A finishing off bit.  And a fulfilment of another long dream of many years.  In the “what you see is what you get” get principle of construction, our tongue and groove floorboards were purpose milled at 150mm wide from fallen timber on a private property down south. We originally started   sourcing recycled boards but after much research and relentless searching for a sufficient quantity and quality of recycled floorboards we finally concluded we would need to have them milled to order. What makes our floor construction so unusual is that you will not only get to enjoy the beauty of a wooden floor from the top, but it will be fixed directly to the floor joists and will also be visible on the underside. Reclaimed floorboards containing nails are often cleaned up using a grinder and therefore can sometimes suffer deep burn marks on the underside.  This is fine if the board is going to be re-used in a way that you don’t see the bottom.  Another aesthetic factor was the presence of the widely used anti-cupping groove or grooves scored into the underside of most floorboards.  It was an aesthetical preference not to have these visible, so again another reason to head down the milled to order option.  Most floorboards are milled new at 19mm. To give the floor that extra bit of rigidity, we had them milled at 22mm.   These boards are absolutely amazing in feature.  The colours and patterns of the grain vary considerably and there are a handful of knotty imperfections that lend themselves to the house nicely.  Once milled the floorboards were kiln dried (de-humidified) for about 8 weeks to allow the moisture content to drop to approx. 11-12%. It is  then best to let wooden flooring become acclimatised in the rooms in which they will eventually be laid.  Unintentionally, but nevertheless fortunately, the boards have been waiting since November 2014 for installation.

It was undecided until very recently if we might employ a contractor to help lay the flooring. This decision was to do with time constraints, tools and “tricks of the trade”.  However, after doing a fair bit of reading about laying floorboards, we once again turned full circle deciding to do the installation ourselves the old school traditional way was going the be the best for the long term benefit of the floor. It would be hard to convince most floor contractors to ditch the nail gun for the more holdfast and traditional method of hand nailing 75sq meters of floor, over 1900 galvanised nails, into hard jarrah!  But to justify my decision a 2.8mm diameter by 50mm long nail driven in on the skew (30 degree angle) that many times was a sure way to ensure the mezzanine floor stands the test of time. Plus, I couldn’t be convinced that the nail guns nails were not going to come adrift over time, go randomly spearing out the side of the joist or leave me with a nicely finished round recessed nail hole in the end. Justifications aside, we invested the next 3 weeks levelling joists, nailing floorboards, sanding and oiling to give us the desired finish.

Rather than investing in a series of expensive joist clamps we devised a system using blocks and wedges to lock 3 boards at a time in place, tapping the wedges to make the boards true and evenly aligned. A small bead (6mm) of sikabond T55 flooring glue was placed along each joist to give the floorboards a good bedding and a bit of give. Then nailed before the clamps were removed and the next rows could be started.

A fair swag of time was spent ensuring the joist were all levelled to within a couple of millimetres before laying the floor.  Some had to be planed and a few needed a thin wooden packer to ensure the whole room was level.  This turned out to be the single most important part of having a nice level floor.

So after 6 days of levelling joists, 5 days of gluing, wedging and nailing boards, 4 days of sanding and filling (we did get help to do the sanding and filling) and 2 days of oiling we now have completed the mezzanine floor.

It has once again proved to us that the option of doing it yourself brings with it a raft of previously unidentified surprises. The Ikea effect, as it may be, strikes again.  In our modern day, the hammer is probably the most recognised tool in the shed however as I emptied the last few nails out of the box of 1,000, ran one of them across a grooved ball of bees wax and sent driving home with 4 well practiced blows it occurred to me how seldom a nail is driven into a piece of wood these days and yet the art of doing so is so therapeutic and satisfying.



1 Comment

Beginnings of a back yard

In our last post we talked about our decision to prioritise the back garden, to try and finish the messy jobs, get rid of the dirt and sand and generally provide some relief from looking at a building site in the back yard.

We got the messy job bit mostly done in March when we built the garden beds and the brick steps out to the laneway but that still left a dust bowl out the back door and the job only half done. The time between March and August was a bit of a write off for us – work and life generally just got in the way. At the end of August though we were back into it, starting with the garden.

The first order of priority was to construct the pond and the wall behind it. Right from the start we had decided to include a small water feature in the yard. We wanted it to provide some cooling effect when the breeze blows over it, provide a tranquil sound to the space and be a place where eventually the birds and frogs could find a much needed urban resource. We toyed with all sorts of fanciful ideas (including steam-punk style copper pipes and taps, teapots and built-in bird baths) but in the end it was hard to beat the natural beauty of limestone.

Building the pond was a bit nerve wracking as it was something that we’ve never done before and really weren’t quite sure how it was going to turn out. Greg started at the bottom through and it took on its own form to an extent, using the rocks we had available. The base is built from concrete, reinforced with chicken wire, and waterproofed with black plastic underneath. We pulled up part of the deck so that the pond finished underneath, and the deck overhangs the water.

We then installed the ‘hero’ piece of limestone – a large, flattish stone that fills the width of the garden bed and overhangs the pond. This is the main part of our mini waterfall and the water runs down the side of it and trickles over the edge along its length. We are hoping that the overhang will provide some shelter for frogs and fish (plus it provides the delightful running water sound that we have gotten quite fond of).

The walls of the pond were built up from that point with each stone carefully selected. We built a small upper pond (about the size of a bird bath) and ran the water pipe up to another rock ledge above (concealed underground and in the rocks behind). So what we’ve ended up with is a two stage waterfall with an upper bird bath (and spot for the children to muck around with the water) and a lower pond about 25cm deep and bit less than 1m2 in area.

Filling it with water was a little nerve wracking but to our delight it hasn’t leaked and the water flows really well over and around the rocks. The pond pump has done its job well and with timer on to ensure that the pump only runs when the solar panels are creating electricity and using our rainwater to fill and occasionally top up the pond we can run our little water feature without using external resources. As time goes on the natural limestone has grown green-black algae and looks like it belongs in a natural landscape. We have also introduced a few reeds and small fish to see how they like this space we have created. The fish have been fascinating to watch and they must like their new home as we think there has been a couple of new broods already.

The pond is only part of the story however, we also needed to install a gate to make the house secure. Here again Wayne has weaved his magic to turn the functional into a piece of art, welding over 200 washers and a few bits of steel into a slightly whimsical window to the laneway outside.

Come September and we were really ramping up to get the house looking presentable for Sustainable House Day and after such a hard slog a little ‘instant’ gratification was required. And there’s nothing like a little roll-on turf to spruce a place up.

After a bit of research (thank you internet), we settled on a variety called ‘Velveteen’. This is a relatively new variety that ticked a lot of boxes for us. It’s a soft, fine-leafed grass that is salt tolerant, drought resistant and handles partial shade. It doesn’t run (and so is less invasive) and purported to be able to handle a bit of wear and tear.

Of course, instant gratification still involves a few days of work to level the ground, spread some new topsoil, install subsurface irrigation and finish off the small edging wall on the west side.

The subsurface irrigation we have used is another interesting product. It’s called KISSS irrigation piping (not sure what KISSS stands for but it does seem to tie in nicely with our general KIS (keep it simple) philosophy). It is a sub-surface textile irrigation that uses a geotextile fabric to evenly deliver water along the length of the pipe. Because it uses the wicking action of the fabric it doesn’t have holes for roots to penetrate into and being sub-surface it delivers the water directly to the root zone, encouraging downward growth of the root system and vastly reducing evaporation losses. If you are interested, you can read more about this product here http://www.kisss.com.au/Products/AboutKISSSTechnology.aspx. We finally got to a point where had installed the full irrigation system (solenoids etc.) and was able to start using the KISSS irrigation a few weeks ago and from a slightly sceptical start we have so far been very impressed.

Anyway, back to the lawn. We had the lawn delivered on the 6th September and by the end of the day it was done – laid, watered and with about 10m2 of excess lawn (we ended up receiving much more than we had ordered!) hastily laid in the back laneway (it has proved to be an excellent bocce pitch).

That day also saw the installation of steel tile (left over from a neighbour’s previous project and originally sourced from the demolition of the old bakery across the road) and pea gravel (left over from seeding the concrete) ‘paving’ along the western side. We’ll eventually put a washing line along here. Excess soil and a load of wood chips to fill in the garden beds and we were finally able to sit on our back deck, look over an emerald green lawn, listen to the gentle sound of running water (enjoy a well-earned G&T) and pretend that everything was done.

PS Sustainable house day went really well for us – thank you to everyone who attended and gave such lovely feedback about our home. We had about 320 people through on the day, making it the most visited house in WA I believe.


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.


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


1 Comment

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).

1 Comment

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!


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.