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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Going Up

Brickies. Ours were at least two red bulls in before morning tea, listened to 180 AM on the radio (the local commercial rubbish station) and were hungover for at least two days post Melbourne Cup. On the plus side, they showed up most of the time, called if they didn’t and built a straight wall without dropping too much mortar down the cavity.

Watching the bricks go up is pretty amazing – it has made me realise just how big the ‘workshop’ is going to be – the second biggest room in the house! We are only eight or so weeks in and already we have walls. I think the photos say it better than I can so I will keep this blog short and let the pictures tell the story!

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Footloose and Fancy Free

Footings. A fairly simple concept. Dig a trench, put some mesh and reinforcing bars in the trench and fill it up with concrete to provide a firm, weight-bearing structure on which to build the rest of your house. And by ‘rest of your house’ I really do mean the whole thing. If your footings are on the wonk in any one of three dimensions then your house will have a permanent lean or walls that just don’t meet up at the prescribed 90° angle.
Getting the footings in has been the most challenging part of the build so far and a lesson in making sure that you have competent, proactive and trustworthy tradies by your side.
Greg and I set out the string lines to mark the footings one sunny Friday, not that long ago. We painstakingly banged in pegs, ran string lines and checked and double checked our measurements. At about 3 pm our gun excavator driver (subject of previous posts) called past. “Why are you setting these out yourself, that’s the grano’s job?” “but our grano* said we could/should do it ourselves” (we can’t remember which now). “That’s just crazy but OK.”
The second piece of sage advice was, well if you have to do it yourselves fine, but you’re doing it all wrong. Having just spent the entire day working on this, that was not what we wanted to hear but after listening to the alternative method (putting in profiles) we had to admit that he had a point.
With a bit of help we put in some star pickets and screwed some bits of timber to them. With the profiles set up off the actual building footprint and nails marking where the string lines needed to go we achieved about half of what we had done in the previous eight hours in little over and hour. You can’t stay dark about that for too long.
On Saturday the plumbers were on site with a digger, then our measuring really got tested out. It was amazing, if slightly hair-raising, to see the imaginary lines that we had marked out with string the day before become trenches to rival even The Great Trench of Turnbull (ask my father).
Unlike the Great Trench of Turnbull, however (ask my mother), the granos arrived on Monday to install the reinforcing. Then on Tuesday it was all on. For starters, the grano rocked up saying “hope that’s not your pump truck that’s broken down on South St”. Five minutes later the phone rings. The pump truck had broken down. A few phone calls later and an alternative truck was arranged. They drove up the street, took one look at the low hanging power lines and said “sorry mate, no can do”. A few more phone calls and a third, smaller alternative was arranged. Meanwhile the granos had to start getting the concrete into the footings using wheel barrows as it is starting to go off. As a consequence, perhaps, the starter bars** didn’t get put into the first lot of footings.
By the end of the day though, the concrete was poured, we had a base on which to build our house and luckily the engineer agreed that the missing starter bars could be chemi-set into the footing.
*A grano is a term for a tradesperson who deals with concrete
**Starter bars are metal rods that get set into the footing and stick up in the air. Their purpose is to hold the wall that gets built around them and then filled with concrete to the footing below.


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Let it Rain

With the demolition over it was time to start thinking about the future. The decision to install a 22,500 L concrete rainwater tank was three fold: 1) it would be basically impossible to retrofit that volume of water storage once the house was built; 2) we figure that by installing the tank we would be self-sufficient in water for about 80% of the year; and 3) it became a key part of our street’s zombie action plan*. We didn’t start planning our house with water self-sufficiency in mind but when it became apparent that only a small amount of extra digging was required (and that we had a great excavator operator on our side) we thought why not?
Excavating our block happened all very quickly. In the morning it was a gently sloping site, by the evening there were flat pads where the short-stay, workshop and garden are going to be. It is absolutely thrilling to see the house that you have been planning and imagining for years start to come to life on the ground.
The next day was the day for tank delivery. Now the tank we ended up with is 3.5 m wide, 2.8 m tall and weighs 10 t, with a lid that weighs an extra 2 t. The owner of the company that manufactured the tank (Hills Concrete) was on site to oversee the operation and admitted to us afterwards that if he had come to see the site beforehand he would never have attempted it. Luckily for us it was his ace truck driver who came to have a look and he was up for giving it a go.
Now many people will drive around the block a couple of times to avoid a reverse parallel park, this guy was able to reverse a 9 m** long truck up the street, avoiding a couple of parked cars and reverse it onto our site so that the hiab (crane on the back of the truck) could lift up the tank, swing it around and lower it into position. Then they did the same thing with the next truck to get the lid on site and lower that into position. Wow.
So there we have it, a 22,500 L rainwater tank. “Nice soakwell!” People call out as the walk past or “What’s that for?” The payback time on a $10 k tank, based on the current cost of water may be umpteen years but that’s not the point. When the zombie apocalypse does arrive, Little Howard St will be sitting pretty with our own clean water supply***. Now all we need is a roof to catch the rain!


*the street collectively has been working on our zombie action plan for a number of years now, usually over a twilight beer or two.

**9m is a guess-timate

***The likelihood of a zombie apocalypse happening is extremely low, so that’s not really the point either.