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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Marking our position

Along with the challenge of owner building comes the freedom to do something different.

Had we not chosen to manage this project ourselves we would have not ended up with anything like what we planned or what we have ended up with. Before I am mistaken, I mean for the better. At this stage in the project we are having no regrets. It is exciting and rewarding seeing it all coming to fruition. I read a quote referring to owner builders the other night that said “The harder you work, the luckier you get”. I wonder if this is true?

The main slab of our house combines a multitude of features which we believe could never have had happened if we did not do it ourselves. During the researching phase of the slab, after we decided to go for polished concrete, we began to realize the truly phenomenal array of options that are presented. If you are keen to put the extra bit of effort in, the final appearance of a polished slab is only limited by the imagination. So the idea to put a brass inlay into the floor came at an early stage. This sounds like fun! We both decided it was worth trying but not so long ago we didn’t know where or what we were going to put in.

The conclusion was that something in the entrance area would be best. Something that was personalized, that represented us, that gave our project (and our home to be) a point. The initial idea to mark the Latitude and Longitude in the entrance didn’t take straight away, not until I was writing the position in the log book on watch one night. (Something I have done literally thousands of times before and yes, we still put an hourly position in the deck logbook by hand.) There is something about physically writing your position… It’s a very old custom but also remains definite, timeless, distinctive and inimitable.

Within a couple of emails to and fro between Alice and I in January 2013, we had a plan. What followed were numerous scans of hand written Latitudes (Alice’s handwriting) and Longitudes (Greg’s handwriting) in various (commonly and un-commonly expressed) formats, a bit of playing around with the photocopier’s zoom function (keeping it old school) and we produced a “stencil” for our brass inlay in about a week.

Our hand written position, blown up on the photocopier of course

Our hand written position, blown up on the photocopier of course

In order to transform our hand written design to a language that could be understood by a brass cutter we turned to the unquestionably invaluable tool of facebook to ask for help. Low and behold, a long time mate of ours Chris came forward and was able to convert our PDF’s into DXF’s like magic (it actually took Chris many hours of labour and late nights). Are you still with me? DXF is a “Drawing eXchange Format” for CAD “Computer Aided Drawing” (I bet you’re glad you asked that question!)

With those three letter acronyms and few more, the guys at C-tech engineering used a high pressure water cutter to cut our design out of 6mm brass plate. The result was 25 pieces of brass in a box that , when arranged in the right order gave an exciting insight, and the first taste of what our design will look like in full size.

25 pieces of brass cut and laid out the first time

25 pieces of brass cut and laid out the first time

The process of casting or “puddling” the brass into the wet concrete required a fair bit of research and consultation with the granno’s (concrete layers) and the guys who were going to polish it. There was much debate as to how the numbers were going to be introduced to the concrete so that they would not sink or set out of square or be damaged by the grinding machine or be polished right through. Despite the vast amount of research required to get us this far, there were still plenty of questions that arose through the process that we had to sort out a solution for along the way.

We settled on the idea of brazing the numbers and associated notations together with the use of some brass 6mm square bar. Two horizontal “spines” supported some spacer brass blocks with the numbers braised on top. My younger brother Brad stepped up to the challenge and brazed all the pieces together over a hot and marathon 4 hour session. The result was two rigid structures, a Latitude and a Longitude, ready to be puddled into the wet concrete on the pour day.

There was a lot going on the day we poured the main slab. I mean a lot. So when the concrete in the entrance area had been poured , leveled , screeded , seeded , floated and had been left for a while to harden the time had finally come where the brass inlay could be placed. Timing was important. If the concrete was too soft our brass inlay would risk sinking or if it was too hard we could not easily push it into the mix or worse, not be able to push it in at all. We also risked disturbing the even distribution of the aggregate that will be visible once polished so in effect we really only had one small window and one chance to get it right. Once placed, the top surface of the brass was measured with the laser level to within 2mm and then, once we were happy, the concrete was “closed up” with a hand trowel. Two hours later it was set in for good. Only the polishing could reveal if all our work so far had been a success.

Polishing day…17th April 2013. I think the guys on the polishing machine were more excited than I was to see the brass emerge from the slurry of the machine as it was vacuumed away. They do have a pretty satisfying job. The first few cuts with the machine are quite harsh and the diamonds left quite course gouges but a flat finish on the brass. From then on, the area around the brass was polished and faired with a hand tool.

The result? So far it has worked and so far it looks great. We still need to cut in some brass strips to indicate the actual corresponding meridians and the final polishing of the concrete and brass will take place later in the construction once the walls are up but from the indications of the combined hard work from a lot of people, it looks like we might get lucky.


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Upcycling…Is it old, or new or both?

Railway line.  Not the first thing to spring to mind when you are thinking about building or designing a house.    This was also true for us … for a while!

During the design process, Mike (our Architect) had drawn the short stay second storey floor (4m x 8m)  with exposed Jarrah joists ( floor supports) and recycled jarrah floorboards, the same as the rest of the mezzanine in the main living area.   I think there were two factors that pushed us in the direction of a more “creative” solution.   Firstly, the short stay upper level contains a laundry and a visitor’s toilet, both of which will be considered wet areas.   The use of jarrah joists and floorboards under wet area floors presented us with a problem and a need for a solution.   Secondly, the rectangular area (4m x 8m) may lend itself well to an architectural feature we had seen in a little café in Fremantle called the Attic.  This solution utilizes old railway line mounted upside down, spanning two walls as floor joists.  Red clay bricks are then laid across the rail to form a masonry floor.    Can it work?

When we approached Mike with this solution (I think it was about April 2012) he replied to us with about  10 reasons why it CAN be done!  And so it began to evolve.

The first real challenge was to start shopping for rail to see what was available so we could design and plan accordingly. Using recycled materials are good as it usually means there are numerous options available but I had the feeling that this wasn’t going to be that easy.  In fact after about a week of research, dozens of emails and phone calls to railway enthusiasts,  shunting yard managers , rail manufacturers and even countless train museums around the state I learned that old rail was as rare as hens teeth plus I think I was maybe talking to the wrong people . You know how it is. One particular company had the contract to recycle ALL the scrap rail from around WA.  When I spoke to them they were reluctant to part with any and if they did, it was going to be on their terms… Scrap metal prices plus some!   They prided themselves in recycling but did not appear understand the term upcycling!

Long story short.  Let me introduce Russ..  “Russ the rail man”, as he became known to us.  My cousin’s boyfriend, who whilst I was in conversation with, discovered he worked within the railways so I asked if he had access to some old rail!  Bingo!   Early October 2012 , two Sunday mornings  in a row we found ourselves driving towards Fremantle, towing a car trailer loaded with 4m lengths of old railway line.   Which we man handled (with the aid of two sack trolleys) into the storage unit.  Thanks Russ!

In early April 2013 (12 months after we had sprouted the idea) , a truck came to collect the rail from the storage unit and take it to the sand blasting conveyor belt machine for a spruce up, blasting away many years of scale, concrete and encrusted blue metal.   The rail then took a little journey from Gnangara in the Perth’s far northern suburbs  down the freeway and through the city itself before being delivered to Baldivis in the far southern suburbs of Perth.  It’s at Peter Danzi’s  yard  we put to work converting our collection of steel sticks into a floor and a ceiling.


I lofted out the 8m x 4m area on Peters workshop floor and marked out the stations for the rail centers and the shorter rails that are going to give way for  the stairs.  From there we decided which rail was going to be used where and then oxy-cut all the rail to exact length.   As soon as the cut rail was laid out on the work-shop floor with the crane, there was a sense of excitement as a life sized version of the plans appeared before us.  A 4 tonne structure that is going to be part of our house!   It took 3 days  for us to make and weld up the frame holding the 21 lengths of rail together.  The boilermakers meticulously ensuring that everything was millimeter perfect.   Once the structure was complete, upside down on the workshop floor, it was promptly cut into 5 pieces to enable it to be removed.  But also for transport and installation by crane once it reaches Little Howard Street!


In order to prevent the steel from rusting away again, we spent a lazy Sunday down at Peters yard painting the rail with Fish oil.   Alice and I were very familiar with using fish oil on steel as both of us had previously had the pleasure of lathering the inside of sailing ship chain lockers with the stuff many moons ago.   However, to our surprise (and secretly a little disappointment) we learned we weren’t going to finish the job smelling like fish as apparently fish-oil these days has had the smell removed! (editor’s note: I disagree, it was fairly odourless while we were outside but when we got in the warm car to come home that old smell was definitely there!)    It was also the first time in this long process of collecting, transporting, sandblasting,  cutting, grinding, welding  and  oiling that we begun to see and read the writing marked on the rail.  Some of it was labeled  AS (1946).  Some was labeled  AIS  X / 1949.  Then we made a discovery that still has us marveled.    We noticed, written on some of the rail “C of A  80  OH  Tennessee  1913” .    This left us pondering on the drive back towards Fremantle…,  Is it plausible that we have managed to upcycle something that is 100 years old this year and… Are we about to build it into our new house?