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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Half Way, So They Say

Today the site was quiet, just me pottering about. Looking, thinking, planning and finalising a few jobs about the place. A far cry from the past 8 weeks of industrious sounds, busily created by workers and tools.   Whilst ambling along through a most lovely sunny winter’s day the realization that our little house has a completed roof finally hit me, 7 days after it was actually completed and five years after the house was a new idea.

Without a doubt this has been the most intense 8 weeks of the project, if not my entire life. Looking around the roof I began to realize for the first time what we had actually achieved.   All of the un-imaginable set-backs and risks associated with building a roof on the cusp of winter have now passed. We emerge appearing seemingly unscathed.

On the 7th April 2014, all the crew – two roof carpenters, a stone mason, two labourers and myself – turned to the first day of achieving the task of getting the roof completed before winter came. Two of the four trusses had been  built, lying down flat on the mezzanine floor. The first truss was built with trial and error (but mostly accurate trial). The second truss was built notably swifter given we were replicating the actions of the first. The last two trusses seemed to construct themselves and made us wonder why the first one took so long. Never the less, the pleasure and the craftsmanship involved in such a construction had all involved eager with anticipation of what lie ahead. On the 11th April the trusses were all stood up in place with the use of a crane and for the first time the shape of the building became a material thing. (See “Truss Me”)

In total 5.57m3 (approx. 4,650kg) of jarrah has been used to build the roof structure. Once the trusses and ridge beams were in place we set about putting all the rafters into place, giving the roof a skeletal look. The joys of rough sawn jarrah is that each piece has its own character both in look and in shape! A piece milled to 150mm is more likely to range from 141mm to 148mm along its length. It’s also likely that each piece not only naturally bows in a vertical plane but also woofs left or right (and in some cases both left and right) . During the rafter installation it was necessary to cut and fit all 56 rafters individually as we went along. Peter , Max and Josh worked together skilfully to ensure each join and plumb cut fit millimetre perfect. A real credit to their workmanship and it shows in the finished product.

The whole Jarrah structure supporting the roof is going to be kept internal of the building. It was therefore time to install the lining boards on top of the jarrah to form the cathedral ceiling.

The lining boards are made of marri which has been milled to 19mm x 150mm, kiln dried and dressed on both sides. It took two full days to install 970 lineal meters of lining board totalling approximately 2,340kg.   When the boards were delivered to site it was clear that the “lot” was from a few quite different trees. There was a variation in contrast and detail of the timber’s distinct sap grain. Throughout the multiple oiling and moving steps to get the boards to their final place in the building we made a concerted effort to shuffle the boards like a pack of cards.   The final result is quite amazing.

With winter now fast approaching, we were literally racing the clock to get the roof sealed up. There is such a thing as Murphy’s Law. And I think it’s part 8 of Murphy’s law that states if you are building a roof, it is going to rain. And that it did.   Our major concern with the rain was that the Marri lining boards are prone to staining by water damage and it was for this reason we went to several extreme lengths to keep them protected. Several days were ended and begun covering and uncovering the roof with several 6m x 4m tarps.   On another occasion, Alice and I were sitting on the veranda across the road from the site (where we are living) having just finished dinner and a nice glass of wine or two. A quick check of the forecast and a look at the rain radar indicated that it was inevitably going to rain throughout the night. And the ridge of the roof was still uncovered. So we did what all conscientious and caring owner builders do. We donned the head torches, tool belt, drill, a can of expanding foam and some aluminium flashing and made our way up the roof in order to beat the rain.   I don’t know if anyone did walk up our street while we were busily working but it would have been a puzzling surprise for a passer-by in any event. By 9.30 pm we were both sitting back on the veranda, satisfied with our efforts and more content with the long term wellbeing of our beautiful ceiling. And when I heard it rain that night, I was able to roll over and go back to sleep.

Another big day in building the roof was the installation of the insulation panels. This again required the employment of the crane and a fair bit of prior problem solving and a lot of planning leading up to the day. The longest panels for the eastern side of the roof are 5.8m long and weigh about 90kg each (much too heavy to man handle onto the roof). Given the lack of space at the front of the block (as it was occupied by the crane) we were able to add a 5m fly jib to the crane boom and reach right over the house to pick the panels up from the back yard 24 meters away from the crane. The panels were lifted with soft slings one at a time and then carefully landed at the ridge first then lowered to rest on the top of the lining boards at a 36.8° roof pitch angle, chocked at the bottom temporarily to remove the slings.   In all, this was an eight person operation. Two people to land and secure the panel at the roof’s ridge and another one placed mid-way down and one at the bottom of the panel. Each person screwing and unscrewing blocks into the roof to support themselves as we progressively moved along the roof. Two labourers were running tools, slings, blocks to stand on and moving panels ready for slinging; plus the crane driver and dogman.   In all it took us about 6 hours to land all 17 insulation panels. A very methodical and co-ordinated operation that ran smoothly throughout and was a credit to everyone involved.

Once the panels were in place it was literally impossible to climb the roof but also time to install the services like pipes for the hot water evacuated tubes, wiring for lights and DC cable for the photo-voltaic panels. The blue top-hats (these support the corrugated iron) were installed on top of the panels to allow access to the roof again and a few days were spent with various trades like the plumber and the electrician installing pipes and cables whilst the rest of the roof was being screwed down with long 140mm screws, through the top hat and panels and embedding into the jarrah rafters below.

Soon after a small piece of open space appeared in our tight and congested work site, a truck arrived with our 1,100kg of zincalume sheeting, gutters, ridge capping , barge rolls and valleys. The longest of the tin roof sheets was 7.7m long and although an individual sheet is not that heavy, we did have fun manoeuvring them from the street, over the front wall and through the mezzanine front doors, out the bathroom window onto the neighbours roof and finally up to the main roof. Putting roof sheeting on is very satisfying. There is something about this timeless Australian invention that is corrugated iron and it lends itself so nicely to the roof-scape of the beautiful old houses that surround it. In context with the building of the whole roof structure (or the whole house for that matter) the zincalume sheeting goes on relatively quickly and has somewhat instant gratification magnified by the fact that (through all the layers of construction) this is it! The only element to go above this is the weather.

On the 6th June, 8 weeks after we had started, Peter and I spent the day on the roof screwing off the roof sheeting, between us putting in just over 1,200 screws.   And then finally the ridge cap. A moment I have thought about many times. A symbol that we have reached the top of building our house. The rain had cleared and the sun came out. Natures acknowledgment the roof was now water tight. Sitting on the ridge-cap, I briefly soaked up the view. Cockburn sound looks calm and the ocean sparkling. The town looks so lovely from up here.  The soak wells, the rainwater tanks and the concrete footings seem so distant now, so far below. But as we have heard many times, once the roof is finished you are half way to having a completed house.