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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801 Days

When we started this project 26 months ago we had ambitious intentions supported by well thought out plans of moving back in within 6 months (well at least into the short stay part anyhow).  Many times since, we have been asked the question when do we intend to move in? If an adventure can be defined as a journey with unknown outcomes or destination, then our journey to move in within 6 months must surely have turned into and adventure somewhere along the way.   Either way, I can now proudly say that we have moved in!  801 days after the building permit was issued to commence the project.

In that time we have moved 7 times and brought into the world a lovely little daughter.

Most recently we have been living at number 1 Little Howard street, a most beautiful 3 room “turn of the century” cottage across the road. A place which, without the generosity of the owners David and Hilary, would have made the last year of our lives a very different one. We will miss living there. The tiny cottage oozes character complete with outdoor dunny, 1950’s décor, ceilings higher than the hallway is long and of course the obligatory brick and concrete porch Little Howard street is renowned for.

But as all good things do, our stay at number 1 has to come to an end and there was nowhere we were interested in moving to than our own place. The plan for the last 25 months (in order of priority) was to get us to this stage and we now find ourselves with a 4 week dead line to be moved back on site.


So the last month has been somewhat of a myriad of little tasks compiled into a critical path where the next task can only take place once the former is complete. 10 tasks that all take a day to complete can all be done on the same day and this would be very productive but if each task relies on the previous one being completed then there goes a week already! This is also provided there are no delays along the way.  Logistically, the last 4 weeks have been by far the tightest of the project with the number of trades required on site.  The planning and communication with everyone was one of the most important things to make it happen smoothly. Prior to work starting on site at the beginning of November, Alice had all the materials ordered and delivered to site and everyone booked in ready to go. The tin was rolled for the dunny roof, the locks were all ordered and keyed, the double glazing was under construction, tiles and grout were ready for the bathroom.

To be completely honest, (looking back) I did not think that what we achieved was going to be achievable at the beginning of the month but this is where we were going to live… nowhere else was an option.  (and its okay for me to admit this now.  After all, the harder you work, the luckier you get.)

The first thing we had to do was a final cut and seal of the concrete floor. A work of art in itself that was poured and covered with a protective screed over two years ago!  Meanwhile, we commenced the final touches to the exposed masonry, firstly high pressure blasting the recycled red bricks and the rough sawn limestone to remove dust and slurry.  Then we acid washed the red bricks with a diluted 10:1 mix of hydrochloric acid and scrub each brick by hand to remove residue cement dags and lime. The bricks and limestone took an amazing transformation in this process and the final step in the process was to spray the walls with a heavy duty stone sealer made by Dupont. The sealer is not like any other stone sealer. It produces a completely undetectable seal on a rough, porous and sometimes very crumbly surface in a very sly way. The sealer is sprayed on with a weed sprayer at a rate of 5-6m2 per liter and spends the next few hours soaking into the stone where it then begins a 3 – 4 day process of expanding to fill the stone’s pores and creating a seal approximately 10mm back from the surface of the stone, leaving it with a completely natural dry look. Amazing stuff.

All the meanwhile, final works in the bathroom and toilet had commenced. The floor has been screeded and sealed and the floor and wall tiles went in.  The federation style black and white checked tiles, which have been planned for many months now started bringing the old dunny back to life and into the building. We turned the idea of brick bond wall tiles on its head (well more literally on its side) with long 100 x 400 white tiles and spiced it up with a random splash of colour using 100×100 wall tiles to match the colourful locally handmade basin.

One of the things we had to do when we first moved into the old house was to build a kitchen. It had a room designated for a kitchen but had no light and no cupboards. Just a sink in the corner.  At the time and with the budget we had we ended up installing an Ikea kitchen. Still being in “like new” condition when we commenced the demolition it was decided to upcycle the kitchen too and it was earmarked for the new short stay kitchen in the planning process and put in storage. The challenge on hand now was to fit the oven, cooktop, fridge, dishwasher, and the kitchen sink into a 3.8m long galley kitchen made of recycled ikea cupboards. I’m very impressed with the engineering of Ikea hardware, particularly the soft close draws. Having standardised sizes and heights also made the two day complete installation of the kitchen easy. The under bench fridge , dishwasher and oven were all purchased from the UK and shipped over in a container 2 years ago. This all happened for a few reasons and looking back there are a few more good reasons we have realised for doing so. In the planning stage, when we were working out sizes and locations and layout of rooms with the architect, he asked a few questions as to what kind of kitchen appliances we wanted and should be allowed for.  This obviously lead to researching what was available and we were very specific about wanting good quality energy efficient appliances and the need for us to move our search for appliances out of Australia. Luckily the Australian dollar was strong at the time and given that we had selected items for the purposes of helping us in the design phase, it seemed fitting to follow through and purchase them at the time.  It is also a good feeling much later in the project that the appliances have already been chosen and paid for so all we had to do was bring them from storage to site and “voila!”… one compact, upcycled and very functional home away from home kitchen.

A lot of work has gone into the design, construction, install and final preparations of our home made thermally broken steel window frames. The last week had been spent doing final painting, fitting locks and cleaning the frames ready for the double glazing.  Our next task was to install the glass units, delivered to site spot on 1030 on Monday, like clockwork. Good thing as the Glazier, Matt, was on site waiting keen and ready to install them.  I can honestly say (and I suppose it is really a product of being in Perth) that I have only ever seen double glazing units a handful of times in my life and on this day I find myself starting to install 25 panes in our house!! One by one, as the rooms became closed from the outside elements,  the acoustics within the room begun to change in a logical but unconsidered way. The double glazing absorbs sound well beyond our expectations and so does the limestone block. There are no echoes at all in these rooms and with all the doors and windows closed there is almost an eerie silence. Thermally, we haven’t lived in the place long enough to make a full assessment of the benefit yet but through a few days of mid to high 30’s in late November, we have managed to retain a comfortable 21 – 23° C inside.  We are looking forward to assessing the performance over the coming months of summer.

There were a few times in the last weeks where the comment had been made, “This is the moment I had been waiting for…” The moment when the mass of materials that have been fixed together in various different ways, turn from “a construction” to “a home”.  The glazing was without a doubt one of those and so was the feel of our bare feet on the clean polished concrete for the first time, but the one that made the most impact and I had until now considered least was the visual impact of being on site at night with all the lights on. There is an amazing lovely warm and homely glow of the stone and timber.   We are running our main interior lighting on 24v warm white LED’s on a DALI (digital addressable lighting interface) system.  Majority of the lighting products we are using are OSRAM and we have imported from Germany.  This enables the lighting to be integrated into the KNX automation of the house and will eventually allow us to freely program lighting groups and flexible switching as well as automated energy saving features like constant light control, presence sensors and PWM (pulse width modulation) dimming.  The research and efforts that we have put into selecting a LED lighting system that is going to serve us for the next 30 years plus has been phenomenal.  So it was rather exiting to finally be incorporating them into the building.  As the electricians helped install the DALI light controllers by day, Alice and I would sit on the porch in the evenings, stripping back wires, crimping on terminal ends and mounting the LED’s to our prototype wall luminaires.  On the Friday, the day before we moved in, the lights were powered up for the first time and we were only able to switch them all on and off by temporary power supply. When we finished up in the afternoon, I could not wait for it to get dark, just to see how the lights would all look. We weren’t disappointed. The warm wall washed lights bring the natural texture and cosy colours out of the limestone where the marri and jarrah timber cathedral ceiling no longer has shadowed corners. All the character of the timber is on show and the vastness of volume in the room can be felt. In the kitchen we have finally achieved a life long dream..  No shadows on the kitchen bench!  And the recycled red brickwork really comes alive.  27 x 7.5w led lights now light the short stay with a little under 200 watts.

So here we are, once again living at 18 Little Howard Street. I sit in the armchair, gazing around at our newly transformed living space, trying to realize the genuineness of the situation. I comment to Alice that it’s a little hard to believe.   I briefly recall sitting is this same armchair gazing around at the weathered humble beauty of our old house, and if I recall rightly, I was thinking at the time what it might be like to sit here looking at what the new one will be like.  801 days later, I’m realizing it might be a little better than I’d imagined.