A Little House at No. 18

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


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.