A Little House at No. 18

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


Sustainable House Day!

Sometimes, time gets away from you….. for us, it’s because it has been a hectic couple of months at work, at home, away from home and socially.  So hectic in fact, our latest project update was in February! Sorry.   So what’s been going on with Little House you ask?  Here is the much anticipated and requested update.

Earlier in the year we were immersed in an intense couple of hours when the Owner Builder Support Network in Perth featured our house in one of their regular bus trips.  This gives people who have decided to (or are thinking about becoming) owner builders, the chance to visit a few houses under construction and talk directly to the folk who have already embarked on the journey that is owner building and to learn from their experiences.  Our involvement was an extreme honour and pleasure.

Sharing our learned knowledge and skills felt like handing down some form of cultural precedent.  It was well worth the time by all who attended, the wisdom that was being passed to eager and apprehensive enthusiasts, eyes and ears wide open, soaking up all the information like sponges.  Some dared to dream wildly and shared with us their project visions and asked some very “out of left field” building questions, of which (lucky them) we were able to provide suitable answers to.  It re-iterates and affirms the enormity of the project we set ourselves and just how far we have come whilst explaining our way through our unique journey with all its facets.   Above all, the most amazing feeling of the owner builder Bus tour visit to our little house was to ignite imagination, encourage alternate and “thinking outside the box” mentality, demonstrating that you can build your dream home and that it is not really a journey but more of an adventure.    The difference being is that an adventure is a journey with an unknown outcome.

The tour is an invaluable experience that is highly recommended and of which Alice and I participated in 2012 before we started our project.

March was a busy month too.  We decided that a priority needed to be completing the back yard.  There comes a time as a project nears lockup or completion where the presence of dirt and sand becomes more noticeable than it ever has before to a point where something really needs to be done about it.  Plus the fact that this is the last real masonry work to be done on the project and requires materials like sand, stone, brick and cement to all be carried through the house and the creation of a lot of dust, mud and mess.   We concluded that, although having a completed backyard is not critical for moving in and living in the main house, having a completed back yard is going to make an enormous difference to the available living space given the nature of the living area layout and continued tidiness in general.  It will be a shame to see the cement mixer need to leave site but it will be a bitter sweet and momentous day. Given that I think it may nearly have spent half its life on our work site! I shouldn’t get ahead of myself, we haven’t finished with it yet.

So over the month, the cement mixer did get a good working out.  I decided that 24 months of watching a master craftsman stone mason in action had taught me enough to be confidently itching to give it ago myself.  And let’s face it, I’m not tackling a building structure here, it’s merely garden walls…  Oh and a set of brick steps.  Plus, I couldn’t ask anyone with a masonry profession to possibly build something out of what they would all probably call rubbish but I call (waste not – want not) recycled building materials.  Over the past 4 years we have consumed over 5000 recycled red bricks, over 4000 limestone blocks and over 10 tonne of limestone rubble. At no time have we needed a skip bin on site for waste materials.   The remaining small pile of materials in the backyard, that has been through the rejection process several times over is going to be just enough and perfect for building creative garden walls.  Left over broken concrete rubble and slab offcuts were used for making the garden bed wall footing.   Broken crumbly limestone block pieces, not fit for house construction, were used to build the outer layer of the eastern wall and spalls have been laid randomly as a front layer and the finished surface of the wall. The 6 steps from the rear laneway to the back yard have been constructed out of the remaining recycled bricks, most of them with missing corners that couldn’t be used in other places but could be hidden to the bottom of the step.   Some of the large foundation stones from the old house (most probably quarried from the immediate local area over 100 years ago) were painstakingly rolled, levered and manoeuvred manually from the laneway ,where they have been patiently waiting for nearly 4 years, to be re-incarnated into garden walls.   The remaining broken brick has been used in several different creative ways to form the garden beds.

So since the end of March till July there hasn’t been a lot happening.  Winter certainly set in.  The 22500lt rainwater tank filled up in under 4 weeks much like it did last year.  Which is driving us continually closer to want to have it connected up to flush toilets and water lawns (it will be by this summer).  The winter days in the main living area truly need to be experienced as the house warms up so nicely as it is flooded with sunshine and warmth that is held well into the evening.  But some nice winter days also gave us the opportunity to work on the roof and we were ready for some solar panels.

In 2012 we negotiated a contract with Solvation, a local solar installer for 3.3kw of solar panels. At the time this was 14 x 240w panels and a 5Kw SMA inverter.   By mid 2016, now finally ready for an install, we revisited the market and found some bi-sun double sided solar panels that can catch an extra 25-35% energy from the underside.  I hear you laugh.  I was a bit dubious on the idea as well at first. So why did we decide to go with them.  Firstly, they are rated at 270w and this is only for the top side. They are sealed inside a glass panel so are of extremely good quality and made in Germany, they are only relatively new to the market and hailed to perform exceptionally on a shiny tin roof which lends itself perfectly to our roof (and I don’t recall seeing too many corrugated iron roofs in Germany either). What sealed the deal is that they were also considerably cheaper than the inferior panels we chose 3 years ago.

Combined with the new solar panel choice was a new type of battery ready, power management enabled, smart inverter called Symo, made by manufacturer Fronius, capable of communicating our power production, consumption and exports in real time to the web for limitless divulging. This system sets us up nicely to monitor, record and study our power consumption habits over the coming months and will assist us in making an accurate investment decision when it comes to storing our power (hopefully in batteries) and becoming completely self-sufficient.

Having run all the cables and installing appropriate hardware when constructing the roof, the final mounting of inverter and panels was quite a straight forward, but exciting, two day operation. On the morning of the second day I asked Alice…” Do you think that this will be the last day of our 2 year old daughter’s life that she spends living in a house that doesn’t have solar power generation?”  “Highly probable” and “I hope so” were promising, enjoyable, exciting and heart-warming answers.

On the 2nd of August, our solar installation was made live to the grid and from here on in we begin to learn, becoming ever more aware of our impacts and dependencies.  At the flick of the switch, I can see (from over 2000km away) our new solar array delivering over 2000 watts of electricity.  But the most significant realisation of the moment was not the numbers that we were creating, but what we were consuming.  Our house was drawing only 300w!   This information surely requires a blog of its own and I’d be happy to bring you an update soon. Watch this space.

As you may or may not be aware.  Sustainable House Day is an annual event held throughout Australia and New Zealand around the second Sunday of September every year.  It gives sustainable house owners the opportunity to demonstrate and showcase the environmentally considerate attributes of their dwellings.  We attended several houses in the greater Fremantle area in 2010 and 2011, looking for inspiration and ideas during the period of time we were designing our house.  It has always been a dream of ours to share our experiences, failures and successes of building our own home. Both from a sustainable and an owner builders point of view.  11th of September 2016 is going to be hopefully the first of many Sustainable House Day openings for us and we are looking very forward to it.


If you would like to see our profile and other sustainable houses open on the day you can visit;    Sustainable House Day website