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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Finishing the flooring – part 1

Part of building the mezzanine floor was the installation of a temporary work surface which was installed over the exposed jarrah joists in April 2013.  A dozen or so large sheets of 19mm particle board flooring was sourced second hand from a salvage yard for a good deal.  This floor has served us well and enabled us to build the roof structure with greater ease.

Mezzanine cleared out and ready to remove the temporary particle boards flooring

Mezzanine cleared out and ready to remove the temporary particle boards flooring

However the time has finally come for the temporary flooring to be retired and make way for something a little more appropriate.  This has become to be known as an “icing on the cake” type moment in our project.  A finishing off bit.  And a fulfilment of another long dream of many years.  In the “what you see is what you get” get principle of construction, our tongue and groove floorboards were purpose milled at 150mm wide from fallen timber on a private property down south. We originally started   sourcing recycled boards but after much research and relentless searching for a sufficient quantity and quality of recycled floorboards we finally concluded we would need to have them milled to order. What makes our floor construction so unusual is that you will not only get to enjoy the beauty of a wooden floor from the top, but it will be fixed directly to the floor joists and will also be visible on the underside. Reclaimed floorboards containing nails are often cleaned up using a grinder and therefore can sometimes suffer deep burn marks on the underside.  This is fine if the board is going to be re-used in a way that you don’t see the bottom.  Another aesthetic factor was the presence of the widely used anti-cupping groove or grooves scored into the underside of most floorboards.  It was an aesthetical preference not to have these visible, so again another reason to head down the milled to order option.  Most floorboards are milled new at 19mm. To give the floor that extra bit of rigidity, we had them milled at 22mm.   These boards are absolutely amazing in feature.  The colours and patterns of the grain vary considerably and there are a handful of knotty imperfections that lend themselves to the house nicely.  Once milled the floorboards were kiln dried (de-humidified) for about 8 weeks to allow the moisture content to drop to approx. 11-12%. It is  then best to let wooden flooring become acclimatised in the rooms in which they will eventually be laid.  Unintentionally, but nevertheless fortunately, the boards have been waiting since November 2014 for installation.

It was undecided until very recently if we might employ a contractor to help lay the flooring. This decision was to do with time constraints, tools and “tricks of the trade”.  However, after doing a fair bit of reading about laying floorboards, we once again turned full circle deciding to do the installation ourselves the old school traditional way was going the be the best for the long term benefit of the floor. It would be hard to convince most floor contractors to ditch the nail gun for the more holdfast and traditional method of hand nailing 75sq meters of floor, over 1900 galvanised nails, into hard jarrah!  But to justify my decision a 2.8mm diameter by 50mm long nail driven in on the skew (30 degree angle) that many times was a sure way to ensure the mezzanine floor stands the test of time. Plus, I couldn’t be convinced that the nail guns nails were not going to come adrift over time, go randomly spearing out the side of the joist or leave me with a nicely finished round recessed nail hole in the end. Justifications aside, we invested the next 3 weeks levelling joists, nailing floorboards, sanding and oiling to give us the desired finish.

Rather than investing in a series of expensive joist clamps we devised a system using blocks and wedges to lock 3 boards at a time in place, tapping the wedges to make the boards true and evenly aligned. A small bead (6mm) of sikabond T55 flooring glue was placed along each joist to give the floorboards a good bedding and a bit of give. Then nailed before the clamps were removed and the next rows could be started.

A fair swag of time was spent ensuring the joist were all levelled to within a couple of millimetres before laying the floor.  Some had to be planed and a few needed a thin wooden packer to ensure the whole room was level.  This turned out to be the single most important part of having a nice level floor.

So after 6 days of levelling joists, 5 days of gluing, wedging and nailing boards, 4 days of sanding and filling (we did get help to do the sanding and filling) and 2 days of oiling we now have completed the mezzanine floor.

It has once again proved to us that the option of doing it yourself brings with it a raft of previously unidentified surprises. The Ikea effect, as it may be, strikes again.  In our modern day, the hammer is probably the most recognised tool in the shed however as I emptied the last few nails out of the box of 1,000, ran one of them across a grooved ball of bees wax and sent driving home with 4 well practiced blows it occurred to me how seldom a nail is driven into a piece of wood these days and yet the art of doing so is so therapeutic and satisfying.

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Beginnings of a back yard

In our last post we talked about our decision to prioritise the back garden, to try and finish the messy jobs, get rid of the dirt and sand and generally provide some relief from looking at a building site in the back yard.

We got the messy job bit mostly done in March when we built the garden beds and the brick steps out to the laneway but that still left a dust bowl out the back door and the job only half done. The time between March and August was a bit of a write off for us – work and life generally just got in the way. At the end of August though we were back into it, starting with the garden.

The first order of priority was to construct the pond and the wall behind it. Right from the start we had decided to include a small water feature in the yard. We wanted it to provide some cooling effect when the breeze blows over it, provide a tranquil sound to the space and be a place where eventually the birds and frogs could find a much needed urban resource. We toyed with all sorts of fanciful ideas (including steam-punk style copper pipes and taps, teapots and built-in bird baths) but in the end it was hard to beat the natural beauty of limestone.

Building the pond was a bit nerve wracking as it was something that we’ve never done before and really weren’t quite sure how it was going to turn out. Greg started at the bottom through and it took on its own form to an extent, using the rocks we had available. The base is built from concrete, reinforced with chicken wire, and waterproofed with black plastic underneath. We pulled up part of the deck so that the pond finished underneath, and the deck overhangs the water.

We then installed the ‘hero’ piece of limestone – a large, flattish stone that fills the width of the garden bed and overhangs the pond. This is the main part of our mini waterfall and the water runs down the side of it and trickles over the edge along its length. We are hoping that the overhang will provide some shelter for frogs and fish (plus it provides the delightful running water sound that we have gotten quite fond of).

The walls of the pond were built up from that point with each stone carefully selected. We built a small upper pond (about the size of a bird bath) and ran the water pipe up to another rock ledge above (concealed underground and in the rocks behind). So what we’ve ended up with is a two stage waterfall with an upper bird bath (and spot for the children to muck around with the water) and a lower pond about 25cm deep and bit less than 1m2 in area.

Filling it with water was a little nerve wracking but to our delight it hasn’t leaked and the water flows really well over and around the rocks. The pond pump has done its job well and with timer on to ensure that the pump only runs when the solar panels are creating electricity and using our rainwater to fill and occasionally top up the pond we can run our little water feature without using external resources. As time goes on the natural limestone has grown green-black algae and looks like it belongs in a natural landscape. We have also introduced a few reeds and small fish to see how they like this space we have created. The fish have been fascinating to watch and they must like their new home as we think there has been a couple of new broods already.

The pond is only part of the story however, we also needed to install a gate to make the house secure. Here again Wayne has weaved his magic to turn the functional into a piece of art, welding over 200 washers and a few bits of steel into a slightly whimsical window to the laneway outside.

Come September and we were really ramping up to get the house looking presentable for Sustainable House Day and after such a hard slog a little ‘instant’ gratification was required. And there’s nothing like a little roll-on turf to spruce a place up.

After a bit of research (thank you internet), we settled on a variety called ‘Velveteen’. This is a relatively new variety that ticked a lot of boxes for us. It’s a soft, fine-leafed grass that is salt tolerant, drought resistant and handles partial shade. It doesn’t run (and so is less invasive) and purported to be able to handle a bit of wear and tear.

Of course, instant gratification still involves a few days of work to level the ground, spread some new topsoil, install subsurface irrigation and finish off the small edging wall on the west side.

The subsurface irrigation we have used is another interesting product. It’s called KISSS irrigation piping (not sure what KISSS stands for but it does seem to tie in nicely with our general KIS (keep it simple) philosophy). It is a sub-surface textile irrigation that uses a geotextile fabric to evenly deliver water along the length of the pipe. Because it uses the wicking action of the fabric it doesn’t have holes for roots to penetrate into and being sub-surface it delivers the water directly to the root zone, encouraging downward growth of the root system and vastly reducing evaporation losses. If you are interested, you can read more about this product here http://www.kisss.com.au/Products/AboutKISSSTechnology.aspx. We finally got to a point where had installed the full irrigation system (solenoids etc.) and was able to start using the KISSS irrigation a few weeks ago and from a slightly sceptical start we have so far been very impressed.

Anyway, back to the lawn. We had the lawn delivered on the 6th September and by the end of the day it was done – laid, watered and with about 10m2 of excess lawn (we ended up receiving much more than we had ordered!) hastily laid in the back laneway (it has proved to be an excellent bocce pitch).

That day also saw the installation of steel tile (left over from a neighbour’s previous project and originally sourced from the demolition of the old bakery across the road) and pea gravel (left over from seeding the concrete) ‘paving’ along the western side. We’ll eventually put a washing line along here. Excess soil and a load of wood chips to fill in the garden beds and we were finally able to sit on our back deck, look over an emerald green lawn, listen to the gentle sound of running water (enjoy a well-earned G&T) and pretend that everything was done.

PS Sustainable house day went really well for us – thank you to everyone who attended and gave such lovely feedback about our home. We had about 320 people through on the day, making it the most visited house in WA I believe.