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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Sailing on Land in Sanctuary Magazine

 

Alice and I were delighted to have our house showcased in Issue 40 of Sanctuary Magazine in Spring 2017.  Thanks to local freelance journalist Rachel Bernstone for a beautiful article and our old next door neighbour, Stevie Lobo for doing the photos!

Thanks also to all of the team at the Alternative Teccnology Association, who produce Sanctuary and  ReNew magazines for your support, your invitation and for bringing our project to print.

A limestone ‘labour of love’ embraces advanced sustainable design and technology yet appears to have always been part of its historic Fremantle neighbourhood. Open for Sustainable House Day 2017.

This old-new house in Fremantle is the antithesis of modern project homes in the same way sailing is to air travel. Where one is cheap and fast, and has negative implications for the planet, the other is carefully planned, meticulously researched and more sustainable, although progress is inevitably slower.

The sailing boat analogy is particularly pertinent here in the heart of Fremantle – a port city that owes its wealth to the movement of ships and their cargo. The owner-builders of this house in progress – Greg and Alice – met when they were working on a tall ship, the One&All in Adelaide. In 2001-02, they were part of the crew that sailed the Duyfken replica on its 11-month voyage from Sydney to the Netherlands. In a sense, this house is a continuation of that long journey by sea.

There are parts of the project that are obviously overseen by Greg – he’s a ships officer and works remotely, so when he’s home for weeks at a stretch he’s very hands on – while environmental engineer Alice takes responsibility for other tasks. But this project is definitely a labour of love for both of them. Their commitment to high standards and quality craftsmanship hasn’t wavered despite the arrival of two children along the way.

The project commenced in late 2009 when Greg and Alice bought a small house on a 304 square metre block near where Greg grew up; they wanted to put down roots. The existing house was in a poor state, and the couple eventually decided to retain only the outdoor dunny. Situated on the back lane, it’s been incorporated into a new bathroom and is a proud reminder of the site’s rich history.

The couple lived in the old house for two years while they worked with local architect Mike Richardson to design their new home. From the outset, they wanted it to be more sustainable than current regulations dictated. They wanted to use natural and recycled materials, and they wanted a house that would be comfortable in all seasons and sit congenially in the street. They chose a typical local material palette – limestone blocks, recycled bricks and recycled timber – and spent a lot of time getting the design just right.

“They invested heavily in the first part of the process, because I explained that if we did alot of work upfront, we’d save ourselves from getting into cul-de-sacs and awkward places later on,” Mike says. The brief was complex because the couple wanted a loft-like feel in the main house, as well as a short-stay unit that they could rent out for extra income. They also wanted a large workshop and underground water tanks, and council mandated the inclusion of off-street parking. The placement of the house was dictated by the outhouse on the back boundary and a neighbour’s windows on the eastern boundary line.

“Early on we ended up with a three level solution, because integrating the backyard and the accommodation unit at the back turned it into a bit of a complex puzzle,” Mike says. “When planning a new house, our usual challenge is to get the floor plan right, but in this case getting the vertical section to work was a bigger issue, because it presents as a single house but there are other components to it.”

Alice recalls that the couple received building approval for Greg’s birthday in 2012, and she was gifted a pallet of bricks for her birthday that year. With demolition and recycling underway, the couple put their belongings into storage – keeping only what they could fit into the back of their car – and spent a year house-sitting as work took off. It was a slow build process: the stonemason worked onsite for three years, on and off, followed by carpenters and other trades, all of them accompanied by Greg on the tools when he was home from sea.

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When Alice became pregnant with their first child, they rented a house across the street for one year, and then moved into the completed short-stay apartment for two years. Compared to life on the Duyfken, or the constant moves necessitated by house-sitting, living in the one-bedroom apartment was a breeze. Alice and Greg’s second child was born in November 2016, which coincided with their move into the main house. Alice says it’s nice to have a bit more space and a bigger fridge now they are a family of four. There are a few more jobs to finish before the house is complete.

Thanks to the scope and incredible detail in this project, it’s virtually impossible to select just a few elements to focus on here – there is plenty of information about each component on the couple’s extensive blog – but several aspects are worthy of special mention. The roof is one of the most important parts of the house: Greg wanted it to perform like a beanie in winter and an umbrella in summer. It combines over-scaled recycled timber beams, internal timber lining, battens, sandwich panels with high-rated insulation and is topped by a Zincalume outer shell. Unusually, it also boasts a series of vents and fans that will enable it to be closed down in winter to keep heat in, and opened up in summer to vent warm air out.

“The roof cavity ventilation fans are a work in progress,” Greg explains. “We have the control sensors for them and the fans that we are going to use identified, but not yet purchased. We have experienced living in the short-stay and the main house for one summer without them, and are pretty certain now that they are going to make a huge difference.”

The northern wall is another important element: the double-height wall is double-glazed, with windows and concertina doors set into thermally-broken steel frames, which were custom made in Fremantle. Deep eaves and external shading (still to come) will prevent summer sun from hitting the floor, but the sun does reach 80 per cent of the floor’s surface in winter. To maximise solar thermal mass heating, the concrete floor was poured in three parts: there is a higher concentration of black oxides in the northernmost section, a lesser quantity in the middle section and standard grey concrete on the southern section. These three mixes were raked and blended whilst wet to achieve a seamless finish, and a set-down was left for the kitchen area. For that floor, end offcuts from the recycled timber used on site were laid in a parquetry pattern.

Because of its technological bells and whistles – which include KNX home automation and energy monitoring – this complex project had the potential to appear unhomely, but Mike says they focused on “keeping the design in line with the character of the place” throughout the process. “You don’t want your house to turn into a machine,” Mike says. “You want to keep the technology quiet.” It’s a testament to Greg and Alice’s vision that this house looks as if it’s always been in the street, but it manages to incorporate highly advanced sustainable design principles and technologies in an unobtrusive way.

“I think there are not many people who could tackle a project like that and come up with such great results,” Mike says. “It’s been a real labour of love for them: they’ve spent a lot of time at it, and their attitude has always been to not cut corners, that they are going for a long-term view.

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“The whole house embodies a typical Freo attitude,” Mike continues. “That is, it’s worth going the extra mile to be eco-friendly, because it’s about the journey, not the destination.”
Alice and Greg’s journey started more than 15 years ago when they met on a sailing boat, and it’s not over yet. Their house is a material expression of their patience, commitment and ability to skilfully marry old and new. Even though the house is not quite finished, their enjoyment of the process is evident in every part of the unique home they’ve created together.

 

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The changing play of Solar. Our Energy future.

Electricity.  It’s not going anywhere soon… Except for everywhere in our lives.  It has featured prominently in the media recently for good reasons, and unfortunately, for bad.  For Littlehouse18 we have been learning quite a lot from our own daily living routine, interesting research and discussions.  But why all the talk?   Things are changing….and fast.

Do you know how much electricity you use per day?  If you do, it’s more than likely that you are pretty energy aware, the cost or consumption is of some concern to you for any number of reasons.  If you don’t, then now is probably a really good time to start taking notice.   Society’s energy landscape is changing, there is no doubt about that.  Uptake of photo voltaic collectors have distorted our electricity networks and there’s a morph of exciting proportion on the horizon!  Just how the next 5 years pans out in WA is currently a little un-certain but one thing is for sure, it won’t look like it does now.

On the 2nd August 2017, we celebrated the first anniversary of a big step towards our own self-sufficiency goal. It’s the first birthday of our 3.8kw solar array and more importantly, our smart energy meter. The next step in our long-term plan is to use this data to help us make decisions on how to reach the self-sufficient goal.

Before we dive too deep into sharing our performance information, I should explain a bit about our consumption.  When we started designing this house about 5 years ago (and hasn’t plenty changed since then!) ,we specified use of energy efficient appliances, aim for 100% led lighting throughout, heating and cooling through “passive” means and use the KNX automation system to assist and control energy consumption.

It’s not anything out of the extra ordinary.   Our house is lit by about 60 warm white LED 24v globes. Brand new to the market in 2013 and being phased out in 2017, our lighting gives a perfect example of how fast technology is evolving. Although they will last us 20 years, they’ll certainly be vintage technology.  (Our advice on emerging technologies is to not wait.  If necessary, commit to using something you know will be superseded within months or you will never commit, and miss out on the more immediate benefits.)   We have 5 highly efficient aeratron fans and two fridges. One small “bar fridge” in the short stay and a much larger Liebherr fridge in the main house.  Two Bosch dishwashers.  Once again, a small one in the short stay and a larger one in the main house.  We run a 65w pond pump when the sun is shining, a very energy efficient Grundfos “Scala2” rainwater pressure pump currently supplying garden reticulation and toilet flushing. We also have two Bosch electric ovens. One small microwave / convection oven combo in the short stay and a larger one in the main kitchen. We have a moderately above average efficient washing machine that seems to be in high demand these days and in the work-shop we often run several large pieces of woodworking machinery and associated dust extractor and vacuum systems.   The oven, dishwasher and fridge appliances were all purchased in 2013 during the early stages of construction.  They were purchased from outside Australia where there was a larger range of more efficient appliances available and we put the effort into shopping for quality and energy efficiency.

But sometimes it’s not what you have, rather than what you don’t have that can make the difference.  We have no air-conditioning, television or desktop PC running which must have some real effect on our energy use and to be totally honest, none of them are missed.

It needs re-iterating that one of the best investments we have ever made was the installation of the Fronius smart energy meter when we installed the solar panels in August 2016.   Fronius Solar.web provides us access to several layers of our Solar production and consumption data.  Our home page shows us our live data.  If you are the type of person who checks the rain radar before hanging out the washing, why wouldn’t you check how much excess wattage you have to play with before you flick the dishwasher or the oven on!   The next layer is the daily graph which updates hourly.  On a sunny day, you can see the neat production curve rising up sharply to the sun’s meridian. Ours are all sloped to the left because our panels are on an east facing roof.   Dig a little deeper into solar.web and you can see monthly and yearly data graphs very neatly displayed.

There is also an inverter efficiencies graph which gives our installer and the manufacturer the ability to monitor and analyze the performance of the system remotely, and even send us an alert if the system begins to operate a little different to usual.

So now that we have been running on grid connected solar for all four of the seasons, we would like to share with you a few of the interesting bits of data that our system has provided.  Over 365 days we have consumed a total of 3,904 units of electricity ( 1 unit = 1kw/h or 1000watts per hour). That’s 10.8 units a day.    Over the same period, we have produced 6,211 units of electricity or an average of 17.2 units per day!

But these numbers don’t make us self-sufficient.  We still consume energy from the grid at night. Over the year we have consumed 1,789 units (or an average of 5.2 units a day) from the grid.  That means while the sun shines we consume the remaining 5.6 units directly from our solar panels. This means we are only 60% percent self-sufficient.   Hence why the habit of consuming power as it is produced is the best.

 

We could be 100% self-sufficient.  Over the year we learned we have also produced 60% more electricity than we consumed, so it is definitely possible. But how could this be done?

There are several options that are available and we are looking into.  Batteries, of course.  Grid connected or go completely off the grid? Well given the grid supply charge has just jumped from 44c to 86c a day might sway the decision to the latter.  Over 10 years, the $3,150 we would pay just to be connected to the grid could well be better off spent on a bigger battery system offering greater redundancy. To stay connected to the grid we would have to sell an average of 12.3 units of electricity a day at 7c each to just offset the service fee.

Alternatively, new technology being developed by “Power Ledger” in WA is promising us we can sell our surplus electricity to our neighbour at a much more attractive price than the existing 7c wholesale feed in price.  Do we then adorn our roof completely with solar panels as a method of financial offset or investment? Might not be that silly. This is also good because my neighbour will love cheaper and cleaner electricity from us (rather than the power station) and we can recover some of the daily cost of being connected to the grid.  We become a prosumer, that is a producer and a consumer.  But this solution doesn’t absolve us from the requirement to have batteries to cover our night time consumption.    Here is a link to Power Ledger white paper

 

Our Solar installation and smart energy metering cost us $7650 in August 2016.  Over the last 12 months it has earned or saved us $870 giving our system a payback of 8.8 years.

Our goal of one day becoming self-sufficient (in electricity use) was a fairly far-fetched goal in 2012. To an extent, the self-sufficient terms have also changed to be running cost neutral as well.  Imagine creating and storing enough electricity to look after yourself but be able to sell excess to the community around you.

Luckily for us, the target which we set ourselves 5 years ago is being moved ever closer with developing and emerging innovations. But the luck doesn’t stop there, this target of becoming self-sufficient appears to be moving closer to us all.


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Kitchen, pantry, sanctuary

It’s been nearly six months since we’ve moved into the main part of our house now and our baby boy is also nearly six months old. Just as he’s learning to be a fully functional human (sitting, eating solid food etc) our house is also, slowly slowly, becoming fully functional as improvements continue to be made and we learn the ins and outs of living in her spaces.

A big part of a fully functioning house is the kitchen and pantry – a lot of our lives revolve around these spaces and they really can be the engines of a well-functioning home. Our kitchen was completed before we moved in (that was a prerequisite for the move) but the pantry has been a more recent edition.

I think we first put together a kitchen design in December 2014 (at least that’s what the document properties on my excel spreadsheet are telling me) and it was the middle of 2013 when we purchased many of the appliances. So, this kitchen has been a long time in the planning. And, the design works, it really does.

In terms of layout, it’s nothing that out of the ordinary, just one long kitchen bench that flows into the pantry. The dishwasher is at one end, the sink is in the middle, the oven and stove are at the other end and the fridge is in the pantry. There is one main bit of bench space (about a meter wide) with a couple of other overflow bench spaces. For what it’s worth, here’s what I like about our kitchen design:

  • I like having the preparation space between the stove and the sink;
  • I like having the fridge a little out of the way so I don’t get interrupted if someone just wants to get a drink out of the fridge;
  • I like having the dishwasher close enough to the sink that it doesn’t drip if I move wet dishes from the sing to the dishwasher or vice versa; and
  • I love drawers – so much more accessible and organised than cupboards.

Having been pretty impressed with our Ikea kitchen in our old house, and recycled into the short-stay part of our new house, we decided to stick with the Ikea carcasses and hardware but add our own touch with cupboard fronts and the bench top.

The bench top was a no-brainer – laminated jarrah using left over timber from our build. A bit more work but cheap and good quality. The drawer fronts though caused a little more consternation. I was keen on a more modern, shiny type front to counter the many raw and more traditional elements in our home. Greg wasn’t having a bar of that. Greg was keen on jarrah drawer fronts. I refused to have the three elements of benchtop, floor and drawer fronts all in the same type of timber for fear it would look like a…well let’s just say it’s not my style. We toyed with the idea of timber fronts with something recessed into them (pressed tin, bright wallpaper, hessian sacks, even tea towels were mentioned at one stage) or perhaps getting a single photo enlarged, printed on vinyl and stuck on so that when all the drawers are closed it looks like a big photo. We may still go there but in the end we needed a quick solution that we could both agree on. So we ended up with plywood and, actually, we both kind of like it. Even if it is just a bit trendy on the ‘green home circuit’ at the moment.

Once we had the look and feel of the kitchen we were able to carry that over the pantry. The design for the pantry kind of evolved from the ground up. We decided on open shelves in the panty (not enough room for draws to open and too many corners). We decided to create a benchtop the same as in the kitchen and running at the same height (but varying widths) all around the pantry. Then we had to think about how to fix the shelves. Underneath we went with a readily available (i.e., from your local major hardware chain…the only one left…) wall plate and bracket system as you wouldn’t be able to see it under the bench with plywood shelves on top and a couple of plywood uprights to help support it. We kept the uprights away from the corners as much as possible to maximise ease of access into those spaces.

Above the bench it was another design evolution. We were thinking timber posts and frames but we wanted something a bit more flexible (you can design a pantry for what you want to store now but that’s likely to change in the future). We thought about the commercially available wall plate and bracket systems. They are flexible (you can move the brackets anywhere along the wall plates) but just weren’t going to look quite right in our house and the brackets still take up a fair bit of room in the vertical space. Then we hit on it – I can’t remember who had the idea – threaded rod with nuts and washers. We could install threaded rod as uprights with holes in the jarrah shelves that slide over the top of the rod. A nut and washer underneath to hold the shelf up and another nut and washer on top to keep it securely in place and voila! The only space you lose is 12 mm from the rod and a tiny bit from the two nuts in each corner of the shelf. The shelf heights are flexible (just screw the nuts up or down) and in the future we could add or remove shelves (although, granted, that would take a bit of mucking around). The shelves hold the whole thing nice and rigid and the rods are firmly located into the nice thick jarrah bench top.

We included space in our pantry for family pigeon holes, somewhere to put your keys, sunglasses, mail etc. We also made space in there for a laptop charging station and hung up the whiteboard. It is right opposite the fridge and in the food storage location so there is no, I repeat no, excuse not to put it on the shopping list when you finish something off. That whiteboard has become my brain in many ways (given the 6-month old seems to be borrowing mine). Besides the shopping list it’s got the menu plan, reminders, my job list and anything else I need to write down. It is a kind of sanctuary, an ordered space where I can also get my thoughts in order, a sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of a house ruled by a three and a half year old, even if only for a fleeting moment.


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Finishing the flooring – part 2

Over 3 years ago we vaguely remember laying a concrete slab which would one day would become the floor we now call home. It seems so long ago. Just enough time to increase the surprise when we recently had the concrete polishers back to run their wet diamond polishing machines over the floor again to reveal a nearly forgotten treat. If you were to skip back to the earlier blogs of May and June 2013 you will get the initial concrete floor project happenings.

But now at the pointy end of our project we have an exposed aggregate slab with 3 different colour mixes raked together, seeded with resin filled cowrie and cone shells, river stones, bauxite (pea gravel), random trinkets (distinctively visible forever more) and our houses position, expressed in Latitude and Longitude shaped out of brass and embedded in the concrete at the front door.

Besides the plumber, the concrete polishing guys have the privilege of visiting a construction site well in its infancy, long before the scale and form of the building have begun to appear, and during the “icing on the cake” stage, just before the “keys are handed over”! It must be a real perk of their trade. It certainly was for them on our project anyhow. When we last saw them, they covered the honed concrete surface with a screed which acted as both a filler for bubbles and pitting and to protect the surface throughout construction. This final step of doing the polishing and sealing has been more of a psychological completion than we were expecting.

The boys from APCG (All Polished Concrete Grinding) must have a good memory because they arrived and immediately recalled the detail and features of the floor that we all discovered for the first time, 3 days after the slab was initially laid. They run a very well organised and methodical operation and within a short period of time had the large polishing machine up and running on the floor to start the final steps of the process.

This involved grinding the surface several more times and another layer of screed in the process to fill any newly appeared cracks, pits or voids. Starting with quite a course (80 grit) diamond polishing disk and working up to 400 grit, each time the surface became smoother and with it more physical texture would disappear as the visual texture would show greater and finer detail.

It was fascinating to see the many and varying “ingredients” making up the contents of the floor conform to the actions of the polishing stones, all developing a uniform smoothness as one body of mass. There is so much fine detail in every exposed piece of aggregate. The closer you looked the more amazing things you see. However, on a larger scale, from the mezzanine floor the subtle transition from dark black concrete to the lighter “natural” concrete can be seen more obviously.

The final day saw the application of several coats of sealer before we could stand and admire our efforts in all its glory. The journey to complete this floor has been a process to say the least. Being laid on pre-cast planks, with hydronic floor heating water piping, to laying the one floor using 3 different coloured concrete mixes, seeding with an array of trinkets, shells and unique stones as we went along and including a feature brass inlay have all involved many hours of research to allow us to tackle our ambitious dreams. Now all we have to show for our efforts is a floor we get to call our home and enjoy for many years to come.

I have found myself saying a little bit lately, “if I knew then what I know now, I would never started this project” but the comment itself by no way reflects any regrets. It just highlights how crazy and alternative some of our ideas were and in hindsight it was great that we were not as wise in the beginning. The ideas were purposeful and original. And achieving them was only limited to the time and effort we wanted to invest in solving them and transforming them into a reality.

One example was that we wanted a homemade end grain parquetry flooring in the kitchen, similar to that of chopping boards. Made out of scrap timber offcuts, it sounded like such a practical, good looking, hardwearing solution for all the small bits of timber remaining, it just ticked so many boxes that there seemed like no better alternative. Now that we were ready to install a kitchen, the time had come to build the long foreseen floor. Plus, the main slab had been poured with a 25mm stepdown in the kitchen to allow for the floor so it was not a matter of what we were going to do but how we should tackle it!!

Best place to start was by going through the “scrap” pile and finding all the offcuts that were about 500mm long. Chunks varied from 30 x 30mm to 150 x 200mm offcuts from the main truss beams. The aim was to find as many random dimensions and colours of jarrah possible. We started by planning and thicknessing the pieces smooth so they had square corners but removing the minimum amount “waste”. Once we had a large enough collection of machined pieces, we cut a 19mm slice off the end of each to create a random collection of tile-like blocks. For reasons of unimportance and reasonlessness we decide to arrange the pieces to fit millimetre perfect into a 325mm square pattern. In the big picture, this would eliminate the possibility of ending up with tiny voids between randomly placed blocks, working across such a large floor area.

To a great extent, the pattern “made itself” quite easily and fashioned “appropriately random” to end up about 90% resolved. To complete the puzzle, some of the remaining tile-blocks were marked down in size one or two dimensions to fit snuggly, completing the large square tile, each one consisting of about 24 individual pieces. The longer bits of pre-machined timber that corresponded to the re-sized blocks were then re-machined to bring the whole piece down to the required dimensions (more often than not, this meant only removing around 5mm or so).

By now we had 24 pieces of random timber that were all about 500mm long. If you laid them down in a neat stack, and in the right order, they would form a perfectly solid cuboid (a rectangular cube) with no gaps. If each of the individual pieces was then meticulously cut into approximately twenty 19 mm slices you would then have 1) Lots and lots of little blocks of wood everywhere. 2) Enough blocks to make twenty 325 x 325mm squares of end grain timber that just oozed character. You could seriously hang them on the wall as a piece of art. By the time we had completed this stage of the production we were two days into the process and we had just made 2.2 square meters of end grain parquetry. As we had over 8 square meters of floor to cover, all we had to do was repeat the process another 3 times and we’d have enough blocks to do the kitchen floor!

After 6 days of machining, measuring, cutting and sanding, we had hand produced around 1,560 pieces of end grain parquetry flooring. Enough to pave our kitchen floor.

In order to fix it permanently to a concrete pad underfloor we used a Sika primer MB (moisture barrier), a bright blue epoxy resin, that when spread over the concrete floor dried like glass and provided a perfect surface to glue the parquetry to using Sikabond T55, a highly flexible polyurethane timber flooring glue. The parquetry was laid like tiles, one piece at a time. We made a few jigs to help us pre-arrange the pieces from the piles nearby and transport them to within easy reach of the waiting, glue smeared floor. Within 2 days we had the nearly 1,600 pieces arranged and firmly set onto the floor.

After leaving the floor for a good 5 days to let the glues set, we got the floor sander black to gently run over the end grains with a large 120 grit rotary sander to lower any corners and give it a pleasant feel under foot.  The final task was to preserve the timber and protect it from the potentially staining liquids it’s likely to endure in the future. The finish was largely experimental but also, research showed, historically commonly used on strip parquetry. This technique involved rubbing warm bees’ wax (I used our Jarrah bees wax) across the finished surface before warming it with a heat gun until it melted into the grain of the timber. By also “scrubbing” the waxed surface with a plastic scourer whist the wax was still liquid aided the penetration and even distribution. I then used a buffing cloth to wipe the residue off. This initially left a very shiny and slippery floor but made the timber grain water resistant, bright in its colour and feature and a good start to its life as a solid hardwearing floor. Since the initial waxing I have applied several coats of linseed oil and bees wax cold liquid mix (home made) and the floor “evolves” with each application. We are very pleased with the kitchen floor and how it looks and feels beneath bare feet. We are also very excited to see how the floor will mature over time. Unlike most flooring types, end grain parquetry has a real reputation for outlasting generations, reportedly only ever getting better looking and feeling with constant use and wear.


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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.


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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.

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

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