A Little House at No. 18

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


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.



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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The Ikea Effect

Have you ever heard of the Ikea Effect?   I heard about it for the first time the other day and was immediately attracted.  Interestingly, it was introduced to our conversation by somebody who had little knowledge of the fact that we are on the trailing edge of building our own house!     Surprisingly, it has a whole lot in common with Owner Building.  Unfortunately, further discussion unveiled that it’s quite a shame that it has ended up with such a commercially influenced name, however appropriate.

But, in Ikea’s defence, I am truly amazed by their product’s level of engineering and having installed an Ikea kitchen in our old house (that we demolished) then built the same recycled kitchen into the short stay in our new house; and then kitted out the basement workshop with 12 Ikea kitchen drawers,  I’m quite in awe of their quality.  In fact, I haven’t found anything yet that comes close in ease of construction and quality.

Anyhow, there goes 2015 and another Christmas.  The start of 2016 has been remembered for its extreme heat and an unseasonal amount of humidity and rain.  There was quite a leap ahead in the final months of 2015 and then a quiet period over Christmas and now we are ramping things up again.  As this was the 3rd Christmas we have been building for I can tell you two things for sure.  One.. If you are owner building, you can completely give up getting trades on site from 15th December till 15th January… every year!   Two… We will be moved in by Christmas!!

In order to get a few more of the messy jobs out the way, we arranged for the bathroom to be screeded and tiled sooner rather than later.  This was done by Bob the Tiler, who’s name wasn’t actually Bob.  Despite the lack of name clarity, he did a wonderful job over two weekends.  Between the weekends, I applied a couple of coats of waterproofing ready for the tiles.     The pictures can speak for themselves but we chose a randomly patterned hexagonal tile for the floor and handmade Spanish subway tiles for the shower walls.  We purchased two sizes of subway tiles ( 40% are standard sized subway tiles and 60% are double length).  Being handmade, every tile is slightly different to the next which compliments the other materials used throughout our house.    The pattern of laying these tiles at random gives a slightly more interesting texture to the wall.  We also decided to add a splash of colour by using some Mexican handmade tiles.  These were made  in Puebla, Mexico by a small business owner (Maria) who sells them online via Etsy.

The other reason for doing the tiling now is so we can get the shower recess frames built and installed.  Yes, you guessed it, we are custom building the shower recess too!  We could not measure up for the frames until the walls had been screeded and tiled.   For the upstairs shower, we settled with the idea of having the entire shower enclosed in glass to prevent the moisture escaping into the general living area.  A velux roof window has been installed above the shower to scoop the breeze through or vent the steam (rather than the employment of an extraction fan.)  The bathroom itself doesn’t have a ceiling, it is just three walls and is open to the main roof above. I don’t think it was designed like that but it seems to work for us for now, however it led to the need to enclose the shower.   The steel frame we have constructed houses 6 pieces of glass, totally enclosing the shower recess.  An inward opening glass door will be mounted on the wall to finish it all off.

So now we are onto the third glass installation.  This time, it’s all the glass for the north wall, the bi-fold doors and the sets of triangular outward opening windows at the front and rear of the house.   In total, there is nearly 38 square meters of 24mm thick IGU’s (insulated glass units) on the north wall.   In preparation for construction and installation there was a need to make 20 templates out of plywood to send off to the manufacturers.  Each of them had to be a nice fit with a 5mm gap all around the edges.  Double glazing needs this for a few reasons.  The unit is very rigid and can fail if pressure is applied around the glass edges, particularly with steel window frames.  The IGU’s also require a breathing space left around the edges.   Once all the templates were made, the frames were all cleaned and inspected before being prepped and given one final coat of paint. The mind was boggling thinking about how long this glass could potentially be in these frames for.  Hopefully a very long time if the preparation work is done well.     The 4 triangular windows have had their 24v chain winders installed to enable them to be remotely opened and shut.   The bi-fold doors have also had a final check over.  Once we put the glass in them they weigh nearly 750kg collectively so it was very important that they work effectively before the glass went in.   Finally, up goes the scaffold again.   This was all rebuilt to help with the preparation but required mainly for the installation.   Some of the larger panels are nearly 1m wide and 2.2m tall.  They weigh about 75kg so manoeuvring these manually into position required a fairly permanent stable platform where one normally doesn’t exist.

Personally, being involved in installing the glass units in the 4 outward opening windows was another rewarding milestone.  We have invested hundreds (possibly thousands) of hours in getting these windows to this point.  Firstly, if you think about it, a side hinged outward opening triangular window cannot be done.  But defying impossibility has become our specialty and we not only made it happen but we built them, installed them, made them air and water tight, automated them and installed 24mm double glazing units in them!! But above all, the most unforeseen challenge came when we installed the glass.  As the glass unit didn’t have an edge at the bottom (to rest into place), but instead a point, the weight of the unit needed to be held vertically and manoeuvred into its final resting place in its frame millimetre by millimetre until it was stuck in place.  Each one of these took us about 2 hours per window to install but the final outcome has been ultimate success and will be hopefully be long lived.

After all the challenges of the triangle windows high up by the ridge we eventually found ourselves at the start of another day and the time had come to tackle the bi fold doors.   In total, 21 pieces of glass (this time all 4 sided with 90 degree corners thankfully) had to be installed.   The problem with square steel doors is they don’t stay square…. They sag easily and become parallelograms.  This can create issues with a concertina door system as the hinges must all be square and line up perfectly to prevent excessive friction forming when they are opened and closed and also risking popping the glass out over time.   Luckily the glass units themselves act like a diagonal brace in the steel frame and once installed, the door will not sag.  We spent a few hours with the doors in the closed position ensuring that they were all completely square before installing the first row (the largest upper ones) of glass. Once they were in place and before being sealed into position, we tested the free movement of the doors to check them for square with good results.   The final result looks quite amazing…  With the north wall of glass all installed the main living room is all closed in, the sound inside the house is noticeably different and the wind can be prevented from blowing through for the first time  Are we finally another step closer to a habitable house?

I take two camp chairs from their bags and set them up at the camp table.   There is a bottle of nice wine open, and the fish in the oven is almost ready.   The last bit of the day’s light is almost gone and the hanging light globe above the camping table is our light tonight.   As we sit down at our familiar camping dinner table we toast to peculiarity of the situation.  This may well be the first family dinner we have had in our new house and a toast to the realization this is the first “living room” we have ever owned!  The one we have built ourselves!  And that feeling you get when labour turns to love?  That is the Ikea Effect.

Footnote: according to Wikipedia, the Ikea effect is a cognitive bias in which consumers place a disproportionately high value on products they partially created. The name derives from the Swedish manufacturer and furniture retailer IKEA, which sells many furniture products that require assembly (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IKEA_effect).


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.

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Reclaim the Street

The next step in this little project of ours was to reclaim the footpath for pedestrians and get rid of that, let’s face it, rather ugly site fencing. With the door frame for the garage and the front door done we were finally able to lock up the front of the house and no longer needed the site fences to provide security.

The first task was to get the bobcat back in to dig up nearly three years’ worth of compacted road base from the foot path and cart it away. We were then able to get the truck to bring in a load of clean, yellow sand to replace the dirt we just got rid of! A bit of leveling and a few passes with the compactor and we were able to start laying the concrete tiles down. These were the same concrete tiles that we pulled up in October 2012 and have stored on site all this time with the hope of replacing them. It’s nice to see this sort of plan come to fruition.

But what’s a footpath without a street tree? We had saved and potted our old street tree as well but, unfortunately, it didn’t fair as well as the concrete pavers in the intervening years. Here’s where it is good to know your neighbours. Ours just happened to be installing a new driveway and had a lovely, mature tree right in the way. The council couldn’t put in her cross over until she had removed the tree and we needed one – a match made in heaven.

One Sunday Greg got in and dug around the roots, keeping the ball as big as possible. He then rigged up some scaffold on the back of the ute to make a small crane. A chain block on the scaffold and a strap around the tree and we were able to gently pull the tree out of the ground and swing it onto the back of the ute. It wasn’t a long trip to get it to its new home (only 20m up the street) but it sure was better than carrying it! The scaffold crane made it easy to lower the tree into a new hole. Then heads down, bums up (literally) to back fill the hole, making sure there weren’t any air pockets around the roots. Our other neighbour provided some much needed and helpful advice on pruning the tree and we are pleased to say that at the time of writing there are new buds and shoots starting to show on all of the branches.

There was still one piece missing – a driveway so we can access the new garage. We wanted to continue the red brick pattern from the path up the side of the house, with the wavy pattern ending in a big circle. The council require pavers on a cross over laid in either a brick bond or herringbone pattern. By this stage, brick bond was a bit old hat for us so herringbone it was. A bit of leveling, a few lines in the sand and we were ready to go (and use up a whole lot more red bricks, freeing up a little more space!)

It was a cold, wet and rainy day when the granos came to do the kerb – perfect for concrete! We certainly made them work this day. Pouring the concrete was one thing, stopping it from running down the street was quite another. We ended up rigging up a makeshift tent from scaffold and a big tarp to allow them to finish off the shaping and for the concrete to set.

It was much sunnier the following days, which made laying the bricks for the rest of the driveway a lot easier. Once all the bricks were cut and laid we swept some dry, fine sand mixed with a little concrete over to set them in place. As we were laying the bricks, Greg noticed that some had thumb prints in the corners of the bricks at various angles. A bit of research on the internet tells us that these were probably hand made bricks, over 100 years old, with thumb prints made by the person pushing the bricks out of their moulds. I wonder if that person ever imagined that they would be used 100 years later in a driveway, driven over by an automobile?

We’re pretty pleased with how the pattern turned out and the feedback from our neighbours and everybody else who walks up and down on our street on a regular basis indicates that they like it too. We are also very pleased to be making a (we hope) positive contribution to the streetscape now that we can see the front of the house and verandah unobscured. Greg and I would like to extend our heartfelt thanks to everybody who put up with the road base on the foot path for far longer than we had intended with good grace and good humour.