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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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).

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801 Days

When we started this project 26 months ago we had ambitious intentions supported by well thought out plans of moving back in within 6 months (well at least into the short stay part anyhow).  Many times since, we have been asked the question when do we intend to move in? If an adventure can be defined as a journey with unknown outcomes or destination, then our journey to move in within 6 months must surely have turned into and adventure somewhere along the way.   Either way, I can now proudly say that we have moved in!  801 days after the building permit was issued to commence the project.

In that time we have moved 7 times and brought into the world a lovely little daughter.

Most recently we have been living at number 1 Little Howard street, a most beautiful 3 room “turn of the century” cottage across the road. A place which, without the generosity of the owners David and Hilary, would have made the last year of our lives a very different one. We will miss living there. The tiny cottage oozes character complete with outdoor dunny, 1950’s décor, ceilings higher than the hallway is long and of course the obligatory brick and concrete porch Little Howard street is renowned for.

But as all good things do, our stay at number 1 has to come to an end and there was nowhere we were interested in moving to than our own place. The plan for the last 25 months (in order of priority) was to get us to this stage and we now find ourselves with a 4 week dead line to be moved back on site.

 

So the last month has been somewhat of a myriad of little tasks compiled into a critical path where the next task can only take place once the former is complete. 10 tasks that all take a day to complete can all be done on the same day and this would be very productive but if each task relies on the previous one being completed then there goes a week already! This is also provided there are no delays along the way.  Logistically, the last 4 weeks have been by far the tightest of the project with the number of trades required on site.  The planning and communication with everyone was one of the most important things to make it happen smoothly. Prior to work starting on site at the beginning of November, Alice had all the materials ordered and delivered to site and everyone booked in ready to go. The tin was rolled for the dunny roof, the locks were all ordered and keyed, the double glazing was under construction, tiles and grout were ready for the bathroom.

To be completely honest, (looking back) I did not think that what we achieved was going to be achievable at the beginning of the month but this is where we were going to live… nowhere else was an option.  (and its okay for me to admit this now.  After all, the harder you work, the luckier you get.)

The first thing we had to do was a final cut and seal of the concrete floor. A work of art in itself that was poured and covered with a protective screed over two years ago!  Meanwhile, we commenced the final touches to the exposed masonry, firstly high pressure blasting the recycled red bricks and the rough sawn limestone to remove dust and slurry.  Then we acid washed the red bricks with a diluted 10:1 mix of hydrochloric acid and scrub each brick by hand to remove residue cement dags and lime. The bricks and limestone took an amazing transformation in this process and the final step in the process was to spray the walls with a heavy duty stone sealer made by Dupont. The sealer is not like any other stone sealer. It produces a completely undetectable seal on a rough, porous and sometimes very crumbly surface in a very sly way. The sealer is sprayed on with a weed sprayer at a rate of 5-6m2 per liter and spends the next few hours soaking into the stone where it then begins a 3 – 4 day process of expanding to fill the stone’s pores and creating a seal approximately 10mm back from the surface of the stone, leaving it with a completely natural dry look. Amazing stuff.

All the meanwhile, final works in the bathroom and toilet had commenced. The floor has been screeded and sealed and the floor and wall tiles went in.  The federation style black and white checked tiles, which have been planned for many months now started bringing the old dunny back to life and into the building. We turned the idea of brick bond wall tiles on its head (well more literally on its side) with long 100 x 400 white tiles and spiced it up with a random splash of colour using 100×100 wall tiles to match the colourful locally handmade basin.

One of the things we had to do when we first moved into the old house was to build a kitchen. It had a room designated for a kitchen but had no light and no cupboards. Just a sink in the corner.  At the time and with the budget we had we ended up installing an Ikea kitchen. Still being in “like new” condition when we commenced the demolition it was decided to upcycle the kitchen too and it was earmarked for the new short stay kitchen in the planning process and put in storage. The challenge on hand now was to fit the oven, cooktop, fridge, dishwasher, and the kitchen sink into a 3.8m long galley kitchen made of recycled ikea cupboards. I’m very impressed with the engineering of Ikea hardware, particularly the soft close draws. Having standardised sizes and heights also made the two day complete installation of the kitchen easy. The under bench fridge , dishwasher and oven were all purchased from the UK and shipped over in a container 2 years ago. This all happened for a few reasons and looking back there are a few more good reasons we have realised for doing so. In the planning stage, when we were working out sizes and locations and layout of rooms with the architect, he asked a few questions as to what kind of kitchen appliances we wanted and should be allowed for.  This obviously lead to researching what was available and we were very specific about wanting good quality energy efficient appliances and the need for us to move our search for appliances out of Australia. Luckily the Australian dollar was strong at the time and given that we had selected items for the purposes of helping us in the design phase, it seemed fitting to follow through and purchase them at the time.  It is also a good feeling much later in the project that the appliances have already been chosen and paid for so all we had to do was bring them from storage to site and “voila!”… one compact, upcycled and very functional home away from home kitchen.

A lot of work has gone into the design, construction, install and final preparations of our home made thermally broken steel window frames. The last week had been spent doing final painting, fitting locks and cleaning the frames ready for the double glazing.  Our next task was to install the glass units, delivered to site spot on 1030 on Monday, like clockwork. Good thing as the Glazier, Matt, was on site waiting keen and ready to install them.  I can honestly say (and I suppose it is really a product of being in Perth) that I have only ever seen double glazing units a handful of times in my life and on this day I find myself starting to install 25 panes in our house!! One by one, as the rooms became closed from the outside elements,  the acoustics within the room begun to change in a logical but unconsidered way. The double glazing absorbs sound well beyond our expectations and so does the limestone block. There are no echoes at all in these rooms and with all the doors and windows closed there is almost an eerie silence. Thermally, we haven’t lived in the place long enough to make a full assessment of the benefit yet but through a few days of mid to high 30’s in late November, we have managed to retain a comfortable 21 – 23° C inside.  We are looking forward to assessing the performance over the coming months of summer.

There were a few times in the last weeks where the comment had been made, “This is the moment I had been waiting for…” The moment when the mass of materials that have been fixed together in various different ways, turn from “a construction” to “a home”.  The glazing was without a doubt one of those and so was the feel of our bare feet on the clean polished concrete for the first time, but the one that made the most impact and I had until now considered least was the visual impact of being on site at night with all the lights on. There is an amazing lovely warm and homely glow of the stone and timber.   We are running our main interior lighting on 24v warm white LED’s on a DALI (digital addressable lighting interface) system.  Majority of the lighting products we are using are OSRAM and we have imported from Germany.  This enables the lighting to be integrated into the KNX automation of the house and will eventually allow us to freely program lighting groups and flexible switching as well as automated energy saving features like constant light control, presence sensors and PWM (pulse width modulation) dimming.  The research and efforts that we have put into selecting a LED lighting system that is going to serve us for the next 30 years plus has been phenomenal.  So it was rather exiting to finally be incorporating them into the building.  As the electricians helped install the DALI light controllers by day, Alice and I would sit on the porch in the evenings, stripping back wires, crimping on terminal ends and mounting the LED’s to our prototype wall luminaires.  On the Friday, the day before we moved in, the lights were powered up for the first time and we were only able to switch them all on and off by temporary power supply. When we finished up in the afternoon, I could not wait for it to get dark, just to see how the lights would all look. We weren’t disappointed. The warm wall washed lights bring the natural texture and cosy colours out of the limestone where the marri and jarrah timber cathedral ceiling no longer has shadowed corners. All the character of the timber is on show and the vastness of volume in the room can be felt. In the kitchen we have finally achieved a life long dream..  No shadows on the kitchen bench!  And the recycled red brickwork really comes alive.  27 x 7.5w led lights now light the short stay with a little under 200 watts.

So here we are, once again living at 18 Little Howard Street. I sit in the armchair, gazing around at our newly transformed living space, trying to realize the genuineness of the situation. I comment to Alice that it’s a little hard to believe.   I briefly recall sitting is this same armchair gazing around at the weathered humble beauty of our old house, and if I recall rightly, I was thinking at the time what it might be like to sit here looking at what the new one will be like.  801 days later, I’m realizing it might be a little better than I’d imagined.


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In response to comments…

We had a comment on our last blog post asking if we have solved the problem of automating the opening of windows that are out of easy reach but essential for cooling the house. The response was so long and we haven’t written anything yet about our windows, I thought it deserved a post of it’s own.

“Thank you for viewing our blog, It is great to hear from people who are doing little things to their houses to make them more passive.  When we set about designing our house we wanted to take advantage of the summer sea breezes and night “purging” of latent heat.   There are several windows throughout our house that are going to be used for this purpose.  The use of the electric motor chain winders will fulfill two roles.  As they are hard to reach, they can be electrically actuated by a switch (instead of long mechanical means).  The second (and main) reason for making these windows electric is to do with automation.When designing our house we decided we wanted to incorporate automation (which looking back now was a bold step and we are very far from achieving our goals).  We didn’t want touch screens and that audio visual wizz bang c%@p.  We wanted a system that (amongst other things) we could ‘teach’ to regulate the temperature and climate within our home.   We will not be having conventional HVAC (Heating Ventilation Air Conditioning) in our house so are focusing the effort in adding some intelligence to help us enhance the passive benefits of the building.”

Automatic opening and closing isn’t the only aspect of our windows that has involved a challenge and inventive solutions. From the beginning we were very conscious that windows are a huge part of the fabric of our house (the entire north wall is glass) and are aware that windows are a key component for heat transfer in and out of a house.

There are two parts to a window – the glass and the frame. The glass is relatively easy. Most people would be aware that double glazing (or insulated glass units as they are also known) provide far superior performance than a single pane of glass in terms of insulating and stopping the transfer of heat. We always wanted to use double glazing but at the beginning of our project the cost was looking steep. We were fully prepared to prioritise our windows and use the double glazing where it would have the most effect and resort to single glazing for the rest. Lucky for us, insulated glass units are now manufactured here in WA and the price has come down considerably – to the point where we can afford to use double glazing in every window.

The only trick with double glazing and the myriad of fantastic coatings and additives that further increase the insulation and reduce the solar heat gain of the glass is to strike the balance between summer and winter. In a free plug for Viridian, we considered using a couple of their products – the key aspects we looked at are in the table below.

Glass Type Thickness U Value SHGC
Clear glass (single pane) 6mm 5.8 0.82
Clear glass (insulated glass unit) 6+12+6 (argon filled) 2.5 0.71
EnergyTech Clear (#2) 6+12+6 (argon filled) 1.6 0.61
PerformaTech Clear (#2) 6+12+6 (argon filled) 1.4 0.38

Notes:

  • (#2) refers to the surface of the glass that the specialised coating is applied to. The surfaces are numbered starting from the outside. There are two surfaces on a single pane and four on an insulated glass unit.
  • 6+12+6 refers to the thickness of the pane and the gap in between. So it is 6mm glass with a 12mm space and then another 6mm of glass.
  • These numbers are sourced from the 2014 Viridian Architectural Glass Selection Guide, Edition 2.

The U-value is a measure of insulation and has units of watts per square metre, degrees celcius (W/m2 °C). So it measures how much energy (watts) passes through a square metre of glass for any temperature difference inside to outside (energy passes through faster if there is a big difference in the outside temperature versus the inside temperature). So the bigger the number, the more energy will pass through and the smaller the number, the more insulating the glass is.

Solar Heat Gain Coefficient (SHGC) is the total heat transmitted through the glass (both the direct solar heat and the absorbed heat that is re-radiated inside). A SHGC of 1 (or 100%) means that 100% of that energy passes through the glass and into the building. A SHGC of 0.82 means that 82% of that heat gets into the building.

The trick in a climate like Perth is balancing the need to keep heat out in summer but let the heat in during the winter. Our house has been designed so that during summer, when the sun is high in the sky, there will not be any direct sunlight hitting the windows. Conversely, in winter when the sun is lower, the beams of sunshine should stream in and heat our concrete floor (aka thermal mass). So in winter, we want as much solar heat gain as we can but we also want high insulation (so the heat that is in the house, doesn’t get out again). In summer, we are cutting down on the solar heat gain by reducing the direct solar heat with shading. For this reason, we have gone with the EnergyTech, rather than the PerformaTech, to try and get this balance right.

The other aspect of cooling a house in the summer is letting the heat out and any cool breeze in by opening windows at the right time – preferably whether we are home to open the window or not. This is where the automation comes in…

“We think the best solution is an automation system called KNX  (www.knx.org) . A bus system that connects a series of PLC’s (programmable logic controllers) that each have a set of tasks they can perform. By linking all PLC’s together they can perform quite complex tasks together. Take our windows for example.  We have installed temperature sensors in about 30 different locations throughout the house (in the concrete slab, inside wall switches, on the cathedral ceiling inside and also outside the building as well as in the ventilated roof gallery.)  If the sea breeze comes in when we are away from the house and the temperature outside falls low enough, the high windows can open and allow the breeze through the house.   The low windows by the floor can open on a summer’s night to flood the concrete floor with cool air and purge the house of hot air through the high windows.
KNX was chosen because of its ability to handle the most simple to the most complex automation tasks.  Even though we currently have the KNX running on site, it is only switching on and off the basement lights!! (You have to start somewhere!)  It is also “user” parameter defined with Engineering Tool Software which Alice and I have done training for programming. (The basics anyhow).
If it was just two or three windows you wanted to automate, maybe some temperature sensors and a switch then you could use KNX but it only becomes cost effective at a larger scale.  Z-wave (www.zwave.com.au)  is a type of retro fit wireless DIY automation that could be worth a look into.  The other is Zig bee (www.zigbee.org). Not that I have researched it thoroughly, but there are some window hardware manufacturers that do the whole kit with temp sensors, switch and winders or actuator rams for glass roof type ventilation.  I imagine for a small project that includes the use of temp sensors, a whole pre-built package would probably be the most cost effective compared to buying PLC’s and temperature components and building it up yourself.”

So, I’ve discussed the importance of glass, but what about the frame? The humble window frame has long been overlooked as a culprit for heat transfer in and out of houses. The old school, cheap aluminum frames are terrible for it. There have been lots of advances in recent years in the world of window frames. You can now get thermally broken aluminum frames, uPVC frames that have great insulative properties and of course, the humble timber frames also perform pretty well. But none of these frames, which are all quick thick, were living up to our vision for the aesthetics of the house. What we wanted was a slim line black steel window frame that was thermally broken so no (or at least minimal) heat transferred through the steel.

Do you think we could find such a thing  that was commercially available in Perth? In Australia? No, not that we could find. (There was one possibility in one place we found in the UK.) So, once again we made it ourselves (well, Greg did with help from our architect and steel fabricator). Basically the frames are created using 20mmx20mm high density polyethylene (HDPE) strip, sandwiched between a piece of flat bar and some steel box section. This means that the only metal able to conduct heat through the frame is the steel screws holding it all together.

 

So, hopefully, with the double glazing and thermally broken frames, we will significantly reduce the transfer of heat when we don’t want it but will be able to open the windows when we do want to facilitate a bit of heat transfer…

“We have chosen to use 24v electric chain winders for our triangular awning windows. These would also work well for hopper windows.  24v are more expensive than 240v versions from my research but there are some advantages of a 24v system (did you mention ‘Water worn’?).    At this stage we are looking at using Linco electric chain winders (Approx $400 each. Well tested and robust) but we have also looked at the Arens international brand range as well.  Of course a visit to the internet world of shopping is not complete without a visit to Aliexpress (plenty of options).  If you want a quality product that will give long term reliable service it is worth paying a bit more.
There are also a myriad of linear driven actuators (used in specialty chairs, hospital beds and the like) I am considering using on our lower to the ground windows.  I have not seen these put into sliding windows yet but have no reason to believe it could not be done.  A small 24v linear actor can have a travel of 300mm making it well suited for a sliding window like the Aneeta sash type.”

So far the windows have come together well. Most of the frames are installed now, with the last bits going in or getting welded up in November. The order for the first lot of glass is in and we are inching closer to lock up.

“Thanks for asking the question about fly screens.  We bit the bullet early in our project and elected not to install fly screens in our house.  This decision mainly stemmed from the design brief to the architect that stated we wanted an open plan indoor / outdoor living area that transitioned seamlessly.  If there is one opening in our house that is impractical to cover with a fly screen then we asked ourselves why we should cover the rest. So in short we have not considered fly screens in our applications but feel they would not be difficult to retro fit later if we chose.  In your application, I imagine the fly screen would need putting on the inside of the outward opening window and actuator.”

 

“Thank you again for your interest in our blog and our project.  It would be great to hear how your new automated windows perform and what difference they make to the cooling of your house.”

We’ll let you know when we are able to put them to the test!