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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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.



Sustainable House Day!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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