Monday, May 25, 2009

Would We Do It Again?

Would we do it again? No, not at our age now. We have done it once, enjoyed the journey and now we are happy to live out our days enjoying the fruit of our labour. However if it was a question of the clock being wound back would we go down the owner builder path again? We certainly would. We thoroughly recommend that everyone at least consider the owner building process. If you do, we found the following helpful

· Undertaking some major renovation tasks at our previous house provided us with some building experience
· Choosing subcontractors wisely (recommendations are useful). The cheapest is not always the best. Look after subcontractors (cups of tea etc). A good relationship will often yield good advice and valuable information. We may have just been lucky but every one of our subcontractors did an excellent job, fitted in with us and were very helpful. Many contractors are happy for you to reduce costs by doing some of the work yourself.
· Having access to paid long service leave enabled a lot of work to be completed in a shorter period of time
· We contracted a qualified builder (Rod Sheppard) to help us erect the frame, and we worked as his labourers. This saved us money, gave us the chance to learn skills on the job, and meant this complex stage was completed in a quarter of the time it would have taken us to do by ourselves.
· Attend as many house tours as you can, to get ideas for your own project and to learn from other people’s experiences.
· Publications such as Earth Garden, Renew Magazine, Grass Roots and Owner Builder frequently have useful articles and useful contacts. These and many helpful books can be found in local libraries.
· Improve your bbq skills so that friends look forward to visiting (and helping when you need an extra hand). This doesn’t always work, but it’s worth a try.
· Learn as much as you can about good design. By this we don’t mean the so called “good style” demonstrated in coffee table magazines, but design that works for you and the planet over the long term.

In conclusion we recommend the completion of a Permaculture Design Certificate. This course introduces all the basic principles and concepts needed to develop plans for an energy efficient, environmentally friendly house which integrates with other infrastructure.

Here is a list of tradesmen/contractors we used or know, and whom we would happily recommend:
· Rod Sheppard - Marysville –survived the fires (Builder, building designer, draughtsman, building timber supplier) Top photo
· Kevin Jones -Chirnside Park (Very skilled and knowledgeable. Did our excavations, driveways and dams) Bottom photo
· Bill Hayes -Lilydale (Plumber & House fire defence sprinkler systems)
· Stephen Cook- Glen Iris (Top class Electrician)
· Glen Morris of SolarQuip Healesville (Solar Supplier & Installer)
· Regis Bezencon Healesville (Solar Supplier & Installer)
· Janelle Murphy of Australian 5Star -Bayswater (Energy Rater who will work through the process with clients, and Insulation consultant)
· Alan Duke of A&A Wormfarm Waste Systems - Hastings. Disposal of all grey and black waste water. Middle photo

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Owner Building - Does it save money?

Building your own home can save a lot of money, but there are pitfalls and traps for the unwary. Many houses have been seriously damaged because of inadequate termite protection. Poor foundations or mortar mixes have caused brick walls to crack. Financial institutions may make life hard for owner builders. Subcontractors can be a wonderful help or they can cause a myriad of problems. There are dozens of things that can go wrong with such a large and complex undertaking. Even professional builders occasionally end up in disastrous situations.

We have learned a couple of big lessons on our journey. Building a house is a far bigger project than we imagined. Instead of taking 1 or 2 years, it is now 10 years since we began and we are still finishing the place off. We completed 75% of it within 2 years (enough to get our occupancy permit) and then got distracted by our real love- developing our gardens, orchard etc. From this though, we learned that enjoying the journey is far more important than reaching the destination.

Building is also much more expensive than we thought. As owner builders there is no fixed price contract. Generally you pay as you go, and boy do you pay. Perhaps we were naive, but our total costs were over double what we imagined they would be. This was partly because of lack of knowledge (lack of research). What is particularly easy to overlook is the myriad of small things that by themselves don’t seem much (eg bolts, tiles, taps, nails, paint, door knobs, locks, window furnishings etc.) Budget increases were also partly due to inflation. Our plans were approved in 1997, but by the time we started building in 1999 inflation had increased prices. On top of this, the newly introduced GST increased prices a further 10% by the time we were ready to purchase most of our major fittings.

Obviously owner building has potential to save the cost of all the labour that owners put into the job. There are also other possible savings to be gained from paying as you go. If you can get away with a lower (or no) bank loan, you avoid paying large amounts in interest. The downside is that if you lack tradesman skills, the job takes much longer.

As described above, savings are possible, but total costs depend more on the size of the house. Labour costs are only a small proportion of construction costs. However I have read articles in Owner Builder magazine where people have built small cottages for under $20,000. These people have usually used second hand and lightweight materials in their construction. Although mudbricks can be low cost if you make them yourself, your pocket suffers when you pay for the slab, which needs very strong beams to support the weight of the walls.

The cheapest form of owner building is to buy an established house, get it transported to your land and then renovate and retrofit it to meet your needs. A friend of ours did this, used contractors to do most of the reconstruction work, and saved a good deal of money. We’ll do a post on her experience soon.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

House Design Details

Once we had decided on a mudbrick house, the next stage was to sort out the nitty gritty of design. We drew up plans ourselves, taking care to integrate as many of our criteria as possible. The whole process was a matter of compromise and adjustment and aimed at reaching a final result which would best meet our needs, taking into account factors such as cost, personal preference and perceived significance, to reach what we considered the best acceptable outcome.

The house is basically rectangular in shape with kitchen, lounge and master bedroom to the north with large windows giving a view over our front yard, dam and down the drive. On the southern side are 2 other bedrooms, family room, laundry, bathroom and toilet. There are cathedral ceilings throughout, except for the utility areas which have a lower ceiling to allow for an attic space above. The kitchen, lounge and family room are open plan, which has proved very useful when we are hosting large groups (we’ve had up to 80 people inside).

Thermal mass provided by mudbrick walls, concrete slab and earth sheltered eastern wall heats and cools slowly, acting to moderate the internal temperature and making the home comfortable to live in all year round. The wood heater is only necessary on the coldest of days, but is used to create a ‘cosy’ atmosphere on other days.

Cross ventilation is obtained via windows to south and north in our open plan design. Vertical ventilation is created by low air intake from vents and windows and high air exit points in the clerestorey and high vents.

A Stanley Wood Stove is our main cooking appliance, heats all our water and provides some heating to the house. The flue passes through the wall into our HWS cupboard. This reduces the amount of heat coming from the stove in summer and makes the HWS area ideal for use as a drying cupboard. The hot water supply is gravity fed to taps using a 5m head from the header tank located within the ceiling space.

We’ve endeavoured to use natural materials to minimise chemical release from glues, plastics etc. Radial sawn timber is used extensively internally and externally as a wall cladding above windows and doors. The curves of the boards are perfect match for the flowing lines of the mudbrick. Radial sawn timber is a renewable resource, aesthetic and the milling process uses the whole log with little waste (unlike square cut boards).
Cypress macrocarpa is used for the frame. This is a plantation grown timber which is easy to work with, comparatively light, and contains oils that give it some resistance to insect attack.
These have been constructed to exclude summer sun but allow deep penetration into the house by the lower winter sun. They also protect the mudbrick walls from excessive rain.

Large built-in-robes provide storage space in each bedroom, a walk in pantry will have extensive specialised shelving and storage areas (for storing produce, home-made products etc.) and the roof space above wet areas has been built into an attic. We plan to build a cool cupboard in the pantry to negate the need for larger refrigerator.

The “A&A Wormfarm Waste System" processes our “grey and black” water. The water and solids flow into a below ground tank by gravity. A filter in the base holds back the solids which are broken down by aerobic microbes and worm activity. Liquids containing worm castings and minute particles of solids are pumped to absorption trenches. In the future, the liquids will be filtered through reed beds. The captured nutrients will be used to grow biomass as an additional source of composting material and the filtered water will irrigate fruit and nut trees.

After chatting to a qualified energy rater, we believe that our design would not reach the 5 star energy rating that has been in use for the past couple of years. If this is the case, it is proof that the current computer program used to rate houses is unsatisfactory as its calculations rely too much on insulation qualities and do not consider the full benefits of thermal mass.

The thermal mass in the house maintains comfortable temperatures year round. In winter, it rarely gets below 16⁰C, even when there are frosts outside (the Yarra Valley is known for heavy frosts). We generally start using the wood heater occasionally in May. It gets more use from June to late August (usually just in the evenings) and we only use it in spring if there happens to be an extra cold snap.

In summer, the temperature rarely gets above 30⁰C, and this should be improved once we install a vine covered pergola along the northern wall. Most of the time house temperatures hover around 20ยบ. In terms of function and pleasant living environment the house performs extremely well. Every room is well lit and “airy” and the aesthetic qualities of the building materials are pleasant to the eye. All living areas have good outlook over surrounding gardens and bush allowing us to enjoy the natural attributes of our environment.
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