Tuesday, 29 January 2008

1 - The Back Story

Since purchasing a 15 acre block of land in the beautiful Tweed Valley in northern New South Wales (Australia) some five and half years ago my mind has seemed to constantly be entertaining thoughts of what type of house to build here. No “Owner Builder’ magazine crossing my path was left unopened, no related website was left unclicked, no picture of anything habitat design related was left unscrutinised and no new approach to ‘green housing’ was left unconsidered. Two years ago my partner and I moved onto the block and into the barn shaped tin shed that was already here. As we busied ourselves with making the shed livable, the pressure eased on the house front. That is until our daughter was born ten months ago. Suddenly we realised that it would be nice to have a house before she was walking about.

Our housing requirements are humble and reflect the very reason we moved from the city to take up residence here. We wanted the house to be as sustainable as possible and so it would need to incorporate passive solar design and solar power, and of course, by virtue of our lack of town water, on site rain water collection and waste management. We hate the idea of having a house that requires air conditioning so ours won’t. We will utilise the cooling breezes with properly placed windows and minimise the heating effects of the sun by house orientation, insulation and eaves.

So as one can see the basic plans were simple. However, due to the fact that my partner and I have strong opinions on what we like in houses, other preferences would need to be factored into this basic outline. These come in varying degrees of ‘must have’ and could be reluctantly compromised upon if pushed. Because they each require an explanation, they have one below.

The site chosen for the house

High Ceilings
My partner and I spent most of our twenties not knowing of each other. We lived separately with ex-loves or in share house arrangements in a collection of rented inner city Brisbane houses. Whether they were workers’ cottages or larger Queenslanders they all had one rather impressionable feature in common – high ceilings. Being in a room whose ceiling height is often double your own is quite a nice thing and not easily forgotten, especially when you are considering committing yourself to purchasing a house that will take you a large portion of your working life to pay for. You kind of want ‘nice things’ in it. Of course there is the added benefit of high ceilings making the house cooler so their inclusion in any building project for us is almost a given.

No Plasterboard Internal Linings
I really do not like plasterboard internal wall linings. As children we were warned against marking their clinical finish when our lives got too close. “Mind the wall you’ll damage it/mark it/ruin the entire house’s resale value” – as if it were some canary in a cage gauging the well maintained history of a house to a would be buyer. I have always thought it odd that the internal walls of a house needed to be taken care of in this way. Life is way too short to curb exaggerated limb movements, contain inquisitive grubby hands or to always keep outdoor sports strictly outdoors. Houses are for living not minding. Bear in mind that perhaps my particular experiences may not be that common, however, for me they formed a strong foundation with which further plasterboard negatives could rest.

Again, like high ceilings, once an alternative to plasterboard was experienced my aversion grew. Older wooden houses sporting V J tongue and groove lined walls provided a secure comforting back drop to the dizzying jumble that was my twenties. Walls and ceilings that you could put nails and screws in held up all sorts of heavy junk. Disco balls, push bikes, retro pod like recliners, complex clothes racks, big stereo speakers and countless chunky framed pictures were all supported by these wonderful neat planks of wood. Their durability easily absorbed many an overbalanced house party reveler, bouncing them back into the throws of the dance (
loungeroom) floor within the blink of an eye.

Wooden lined walls have a certain substance and feel to them. There is a real richness and depth to their presence. Plasterboard lining gives me the complete opposite sensation – one of temporary brittleness, sort of like living in a chalk cell or a flimsy stage set.

Plasterboard is used so extensively because it is cheap, money wise, to produce. However, I have recently discovered that this production carries high inherent energy costs making it not a very sustainable option for the discerning home builder.

Wooden Windows
Another important consideration in the house is window frames. Not a lot of options here in the way of materials used but fortunately we love wooden framed windows. We do not like aluminum framed windows. I have never understood their widespread inclusion in brick veneer houses when they look so bad with brick. Bricks give a solid earthy feel to a house, while aluminum windows detract from this effect with a look of flimsy fabrication. For me wooden framed windows suit so many applications in building. Their styles are endless.

The trouble can be that they are expensive. To overcome this we hope to include some recycled wooden windows with the added benefit of them often being more interesting.

Wooden Floors
People buy carpet. They carefully select the colour and texture they want, running their hands over the sample piece, perhaps even rubbing their cheek against its softness. They then pay a substantial amount of money for it, take it home, put it on the floor – the one place where it is next to impossible to take care of, and then walk on it. An endless cycle of precautions, cleaning, fussing, cursing and resenting seemingly trivial actions of family members begins. An un-winnable war against gravity is waged. I can’t see why people bother when there are other options?

Hard surfaced floor coverings are the only ones worth considering for me. Wood looks the best. So wood it is. Slate comes in a very close second and should the house be built on a concrete slab, would probably be the pick.

"I'm gonna surround myself in wood! Wood Jerry! Wood!" (Kramer)

So there it is, a few basic requirements complimented by a few taste requirements. Meeting all these should not be too hard…should it? Next step is to nut out a budget, decide on a style and building technique, consider size requirements and think about a floor plan.