house renovation

A video about our eco house renovation

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A few months ago, the environment team at Marrickville Council (now part of Inner West Council) came by to film an interview with me, about our eco renovation. This has now been published, along with insights from two other houses. Enjoy, and I hope it will be useful!

PS. the Inner West Council provides some great resources and support for households wanting to reduce their environmental footprint. Their team is passionate and effective, and I’d encourage you to get in touch.

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Sustainable Design Information Night (Marrickville, 26 June 2013)

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On Wednesday June 26, Marrickville Council will be hosting a Sustainable Design Information Night. This event aims to give Marrickville’s residents an overview of the key elements of a sustainable house design and to provide residents with the opportunity to ask questions of an expert panel.

The panel will be made up of an architect, building designer, builder and home renovator. James will be the home-owner 🙂

It should be an interesting night, so if you’re in the Inner West, hope to see you there!

Full event details

Photos of our new living room

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Looking through our living room to the backyard beyond. Lots of wood and warm colours.

While we finished our home renovation about six months ago, it always seems hard to find the time to get some photos taken!

We’ve already shared photos and details on our kitchen and pantry. These are some photos of our open-plan living/dining room.

There’s a lot of eco-features here, including the rammed earth wall, double/triple glazing, LED lighting, etc. But I’ll leave all that information for a future post, and just share the pictures.

From the living room, through to the front of the house. The rammed earth wall makes a statement!

 

Problems with the conventional building project

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We always assumed we were going down the “traditional” building route, as follows:

  1. Hire an architect or “building designer” to create a set of plans.
  2. Make a guess on the cost of the project, based on “$x per square m, multiplied by the size of the extension”.
  3. Use the plan and guessed budget to get council approval.
  4. Create a tender, outlining the project and a bunch of the details.
  5. Get three or more builders to quote on the job.
  6. Pick the cheapest.
  7. Haggle, then sign a fixed-price contract.
  8. Get going!

As we proceeded through the process, we started to have increasing concerns.

The building designer was fine, although there were times when we felt he wasn’t fully listening to our needs. We also kept wanting to know when the details would be worked out, but were always told “later”.

We liked the final plans, even though it took us twelve months to nail them down.

It was here that we really started to get nervous:

  • How would we find an initial list of good builders to go to?
  • Would they give us a meaningful quote, or just a quick guess?
  • When did the uncertainties get resolved?
  • What would stop us from getting hit with “death by a thousand project variations”?
  • How could we assess the quality of the builder?
  • If we were expected to pick the cheapest quote by default, wouldn’t that mean we’d get the shonkiest by default?
  • What about the unusual elements, like the rammed earth wall?
  • How much was this actually going to cost?

In the end, we stopped. And headed down the owner builder route, which we don’t regret.

In my day job, I help companies run tenders and projects. This leaves me convinced that the “traditional” building route is fraught with problems, at least in the residential space.

Issues with traditional building processes

These are a few of the issues that I see:

  • Uncertainties aren’t dealt with. There are easy bits to every building project, and there are the unknowns. We knew that strange things such as the rammed earth wall could cause problems, but it’s the unexpected things that get you. For example, our building designer had drawn a magnificent arrangement of doors and windows out onto the deck. Luckily, we thought it could be useful to get some early quotes to help with our budgeting, and quickly discovered that what had been drawn was unbuildable. Had this been a traditional approach, we only would’ve found this 1/3 of the way into the build, blowing out our budget, and costing us six weeks of time to resolve. Ouch! And this was just one of the uncertainties that would’ve lain in wait for us, had we gone down the traditional route.
  • Costs aren’t managed. As a result of the issues outlined above, the builders’ initial quotes are little more than educated guesses. There also isn’t a reason for them to commit huge amounts of time during a tender to accurately assess things, leading almost inevitably to cost over-runs later in the project.
  • Building materials aren’t carefully selected. The tendering builders make a set of assumptions about building materials when quoting, and these often aren’t the highest spec. Once building starts, it can be quite difficult to change materials, impacting on both quality and environmental impact.
  • Cost trumps quality. It goes without saying that picking the cheapest builder hardly biases the project towards quality.
  • Changes are hard. With a fixed price quote, it’s inherently hard to change things. And every change encourages the builder to inflate the cost of the variation.
  • Speed discourages thinking. While modern building practices are very efficient, having a pile of trades on-site means decisions get made in a hurry, leaving little time for tuning and refining the design.

In short, the traditional approach seems to virtually guarantee budget blow-outs, unpleasant surprises, and cut corners. No wonder there are so many horror stories of projects finishing 150% over budget, and a year late. Crazy stuff.

Now I’m not saying that you can’t get a great house at a great price, going through the standard process. It just seems to me that the odds are stacked against it.

While we went down the owner builder route in response to these concerns, I’m convinced that a more sensible approach to traditional practices could also get a good outcome. Such as exploring the uncertainties earlier, getting the preferred builder to do initial “scoping” to refine the cost and materials, and tuning the fixed-price/cost-plus models.

What do you think? Should we be building houses differently?

Going down the “owner builder” route

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The renovation and extension that we’ve been blogging about was done from July 2011 to March 2012. While we originally presumed that we we’re going down a “conventional” route of paying a builder to do all the work, that didn’t end up the case.

Instead, I opted to take the owner builder route. This involved taking six months off work, to be full-time on the building site. I played two roles:

  • project manager, getting quotes, organising trades, purchasing building materials, managing the project plan, addressing project changes.
  • builder’s labourer/apprentice, working alongside our builder (an individual, not a company), learning some basic trades (screwing things together, cutting stuff with saws, etc), lugging around heavy materials, keeping the site clean, and making cups of tea.

Considering that before I started, I struggled to hang a picture, I thought there might be some interest in sharing my experiences.

Would I recommend it?

In general, yes. I found the experience demanding, but very enjoyable. There’s something immensely satisfying to see progress happening every week (“today we got a wall up”, “this week we finished the roof”), and to stand back and say “I built all of that, and I know every detail about it”.

I learnt a lot of skills, and it was a great “sabbatical” from running a consulting firm.

With just two of us on site for most of the six months, the building went at a slow enough pace to allow thinking to be done, and revisions to be made.This allowed me to do research into various options, and to tweak elements of the design. The result is a better-designed house that’s better made.

I also found that I could keep up with the ordering of supplies in most cases, and there was very little down-time. Overall, the process went smoothly, and we more-or-less finished in the allotted six months (with a few months in 2012 to finish off the fiddly bits).

We also finished pretty much on budget, going just 5-10% over my budget. (I factored in 10-30% contingency, depending on the item, and we spent all that as expected, plus a bit more.)

Compared to the horror stories that abound in the building industry, it all went well. (That’s not to say there weren’t dramas — there were plenty — but nothing extreme or unexpected.)

Is it for everyone?

In a word, no.

Based on my personal experiences, this is what you need to make a success of owner builder renovations:

  1. A great builder. It almost goes without saying that you need to find someone that you can trust completely, work alongside amiably for six months, and be confident that they’re going to do a great job. We got tremendously lucky on this front, and have ended up with a friendship as a result.
  2. Good planning skills. It’s vital to have the ability to always be “one step ahead”, thinking about the next set of jobs, what needs to be done first, what needs to be ordered and when, and how it all fits together. This is a personality thing, as much as anything.
  3. Time off work. No kidding, building a house is a full-time job. I can’t imagine how people renovate houses alongside a day job, and maybe this is why it takes years to get many renovations done. I was the first to start each day, and the last to finish, during the six months, working 6.5 days a week.
  4. High tolerance for stress. Going down the owner builder route is not for the faint-hearted. There’s plenty of stress, hassles and crises (minor and major). (For me, running a consulting firm for 15 years was more than enough preparation for stressful jobs.)
  5. Comfortable making quick decisions. There are a lot of decisions to be made! Every day, snap decisions arise, particularly when multiple trades are on site. There are also the longer-term, harder decisions to agonize over. And none of them can wait.
  6. Willingness to jump in the deep end and learn. At the beginning of the process, I had no handyman skills whatsoever. Within days, I had to start picking up the jargon (bearers, joists, lintels, noggins, the list goes on), enough to order materials correctly. I still only know a fraction of what a skilled builder knows, and even then it was a steep learning curve.
  7. A very supportive partner. It’s hard work on the site, and it’s important to have someone who will help out, make a bunch of the decisions, and generally support the sometimes grumpy owner-builder.

The fact that I started as someone who couldn’t use a hammer and sat at a desk all day shows that owner building is possible for many to succeed at. I’d encourage more folks to fully explore their options, and not just go down the traditional building route. It was hard work, but perhaps the most satisfying six months of my life.

Fact sheet for our house

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We’ve had a number of tours visit our house, most recently, a group organised by Marrickville Council. While we haven’t done anything truly extraordinary, I know from personal experience that the most helpful thing can be sharing the little details, such as what materials to use, where to source supplies, or what contractors to use.

So to help with this, we provide visitors with a fact sheet (PDF), containing a summary of what we’ve done. Hopefully you’ll find it useful too!

Kina sea-urchin light

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We recently purchased a Kina light for our newly-renovated dining room, “Kina” being the Maori name for the local sea-urchin. It was designed by David Trubridge in New Zealand.

The light came as a flat-packed kit which reduces freighting, and only took an evening to assemble. It is made from plywood from sustainably managed plantations, and the inner surface is painted orange (other colours are also available).

It makes a great centerpiece above our dining table and when the light is on it throws patterns across the room. Due to the story behind the object + the environmental aspects + the design I’d have to say this is one of the best furniture purchases we’ve made for our new extension.