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.

Our house is in this month’s Sanctuary magazine

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The one-page writeup of our eco-renovation
The one-page writeup of our eco-renovation

We’re honoured to be included in this month’s Sanctuary magazine, which is featuring a number of houses that have been involved in Sustainable House Day.

(It’s a great magazine, with a lot of other wonderful case studies of green projects. Rush out and get a copy!)

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?

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.

Video about our rammed earth wall

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It’s great to use a comparatively unusual way of building, and then to spread the word about it. Thus the short video, giving a little more insight into our rammed earth wall. (Apologies for a slightly blurry video, first day with a new camera!)

For us, we did the rammed earth wall because it was a way of creating a beautiful feature wall that keeps the house cool in summer and warm in winter.

Renovating our house

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The reason that we’ve been so quiet on this blog recently is that we’ve been preparing for the next big project: renovating our house. Tomorrow is the official start date, and we’ll be blogging progress as it unfolds.

In theory, it’s not a big renovation. Like most federation houses, we have four beautiful front rooms, which we’re leaving unchanged. Then comes the rabbit-warren of rooms at the back, lean-to extension, etc. While the new house will be just 2-4m longer, it will mean demolishing the back of the house and re-building. Fun!

Needless to say, the renovation will incorporate a number of green features, including:

  • A rammed earth wall, located in the middle of the house to increase the thermal mass of the house. (read more)
  • A reverse brick veneer wall along one side, again to increase thermal mass (the rest of the construction will be wood frame).
  • Double-glazing of all the windows (surprisingly hard to get in Australia).
  • Plenty of insulation, in the roof, walls and under the floor.
  • Carefully placed skylights to passively light the majority of the house.
  • Actively ventilated roof space, to keep us cool in summer.
  • Grey water system, with no moving parts.
  • Low VOC paints and building materials throughout.
  • Sustainable building products, where practical.

We’ll post more details on each of these aspects over the coming months. I’ll be the owner-builder and project manager, and will be directly involved in all the work for the next six months. Watch this space and wish us luck…