Elevation Dilema

Most of the building is behind the original house but the southern elevation can be seen from the street. The main driver for the elevation has been our internal planning given that the site is narrow and there are only a few ways we can fit our brief onto the site. What this means is that the elevation presents as a one storey blank wall at the front of the house and becomes a two storey blank wall at the rear. There can be no windows to the south because of fire regulations and because a neighbour would have a right to build against our wall. To reduce the impact of this blank expanse the elevation has been split horizontally. The lower half will be brickwork to match the original house. This brickwork runs beyond the house to form a garden wall. Elevationally this gives a more linear quality, it also ties the old house with the new house. Practically it gives shelter from wind and increases privacy from neighbouring balconies. A 100mm rebate sits between the upper and lower elevation. This is a good architectural technique that will give a lighter, floating, appearance to the upper storey. At this stage we are still looking at different elevational options. The cheapest option that we feel could work has been allowed for in our costings. It is a black miniorb sheet covering in black. This should be crisp and we like the contrast between the black and white and the contrast between slightly rough brickwork and the precise metal. Our other options are: Timber weatherboards with vertical battens which will fade to grey, cement sheet panels painted different shades of green with 10mm rebates between each panel, Black zinc sheeting with vertical seams at random interval and an image printed onto architectural fabric. It is likely some of these are out because of costs but below is a poll. We’d love your opinion.



I worked in Singapore for a while and Feng Shui was popular there, it is growing in popularity here and elswhere. I am sceptical about it but having worked with clients who are concerned about Feng Shui I have become more sensitive to the idea of space as something that can alter the mood of people within it. A Feng Shui example of this would be not sleeping under a beam. In reality this isn’t a problem but the thought of that weight bearing down over you can be unsettling. A more abstract consideration would be forces or spirits moving into a house and for this reason Feng Shui avoids strong axis’ leading to an arrival point or travelling through a living area. Often the placing of entrances is at an angle or has some symbol to ward off that energy. Again, from my prosaic viewpoint, this is nonsensical but if you are in a room that is off to one side of a thoroughfare it does feel more private and peaceful and this can only be good for the soul.

Another strong influence that has shaped my feelings towards space is the hindu based architecture of Bali. Towns, villages and buildings (houses, palaces and temples) in Bali are all sensitive to their orientation with the clean, cerebral part of the planning being towards Mount Agung and the utilitarian, earthy planning towards the sea. A better explanation of this is here http://bali-article.blogspot.com.au/2008/10/layout-of-compound-in-balinese.html . Additionally buildings were historically single storey to avoid having ‘unclean’ feet above ‘sacred’ heads. This relationship of bodies in space or in a setting I find fascinating. Again I am sceptical but I do feel more comfortable personally sleeping on an upper floor away from street level activity, I suspect it is because of an almost unconscious feeling of safety and privacy. The final Balinese influence is the Balinese peoples cultural habit of making offerings to spirits or Gods and placing them at meaningful points around the house. A balinese friend told me that without doing this they feel unsettled during the day. Again I’m sceptical about this but I do understand that if you embue an item with a spiritual power and that item is in the house then it would affect the person who believes in it. This could be seen as ‘mess’ having a negative spirit and therefore people feel happier in a space where that spirit is removed – because ‘mess’ is rarely a physical problem.

Why do I mention all this? Because last night my son and I in the presence of A made a ‘Happy House’ totem out of twigs leaves and string. My son wrote happy house on a leaf and this was tossed into the reinforcement and incorporated into the slab. A was slightly embarassed by this episode but the concreters were happy with it.

The Joy Of Concrete

I love concrete and I’d like to use more of it. This love developed at architecture school which was riddled with Corbusian inspired modernist teachers. The professor there, when I was studying, was Andy MacMillan who worked for a company called Gillespie, Kidd and Coia. Here is some of their work: http://www.gillespiekiddandcoia.com/ .This was during the dark days of post mordernism when lime green greek columns were a serious proposition. Google ‘brutalist architecture’ images for more concrete porn. A house I designed in Dunsborough, WA, has some neo-brutalism and that can be seen on my website.

Unfortunately, due to cost constraints, we don’t have that opportunity here so this is the best concrete update I can give you. On Monday the concreter came to site and dug all the ground beam trenches, these are so that concrete beams can be poured that will sit under the slab and support the slab and walls. When we did the bulk excavation at the back garden earlier in the month we dug down 200mm below the finished ground level so that the soil from the ground beam trenches could build the finished level up again. This was a good idea and saved us some work but we underestimated how much more soil would come out when the ground beams were dug out and we will have to wheelbarrow more soil of the site. Below is a photo showing the ground beam trenches. It also shows a 50mm layer of sand that sits above the soil and that will be under the polythene plastic that will form the waterproof membrane. Also below is a photo the following day showing the waterproof membrane and the reinforcing steel that gives tensile strength to the slab (concrete is strong in compression, steele is strong in tension). The steel is supported off the ground by plastic spacers so that the steel is in the slab rather than at the surface of the slab where it could corrode. These are seen as the black discs under the steel. The concrete is trucked to the site and pumped to the back of the house. The concrete floor is then smoothed, levelled and toughened by being ‘floated’. This is when the concrete us rubbed, in this case it is power floated with a machine but it can be burnished by hand to give a more natural finish. One of my favourite floor finishes is when black pigment is added to concrete and it is then hand burnished. This can give an effect like black semi gloss leather. In our case the floor will be battened out and recycled floorboards will go over the surface.

Building That Baby

Pilot use ‘Baby’ to describe their plane, “Let’s get this baby off the ground”. I use it for buildings. Earlier in the week I put up 36m of temporary fencing that A had bought on sale. A couple of German backpackers had been employed to help me move our stuff into storage and now the house stood empty awaiting the builder – For anonymities sake we’ll call him X. At the begining of October X went to work. I love demolition, love it deeply. It happens so quickly and the site opens up and the potential of what you are planning becomes so much clearer. On the first day the interior was stripped out; the joinery, the flesh tone bath all went out. We discovered a couple of sections of asbestos and so work stopped so that an asbestos contractor could come to the site. They removed a small section of wall sheeting, a fireplace surround and an old vent pipe. Then the demolition continued and walls, roofs and floors were removed. Later our palm tree was cut down, which we were sad about but it would have been impossible to keep and it was not a ‘significant tree’. An old and semi rotten plum tree was also removed. Finally a 4 ton excavator ripped out the brickwork paving, old concrete and massive concrete footings under the garden. All that was left was flat dirt at the back – I couldn’t be happier.

Drawing Drawings So Builders Can Build


Now that we had received our planning permit it was time to draw the building so that any builder could understand how it is put together, with what materials and to what standard. I had jumped the gun and started doing this while we were waiting for planning. I did this because I was confident enough that we would get our town planning permit without to much trouble. This would speed up the process. During this faze of the work we employed a structural engineer and an energy rating consultant. Engineering is needed so that the building stands up and it is required as part of obtaining the building permit. The energy rating, which here in Australia is starting to catch up to the rest of the world (i’ve worked in the UK and Singapore), ensures that the proposed house maintains its temperature efficiently – generally through good insulation and a favourable orientation. When I finished drawing everything up I decided to send the drawings back to the costing expert. When we sent our sketch design in to him the cost was about $350K including builders margin and GST. I knew when I was drawing this house up that I was adding bits in here and there but I hoped when we tendered the price would be about $350K because the market here was going down and this means builders become more competative as less work is available. I was a bit shocked when the estimator’s cost came in at $450ish K. I had added some items but I can’t imagine they would have added up to more than 30K. There was also more steel than was originally thought and the slab was more complicated due to the ground condition, but again this would only account for $10K at best. I believe the original sketch design estimate was too optimistically priced – hopefully this newer estimate was high. Nevertheless it was very useful to get the design recosted because it is important to get as much of the documentation right before going to builders. So, having seen the new estimate, I set about redrawing again. This time my wife and I were as merciless as we could be but in the end we felt we could only save about 50K with the changes we were making. If we wanted to reduce the costs further it would mean a substancial redesign involving new town planning. The 50K we hoped to save came from removing a fireplace I’d added between the meals and sitting room – 19K, minimising joinery – maybe 10K, painting floorboards rather than stripping them back, staining and oiling them – maybe $4K, reducing the amount of lighting – $2K and various other changes. We also thought we would do the project as owner builders to get rid of the%10 – %15 percent margin on some items. (more about tendering in the next post). Once we had made all these changes I prepared the cocumentation to go out to builders along with a contract for some of the work. Other contracts would be sent out by us directly to trades for some items of work. Finally we sent the drawings out.

A World Known As Town Planning

I could write a lot here because planning is broken. I share an office with a consultant planner and he, and I, can look at a residential proposal and know what planning issues are pertinent to any design. We can do this in minutes and when there is an issue we can find the relevant clauses very quickly. I think any competent planner can say yay or nay to a proposal within the hour. This would not be a subjective decision it would be an intelligent, objective assessment. And yet… Time and time again proposals dissappear into a nether world of officialdom never to resurface. I submitted this plan and a month later I was asked for further information, information that could have been gleened in a second with a phonecall. Eventually – possibly three month later – we are told that we can advertise, we do and get no objections (see note below). Then it disappears again. 6 Months later, lets say 5 because I did amend something, we get a planning permit. This with fortnightly courteous phonecalls along the lines of “You guys must be busy, yeah I know, Anyway have you had a chance…”. I find it inexcusable, deeply frustrating and it surely can’t be efficient.

Note: If you are submitting a planning permit visit your neighbours, they will find out about your proposal and you are much less likely to get objections if you visit them and explain what you are doing and why you are doing it the way you are.

Here is a side elevation as submitted to planning. The lower portion of the house extension is a white brick wall like the original house. The wall extends from the interior to the exterior where it becomes a garden wall hiding the neighbouring commission flats. The upper storey is made of cement sheet panels painted different shades of green.

Cost Misery

I can never understand why buildings cost so much to build in Australia. The technical requirements are a long way behind Europe with residential construction and yet it seems to me that the basic construction here (clad 2 x 4 frames) is on a par with much more complicated systems abroad. I was hoping that the design would be around $350K but it is important to get early sketches costed by an outside estimator skilled in this kind of work. So we sent the drawings to get costed, to do this costs around $1500 but I’m convinced that the report that comes back prevents people going ahead with over budget designs or allows owners to manage there costs. In our case the cost estimate, at about $450K, stopped us in our tracks. I discussed the design with the cost estimator and he suggested reusing the existing locations of the bathroom and kitchen and reusing their walls. My wife (I want to keep some level of anonymity but using ‘my wife’ all the time is irritating me so from now on let’s call her A) was evfen more shocked and she was pressing for a single storey extension. So it was back to the drawing board. The image below shows a single storey version that tries to retain the palm tree on site. My view was that it was a pity to miss out on the site potential that this site had, A agreed in part.