Everything started, nothing finished…….

9 07 2019

Having checked for my last Tasmania Project entry, I was shocked to see it was posted in March, more than three months ago….. a combination of Winter settling in – nothing much happens in Tassie in Winter – and the pair of us succumbing to the dreaded lurghy, making us sick for over a month. And of course we’re also doing our annual neighbourly duty looking after Our Mate’s Farm’s pigs while Matt and Coreen luxuriate in North Queensland’s Winter, fishing no less…..

The environment is slowly recovering from the bushfires. We were so so lucky they didn’t get any closer. Mind you, the total absence of bird sounds was quite un-nerving. I’m also a bit worried about the lack of bees. Smoke is, after all, how bee keepers control the bees, let’s hope they haven’t just all left looking for fresh air. One outcome of the fires is that we opted to upgrade our glazing from BAL 19 to 29. That should make the house pretty well fireproof when the eventual repeat climate change energised bushfires return, quite likely when there will be no fuel for helicopters either….. the future will be interesting.

The biggest progress regarding the house project is that our double glazing has arrived, some of it unfortunately damaged. We’re still negotiating with Stegbar over what they’re going to do about it. I installed it all regardless, except for the clerestory glass I ordered locally which has still not arrived after being told “two or three weeks”. Typical Tasmania though, I’m used to it now…….

Waiting for glass…

With windows and doors in place, I have started cladding the outside too, but that has been stalled because I need assistance putting up the long and floppy fascia and soffit flashings up first as the corrugated iron cladding goes on top of it all.

I’ve also started sheeting in the inside and filling the cavity with our precious wool insulation, with one bedroom finished, minus architraves. With all the EOFY sales on, we’ve been spending big before the economy tanks, buying all the tiles needed for the bathrooms and living space, a new freedge, the kitchen benchtop from a local sawmiller, a new sexy energy efficient Grundfos pump to get water from the as yet non existent water tanks to taps, and I’ve even ordered the hot water storage tank…

The hot water boiler story is quite interesting in itself….. I found a story on ABC News about these people who lost their jobs when a coal fired power station was closed in Victoria. The locals started a co-op the outcome of which was a new manufacturing group making stainless steel hot water tanks for solar use. It turns out they even make special versions for wet backs on stoves with stainless steel pipe heat exchanger, perfect for the AGA (which I’m starting to plan to move into the house soon). Negotiating with the co-op is proving challenging via email, with responses being on the slow side. Plus it has to be shipped across Bass Strait eventually, it never stops….

Winter being Winter, it snowed on the hills, and we’ve had more massive frosts complicating life a little in the shed. But it’s all exhilirating and makes us make time to smell the roses, so to speak….

Yep, that’s frost……. don’t know how they do it..!

Super Wwoofer and the roofing saga….

18 03 2019

When Gerard originally contacted me from Antarctica to offer help with our Tassie Project, I really didn’t know what to expect; except I had this vision of some bespectacled scientist specialising in climatology or glaciers. The person I did get was someone who’s completely raised the bar when it comes to volunteering, working long hours for fine tucker and lots of cider…. he is after all from Normandy where they not only produce some of the world’s best dairy, but lots of apples, cider, and Calvados. And he reckoned my cider was as good as any he’d tasted anywhere.

Pointy bit all framed up….

Before breaking my ribs, Gerard and I built the remaining rafter structure over ‘the pointy bit’, which I’d put into the too hard basket through lack of no one suitable to help me here…. Gerard very quickly impressed me with his carpentry abilities, and we had the job done in a few days……

To put the roof on, I also needed some insulation. The last house was insulated with cellulose, a recycled newspaper fluffy material that in the end left me disappointed. I would have used sheeps’ wool, but simply couldn’t afford it. This time, however was different, and I ordered 18 bales of the stuff from this cobber in Northern Tasmania who specialises in it.

The wool guy could not believe how much of his product I could load on my ute!

Whilst it’s ‘local’, I was amazed to discover the wool had to go to Melbourne for treatment and manufacturing into something useful for building….. then I had to drive 400km return to pick it up, but there you go, as I constantly say, nothing we do is sustainable. Worse, he somehow stuffed up, and could only supply me 2/3 of the order once I’d got to Campbelltown, so he had to ship the rest to Hobart where I had to pick it up, another 200km return….

As we started putting the Hoop Pine ceiling over the rafters, another wwoofer called Aurelien turned up just after I broke my ribs, and he quickly became Gerard’s apprentice. Aurelien is a chemist and not used to building, and it took Gerard a couple of days training to bring him up to speed while all I could do was watch and supervise. So frustrating…….

Acres of wool….. $3500 worth…!

The process involved screwing my heavy duty battens milled on the farm, on their edge, through the ceiling, with 150mm batten screws. Aurelien drilled the holes, and Gerard put the screws in. Working with rough sawn timber is time consuming, every bend, warp, and twist has to be taken into account, but slowly and surely, it all came together. All that wool was covered with Proctor Wrap, costing $10 a metre, of which we’ve now used over 100m…. this building’s not cheap, but the expensive insulation means no condensation, a bit of a problem in Tassie I am reliably told.

All closed in, now awaiting windows…. feels amazing!

By now, Gerard became known as Super Wwoofer! He was wearing us all out, but to say it was all worth it is a huge understatement. Unfortunately, I miscalculated when I ordered the iron 2 1/2 years ago, and we were 4 sheets short of finishing the pointy bit……. more frustration, and Super Wwoofer was clearly disappointed we could not completely finish the job, but frankly, I’m stoked beyond words, and I will never be able to thank him enough for the superhuman effort he put in.

So near…..

I drove Gerard to the airport yesterday, and I would be very surprised if he doesn’t show up next year after his next stint in Antarctica to see progress.

We’ve ordered our double glazing, and I’d be disappointed if we weren’t in the unfinished house before Christmas. It’s all too exciting!


Image may contain: sky, cloud, tree, plant, outdoor and nature

The roof is now ‘finished’, except for the numerous flashings that have to wait for more work to be done, and gutters, and water tanks, and…… Glenda and I performed our own little topping off ritual with a tree strapped to the roof and a bottle of Tassie bubbly….

The windows and doors will turn up in a month or so, and we could be at lockup stage some time in May, all things being equal.

On future proof building……

9 10 2018

I’m quite a fan of the English TV show Grand Designs, and Kevin McCloud in kevin.jpgparticular. The key word in the show’s title is of course ‘grand’, and many – if not most – of the projects irritate me no end, but as an owner builder from way back, not only do I relate to these people, the show has taught me a trick or two…… my gripe remains, why oh why do they all feel the need to build such ginormous houses, often for just two people to rattle around in?

The Australian version, now showing on ABC TV some 8 or 9 years after screening on pay TV which I refuse to pay for, is not as good as the pommy version, the presenter I find lacking in Kevin’s unique personality….. but I digress.

My reason for this introduction is that the last episode was about an earth covered house in Victoria built by a couple whose home was destroyed in the 2010 bushfires. Never wanting to go through that again – surprise surprise – they decided to move to the only place that didn’t burn to the ground and where the few livestock that survived had escaped to…. right next to their big dam!

steels creek

By that stage, the similarities between this project and ours was starting to amaze me, but it gets even better, because they too experienced stuff ups with concrete deliveries, bad weather, and lo and behold, they even have an AGA in the kitchen….

Weirdly, the presenter whose name I haven’t bothered to store in my memory banks expresses disbelief that anyone would make safety their top priority in building their new home. Is he for real? Yes I am biased, but clearly this construction method is the only way to go – even if needing to go a lot smaller in this case – and as climate change unravels, it’s getting more and more important to consider future conditions. As the show unwinds and the weather throws everything at these poor owner builders, the lady half of the couple even says that as time goes by, she gets more convinced than ever that their decision is the best they can do…. If you are that way inclined, the 48 minute show can be viewed here for free…..

IMG_20180914_133934Since Caleb assisted me with raising the central post and beams, I am pleased to announce that I have been making quite amazing progress on my own, and it’s all going up much faster than I had anticipated.

The ridge beam that will support the hip roof over what I call the pointy bit had to go in first to brace the central post and allow me to remove all precautionary (and probably un-necessary) ropes attached to the fourbie ute; my first attempt at trimming the post to the required height turned out a bit hairy, as it was windier than I had realised, and a 50km/h gust required me to brace myself on the 5kg Makita saw which it didn’t like, kicking back and nearly throwing me off the plank onto the concrete 3 metres below……. I might be exaggerating, but that’s how it felt at the time! The job was eventually done on a nice windless day…..

The stud wall frame at the front of the house had to go up before any roofing members could be added on, and it all involved doing lots of preparatory work like anchoring rafter bearers to the top course of blocks, and cutting checks in the beams and a mortise in the post.IMG_20181001_121230

I’m using time-consuming traditional methods that few builders, if any, would use today, or that could be afforded by your average owner if they could not do it themselves.

I’ve now learned to sharpen my chisel so well I could shave with it if I was that way inclined…… and just as well, because it’s getting a lot of use. That central mortise was very important, because every other rafter has to be an exact 1200mm from it so that the plywood sheets that will eventually make the ceiling can go up without needing any cutting whatsoever.

IMG_20180924_133517Some of those sheets will join up atop the internal block walls, which I found to be almost perfectly aligned with what’s on the drawings; quite a task because getting concrete exactly right is a bit of an art form; I learned all the mistakes when I built my last house in Queensland, and I was not going to repeat them if it was at all possible……

The other important reason for correctly aligned walls is that the mostly cosmetic short rafters joining the back wall to them had to also be in the right place. The end blocks had been left empty for the top 200mm or so, and I cut a slot wide enough for the rafter to go in, and once in place the void was filled with concrete, anchoring the mini rafter in place.

It’s really cool coming up with all these concepts in one’s head, and finally seeing them come to fruition in reality……

The next step will be putting the roof on, giving me a nice big platform to work from to build the hip roof frame.

It’s even really starting to look like a house……

The only things holding me back right now are a wedding in Queensland, and the almost certain funeral for my mother in law that will occur within days or weeks…. such is life I’m afraid, we just have to steer down that road without falling in ditches…. eventually, we all reach the end of the road.




Panoramic picture window in the kitchen


The large gap at right will be filled with five bi-fold doors

The other momentous event this week was that the sawmill was finally taken away. After two and a half years in residency here, it almost came as a shock. But it finally allowed me to install a gate where the entrance to the milling area was so that I can finally get my own cattle to rotate through the four one acre paddocks that constitute the far east of the Fanny Farm. I’m practicing with Matt and Coreen’s cows at the moment.


Bye bye sawmill……..


….hello moo cows!

Beam me up….

11 09 2018


After staring at my large 200×200 mm beams drying in the shed for over two years, they were finally raised into position yesterday. It might only be three pieces of timber, but they are critical to the rest of the construction…….

It took me well over a week to establish exactly how I would join the mammoth lumps of wood, even, as you might remember, going to the trouble of going to a workshop on how to make framing joins. The advice I received there was worth its weight in gold, and in truth, it wasn’t that much more effort to make a tapered tenon rather than just a straight one. And I’m stoked with the quality of the join, the gaps being no more than about 3mm…… I even oiled the internal join surfaces with linseed oil to protect the wood from the inevitable water ingress from the next rain event.



First, on a beautiful sunny Tassie day, we had to raise the shortened post complete with fancy mortise back to the vertical… because we had done this before, this time it took us way less time and effort. Once erect, we could then drill the second 12mm hole through the post so it could be fastened to the steel bracket with a pair of threaded rods and two nuts. It’s not coming back down now, ever….!


Then we lifted the eastern beam up, literally one step at a time using step ladders and then the you beaut platform I bought from Bunnings many months ago. Good thing I got this when I did, I don’t believe they are available now….. to go higher than the platform rack, Caleb lifted the beam, while I pulled it up with a trucky’s hitch until the tenon reached the mortise. The beam was then lifted above the blockwork by brute force, and as they say, the rest is history….


We used the same procedure for the western beam, and in under four hours, it was all over bar the shouting….


I left the ropes in position more for peace of mind than anything else, because even un braced in the N/S axis, it’s rock solid, barely moving 10mm at the top when seriously shaken at shoulder height.DSC_2971

I know I’m biased, but it looks awesome, expressing so much strength through sheer size…. it’s the size beam I wanted for the Queensland house, but they are almost impossible to get unless you mill them yourself.

I took the next day off to rest my old back, working out how to install the ridge and fascia beams that will go on top of it all.  It never stops, and hopefully I will have at least some of the roof up by Christmas…..

Switching from concrete to carpentry…….

2 09 2018

Now that the concrete part of the house is as good as over, since returning from my Queensland visit I’ve been concentrating on the carpentry side of things. I’ve put a lot of thought into doing this, more often than not in the middle of the night when I least want to do so! I even put a lot of thought into useless methods…….

IMG_20180823_162417But first, I had to finish cleaning up the mess left behind when I went troppo, and the amount of ‘scrap’ concrete caused by the suppliers completely miscalculating how much was needed to core fill my blocks is truly staggering….  I now have a pile of rubble behind the house 5m long and a metre high that will end up as drainage, but honestly, even considering half the pile might be air, there must be $400 worth of waste there. Not impressed…….

My first big task is erecting the centre column, as it will support the beams that finish theIMG_20180829_100654 backbone of the house at the rear where the retaining wall is. This backbone supports the top of the skillion roof that will eventually slope down towards the stud frame forming the front of the house.

The post will be attached to a custom made 10mm steel bracket I had crafted by a local engineering firm, who did a magnificent job…. I’ve fastened this bracket to the slab with four 12 x 100 mm stainless steel dyna bolts. I opted for stainless because those bolts might be in the wet weather for some time, and the last thing I want is for them to rust and crack my slab……

IMG_20180829_100431Then the post had to be removed from the shed and carted to its final destination on a ute. I called Caleb back to help with the heavy lifting, and after mucking around with various lifting techniques, we got it up vertical with the help of Caleb’s father’s block and tackle, attached to the ute’s frame….. The reason for lifting it up was to mark the position of the side beams that will soon emanate from this post sideways with a string line. The engineering drawings show a steel plate with bolts to join these together, but I’ve opted for mortise and tenon joins. It’s an old traditional way of framing I’ve seen done, and it’s far more elegant, requiring no bolts or steel…..IMG_20180829_142947

Once erect, it was quickly obvious that the post – which is a whole tree with the round edge bits cut off – was far far too long, and upon lowering it back down, I cut some 1200mm off the end, which I used to learn to make my mortise and tenon……..

Now I had never done this before, and the learning curve was steeper than anticipated….. which is always the case in my experience! Having broken, then bent a couple of spade bits in an attempt at boring through 200mm of macrocarpa, I looked online at how experts did this, and saw one woodworker use a large auger bit. So I dropped tools, drove to Kingston (what would we 1 augerdo without fossil fuels…) where Nubco had a range of Milwaukee heavy duty bits suitable for the task. $31 poorer, I went back to the site and then had to learn to master this take no prisoners bit of gear that will screw itself into the wood at the first opportunity if you don’t take your time!IMG_20180831_133828

I eventually mastered the technique, and cut a whole 200×100 mortise that now needed chiseling out to make room for a tenon. Tenons are much easier to make than mortises and soon enough, I had a join I could show off, even if it was bit rough…..  I’ve since learned that even brand new chisels can do with supplementary sharpening, and now I will have to buy myself some proper stones for that job…..  it never ends. But my new 2″ chisel will do a lot more work than this as I intend to make notched joins for every rafter that will hold the roof up, so a good sharpen will not go astray. Watch this space……

Then out of the blue, facebook reminded me that while I was in Queensland, I expressed interest in going to a permaculture workshop near Cygnet that was about making exactly the joins I was teaching myself to make! I’d forgotten all about it, and there was one place left…… so I went.


You can never learn too much stuff, even at my ripe old age……. and I have to say I was amazed when I saw the purpose built Makita mortiser the young carpenter was using. Compared to boring holes with a big auger, this tool made mince meat of large timber, and made nice clean cut mortises, but at $4300, and with only one mortise to make, I don’t think getting one will happen any time soon.

first joinI took my join to the workshop – and I think I impressed them, seeing as I had never made one before – and I was given some good advice that alone made attending worthwhile. Like making a beveled corner at the base of the beam join so that the post will support it there as well as the tenon itself……

When the weather hopefully improves next week, I will make another attempt with my newly learnt skills and you will all soon enough see how I get on…….


All over bar the shouting……

27 06 2018


The last block….

Another milestone has been reached with the construction of Mon Abri MkII…… Mark finished all the block laying last week with the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle laid while he wore his Master Brick Layer bowler hat…..  apparently brick layers deemed to be masters at their craft used to wear bowler hats in the UK, and well before the well to do in Fleet Street did, or so says Mark anyhow…



The next big job was core filling all those walls. Because the large retaining wall at the back has a big job ahead, supporting many many tons of wet clay and soil, it’s engineered with miles of steel and all 1655 blocks had to be full of concrete. The plans called for a 20MegaPascal mix, but I ordered 32, because you can never overengineer something you want to last, and I was concerned that in the event of a morning frost the morning after, I might lose some strength. If within the first 24 hours any water still not finished reacting with the cement freezes, the resulting expansion can crack the concrete permanently, not a good idea….

I had no choice but to use the same crowd who poured my slab – there’s not much choice


Formwork dynabolted to blocks

this far from ‘civilisation’ – and as usual, not everything went according to plan, though this time there were no disaster such as happened at the end of that pour…. though one driver actually managed to veer off my track, getting bogged in the drain… luckily, the previous truck was still there, and they pulled him out. I knew something was up, but even from my perch up the ladder I didn’t find out until it was all over.

Between the last block being laid and the core filling, I had to do quite a few preparatory things, mainly forming up gaps behing the rear wall caused by the 135 degree bend in the wall and the impractibility of closing those gaps with blocks. I was a bit worried that there would be so much pressure at the bottom of the wall my forwork would blow out, but it all went perfectly. Then I suddenly realised – after saying for weeks that once cast in concrete, any forgotten wiring or plumbing could not be fixed – I had forgotten to put an electrical conduit from the yet to be installed switchboard to the ceiling for the installation of lights!  Aaargh….. fortunately, that too went smoothly after drilling a hole in the wall and feeding the conduit down the wall….. the elbow found the ledge of the hole while I was blindly working up top; you honestly could not do this if you tried on purpose….


On the day Robbie Page set up his pump out the front of the house with a much smaller hose than used for the slab. The core filling mix consisted of 7mm aggregate and  was very runny, as it has to be, to flow between all the steel and from block to block.

When I last did this many years ago in Cooran, the operator had his own remote control to stop/start the pump and avoid – as much as possible – overfilling the walls and causing spills. This pump didn’t work like that, Jack had to yell out to Robbie to stop, and of course there were time lapses, and the result was a bit of a mess…..  it was lucky that didn’t happen in Cooran, because I had no water or power at the time, whereas this time IMG_20180626_131140around I actually had a gerni to clean up the mess with……

The result was that I had to climb up and down ladders for the duration, trowel in hand, to scrape off excess concrete and try to get as smooth a result as possible atop the walls.

Then, Caleb whom I’d hired again to help, cleaned the dags off the walls with my pressure cleaner, and later dropped the last of the steel bars from the top to finish off the reinforcing and assure maximum strength.

Disappointingly, there was an excess of maybe three quarters of a cubic metre of concrete, and this time it wasn’t my bad maths because I got Duggans to work out the volume from the number of blocks laid. I got them to pour it all out in a zigzag fashion all over the ground, and I will have another massive job breaking it up later for the rubble drain that still needs to be put behind the wall.


Cleanup required…

Apart from that, I also have a huge cleanup job ahead of me getting rid of all the slops on the floor. Such is life, building is not for the faint hearted….

Next morning we did indeed get a frost, but the air temperature didn’t drop below 4 degrees C and no ground puddles near the house site were frozen. The walls even felt relatively warm, so, fingers crossed, my concrete will still reach its 32MPa maximum strength.


Frosty morning after

Mon Abri MkII update

16 06 2018

It’s been busy here for the past month or so since we started coming out of the ground… As I type, the masonry work is as good as finished, weather permitting will be so next Monday. So on a rainy weekend – and I have to say we’ve been so lucky weather-wise – I’ve decided to update you all on the progress.

I started with 24 pallets of blocks, and it looks like we’ll have almost three left over, even after the numerous broken ones found beneath the plastic wrap around the pallets. Beats me how everything is plastic wrapped now, even concrete blocks…

Mark the Irish block layer has done a wonderful job….. he may be six years younger than me, but us old farts can sure work when the pressure’s on!

Having fitted the electrics on top of the first course, it occurred to me that dropping


Marking blocks for cutting

concrete from a great height onto the plastic conduit spanning almost 400mm between the block webs might not be a good idea, so I filled the bottom course by hand to support all that hard work. Didn’t want to find out after the core filling that my power cables didn’t work anymore! 

Then I had to cut all corner specials with my father in law’s 40 year old 9″ angle grinder that still works as good as new. Lots of dust and noise and concentration to ensure it’s all cut right, but after a couple of days it was all done, ready for Mark’s craftsmanship. Originally, I thought I’d need Caleb’s young muscles to move blocks, but in the end I managed to keep up with Mark, and we worked really well as a team. I’m now an experienced bricky’s labourer…..

It’s amazing just how much weight is in all this stuff. 400kg of cement alone; 2 tonnes of sand; and that’s before you add in the 27 tonnes of blocks, all the steel inside the blocks, and the (guessing, haven’t done the maths yet) ~20 tonnes of concrete we’ll need to core fill the walls. It might all seem unsustainable, but I remind myself that this house contains a mere fraction of the concrete in a wind turbine’s foundation… and it won’t need any energy whatsoever to keep us warm.


We got great quality timber from the last five logs

Then out of the blue, the sawmillers came back to finish cutting the five remaining logs that have been waiting eighteen months for their appointment with the blade… the mill itself was supposed to be gone by now, but sadly Pete’s partner had a cerebral haemorrhage on the very last day they worked here, and last I heard she was still with us but on life support. Between that and my 93 year old mother in law taking a fall and breaking her wrist and cracking her pelvis, I now take every day I wake up in the morning as a bonus. Life sure is full of surprises, and some are not pleasant at all….. hopefully everyone will get better.


I unloaded Pete’s old truck on my own, let me tell you I’m getting fit…..


Only the two eastern internal walls to go…


Electrics ready for the next course of blocks

Now the walls are up, a feeling for the way the house flows is becoming obvious, and as we are virtually at the winter solstice, it’s great to see how my design embraces that solar gain we get when the sun does its trick….. every single room gets bathed in sunlight.


All the electrics from the power station and sundry power cables disappearing below the slab are now ready for the eventual joining together in a switchboard, once the roof is up and they can’t get rained on……

There were two regrets at my last build….. not having enough thermal mass inside, and not cutting the tops of the walls to follow the raked ceilings. Both those things have been corrected with this house….. it means even more block cutting, but years down the road I will have forgotten all about it!


The ‘stink pipe’ for both compost toilets have been fitted, and there’s even a starter threaded bar sticking out of the top of the wall to hold down and fasten the horizontal beams that will one day support the roof above what I call ‘the pointy bit’ that reaches into the hill… lots to think about, can’t afford to forget any details when you cast your design in concrete!  Now all I need is the right weather to pump some concrete in those blocks…….


Tie down bar…..


….in situ, with the whole column core filled