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!

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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.

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Panoramic picture window in the kitchen

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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.

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Bye bye sawmill……..

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….hello moo cows!





Beam me up….

11 09 2018

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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.

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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….!

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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….

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

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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.

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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…….