June 2002 update: Pictures of our muddie

April 2004 update: Latest pictures of our muddie

By Murray Johnson

My father is a builder, so I grew up around building sites,
I walked on floor joists, fetched tools, tidied up the offcut blocks of wood, and watched Dad scribble floor plans on the backs of envelopes after dinner.

Without thinking much of it at the time I absorbed the language and atmosphere, if not the detail, of building.

I've often thought learning the language of any new pursuit is a key to mastering it. As an owner builder I've found knowing a joist from a rafter and an architrave from a skirting board has made picking it up a lot easier.

As with my "other job" - journalism - if you know the lingo you can ask the right questions, and if you ask the right questions you can do and know (or at least bluff your way through) just about any situation. It might sound like a gross oversimplification, but it applies to most things.


Murray & Natalee... our first floor joist is plumb!

If you know what a stud is, and a noggin' and a brace, and a top and bottom plate and a checkout, there's not much stopping you from putting up a stud wall. If you know what those things are, and how they all interact to make a wall, It's just a matter of asking the right person what timber to use, how far apart the studs and noggin's should be, rolling up your sleeves and doing it!

This was the theory at least, which I carried through 40 years of my life, before deciding to put it to the test. I could, and probably should, have started with a chookhouse or a garden shed but not one for half measures I just decided to build a house.
I would keep my day job, as a journalist, but spend my weekends and spare time designing and building a house.
Not having hundreds of thousands of dollars, in fact not having a cent, the first step was obtaining a site as cheaply as possible, in the country, but as close as possible to the city where Natalee and I work.

Artist friends of ours had used a compass to draw an 80km (one hour) circle around Melbourne when they looked for land. We did the same, and looked at the logistics of getting out to the outer edge where budget dictated we would be.
We drove out to some of the potential sites, around Hastings to the South, Daylesford to the west and Kinglake to the northeast, but settled on the northern radius... heading up towards my old home town, Echuca, where we knew the climate was warm north of Pretty Sally and the access was easy thanks to the Hume Highway and new ring road and CityLink.

From there it was just a matter of driving out, looking in real estate windows along the way, and looking for the "dropoff" point where land prices fall away.
We found that point just north of Kilmore, and picked up 1.3 acres (5000 square metres) on a hill, looking down a valley for under $25,000. We looked at bush blocks, but found the cost of going solar, or connecting electricity, and providing water for firefighting etc. pushed the price too high. Security was another issue after friends returned to their isolated country homestead one day to find French windows and floorboards ripped out by thieves and gone forever.

We settled for a tidy little block with existing friendly well-treed neighbors and some farmland behind us, with town power, water and phone to our doorstep.
We approached the neighbors to "warn" them we were planning a mudbrick house, only to find one of the couples had built a muddie in Eltham in the early 1950s, and the other had a daughter interested in mud bricks!

We planted some trees from the Goulburn Valley Nursery at Numurkah... great value at only a few dollars each for bare rooted trees up to two metres high... delivered by the dozen to the nearest train station in neat little bundles bound in black plastic.
We had the water connected and put in an automatic watering system... simply running 13mm black poly pipe in a loop right around the block. At only about $5 for a 25 metre roll, we probably laid $100 worth of the stuff and just punched a dripper into it wherever we planted a tree. By looping the pipe back into itself in a full circle we equalised the pressure throughout the system. We must have close to 100 trees on it now, and it works fine. We also added a $100 RainBird "computer" to turn it on and off at preset times. About 15 minutes at night seems to have kept everything alive through some pretty hot summers.

Our house design started with a roof line... the traditional Aussie woolshed with a corrugated iron 45 degree pitch in the middle, and a simple "skillion" roof running off each side. I liked the Georgian symmetry of it, the fact that the pitch created space for a loft in the middle, and that skillions are the cheapest simplest type of roof to build. It had to be corrugated iron, in keeping with the shearing shed feel, with heavy native timbers in a post-and-beam frame. The frame would hold the roof up, so our mudbrick walls would not be under pressure (and neither would we) to support the building structurally.

Worst case scenario one of my brick walls could fall over, but the building would still be standing! (Just in case my whole theory about being able to build was flawed).
Having decided on the roofline, we proceeded to sketch out a floor plan to fit it, and found a process of elimination pretty much dictated the layout. We wanted the house to follow passive solar heating and cooling principles... so most of the glass and living areas had to face north and none west. We planned eaves to keep the sun out in summer, but not in winter, and to protect the mud brick walls from weather. Later pergolas with deciduous vines will create a virtual leafy green verandah in summer, while letting the sun flood in during winter once they've lost their leaves.

We shopped around and finally found a draftsman at Eltham prepared to turn our rough floor plans and roof line idea into plans we could submit to council. We met him in the St Andrew's Hotel a few times and discussed our ideas over a beer. He came up with a draft within a week or two, and after fiddling around with minor details, and adding a last-minute bay window/sun nook on the northern end of our living area, we settled on the design. The designer delivered a dozen copies of the final plan... with all the elevations and details drawn on a single sheet... within a couple of weeks for under $1000. We were quoted up to twice that for plans. It helped that we had nutted out most of the details ourselves before we went to him. Get plenty of blueprints or photocopies of them. We ran out and had to get another dozen or so. You need to send plans to each tradesman you seek a quote from, so you go through them pretty quickly. It's a good idea to laminate a couple too... for use on-site.

We looked into having someone like Alternate Dwellings pitch a post and beam barn-style frame for us and put on the roof, then we would get in and finish it off. The quote seemed very reasonable to put up a frame, full loft, roof, guttering, and stairs but in the end we decided to coordinate the frame ourselves, so we could use heavy timbers from Barry Donchi's Nullarbor Timber in Echuca. We have 200 x 300mm ironbark posts up to six metres high, recycled from a wharf in Brisbane, and 300 x 100 beams which we picked up at Eltham. We also found some handy posts of redgum and ironbark very cheaply at Hurstbridge Garden Supplies... which goes to show you don't always find things where you would expect to... so don't rule out any options.

The scavenging industry is a very competitive one these days, so you have to be on the ball. You're not just competing with other owner builders or demolition yards, but with "value adding" companies which have a voracious appetite for timber they can denail and dress then re-sell at a much higher price.

I reckon you could build a house in no time just with the things people put in dumpsters around the eastern suburbs. People renovating houses put whole glazed window frames, cedar doors and all sorts of goodies in those portable "skips" if you're quick enough, and have a truck on call and a mate to help you lift them. One of the great joys of owner building is getting a bargain on some materials. One of our greatest coups so far has been a heap of 150 x 60mm hardwood, probably Vic Ash, which had been purlins in an old factory. We found it in a tiny secondhand yard, de-nailed it ourselves, and fed it through an old "thicknesser" my dad has. This draws the timber through itself, and takes a few millimetres off one side at a time. Two passes per stick and you have beautiful dressed hardwood for a fraction of the cost of paying someone else to do it. It took us a few weekends of work, but probably worked out at about $2 a metre instead of $15.

The frame and roof probably ended up costing us $25,000 to do it ourselves. The heavy timbers look great, and we learnt heaps from helping the builders along the way, but partly thanks to the pre-GST building boom it took us 10 months to do what probably could have been done in one or two.

Doing the frame ourselves was harder to cost and control, and things like cranes at $500 a day caused a few blowouts. The jury's still out on whether it was worth it. Certainly from a cost point of view a lighter frame would have been adequate, cheaper and easier to control. As an owner builder it's been frustrating losing control of the process because of the machinery and expertise required to handle heavy timbers.

Pouring the slab

We looked at various foundation options, and went for a concrete slab. It cost $7000, was set up in a week and poured in a day. We had the concreters throw colored cement onto the slab as they were trowelling it off... choosing clay, red brick and Tuscan yellow colors, which swirled together under the "whirleybird" trowelling machine to create a beautiful marbled effect. We plan to leave the concrete floor like that, and maybe throw a few rugs down, with the option of putting down carpet, lino or parquetry at a later stage. We sealed the slab with epoxy resin, to seal it, which stuffed up the termi-mesh non-chemical termite control we had planned. The mesh which was supposed to run around the perimeter of the slab won't adhere to epoxy resin, so we'll have to come up with another option now on that... probably visual inspection of the slab edge to prevent termite mud tunnels. The sealer was good in other ways though. Within weeks we had chainsaw and bobcat oil spilling on it, which would have soaked into concrete, but instead broomed off with a bit of sawdust easily. You have to be careful having sealed the slab, because the epoxy is very shiny and slippery, especially when wet. I ended up having a bad accident when a ladder slipped out from under me and dropped me three metres onto the slab. Overall we're rapt with the slab though, and the colored finish. There's a company offering to color existing concrete for something like $60 a square metre. Our whole slab (9 x 14 metres) cost about $300 for colored cement... which is a lot cheaper than $7200! The concreters didn't charge us any extra, because they usually have to provide regular cement to sprinkle on the slab when they're finishing it off. We provided the color, and they put it on for standard the quoted slab price.

Brad coloring the slab


We found a builder with heavy timber experience and he used a Bobcat and a crane arm on the back of a truck to stand up six metre posts 300 x 200 recycled from the old Teneriffe Wharf in Brisbane. A nine inch nail sledge hammered into the bottom of each post was alligned with a hole drilled into the slab. Beams were checked into the posts and secured with more nine inch nails, sledge hammered into drill holes, with a bit of chainsaw oil to help them into the aptly named ironbark.

Natalee and I constructed the upstairs loft floor by ourselves, simply skew nailing oregon floor joists on top of the beams and bracing them laterally with oregon "blocks" skew-nailed between them at a couple of points. It was a proud moment when we put up our first joist, skew-nailed it into the hardwood beam, and threw a spirit level on to find it was dead flat.
Then we put down "yellowtongue" chipboard flooring sheets on top of the joists for half the upstairs floor, and located some recycled hardwood floorboards for the other half.
Prices for new and recycled floorboards ranged from $40 to $80 in the hardware and recycled timber stores. We found some excellent floorboards through the Trading Post, at Kinglake, or just $15 a square metre.

We shopped around for oregon and found the cheapest we could get was Mahoney's Timber and Hardware in Mahoney's Rd, Campbellfield (03) 9359-5711. Johnny, who runs the place, was a great source of support and advice on building materials... giving us trade discounts and even advising us when it was best to get something elsewhere to save money. He delivered timber and other materials to our block on short notice, and for just $40 no matter what the load.

One of the things we have learnt about owner building is the importance of developing relationships with people you can trust. The first was our neighbor Pat Davis who volunteered some advice on who was best to put in a driveway for us. The guy, Chris Ryan, did the job on time, with extras, and for $200 less than he originally quoted us.
So when we needed a concretor we went back to Pat, and she said "You need to see Brad Shield". Brad did a fantastic job on our slab, so we trusted him to recommend other people to help us, and they in turn recommended fellow tradesmen.
On that point, although personal recommendations are a big help, you still need to get two or three quotes for everything you sub-contract. We were quoted $1000 to put sewerage pipes in the concrete slab before it was poured, and ended up paying half that.
Some tradesmen are expensive, others quote high when they're busy, because they don't really want the work, but will take it if they can make a bonus rate. You don't know what anything is worth until you've got a few quotes... whether it's oregon, wiring, a sink or an oven.
We've managed to employ most of our subbies so far on a labor-only basis... so we know how long it'll take, how much it will cost, and we can shop around for the cheapest and most suitable materials. Tradesmen make money on their own labor, and their staff's labor, and on materials. If you can keep the process transparent, and on a labor-only basis, you should save... provided you've got the time and skills and inclination to shop around for the best labor and material prices.

This does have a down side or two, in that subbies being paid a basic rate, are unlikely to make you their top priority. If they want to stay in business they'll be chasing more profitable jobs, which could leave you "on hold" for long periods of time. These delays can be frustrating, and potentially expensive/inefficient, so you have to weigh up the pros and cons.

Doing anything piecemeal tends to be inefficient. It can be a trap doing your plumbing, for instance, one job at a time... and paying as you go... not knowing where you'll end up costwise. It is important to sit down at the start, think it through, specify exactly what you want... taps or mixers, a high bath or low, a septic or treatment system, stormwater discharge off the roof, outside taps, solar, gas or electric hot water... you (and anyone doing work for you) need to have the big picture... and a quote for the big picture... so you can work to it. If you then break it down into bits and pieces that's okay... so long as you know at the end of the day you're not going to end up paying $15,000 for plumbing.

Once the frame was up we employed a local builder to pitch the roof for us, then a plumber to put the corrugated iron and guttering on, so we could start laying our mudbricks undercover.

We've only used about 1500 bricks to fill in the walls. We started out with high hopes of building 18 squares very cheaply, but will end up spending $110,000. Those stainless steel appliances we bought at the Home Ideas Show, and a few other extravagances along the way will see to that. We've put an extra "third" gable above the living area to let in morning light and to break up the flatness of the skillion on that side where our outdoor living area will be. That cost us a few thousand dollars, but will be a central feature, along with a bay window/sunroom we added to the plans on the northern area of the living area.

The posts

Apart from GST delays, falling off a ladder has been the only big drama of the project's first year. I was working alone at the block when a ladder slipped out from under me, dropping me three or four metres to the concrete slab below. It was like being in a WorkCover ad... as I lay spreadeagled on the slab, moaning and wondering if I'd ever walk again, let alone finish building my house.
Luckily x-rays showed my back was okay, and I had a broken right arm. I have made a full recovery, but got a big fright. In retrospect I should have nailed a timber batten to the slab in the stairwell area, so the ladder couldn't slide out. I learnt an important lesson about safety. I had been very careful with power tools, and been "got" by a simple ladder.
One of the issues my accident raised was insurance. I had simple site insurance to cover theft and third party injury, but hadn't really thought of insuring myself. If I was working for myself I could have been in diabolical bother. As it was I missed a week of work, and was back on deck without missing a pay packet. Mortgage, personal and income insurance policies would be worth considering before you embark on an owner builder project. My Dad always advised you should insure anything you can't afford to lose. If a few tools go missing it's a pain, but if you lose your income - potentially forever - that's a catastrophe which needs insuring against.

Apart from that one scare everything has gone pretty much according to plan. We're enjoying the thrill of seeing it come together bit by bit, of doing lots ourselves, meeting great people and learning new skills along the way.

A good example of the latter was bricklaying. With the Sydney Olympics pulling brickies to NSW, and the ones remaining charging double, we couldn't find a brickie to lay a single course of bricks in a rebate around the edge of our slab. We couldn't start building the frame without the bricks, and we couldn't entice a tradesman, even with the promise of double pay, to do such a small job (about 400 bricks).

Nat had a friend at work who'd built a muddie and knew how to lay bricks. He came and showed us how to mix mud, set up string lines, lay out the bricks and set them in place. Jim (pictured with Nat) then turned brickie's laborer and kept the mud up to us, as we put our new-found skills to work. The bricks went down in a day, cost us nothing, and made us feel 10 feet tall. The way Jim helped us gave us a sense of the camaraderie and community that existed amongst mud brick builders in Alistair Knox's day, and which still survives up in the hills around St Andrew's.

Next day Natalee noticed that she felt different... transformed by the experience. We felt we could do just about anything, and started to reassess what we could and couldn't do. Now Natalee's bought a Triton work centre and plans to build our kitchen from scratch.

It took the best part of a year to get the slab down, the frame up and the roof on, but if not for the GST that should only have taken a few months.

We've laid the bricks in about six months, and so have reached lockup stage in 18 months. Hopefully another year will see most of the internals done... stud walls, kitchen, bathroom, ceiling linings, then electrical and plumbing fittings.

We had plumbers and electricians in before we started laying mud bricks, and had pipes and wiring put in the base of our mud brick walls... in the cavity between the two courses of fired bricks side-by-side which we laid on the slab to keep the mud brick up a bit.

That seems to have worked well so far. It seems silly to scratch pipes and wires into mud brick walls after they're built, when the job can be done in advance.

In retrospect we should have built a decent shed first... Instead we put up a $300 tin thing from Bunnings which has done an amazing job of storing all our stuff, but which has left us with lots of timber inside the house itself, because it won't fit in the little shed.

Bringing out and putting away the Triton and tools every time we go to the block, which is most weekends, has been a bit of a pain. And we often end up driving back to Melbourne every Saturday night, then up to the block again Sunday morning. In retrospect a decent shed you could camp in, perhaps with a portable toilet, would have saved us a lot of petrol and grief.

All-in-all though, we're still enjoying owner building after 18 months... and starting to see the fruits of our labor now. It has completely hijacked our life and weekends for a couple of years, but we wouldn't have it any other way. We love being up in the country, watching our trees and our house grow. As friends sign on for mortgages of $320,000 to $370,000 for lesser homes, after 2.5 years we have a brand new 18 square house with split system heating and cooling, solar hot water, wood heater, fresh water tank, vegies, orchard, chooks, worm farm and a "gin and tonic" balcony looking down the valley for around $130,000 (house and land).

The kids have been patient. They were 5 and 7 when we started. Now they're 7 and 9. They've helped out all the way... chipping mud bricks in half, putting masking tape on windows, sifting mortar mix, watering trees, making cups of tea and fetching things. They're excited about painting their own rooms, and building their own bunks when the time comes. They've learnt to amuse themselves, and enjoyed each step of the process too... choosing, designing planting and tending their own little gardens, cooking barbecues, and toasting marshmellows. The project has given them an endless source of "show and tell" stories. They're proud to be the only kids on the block in Melbourne who are building a "mud house"... and who know a spirit level from a scutch or a wall tie.

Owner building's not for everyone. Like any journey it puts a lot of strain on people and relationships. Unless you're both very keen and motivated it's probably not a good idea. But if you are on the same wave length it can be fun and one of the most extremely satisfying thing you'll ever do.

You hear about owner builders creating their dream homes for $20,000. But what does it really cost to build your own house?

Email: Murray Johnson (byohouse.com.au)

Snail Mail: 16 David St, Carlton, Victoria 3654

Phone: 0417 339 203

Home: www.byohouse.com.au