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,
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Snail Mail: 16 David St, Carlton, Victoria 3654