Friday, December 17, 2010


It's costing us more to carpet two bedrooms than it cost my parents to carpet their lounge, dining, and three bedrooms! Please excuse me if I'm starting to sound a little obsessed about the almighty dollar, but our spreadsheet of costs is looking a little red, and I'm not talking in terms of my politics (though they do match nicely).

Our plan vis carpet was to spend more on "something nice", by which I basically meant just any old wool carpet that we liked the look of. I know carpet has a bad rap in terms of allergies, but I really wanted a few soft floors! (Having read up on this, I now know that is contested - see links from carpet institute below).

I had also read of indoor air quality specialists saying that carpets are bad in terms of VOCs (see this for example), but Jeremy at Positive Footprints wasn't aware of any low VOC carpet products, only low VOC underlay. (BTW Ours is Bridgestone Airstep)

Then somehow I found Velieris. Definitely the most gorgeous and luxurious carpet I've ever had the pleasure to stand on. It's made mostly from Alpaca wool, and it's undyed and untreated. So no anti-microbial agents, no insecticides, etc etc. Lovely natural colours too.

Unfortunately, all this comes at a price goes well beyond our price range.

As a compromise, we settled on their 'budget' product, Willaura, which is still costing us $360 a broadloom metre ($100 m/2). It's also undyed and untreated, but comprises a mix of 60% wool, 20% alpaca and 20% synthetic. Meets Green Star low voc standards. It's not quite as lovely underfoot as the Alpaca, but it's still pretty nice and, costwise, it is only a bit more than what we were thinking of paying for just plain old wool.

So there you go! Mind you, in all my reading on carpets and vocs, I still can't tell really how much to be concerned. For example, whilst this mob are clearly have a vested interest in greenwashing, it doesn't necessarily follow that everything they cite or say is problematic. I like what we've bought, but I don't think I would have been fretting hugely if we'd ended up with regular carpet. Anything has to be an improvement on the vile once-was-umm, beige? carpet that we live with now.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Wow, sorry it's been a long time between rants. Rodney went to Perth, then I went down with the flu and a post-flu thing, and since then it's been a crushing load of catching up on paid work and working down the list of everything that has been in the too hard basket.

Apologies in particular to those of you have emailed me and not heard back ... I'll get to you soon, I promise.

So here's an update on the house building highs and lows of the last um, err, couple of months. (Embarrassed grimace)

Firstly, though, a comment on somebody else's blog alerted me to the fact that I mightn't ever really made it explicit that our house is actually under construction. In fact, it's almost finished! We were hoping to be in by the end of the year, but that's looking less likely with each passing day. I might even get to post some photos before the build is over.


Benchtops are officially the number one bane of this house. After the polished benchtops debacle, I thought we had settled on Sadlerstone. Didn't love it, didn't hate it, was happy that it is made here in Melbourne. It looked like it was going to be affordable too ... as far as I could tell, the actual materials were going to set us back a bit under

$2,400 - for kitchen and our downstairs vanity.

The big question, however, was stonemasonry costs. And jeeeeezus! Basically, the quotes we got were both over six grand for materials and labour. For reasons that escape me, Sadlerstone were unable to recommend a stonemason who has actually worked with the product. And the stonemasons who quoted us either weren't interested in having a go (and so submitted grossly inflated quotes), or were going to charge us a hefty premium for working with a new product.

I've always heard that tradies charge a lot more when they're working with something new. I guess we've been lucky to be building with PF, who are willing to try something different if it seems to have environmental benefits.

So anyway, six something was more than we could (or would) pay for benchtops, so at the absolutely eleventh hour (kitchen goes in tomorrow), we are again looking for benchtop quotes - this time for plain old engineered stone.

I did look at another laminate-looking product made of bamboo. Seemed very sustainable, but at a price that would have me working an extra day a week for quite few months (and I have a very good hourly rate!). Just in case you have more money than we do, the product in question is here:


I wrote on tiles in my last post way back when. Lee from Fibonnaci dropped me a line and invited me to come have a look at their tiles. Wow, they are beautiful. They've done a really nice job of getting the size of the aggregate right, which is something I don't really feel Sadlerstone have achieved yet. On the down side, they are made in Iran. I have looked everywhere for Australian made tiles. There are practically none, and absolutely none other than Sadlerstone that came close to being pleasing to look at and touch.

We were very, very close to going with Fibonnaci, and then I looked more closely at the tech specs for the EcoTech tiles from Italy and discovered they are actually porcelain tiles incorporating pre-consumer recycled material, rather than cement and new stone. Thus followed a flurry of emails between Australia and Italy as I tried to make sure I wasn't making a decision based on greenwash. In a sense, I kind of have, because the recycled content in the light tiles we have ultimately chosen is only 10% (the dark tiles have 42% recycled content). But I like the fact that they have developed the technology, and are applying it. And they tick all the other right boxes like closed loop water system, so that's good.

So the tiles are on site, and the tiler should be coming any day now. They're pretty gorgeous, and I'm really happy with our choice.


If benchtops have been the bane of this build, then lights have been my own personal nightmare. I have fretted, stressed, tried to ignore them, tried to pass the buck to the lighting designer, all to no avail. Just when I was in despair, and planning to buy practically everything from Ikea or Beacon lighting, we stumbled across Melbourne Lighting and Design in Kilsyth. Bless them and all who work for them! We went there to look at a light fitting I'd found online, and have ended up getting everything we need.

Most of our lighting choices are fairly inconsequential environmentally (which is to say, they are not sustainable but not gratuitous either), but it is worth mentioning that the lighting consultant convinced us to go for compact fluro downlights instead of halogen. They looked great in the shop, and the light was lovely. Fingers crossed they work out!

We are also getting three of the most beautiful hand painted Italian glass shades for above the centre kitchen bench. We've been lacking a core interior design feature - I think these might be it.


Ooops, for some reason my laptop's clock is stuck on 9:10pm. I thought I was writing really quickly, but it turns out it's actually 9:45 and I've been writing for 40 minutes!

Next post, I'll tell you about some beee-you-ti-ful carpet we've found. But you can only buy it if you're really rich. Which we're not! :(


Friday, October 15, 2010

Now you can email me! :)

Phil's promise to see if his benchtops guy can help us prompted me to go looking for a email utility. And yee-ha! Not only did I find one, I managed to set it up and install the Java, all without instructions. I don't do the back end stuff, so I am feeling very proud.

If you want to pm me, scroll all the way to the bottom of the page for the contact form. But I really appreciate people sharing information and ideas, so if you're not posting info you'd prefer to be private, then by all  means keep using the comments function.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

When aesthetic values and ecological values clash

Sigh. I knew it would happen sooner or later. I have to decide between looks and eco-cred. Here's the abridged story. It might seem to branch out on several tangents, but stick with me, it will all come together at the end.

Our concrete benchtops dude has fallen through - going on a long holiday, not sure when he'll be back etc. (For which I bear him no grudge; we hadn't actually got as far as placing an order with him, just had a tentative price. Hope he has a nice rest and gets back to making his very cheap and quite good quality benchtops asap.)

So late in the piece, we have needed to arrange kitchen benches and tops and basins for two vanities. Frown.

This task was complicated by the fact that we had already chosen (though not ordered) our bathroom tiles: Ecotech. They're gorgeous, expensive ($100m2), have pretty good eco-credentials, but come all the way from Italy. See them here:

So I was resigned to getting an engineered stone bench top. There are some nice colours around, and they don't rate too badly on ecospecifier. The main problems as I see them are that the product can't be recycled, and that it's probably not that great OHS wise for stone masons (though if they take proper safety precautions, I don't think this is a huge issue). Oh, and I just discovered Caesarstone is made in Israel, which automatically precludes it on human rights grounds.

A while back, we found some alternative tiles, called Huestone, made in Australia, that claimed to tick all the boxes environmentally. Unfortunately, at the time, their marketing was crap and it just seemed too hard to go find them when we already had tiles we liked.

Over the weekend, Rodney (bless him) had another look at them and we decided that we couldn't in all conscience just ignore them. Took a while to track them down, but when we did, we discovered that they don't just have tiles, they also have benchtops!

So I spent this morning out at the Sadlerstone ( showroom deep in darkest industrial Footscray.

And now I have some decisions to make.

I like the benchtop enough to use it in the kitchen. There's basically only one colour that would work: a very light base with lots of quartz and a bit of marble as the agg, but that's fine. And the cost seems to be less than the other engineered stone products on the market. All good.

The benchtops and tiles are pretty much the same thing looks-wise. This means that we could have matching tiles and benchtop in our bathroom and get a really streamlined look. As a bonus, we could use an offcut from the kitchen, which would save us money.

The problem though is that as much as I don't mind the look of the benchtop, I don't really love it enough to want it on the wall of my beautiful bathroom.

To compound my confusion, the tiles are hideously expensive: RRP is $175m2 for tiles 300mmx300mm!!! We have been offered a considerable discount "just cos", and the area we need to tile is really small - only about 5m2. So the actual cost isn't that daunting. But we have selected most of our finishes on the basis of reasonable cost. We don't want to build a house that is so lush and expensive that it seems unattainable; we also don't want people to get distracted by the trimmings and ignore the core values of the house. And finally, we don't really want to showcase products that are beyond the reach of all but the very affluent.

Oh, and to be purely selfish about it, I am feeling resentful about paying a whole lot of money for something I don't love! It feels unfair. }:

I've been fretting all afternoon. Basically, I like what we had already chosen, but (a) they come from Italy and (b) I have to find a benchtop that would match. But (c) whilst they are expensive, they are not insanely so ... at least, not for a relatively small area.

For the bathroom, the dilemma boils down to this:
  • Sadlerstone wins on eco-cred and convenience
  • Ecotech wins on looks and money.

I have to decide immediately. Am going to talk with our site manager about whether I could tile the vanity top with Ecotech. That would take convenience out of the equation at least. And at this point in the build, I have a sneaking feeling that might actually be our tipping point. :)

Stay tuned for the next exciting episode.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Building materials

One of the things I have most wanted to write about in this blog is selection of building materials. There are so many materials that go into building a new house. I'm sure I won't be able to list them all, but I'll try to cover the main ones, especially those I haven't talked about in other posts.

Our slab has a high proportion of recycled aggregate and uses Boral Envirocrete 60% Slag/Flyash with 100% recycled mesh. This is the kind of stuff that would never have occurred to me and probably wouldn't occur to anyone except a dedicated green builder. Score 1 to Positive Footprints. Creating markets for recycled products is a huge part of closing the loop. Given that about a third of waste in Victoria is construction waste, it's great to know that our slab is partly made of concrete that might otherwise have ended up in landfill.

The structural pine we are using is treated, but not with CCA. It's something else, but I have no idea what. :)

I have just been reading Linda Woodrow's permaculture book, and I've been chuffed to learn that plants really dislike the heat that radiates out of buildings that have a high amount of thermal mass on the outside. I can afford to be chuffed, because we have none! We chose lightweight cladding products for many reasons:
  • Radial sawn timber and Ecoply for their relatively low embodied energy
  • Zincalume for its zero maintenance, long life span and recyclability (in facilities that exist even now, not just in some hypothetical future).
I do love mud brick and strawbale, but the former was beyond our budget, and the sheer square metres taken up by the latter just wasn't going to work on a block of 363m2.

Wall insulation:

Tontine Thermal & Soundbatt R2.5; CSR Bradford Enviroseal Breather Foil. I particularly love the clauses in our specifications that say things like:
"Batts to fit snugly between framing members with no holes or missing sections. Batts not to be compressed. Any batts removed during construction to be replaced."
Maybe that language is standard in any building contract these days, but with our builders, I can feel totally confident that these provisions will be observed.

Ceiling insulation:
Tontine Insuloft R3.5; CSR Anticon 55mm (R1.5) foil backed blanket.

I also like the bit in our specification that says, "During construction the Builder is to limit any thermal bridging between inside and outside as far as is practical." (Thermal bridging is where heat from outside can get transferred in, or vice versa; aluminium window frames are the best example of these).

Our windows are from Mouldright. Crap name, beautiful windows:

All of our windows are double glazed, most have low E glass.

Almost all of our window frames use finger jointed hoop pine. Finger jointing is basically a way of creating incredibly strong joins between pieces of timber. It means you can make quite long pieces out of many shorter ones and so is a very good way of making trees go further. This was the most affordable timber option for us, but while I love finger jointing, the fact that it is hoop pine does represent a bit of a compromise for me.

Hoop pine is plantation grown. Lots of people might think this is preferable, but personally, I've walked through hoop pine 'forests' in Queensland, and I would prefer well managed, selective logging of native forests over a monoculture every time. Here's a nice article that gives some background to explain my preference:

External doors:
Also by Mouldright. Ours are made of recycled Karri. They're gorgeous.

Other timber:
We are using American off-cuts from another job for the timber nosing on our stairs. Our bannister will be recycled jarrah.

See my post of 16 August:

Colorbond, same qualitities as zincalume. We would have used zincalume, but didn't want to reflect that much sunlight into our (hypothetical) neighbours' eyes.

E0 wherever it is used.

E0 MDF is also being used in our stairs. I don't know if Jeremy found these folks on the basis of doing the right thing, or whether he worded them up. Either way, it's great to know that there are people out there doing stuff like stairs with VOCs and recycled materials in mind.

Plumbing stuff:
We've relied on WELS ratings here. We have installed a hot water diverter to reticulate the warming-up water, but apparently they can all be a little glitchy so they've been installed in ways that are easy to get in and fix. We haven't installed a first flush diverter on the rainwater tank, because Jeremy says he's never found one that really works.

Thanks to PF really caring about the little things as well as the big ones, we are using recycled crushed rock as bedding for our sewerage and stormwater pipes.

Modwood. See

Phew. That's all I can think of for now.

As I said in my last post, I'm running out of topics. I do want to post on the different options we had to choose from to boost our house's thermal performance. And I want to write about what this place is actually costing us. I was also thinking that I might go into the design side of things a little more. So that's three more posts!

But my statcounter seems to suggest people are actually reading this blog, so if any of you have questions or things you'd like me to write on, please let me know.

Thanks for reading.


Thursday, September 9, 2010

Deep Green Builders

A couple of things have happened recently to make me realise the incredibly important role that truly green builders play in building a sustainable home. So this blog is, in part, to tip me lid to our builders: Jeremy, Chi and Grant at Positive Footprints They are truly awesome.

I need to start off by acknowledging that:
  • there probably aren't enough green builders to go round, especially if you happen to live outside a major city and not in a place like Byron or Castlemaine
  • it's critically important that mainstream builders start to move towards even a very light shade of green if my son and his friends are going to have even the remotest chance of any kind of decent life on this planet, and
  • if builders were mandated to use the kinds of materials and approaches that we are using in our build, all buildings would be more or less sustainable and I wouldn't need to write this post (instead, I'd write one on closed loop water systems, or roof gardens, or going beyond 9 stars ...).
But with those caveats in mind, I would still always suggest if you can find someone who is really, properly green, go with them (unless of course they have a reputation for being dodgy or bodgy!).

If they're more expensive than the next gal, build a smaller house, save up for the solar panels later, or skip the polished concrete floor. That's what we've done, although in part that was to pay for our great indulgence: five round windows on our street facing side. (At this point in the build, our window makers must be wishing we'd chosen the solar panels)

We chose to build with PF because it seemed from the very beginning that we were on the same page. They, unlike most builders, had a deep understanding of our value statement, and even had a matching one of their own! The fact that we could afford them was a bonus! :)

We have never once regretted our decision. I reckon building with them - rather than building with a conventional builder - has probably halved the amount of research and thinking I've had to put into this build. It has meant that I have been able to focus on questions like the layout of the kitchen, rather than insulation and windows.

In our experience, having builders who start with a principled environmental stance means that:
  • they are incredibly well informed about current product options
  • they have a network of tradies who either work within the same building paradigm, or at least are willing to fit in with it on green jobs
  • they are willing to work with the 'green' expectations of clients, but also knowledgeable enough to challenge them (for example, we started out wanting a waterless loo; Jeremy convinced us there were far better ways to spend our money)
  • they will build everything with principles like low embodied energy in mind.

As I said at the beginning of my post, a couple of things have made me appreciate the importance of green builders all over again.

The first of these was last week, when we decided to get the builders to just bung in a cupboard rather than have it made by a cabinet maker. Jeremy said, "So we'll just get some E0 mdf for the doors". It was that easy. I love it that E0 is a given, not something I have to specifically request (over and over and over again).

The second was today, when I was sitting on the train writing my next post, on materials, in my head. (I'll put it up in a day or two). There have been so many aspects of the build that I sincerely doubt any but the most committed sustainable builder would think about. Put together, I suspect that our house will have - for a new dwelling - significantly less embodied energy than most other houses being built in suburban Australia today.

Of course, there are people building all kinds of wonderful places out of town, using all manner of building materials, but when it comes to building on small block in Preston, we simply couldn't have achieved anything like the ecological values that we're having if it hadn't have been for our green builder.

Just to finish up, I want to suggest the things I'd be looking for if I were starting my search for a green builder tomorrow. There is of course the Master Builders Association Green Builder certification, but for me, that would be the elementary qualification. I'd also be asking about:
  • Skills - is there good evidence that the builder really knows their stuff? Do you see evidence of attention to detail in the houses they have built? If there appear to be things that could have been done better, can they explain why they are as they are, and/or what they would do differently next time?
  • Knowledge - Can the builder talk knowledgeably about the range of products that is out there? For example, can s/he tell you what building materials are preferable in terms of their embodied energy? Do they seem to have a really strong attachment to one style of building or one product? (If it coincides with your interest, that might be a good thing, but if they feel they've found 'the best', it might be that they've stopped looking at alternatives)
  • values - what evidence is there that the builder really cares about environmental matters? For example, how has green building influenced how they live their own life? How sustainable is their own house?
  • Understanding - what evidence is there that the builder has thought about the complexity of issues that need to be considered in sustainable building. For example, what do they think of plantation versus logging native forests? From memory, I think Jeremy and I don't exactly see eye to eye on this, but he knows the issues, and that's what counts.
  • Networks - does the builder have a network of similarly minded and skilled tradies? How does s/he manage when tradies are not on the same page?

Okay, that's it for now. I'll post the materials blog next. After that, I will have exhausted most of the topics I wanted to write about when I started blogging. Am open to suggestions for future topics! Bring 'em on.


PS I just realised that I don't think I've said anywhere else that Positive Footprints also designed our house. More on that in a later post. :)

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Plans and elevations - finally

Okay, so I finally found time to clean up the plans and elevations so that they are fit for the general public to see. I just scrapped a lot of the technical stuff with a quick once-over with photoshop. Hopefully they're comprehensible. And hopefully, this works!


Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Officially in debt

One of my aims through this whole building process has been to be up front about money matters. Today I specifically want to talk about mortgages. When I'm at my other computer, where all the spreadsheets are (!), I'll write about money, or specifically, how much money various aspects of the build are costing us.

We are soon to be officially in debt. I suppose to many people, it's incredible that we have managed to get this far without borrowing. I guess it is. We'd saved quite a bit between us and we live a pretty modest lifestyle. We're incredibly privileged to have skills that are well paid.

Our loan is coming from MECU: a credit union (see We choose to use credit unions rather than banks because they fit better with our broader ethos about how to live:
  • Profit is not their primary reason for existence.
  • They are more accountable to their members.
  • They often tend to be more socially and environmentally progressive.

From a consumer perspective, they tend to be less punitive, offer competitive rates and to have lower fees. Ours also offers options such as:
  • an 'ecopause' (where we can take a break from repayments to assist with the purchase of energy and /or water saving devices such as rainwater tanks, solar or grey water system)
  • a 'family repayment pause' when one income earner is on maternity leave.
Of the six or so credit unions we considered, MECU clearly fit best with our values and needs.

Of course, all money and all financial decisions are ultimately part of the global financial system. We are under no illusions that our individual choices will make a difference. Nevertheless, it seems to us to be a contradiction to borrow from a big bank - which has its tentacles in all manner of unsustainable and unethical industries around the globe - to build a 'sustainable house'.

Some people's financial circumstances mean that they really, really need to pursue a lender that can undercut others by point something of a percent. But many people are not so greatly constrained.

Arguably, for these people, including ethical criteria in selecting a lender should be seen in the same light as any other cost:benefit analysis aspect of sustainable building. I'm not convinced that double glazing paid for with a loan from the ANZ bank is better for the environment than single glazing paid for via a loan from MECU.

(Important note here, I have absolutely no idea what the current difference might be in the ultimate financial cost of loans from these two institutions. MECU might even be cheaper!)

The profits that our loan yields to our lender will be significant. These profits can be used wisely and accountably, or they can be spent further plundering our planet's scarce resources. We know which we prefer.

A lot of people have never thought about these issues, and I don't blame them one bit. It's not in brokers' interests to flag them, the big banks are full of greenwash, and credit unions just don't have the profile. I hope this provides some food for thought for those of you who are yet to find a pot of money to build your sustainable home.


Thursday, August 26, 2010

Indoor air quality

I posted some of the info here on a recent post in the homeone forum and I thought I would post it here too.

I had flagged my blog on our low VOC paint, and somebody pointed out - quite rightly - that paint is only one of a number of things that can pollute the indoor environment.

So here's the list of the other things we are doing to try to keep our air as nice as possible:
  • very low VOC kitchen
  • as low VOC carpets as we can find (and only in two rooms), with E0 underlay (rubber, by Bridgestone)
  • no plastics on light fittings
  • Marmoleum on the upstairs floor
  • all fans ducted to outside
  • blinds not curtains
  • wardrobes from Ikea, so E1 but better than the alternatives.

I think we are going to recover our old couch rather than buy a new one, although if I could find a new one that was E0 and comfy and under $2000, I'd buy it in a minute. (Any leads on this topic very appreciated)

And most of all, we're ready for new mattresses (ours have been trampolined beyond everyone's comfort zone) so will buy latex ones complete with pillows and have them delivered straight to the new house. The rental place we are in now is a cesspit of mould and dust, through no fault of ours. I want to leave the spoors behind! :)

Trouble spots: we want wallpaper in a few spots, and the options for low VOC are so fugly they aren't worth the effort of sticking to a wall.

And I can't seem to get a clear answer on house plants - some researchers say they clean the air, others say that potting mix and damp are inherently evil. My compromise at the moment is to have a few, but not a whole conservatory full.

What have I missed??

Monday, August 16, 2010


Martin from the Designer Paint Shop is an unlikely hero. But after literally months of agonising over what timber treatments to put on our battens and ecoply, he has saved the day.

I was futzing around with a low voc, water soluble product called Quantum, but despite the very best efforts of the lovely folks at Bristol in Clifton Hill, we just couldn't get a colour we felt happy with. Ecoply turns out to be a difficult product in that regard; it soaks up heaps of whatever you put on it, meaning that things can end up looking very dark quite quickly. As the ecoply is on our upper story on the north side (above zincalume), I didn't want anything that was going to make it too top heavy. But I kept ending up with either baby poo brown or midwestern barn red.

To complicate matters, we are using (at last count) five different timbers:
  • undressed radial sawn, silvertop ash battens (these also suck up heaps of product)
  • recycled karri door frames
  • finger jointed hoop pine window frames
  • treated pine (not the nasty stuff) exposed joists and pergola etc
  • ecoply.

While I grimaced and grumbled and fretted, Rodney got on the phone to some folks in Byron, at Painted Earth: Deb was incredibly helpful in talking through options for low VOC paints, and at her suggestion, we ended up at The Designer Paint Shop: in Surrey Hills.

Martin is a painter, and has been working with Oikos paints for over a decade (if memory serves me correctly). He very patiently brushed out - I think - six Oikos timber treatments onto ecoply on our first trip, AND a further four on ecoply, two on hoop pine and one on karri on our second trip. And then after all that, made up a special colour just for us, one that happened to turn both the hoop pine and the silvertop the exact same colour as the Karri! He said it was incredibly easy, but some people say that about surfing too.

The product we're using is actually a wax. Theoretically, unless abraded by sand or something like that, the protection will last many years, and the biggest problem we will have is that the colour will fade over time.

Here's a little spiel from the website:
NOVALIS WAX FINISH WOODSTAIN  is a a transparent, acrylic, woodstain. Its formulation allows it to protect wood from atmospheric agents, Uv rays, woodworm and fungi whilst at the same time maintaining the natural beauty of the wood. The product is available in a vast range of colours, obtained using special transparent pigments. Easy and quick to use, it is non-yellowing and since it works by penetrating into the wood and not by forming a film on the surface, there are no problems of it peeling away in time.

At Martin's suggestion, we are using a product called Archital to paint the ecoply that will be behind our battens. Our builder had suggested black, but after a discussion with Martin, we went for a deep grey/black that he invented for the job. It's already up on the eastern side, and I love it so much I nearly cancelled the battens!

On the money side of things, our exterior paint is costing us more than we budgeted for. It will come in at about $1400. We'll also need more coats than our builder costed, so there will be some extra labour costs, but more coats now means greater protection and longer re-coat time, so we will save money in the longer term on that score. And I actually think any product we used would have required more than two coats - the ecoply just slurps it up. So on a metre for metre basis, I'm not actually sure that the Oikos product is costing us much more than any other.

So that's our paint journey to date. No more sleepless nights on that score. I must say it's reassuring to know that once we find a colour we like (the hard bit, Rodney has a very complex relationship with colour!), the internals will be a cinch. Martin has a spectrometer, so we can take it to him and he will make us an internal paint to match.

Oh, and I should've said this earlier, all the above products are non-toxic, GECA certified, and low voc. That's all Oikos makes, and they've been doing it for a relatively long time. Europe is way ahead of the pack on this stuff.

If you are at all in the market for paint, go to these guys!!! They rock.



Lights are the bane of my life. I never realised how much I loathe most lights. Maybe that says I don't really notice them. Hmm. That is worth thinking about, because right now, I am in a Lighting Pickle.

So our journey to now has consisted of:
  • a consultancy with the Environment Shop, which was a great place to start. We got all kinds of great ideas - many of which we have retained.
  • a spreadsheet in which I worked out that our lighting plan was going to cost us $4,500 (admittedly including quite a few LED globes)
  • visits to half a dozen lighting shops and several online shops in which it became clear that nothing, NOTHING is easy when it comes to lights. Oils, as they say, ain't oils.
Good news first. Things that appear to be working out:
  • routing the bottom of our bannister and placing a line of LED strip lights so that we get a lovely wash of light down the wall and onto the stairs
  • embedding another line of strip lights into the bedhead in the master bedroom
  • simple pendant lights fitted with LED globes in downstairs bedrooms, lounge and dining room (latter two rooms with dimmers).

What's not working? Everything else.

I can't remember if I've written about our upstairs studio/work area. It comprises two adjoining open plan rooms, with curved ceiling (arcs up to about 3m), heaps of natural light and marmoleum floor. I make felt, so we've chosen a floor product that can withstand a fair amount of water sploshing around. It's also very good environmentally. Read more at

So anyway, the lighting challenge starts here.
* Halogens will be too hot in summer (our temperature graphs show this will be the hottest part of the house in summer)
* Fluoros give off awful light and are altogether too officey (we will spend a lot of time in this space)
* Tracks with compact fluoros can't be dimmed and there's no guarantee that the fittings will be able to accommodate LED globes, even if they do have GU10 bases
* Tracks with LEDs are too expensive
* Pendants might not give us enough light for our artistic endeavours.

We are using halogen downlights in the kitchen and a couple of other strategic spots downstairs. Even though I know they are not too bad an option in our scenario (the insulation between the floors serves accoustic as well as thermal functions but is unlikely to be greatly affected by 9 downlights), I still feel that somehow I am breaking one of the golden rules of sustainable housing. I daren't confess to the folks at the ATA.

I'll spare you the details on the bathroom lighting. Suffice to say that the lights I liked most started at $365 for one light (plus globe).

Of course, it doesn't help that so many light fittings are fugly. We chose a whole suite of lights on Saturday afternoon, and then I turned around and informed Rodney that I hated them all. Lovely person that he is, he simply said, okay, let's find others. I have never appreciated him more!

Sigh. It's therapeutic to vent. Yesterday I submitted the electrical and lighting plans to the builder for the rough in. We hedged our bets by providing for four spotlights (on two switches) and two wall lights in the studio, latter with dimmer. I now understand why people just put in halogens every square meter.

So that's it for lights. For now. We are yet to choose a single fitting ...

Saturday, July 10, 2010

I'm back

Hmph. I say I've worked out how to write more easily and then disappear for weeks. I've been swamped by a deluge of decisions to make about all manner of building questions, each one seemingly dependent upon the others. Teasing it all out has been almost a full time job (in addition to my regular part time job plus parenting).

Here's a brief summary of what I've been working on, which will also serve as more of an introduction to what and how we're building.


We had all but decided that our kitchen was going to be our great ethical compromise. Well, not a massive one, but a compromise nevertheless.

I'm really clear that I want our house to be as non-toxic as possible. We're only using low-VOC paints and our floors will be concrete slab (downstairs) and Marmoleum (real, true blue lino!) upstairs. Locally made kitchens are typically quite high in VOCs, and I wanted none of that. We talked with a mob who do environmentally friendly kitchens, and whilst we kind of liked some of their design, we certainly couldn't afford their prices.

The alternative was Ikea: relatively low VOC (though not E zero), 25 year warranty, nice design, affordable and relatively easy to organise BUT imported. We weighed up the miles against everything else and decided that this would be our Great Compromise.

And then, a few weeks back, our builders told us they had found another (much more affordable) kitchen mob who were willing to use E0 materials. Hooray. I've since made two trecks out to their factory in Bayswater and am sufficiently pleased with them that we've now asked them to quote on vanities for both bathrooms, as well as cabinetry in the dining room to match the kitchen. Hopefully this will come in okay ... otherwise, back to Ikea for those bits and then the dilemma of how to make it all match up. :(


I've had my heart set on concrete benchtops for some time. They look fantastic and you can do all sorts of interesting things with them. As well, they apparently have considerably less embodied energy than composite stone benchtops. In the last few weeks we've had a bit of an up and down thing happening about who to source from. It's all settled now (I think), but in the meantime, with uncertainty about benchtops, we couldn't make final decisions about kitchen and bathroom basin taps.


Speaking of taps, we have also had a hold up with deciding on our bath taps. We are reconfiguring our upstairs bathroom at the 11th hour. It looked fine on the plans, but when I stood in the actual room, I realised that we were likely to end up with too much water from the shower splashing on the curved roof. I spoke with our (very accommodating) project manager, who then discussed it with the plumber and both agreed that this might be a problem. My proposed work around - creating a separate shower and rotating our bath 90 degrees so it's under the curved part of the roof - seemed workable. But that then needed to be checked with the building surveyor, and new drawings submitted for that room. Luckily she is okay with it and we can proceed.

I'm really happy with the new design, but with adding a separate shower, there goes another $1,200 of our contingency fund. (More on that in a future post about MONEY and costs!)


I feel so sorry for our builders sometimes. We have been the clients from hell when it comes to the outside of our house. Possibly in many other ways as well, but particularly on all matters to do with cladding. We simply haven't been able to decide. We have investigated every option we could think of and nothing was quite right.

We liked the look of timber but got scared off by the maintenance regime.

We thought maybe one of the trademarked fibre cement products, then discovered it was way expensive.

Traditional fibre cement just didn't cut it aesthetically.

Plywood was attractive, but not for the whole place.

Ditto colourbond, which we feared was too sea-sidey.

We have finally - after much research - opted for:
* Narrow radial sawn timber battens on the front (facing east), over ecoply
* Zincalume on the more exposed section of the downstairs northern and western sides and all of the south side (not visible from the street or yard)
* Ecoply upstairs on the rest of the northern and western sides (protected to some extent by the eaves).

Now we are trying to work out which plywood and which timber finishes.

We were planning to use the Carter Harvey Holt ecoply but then I heard that Boral Evolution Ply has a much more interesting woody look to it. This turns out to be true, but in the process of Googling, I have also found out that Boral is owned by Hancock, which has a terrible environmental track record in the Strzelecki Ranges and elsewhere. Sometimes I really wish I had care factor zero. Now am in an ethical pickle. Again.

And to compound matters, the timber finish we want to use is produced by a firm that has also makes a "nano-tinted primer". If you don't know about the problems with nano technology, visit The problem I have is that their sales person originally told me via email that the primer contains nano sized particles, then said in a phone conversation that they don't. I have now had to ask them what size the particles are, a question their sales folks almost certainly won't know the answer to. Of course, we could just use a different primer, but if they do use nano, I'm not really sure I want to purchase from the company at all.

But if we don't, we are back to square one with our finishes, and I fear that if I don't make a decision by mid week, our project manager might kill me (with full justification I might add).

Agggh. We have looked at all of the more "ethical" timber finishes, but they would require a lot more maintenance, which we really are not up for. :(

So. I need to stop here so that Rodney can use the computer, but I do want to finish on an up note. I popped into the house yesterday to pick up the samples of the Boral ply. Nobody else was on site, so for the first time, it was just me in our house, and it was lovely. I walked around just saying hello to things. I have been dreaming this place into being for years now, and it's just so wonderful getting to see it finally evolving into reality.

I just realised I haven't written about the other big thing that's been going on, which has been trying to finalise our kitchen design, accommodating the fact that we have no wall space to speak of.  I suspect this is a problem that lots of people have with houses that are passive solar, so I'll spend a bit of time on it in my next post.

Thanks for reading.


Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Phew. I have worked out that I can write my blogs in Notepad and paste them into the Blogger. It's way easier. The compose function is a nightmare. :(

Expect more frequent updates now!

So I was describing the house ...

We wanted the ground floor of our house to be reasonably accessible to people with disabilities, so we enter via a ramp on the north side of the house.

In the early stages of our design, I agonised over a side not front entrance. I worry that they don't feel as safe at night, and that they don't feel as welcoming. But with a narrow building envelope, a front door was going to mean we could only have one east facing room at the front and I really wanted to maximise our access to eastern/morning light.

Thinking back, there were a million such dilemmas in the design phase ... for example:

  • I wanted bedrooms to get eastern light / I wanted a front door on the front of the house (result: front door on the side but signposted by ramp)
  • I didn't want to see a toilet from the bath / I didn't want an enclosed toilet because it wouldn't be accessible (result: bath upstairs / accessible loo downstairs)
  • I wanted to be able to see the lounge and dining rooms from the kitchen / I didn't want a closed off kitchen (result: a major design backflip on my part last week means we have - gulp - gone entirely open plan).

I guess everyone has these kinds of decisions and compromises when they build. Ours were, I suspect, even more complex because they were informed by not one, but two sets of principles about house design:
1) passive solar
2) pattern language.

You can read about passive solar principles in lots of places. I like "Your Home, a technical manual" for starters.

Pattern Language is a set of principles for designing liveable spaces. It starts with world government (!) and goes all the way through to designing stair cases and alcoves!!! An extraordinary body of thinking and theorising by a Christopher Alexander and five colleagues at the Center for Environmental Structure in Berkeley, California in the late 1970's.

Read more at:

A lot of the patterns are very culturally laden - a fact they still don't seem to acknowledge (although it's quite possible I just haven't read enough). But that aside, there's certainly a lot of food for thought, even if you don't agree with it all.

Just a few of the many 'patterns' that guided us were (I paraphrase):
  • Sleep to the east
  • Light on two sides of every room (OMG I just realised we have actually achieved this, except for one bathroom!!)
  • Incorporate niches and nooks, especially for children
  • Begin with the entrance and the most public parts of the building, then lead into the slightly more private areas, and finally to the most private domains.

Of course, there were also patterns that we chose to ignore or couldn't incorporate within our building envelop and/or budget. For example, we favoured large windows for solar access over small ones that made views more tantalising. Maybe in part because we don't have views. Well rather, we do, but they're mostly awful. }:

Aggh. It's 10:30 and I still haven't described the house. I got distracted by deciding to go back and look at patterns again ... I need to revisit them now we are in the fine detail stage; there's still a lot we could incorporate if we try.

So I will stop here. I think I might have enough brain space to try to work out the upload of the plans.
Then I won't need to describe it all in words - you can just look at the pictures.

Getting into the swing of this gig now. More later.


Our roof

Aggh. I've lost the start of this post three times. Still getting the hang of this software.

So last time I wrote about our design brief. Here I want to write about what we're getting. Or rather, what we think we're getting ... I thought all the big structural decisions were made, but yesterday we got a call from our project manager to say that they have realised that the tracks for the floor to ceiling doorway between our stair well and living area - which I had been picturing more as a moveable wall - won't be able to be set fully into the ceiling cavity because the joists are running the wrong direction. Sigh. So now we are trying to decide between dropping the ceiling in the whole living area to 2630mm (from 2700mm) or having a discontinuous ceiling line. :(

I am plugging for continuity. Rodney is keen to have his 2700mm ceilings. This is pretty much our first serious disagreement about an aspect of the design, which is not bad given we've been doing this for three years. I think we may yet flip a coin.

I am hoping to post the plans for our house, but I need clean them up a bit first as they have all sorts of instructions from the engineer all over them and they're a bit hard for novices to read.

For now, a brief description will have to suffice ...

First the block, so you can get your bearings. Ours runs east:west. It's roughly 11.6m wide and about 30m long. We have a 5m setback and an easement along the back fence. Fiona's block is to the north, and she is planning to build only a small house - probably about 12m long.

Our house is sited as far south as the building regs would permit, to maximise our solar access from the north. Technically, it's a loft, because the upstairs is built into the roof cavity. Functionally, it's one and a half stories.

One of the things I love most about our house is that it has a curved roof. This is a lovely aesthetic outcome of a decision made on principle. Way before we started designing properly, I happened to have a conversation with an acquaintance who had recently had her gorgeous winter sunlight blocked out by her neighbour's extension. The construction was all completely within the building regs, and her neighbour was fully within his rights. But perhaps not very neighbourly?

So we decided that we wanted to keep as far away from the outside edge of our southern building envelope as possible, whilst still maximising our own solar gain. Whilst the current house to our immediate south has only tiny northern windows, it's a tumbledown place that's clearly going to be knocked down sooner or later. When that happens, we hope whatever replaces it will be designed along passive solar lines - obviously that can only work if we don't overshadow the whole block.

It felt unethical and unneighbourly to not give any consideration to our future neighbours' needs.

The roof line got reworked several times as we tried to find a curve that gave us sufficient head room upstairs as well as reasonable solar access to the south. As next door's block is similarly narrow, they will need to build well back from the northern fence, but that should be okay. They, like us, will need to foot the bill for swapping their driveway from the south to the north, but I reckon that's a small price to pay for a place that is significantly warmer in winter and cooler in summer! I hope they see it the same way. }:

Thinking about our neighbours also influenced our choice of roof colour. Part of our cladding is zincalume and we were planning to use the same for the roof. But we after seeing the potential reflection off that product, we decided to go for a less reflective roof, just in case there is eventually a two story house to the south. The curve would mean that there wouldn't be that much glare, but it could be an issue. We chose Colourbond Shale Grey, which I desperately hope will look okay with the zincalume cladding on the southern and northern walls.

Hmm. Best stop here. I wanted to give a basic overview of the rest of the design, but this is looking a bit long so will do that in a separate post.

I am delighted to know that I have some readers! Please let me know if you have specific questions or priorities ... happy to help out if I can.


Friday, June 4, 2010

About us and our project

We are Elizabeth, Rodney and our 2.5 year old son.

We bought our little block in Preston about four years ago, and our friend Fiona bought the block next door. We're planning to share a backyard and chooks and vegie gardens, and probably dinner once every couple of weeks. Fiona is yet to decide her approach to building, but she will definitely be building a small house.

Rodney and I have been actively involved in a great range of enviromental activism over several decades. So it made sense that we would try to walk the talk when it came to building our home. We spent ages thinking, reading and plotting about sustainable house design. We lusted over the designs of several well known architects, and checked and rechecked our budget.

Ultimately, we came to the conclusion that we simply could not afford an architect designed home. Luckily, we came across a small design and build company called Positive Footprints. We met with them several times and contracted them to design the house, with a view to also building it.

The brief we gave PF was very comprehensive. This was our value statement:
We want to promote a culture of living sustainably, with an emphasis on cooperative, ethical and environmentally responsible purchasing, building and consumption. We are committed to sustainable, cooperative on-site food production, emphasising the value of living in harmony with the rest of the natural world and especially our local ecosystem and seasons. We want to live in an imaginative and ecologically sustainable building that can accommodate our family's changing physical and social needs over the years.

Further, we said:

We would like to minimise our ecological footprint by using passive solar design and resources that are low in embodied energy and renewable wherever possible. A six star energy rating is our absolute minimum, and we are hoping that we can do better than this.

We are interested in ensuring that we use materials that:
  • are as least toxic as possible and cause the least harm to occupants and workers
  • are locally sourced
  • have low embodied energy and embodied water
  • are recycled / reclaimed materials (we recognise that recycled timbers might be beyond our budget; we are very interested in using other second hand building materials)
  • are low maintenance, durable and long-lasting.

We want to live in a home that is modern, organic and uncluttered. We like clean lines and minimum fuss. Texture is good, but not to the extent that it collects dust and cat hair! We are naturally messy, so Spartan or minimalist is not for us (although we do hope that with enough room and storage, we will become less messy!).

We (especially Elizabeth) have no interest in the folksy aesthetic and rough building traditionally associated with environmentally sustainable housing (we say 'no!' to the Eltham mud brick look). We equally dislike the flimsiness and superficiality of the conventional 'project home'. Aesthetically, Elizabeth is most drawn towards homes where organic and industrial can overlap, for example, where timber and metal are used together (often to be found in warehouse conversions). Rodney can't describe what he likes, but he'll know it when he sees it. We desire easy transitions between spaces, a sense of open-ness and spaciousness.

Ultimately, as I will discuss over coming weeks and months, we have ticked most of our boxes, but with a number of biggish compromises along the way.

In my next post, I'll describe the house and (hopefully) post the floor plans and elevations. Then I'll move on to the build itself. We should have a roof by next week!


Sunday, May 30, 2010

9.1 stars ... wow!

Okay, so a few people now have suggested I blog on building our 9 star home. Here goes! I hope some of you actually read it. :)

When we started out on this building gig, I didn't realised how rare 9 stars actually is. So this blog is partly about inspiring people, and also about sharing some of the thinking we've done along the way. If you are looking for info on sustainable building, then there will be some stuff in here for you. But I'm mostly going to focus on what we've taken into account, and the difficulties, compromises and struggles we face in building our home. For technical stuff, I very much recommend you visit:

I am starting to blog today because yesterday we received our official certificate: our house will perform with at least 9.1 stars worth of energy efficiency. For the techies who are reading this post, the stars translate into the following area adjusted energy requirements:
13.8 MJ/2 per annum for heating
7.5 MJ/2 per annum for cooling.

Cool, huh?

We also received little graphs that show indicative temperatures in all liveable rooms in the house for every day of the year. We have a blue line showing outside temperatures and a red one showing inside.

The graphs are impressive, although some are still a bit worrying. On the up side, in the main living area (open plan lounge/dining/kitchen) temperatures will mostly hover between 18 and 24 degrees, and our upstairs space is going to be delicious in winter. But in summer, whilst the house will be quite liveable almost all the time, on the very hottest of days, it's still going to be warmer than we might want.

The rating system only takes account of permanent fittings, such as our windows and reverse brick veneer (more on them later). We are also planning to instal an rectractable awning on the west side, and blinds with R values of between 0.63 and 0.78, depending on the window. These should make things a bit more comfortable. And we have one downstairs bedroom that should be quite bearable even in the worst heat ... so we can decamp there if we really need to (but obviously I'd rather not).

We were going to instal a reverse cycle air conditioner in our lounge, but with our 9 star certificate in hand, we have decided to live in the house for a while and decide then whether we need any artificial heating or cooling.

Okay, that's it for this first post. A heads up on how I plan to bring my dear readers up to speed with our project: the next few posts will introduce us and the basic features of our house, and after that, I'll use whatever is happening on site as my theme for the post.