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. http://www.yourhome.gov.au/technical/index.html

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: http://downlode.org/Etext/Patterns/index.html

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!