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!



Fiona said...

Hello Elizabeth, Rodney

Nice reads, both these posts.

For other readers, this is Fiona, the person who is going to build on the block next door to Elizabeth and Rodney. I'm not living in Melbourne currently but have decided that it is time to begin building - 'beginning' at this stage meaning actively researching how it might be done from a distance. How I get back to Melbourne to live in the house isn't clear at this stage but maybe getting started will jog the universe or the goddess or some interview panel into helping me with employment.

I think it's worth mentioning money because it's such a scary subject and because I think that there might be a perception that building sustainably is for those with lots of disposable income or for those who opt for the 'rough building' Elizabeth mentions that I think comes with using or developing your own skills and labour and modifying available materials.

Elizabeth and Rodney have a different budget to me and different income but I found myself, at the very beginning of this, repeating advice my banker father has given a number of times, and that is not to be afraid of debt. You'll be surprised at what you can carry and it Does become more manageable over time. That's of course if it's within your capacity in the first place; but your capacity will actually be a bit more than what seems to be your current means because of the debt becoming more and more manageable over time. For example, when I borrowed the money to buy the land, the repayments were nearly half my take home wages - and my wage is slightly below the national average. My banker father would probably have been a little agitated if he knew I had that level of debt but my lifestyle allowed it and now, four years later, I'll be able to take on more debt, gradually, to build the house, using money I will have in the bank, in the first phase of building.

These statements probably seem a bit airy. Of course, despite my ease about debt (and the frugality of my lifestyle) the house I will eventually build will be determined by the fact that I earn only slightly more than the average wage - it won't be 9 stars, for instance - BUT any house I have will be determined by that same fact; and at some stage during their exhaustive research phase, Elizabeth investigated the costs of buying an established house and retrofitting - and building made better sense. I think it just comes down to the decisions you make: either you decide to buy an established house or you decide to build; in both instances you will borrow as much as you can manage so you may as well decide to do what you really want and go from there.

Hope that's useful.

Anonymous said...

I found your blog through HomeOne, where I have been finding the discussions of colour choices a bit frustrating - I think the way in which houses can work and don't harm the planet more along with the choices that go into that are both more important and more interesting.
I have owned my half acre block west of Canberra for almost two weeks now, and found your value statement very inspiring. It is similar to my feelings, but so much better expressed! I have long wanted to build a strawbale house, and this has helped me to better articulate what I want - thank you.
And Fiona, thank you for that bit of wisdom from your father about being unafraid of debt. After a couple of years of not paying a mortgage - all paid off - I have been finding it rather scary to have one again. As you say, it will lead me to have the home I really want, and you're right, it will indeed be worth it.