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 www.mecu.com.au). 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 http://forum.homeone.com.au/ 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: www.house-paint.com.au. Deb was incredibly helpful in talking through options for low VOC paints, and at her suggestion, we ended up at The Designer Paint Shop: www.designerpaintco.com 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 www.enviroshop.com.au, 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 http://www.forbo-flooring.com.au/Residential/Products/Marmoleum-Global-3/

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 ...