Building the House of Steel Intro

This was written at the point where we were hoping to commence construction during the next month. We had done some preliminary excavation and had a driveway constructed so the site was all-weather. The driveway finish will await the final departure of heavy trucks and other equipment.

Measurements are metric so Merkins* will likely want to convert to imperialist units by going here: http://www.unitwiz.com/area.htm

These pages are a narrative of some of the many events that led us to here. For some pictures and a technical description of the house and why it is what it is going to be, click here.

* If you are from the USA, try saying "I am a Merkin".

A special thanks to Bob Brydia and John Harris, two Merkins who gave me plenty of food for thought prior to commencing building.


In 1982 my wife, Marguerite, and I purchased a small (4 hectare) farm in the beautiful Huon Valley in southern Tasmania. While the property was what we had been seeking for 12 months, the cottage was dilapidated. We spent several years and, for us, a lot of money fixing things, but always wanted to build something tailored to our needs.

I designed several houses using a variety of materials and techniques, cordwood masonry, pole frame... but never managed to come up with a design that seemed equally satisfactory for both our needs. Marguerite's are primarily aesthetic and mine efficiency. So, we bravely decided to engage the services of an architect.

The first architect we tried kept wanting to rush us and his first draft eliminated the second toilet and bathroom we both wanted. Big mistake. The house also was no more aesthetically pleasing than any of the designs I had come up with. Bye, bye architect number one.

One Good Thing came out of this encounter: the architect had introduced us to the concept of steel where we had previously only considered natural materials. We are surrounded by forests and we both love timber. However, having recently left the first flush of youth, low maintenance has become a priority. We decided to (slowly) investigate steel further.

Stramit, the steel people, referred us to the work of a local architect who lived in a house of steel he had designed. He put us in touch with one of his satisfied clients and we visited her house and greatly admired the result. The house was visually exciting and from her remarks, we realised the architect had paid a lot of attention to her needs.

We started discussions with the architect around autumn/early winter 1999 at his own house of steel and it was clear that he was in many ways the exact opposite of the previous one. He spends most of his time on large corporate work and designs dwellings in his spare time. No rush and lots of discussion about needs before pencil touches paper.

The sketches finally arrived and we were delighted! The house is visually exciting and seems an excellent compromise in the areas where our needs conflict. We decided to proceed to the next stage.

At this point, I told the architect we are not on a huge budget ($A140 - 160,000), but one way we expect to control costs without compromising quality was by owner-building. We have friends who are owner-builders and some of our friends make their living from hiring out their joinery, carpentry and related skills. We live in a community of 3,000 or so households spread throughout a large river valley. Here, word of mouth is everything and the work of these people is well-known. A long tradition of owner building ranges from conventional brick veneer houses that would not be out of place in city suburbs through pole-frame, mud brick and a host of the new tradition of owner building with local materials.

Several years ago, when it became law that only registered builders could hire themselves out to build houses, I asked one of them, Fran, if he was going to become registered. He said that he wasn't. The cost of doing so would force him to double his hourly rate from $A20 to $A40. There would be no advantage to him from this. He would still be making the same amount of money. The purported advantage to the client was protection from him in the event he didn't do his job properly. Since it is widely acknowledged that Fran does a much better job than many with the government seal of approval, he was no longer going to be a builder. He was still allowed to perform renovations and extensions, and that is what he now does. As well, with myself as the builder, I could hire him as a subcontractor.

Owner building does not necessarily mean that you perform any of the traditional building tasks; you are free to hire whoever you choose. This is what most builders in fact do and charge a healthy fee for what is in effect project management. Yes, building a house is a complex project requiring plenty of thought and planning. Electrical wiring and plumbing have to go in before the internal wall coverings, for instance. But it's not rocket science. While most owner builders I know are happy with saving builder's costs (average around 30%) it's not what they talk about most. Mostly they talk about the enjoyment and fun of the experience. Oh, and if you do perform some of the building tasks yourself, you can save more money still. I'm the labourer on this project.

Even more than wanting Fran's building expertise, we wanted another friend, Michael, to do the joinery. While Michael develops his custom furniture business, he frequently makes kitchens for a business specialising in that area. It didn't make sense to us to pay the guy who hires Michael when we could cut a deal with Michael that benefited him and ourselves.

The architect duly drew up plans and provided extra drawings beyond the usual to detail what would be needed in the event we sub-contracted out ourselves, rather than his preference for hiring a builder for the whole kit and caboodle. The plans were sent out to five builders for tender with the following results:

Builder 1     $A260,100
Builder 2     $A235,472
Builder 3     No response
Builder 4     $A226,261
Builder 5     $A173,601 (with exceptions)

Actually, there are exceptions for all of these tenders. We asked for allowance to be made for Michael doing the kitchen/laundry/bathroom joinery. We are providing the cook stove, hot water cylinder, washing machine, refrigerator, hot water radiators, landscaping & driveway, water storage tanks and septic tank. These amount to approximately $A30,000 that need to be added to the above figures for a true estimate of our house-building cost excluding the architect's own fees ($A14,119) to this point.

The exception for Builder 5, we were told, was he had not included the impact of the Goods and Services Tax introduced by the Australian government recently. We heard on the grapevine later he had "forgotten to include the labour component"! The architect applied considerable pressure to get us to negotiate further with Builder 5 and we complied. He told us that one thing to bear in mind with Builder 5 was that he included no "fat" for variation during the building phase. Any variations would need a variation to his charges.

When the architect came back with the final amount from Builder 5, it was near enough to Builder 4 that it's not worth mentioning. In other words, he had deliberately put in a low quote to get the contract hoping we would hire him. When I pointed out to the architect that we were now more than $A100,000 over budget and definitely going the owner-builder route we always wanted to in the first place, he said that we should bear in mind that Builder 5 could send us a considerable bill for the time spent preparing his quote.

Here's a list of problems (and solutions) that occurred to date.

In the first draft of the house design, I noticed that the hot water cylinder was underneath the cook stove that was supplying it with hot water. Thermo-syphons work the other direction since hot water rises.

When we received the first drawings, I noticed that the vapour barrier was on the outside of the insulation. Since this is a cool-temperate climate, the vapour barrier belongs on the inside of the insulation to prevent water condensing there, reducing insulation efficiency and potentially encouraging mould. It's only in climates where the temperature rarely drops below 10șC that you put the vapour barrier on the outside.

On the outside of the insulation I wanted Tyvek. It's water and windproof, but transparent to any water vapour that gets through from inside the house. I was told it was too expensive and had not been in use long enough to prove itself. It actually cost less than $A5 more for the whole house and has been in use for 30 years.

I insisted on double-glazing given the huge amount of glass in the design (originally 85% of the floor area in the main living zone). Heating costs are quite low for us, since firewood is inexpensive, especially what we are growing for ourselves. However, there appears little point in generating large amounts of heat to warm the outside. The first set of drawings had the large sliding doors at the front of the house only single-glazed. When I asked why that was, I was told it was impossible to double-glaze when they were that large. I insisted that unless they were double-glazed, I was not interested.

The architect had the aluminium window supplier quote and it came in at $A39,000. My preference for Certainteed vinyl windows would not be countenanced by the architect, but they came in at $A30,100 and I believe that they are much better quality. I'll live without pretty colours in return for better performance and Marguerite agrees (phew!).

We are still debating the windows issue. I want to eliminate the tops of the windows at the front as these are where most of the heat will escape at night. Additionally, as they are shaded by the roof overhang, they will not let in an awful lot more light. And when we don't want that light, we will not be able to easily block it off as the top edge is not horizontal. I must admit that floor to ceiling windows do look good. And making daytime TV impossible to watch will be NO hardship to me. I would miss being able to spend the occasional Sunday afternoon watching a video, though. Bet I get chatted for watching DVDs on the PC in my office :-)

I took the lighting/electrical plan to be perused by a lighting technician. He said the main living area was underlit by about 50% and most of the other rooms overlit by about 100%. We spent an hour at no charge improving things. Didn't change the overall cost by much, but improved the lighting situation considerably.

By this time, I am looking through the design with a fine-tooth comb and doing even more research, mainly via the Internet. I noticed that the design is for wind-speed of 33 metres/sec. One of the first things I mentioned to the architect was that we are in a very windy location. The requirement here is for withstanding wind-speeds up to 41 metres/sec. Yikes!

The design is pier and beam foundation. The piers are concrete cylinders 2 metres deep and 450 mm in diameter and there are 31 of them. I realise that making the rear wall of the house straight and realigning a few of the piers will reduce the number to 24. The size of the 2nd bedroom increases slightly, but it will be much easier to lay out and build. The more complicated something is, the more easily mistakes are made. The engineer agrees and makes several useful suggestions to maintain structural integrity and reduce costs. There is a lot of steel between the concrete and the timber floor of the house. Eliminating redundant columns and beams makes a lot of economic sense.

The architect's design called for attaching steel channel beams to the sides of steel columns. These beams are very heavy. I ask whether it would make more sense to place the beams on top of the columns while they are welded in place. The engineer agrees that it makes lots more sense. There's also a lot of structural steel being used for decoration. Maybe I'm discovering part of the reason that our $A160,000 house blew out to $A250,000+.

I have redrawn the foundation plans and submitted them to the engineer for a certificate. The kitchen, laundry and bedroom furniture have been redesigned to simplify and make better use of materials. Given our time over again, I would have stopped with the architect at the sketch stage and either drawn the plans myself, or engaged a draftsman.

To date we have spent $A18,119.00 consisting of the Bosky cookstove, earthworks, architect and surveyor.

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