House Update

The House of Steel

Thursday 2 August 2001

Today we start plastering up the ceiling and walls in Thomas's room. There are small bits to do still in The Great Hall, Lesser Hall, Master bedroom, bathroom and laundry, but we have left them in order to optimise the use of the plaster board.

On Monday, Fran put in the gutter attachment to collect the water into the downpipe. This entailed cutting a rectangular hole and creating a ledge all around with the router to allow the top of the attachment to be below the surface of the gutter. This was bogged in with high quality marine silicone sealant as well as firmly screwed into place.

On Tuesday, Thomas and I made a pad of coarse gravel, covered by fine gravel to place the zincalume water tank on. It's about 25 cm thick. This creates a level surface and helps prevent rusting out of the tank bottom. I had the manufacturer supply one with bituminous paint applied to the bottom, further inhibiting corrosion. Thomas and I rolled the tank down to the front of the house, then used a couple of pieces of timber to slide it onto the gravel pad.

Using a plumb bob, I located where the downpipe would pierce the deck and a jigsaw to cut through. Yesterday, I put the two halves of the downpipe together and we pop-riveted them and used one pop rivet to hold the top end. Where the downpipe penetrates the deck, some scraps of timber temporarily hold the downpipe vertical.

The tank came without a gate valve on the outlet, but this is a farm and it didn't take too long to locate some fittings. Several showers have started to fill the tank, so it's time to purchase a pump and float switch to automatically pump the water up to the supply tank each time the collection tank fills.

Friday 3 August 2001

Today we finished plaster boarding Thomas's room and most of the spare bedroom/office. The interior spaces all look much different now that the pale grey plasterboard is replacing the sombre black of the polythene vapour barrier. Tuesday should see us taping the joins and stopping them with plaster. It's time to start thinking of paint and colour schemes.

Sunday 5 August 2001

Marguerite wants to change the position of one of the corridor lights. Because the ceiling is the curved underside of the gutter, the lighting expert decided to light it from the side with three equidistant wall sconces. The ceiling is a continuous slope from front to the back of the house and to light it evenly, the sconces are the same distance from the ceiling. Marguerite has decided she wants them an equal distance from the floor instead. Of course this is made difficult as the plasterboard is already in place. I have no doubt that when the house is finished, she will want the lighting changed back again. Or more likely to have the sconces be equal distances from the floor and the ceiling!

We made a start on deciding colour schemes for the walls. Our lounge chairs and the Bosky cookstove are strongly coloured and this limits our options somewhat. The chairs are all recently upholstered, so changing the covers to suit the colour scheme isn't really an option. My heart isn't really in it after the conflict of opinion about the lighting.

Monday 6 August 2001

The curved ceiling of the corridor proved to be less of a hassle to plaster than we thought. Fran cut some battens and one edge of the corridor was battened with enough space to be a snug fit for the edge of the plasterboard. While Tony held a board down in the middle, Fran pushed the opposing edge up with a short batten and nailed it into place with the fit-out gun. The end of the day saw almost all the plasterboard in place, so tomorrow will see the beginning of stopping-up the gaps with tape and filler.

Stan the plumber arrived to finish the sewage pipes under the house and install the shower. Of course the shower has yet to be replaced with the correct type, so he couldn't do that today.

Tuesday 7 August 2001

Finishing some of the plasterboard in the corridor took a while, especially the fiddly bits around the stair. Tony and Fran taped and stopped the spare bedroom and part of the corridor. When I came in from doing some essential gardening, we cleaned out all the scrap bits of plasterboard and made a pile in the carport. All the unused and large enough to use pieces we stacked neatly in Thomas's room. Tomorrow is full on taping and stopping.

There are two sorts of tape used to strengthen the seams between plasterboard sheets. The most common is a synthetic mesh, but it's weaker than paper tape. Paper tape is essential where a seam might come under stress, but it's more difficult to apply. If paper tape isn't wetted enough, it will bubble later. We have only two places where we think paper tape is justified, next to the front door. The door is so heavy that it moves the wall even though it's double studded and the studs are hardwood. Horizontal seams are not a problem, so the back door is OK.

Many professional plasterers apply a single top coat, slightly overfilling the seam. This can then be quickly sanded off because it's so soft. They make more money on the quote because they are quicker. A proper job requires a hard base coat and a finish with top coat that is softer. The base coat is best applied in two layers, both firmly trowelled so that the edges are feathered and when they shrink, leave a slight depression. That depression is finished with top coat and the skill is to just fill the seam so that only a light sanding is required for a smooth, "seamless" finish.

The best trowel to use is made of wood. It's rigid, so it finishes the wet base coat flush with the surrounding plaster board (until it shrinks). A steel trowel is less arduous to use as there is less friction, but it tends to flex and leave the surface of the wet fill slightly lower than the surrounding board.

The tricks of the trade are to apply only as much fill as needed and to trowel it off with as few strokes as possible. Getting the texture of the "mud" right is important and if you don't have time to experiment, needs to be learnt from an experienced plasterer. The top coat comes premixed, so that's less of an issue. It's also important to allow the mix to set properly between coats.

The worst part of plastering will come later -- sanding. The dust gets everywhere and dehydrates what it touches, like mucous membranes.

Wednesday 8 August 2001

I started the day by reading a couple of websites that described how to apply plasterboard. Neither mentioned the necessity of a thorough wash-up of tools and containers between mud mixes. Any contamination of the fresh mud with old accelerates the setting and that can render your mud quickly unusable. We are working with about 30 minutes worth at a time. Likely we could mix up more than that, but as the mud starts to go off, it becomes weaker.

Today, I commenced learning to apply the mud myself. It didn't take too long to learn to produce an acceptable amount of fill, but I am much slower than Fran and Tony. Mostly I am the gopher, washer upper, floor sweeper, etc.

Thursday 9 August 2001

With painting the walls and ceiling rapidly approaching, I started shopping for paint. Local manufacturer, Tas Paints eliminated itself as a contender for my money several months ago when I tried to purchase some Styrene-butadiene Latex paint from them. I was told that it didn't exist. Several years ago, I had problems with a paint from the British Paints consortium. I complained and to their credit, a representative called by. Sadly, he blamed me for using the wrong paint for the job. When I pointed out that the can of paint said it was the correct sort, he said that it was "common knowledge" that the particular paint wasn't really up to what I was expecting from it.

So, what do I want from the paint system I choose? First, I want a decent pigment content. Low pigment content means more coats needed to produce a uniform finish. A common reason for one paint being cheaper than another is differing pigment contents. It's not necessarily more economical to apply an extra coat of cheaper paint when labour is taken into account. A second aspect of paint quality is the binder. While most paints used on walls and ceilings are water based acrylics, there's a wide variety of polymers that qualify as acrylic with a wide range of wear resistance.

The company I chose is Wattyl. Well, that's pretty much all that was left to choose without purchasing overseas! While there are many brand names of paint, most are manufactured by the one large company. Luckily, Wattyl's local representative, Barry, was helpful, informative and friendly. I had been told that professional painters prime plasterboard with the cheapest paint they can find as the material specifically manufactured as primer costs too much. Barry informed me that this was not the case and the primer cost turns out to be only 20% of the total paint cost (circa $A1,000). I chose second from the top of the trade range of scrubbable for The Great Hall, corridor walls and the bathroom and laundry. For the rest I chose the top of the trade range of washable.

By choosing only three colours, I can purchase 20 and 10 litre units and that's a way to save significant amounts of money. We will be using an accent of a fourth colour on the ceiling cornice, but we only need 2 litres of that and it also needs a litre of grey primer because of its pigment type. Before anyone comments that we have one colour too many, each room will have only one colour on the walls and another on the ceiling. They are all shades of green and except for the accent, pastel shades.

The itty bitty colour chips in the selection brochure don't tell the full story, so I will purchase a small sample can of each and we will paint some scraps of plasterboard prior to a final decision on the exact colours we will use. While Barry said that they can match any colour from a rival paint company, the 800 or so colours on offer from Wattyl should suffice.

Saturday 11 August 2001

Marguerite and I went shopping today. The first priority was a pump. The collection tank is full and that water belongs in the storage tank. My favourite place for that sort of thing, Stephenson's, was closed, so I went to Webster's. An appropriately sized Davey water pump was duly purchased, along with some adapters for the pipes. It wasn't until I opened the operator's manual later that I discovered we need a check valve in the line from the pump to the storage tank. This is to prevent the water in the line running back into the pump when it's not operating.

Then it was on to purchase some samples of paint to make some test panels. These are not cheap and the five samples came to some $A35+. However, they have the potential to save us from disaster if the colours do not suit when laid on later. While at the hardware store, I purchased a palm sander. Since it's not needed beyond the job of sanding plasterboard, I bought the cheapest available. I expected to pay $A50, but there was one on special for $A40.

I discovered that there was an environmental home exhibition on in the City Hall, so we hied off there, having a coffee at the museum nearby beforehand. We saw several friends there and chatted a while. One useful and interesting discovery was a special method of creating building footings by driving a galvanised steel pipe into the ground. The foot of the pipe is a cluster of three short pipes at an angle to the main pipe. They would certainly make for cheap footings, but corrosion might be a long-term problem. The dolerite rocks in our soil would also have made for some fun.

Currently, straw bales covered in a cement render is the rage for alternative house construction. I asked Nigel Jones whether he had thought about my concern: the ingress of rodents if the layer of cement cracked. He said that they put a steel mesh in the lower layer to keep rats and mice from discovering rodent heaven. Nigel remarked that a lot of people are disappointed when the cost and skills required turn out to be much the same as for a conventional construction method. The same was true of previous fads like mud brick. Inexpensive ingredients do not necessarily translate into an economical house.

As is usual at such events, there were lots of earnest young people who know more than us oldies. Happily, most were at parliament house saving another forest.

Here are the latest pictures:

The house in the early morning winter sun. nwview02.jpg (65628 bytes)
The Great Hall awaiting the installation of the vapour barrier. great_hall01.jpg (66984 bytes)
Here you can see the ceiling in The Great Hall receiving its insulation and vapour barrier of black polythene. The pieces of wood are to provide good support for the lights when they are installed. fran_great_hall.jpg (56592 bytes)
This shows the metal plaster battens holding the vapour barrier and insulation in place. battens.jpg (58102 bytes)
The plasterboard being stacked in the carport. gyprock.jpg (46459 bytes)
The team of five on the trestle holding up the plasterboard. Tony on the far left and Fran, third from left are wielding the screw guns. gyprock_team.jpg (50844 bytes)
Tony, Hughie and Paul adjust the specially modified trestle for the highest part of The Great Hall. The modification is the wooden sled it is screwed to to add an additional 500 mm or so of height. scaffold_adjust.jpg (77612 bytes)
Fran and Tony plasterboarding the corridor.  gyprock_corridor.jpg (62939 bytes)
The Great Hall from the north west corner. great_hall02.jpg (35557 bytes)
The Great Hall from the north east corner. great_hall03.jpg (35039 bytes)
The corridor is done. corridor02.jpg (66129 bytes)
A seam between two sheets of plasterboard taped up and awaiting the mud.  gyprock_tape.jpg (75227 bytes)

Sunday 12 August 2001

The pump works well, although in the absence of a check valve I had to disconnect the pipe from the pump up to the tank after almost emptying the collection tank. Davey Pumps have an excellent reputation in rural Australia. 

I forgot to mention that on Friday I visited a shop that sells Blum hinges and drawer runners. These are well worth seeking out if you want a reliable and functional kitchen. I was looking for a better price on the Wilson and Bradley draw and cupboard handles we have chosen and found it in spades. The price was around 20% of what the hardware suppliers are charging.

Monday 13 August 2001

While Fran and Tony continued plastering, I set about installing the check valve I got from Webster in Huonville. They also had the float switch, but installing that needs some thought. I connected a piece of 3/4 inch polypipe and a gate valve to the end of the 1.5 inch pipe bringing water from the storage tank. As expected, the flow rate is excellent. I have been asked why we use such large pipes for such tasks. The simple answer is friction. Using large diameter pipe for pumping water to the storage tank requires less energy so the pump uses less electricity and presumably lasts longer because it doesn't have to work so hard. The delivery pipe from the storage tank has a smaller head (pressure) than the usual domestic supply and the reduced friction helps compensate. For most domestic water uses, it's the flow rate -- how many litres per minute -- that counts, not the pressure. However, I have been told to expect problems with automatic washing machines as their automatic taps do rely on there being sufficient pressure and I may not have enough. I will ask Stan the plumber.

This is the first time I have used a pump on the farm. I have always preferred to put my faith in gravity. This system only needs the pump to be functional to move water to the supply tank intermittently. The pump will do far less work than a demand pump would, so it will cost much less to run and wear out much slower. If the electricity supply is interrupted, I may lose some water falling into the collection tank, but the house supply will still work.

Colin writes:

Dear Jonathan,

I came across your web site detailing the long gestation period for your house construction.

I have just one question - are you divorced yet?

: )


Yes, but The House of Steel has nothing to do with my first wife ;-)

Tuesday 14 August 2001

Fran and Tony now have only the top coat to do in The Great Hall and it's on to sanding. I told Tony I wanted him to weld the support for the ramp leading up to the porch at the back door. There's also the dining table's stainless steel frame to make so that Michael can make the top and infill panels before he leaves for Tenterfield. I suspect that Tony is much happier welding than sanding.

The only house building task I completed today was varnishing the laminated wooden gutter support. The temperature reached 15C by 10 am and the opportunity was too good to miss. By mid day, the weather started to look grim, but the rain held off until evening, so the varnish wasn't damaged.

The underfloor at the back of The Great Hall is still not closed in as that's where we have the extension cords from the power box enter the house. Nevertheless, the temperature inside the house remains several degrees above that outside. The Azurelight treatment of the north facing windows severely limits the heat gain so the temperature doesn't rise much above 15C. But that's part of the design. When we occupy the house, the Bosky cookstove will supply up to 6 kilowatts per hour and it will be providing some of that energy for hot water and cooking as well as space heating. The house is designed primarily for low heat loss. If we were cooking with gas or electricity then we would have put more emphasis on solar heat gain and a solar powered hot water cylinder.

Wednesday 15 August 2001

The topcoat of plaster is done so it's on to sanding. Fran forgot the extra dustmask so I was let off. Tony commenced the steel structure for the ramp up to the small rear deck. Tomorrow he will put the purlins up to extend the carport roof over it. Fran and I will spend the whole day sanding plaster.

An email from John Harris, the original salesman we contacted for information on Certainteed vinyl framed windows:

Hi J & M... Great to hear from you again... the house looks great well done. I have pointed some others to your site already.

It may be cheeky of me to ask, but my site is also an excellent starting point and I would be happy to contribute to the on-going site in some way to get a mention. Namely I have 1000 copies of the excellent publication Australia's Guide to Good Residential Design... maybe anyone who comes in and looks at the site can email me and I will send them a copy or they can call Hobart or Launceston Centres and we will mail one to them. As you know I am always looking to help people through the process and if you can think of a win win in some way feel free to let me know..



PS. I look forward to the opening party.

Anyone interested in the book should email John. We are looking forward to the party, too :-)

I have added a resources page.

Friday 17 August 2001

Yesterday we put cornice, the decorative infill between walls and ceilings, in the ensuite bathroom, the master bedroom and the corridor. The ends of the corridor are problematic as the curve is too much for the cornice -- it breaks. We will experiment with some offcuts to see whether we can make it more flexible by soaking, judicious sawcuts etc. The least preferred alternative is to create a specially shaped trowel and make our own from plaster. The cornice certainly makes the rooms look more "finished".

Today is a full day off for Tony and Fran. Tony is making a start on the stainless steel frame for the dining table. We will meet up around lunch time for the regular counter meal at The Grand Hotel before heading in the direction of Michael Henrysson's shed.

Last night's rain filled the collection tank to brimming, so I pumped most of it up to the storage tank. It's now half full with over 10,000 litres of fresh water.

One the way to Henrysson's, Fran picked up his two pigs from the slaughterhouse that he left there earlier in the week. He gave a quarter to Tony and myself. The pigs were huge and really should have been turned into bacon. Instead, there are huge hams and chops and shoulders. I got the heads, but Fran took the trotters so I will get some from the butcher. Brawn needs gelatin and the trotters have plenty. Likely I will include some veal shin and knuckles for their gelatin and flavour content.

Saturday 18 August 2001

The rain has turned to snow alternating with rain. Heavy rain. When weather conditions are like this, it's not unknown for the highway between the Huon Valley and Hobart to be closed. Snowchains are unknown here except among the adventurous who take their SUVs into the mountains. So, the trip to the city to purchase paint for the house has been put off for a few days.

First thing this morning, I once more pumped about 4,000 litres of water from the collection tank into the storage tank, and I will do the same again shortly. The pigs heads that Fran gave me (as well as some chops and two roasts) are about to come to the boil. I am making brawn (a.k.a. head-cheese, scrapple). I am tempted to turn the smaller of the two roasts into a ham and have Tony smoke it. I have plenty of salt and saltpetre to hand. The last ham I made went down very well, though I didn't bother smoking it.

Friday 24 August 2001

A week spent mainly sanding the joints between the plasterboard sheets and gluing the cornice to the edges of the ceilings. The weather was wet and cold, but the work made us hot and sweaty, not to mention dusty. When the weather cleared yesterday, Tony made the small roof over the back door between the house and the carport. He would have finished the steel for the ramp leading up to it, but the hammer drill is on loan to the guy who wants to purchase it when I no longer need it. Even though we have ordinary drills with a hammer function, none of us feel like spending 20 minutes doing something the real thing will do in two.

Monday will see almost the last of the plastering complete. We can't finish the laundry until the shower is replaced with the correct sort and there are two small walls that won't be built until the floor is fastened down. As well, there will be plasterboard above the cupboards in the kitchen area of The Great Hall. So next week will be painting and perhaps the beginning of floorboard nailing.

Saturday 25 August 2001

The house now has the water collection tank under the front deck and the downpipe from the gutter. nwview03.jpg (39341 bytes)
This is how the downpipe attaches to the gutter. downpipe.jpg (38381 bytes)
And this is the pump that transfers water from the collection tank to the storage tank. pump01.jpg (52734 bytes)
And this is the 22,500 litre storage tank, now full. The poly pipe is held in place with 2 mm fencing wire in a single loop around the pipe. At the back of the tank, the wire was tightened with gripples. storagetank.jpg (63644 bytes)
This is The Great Hall earlier this week. The floorboards look white because they are coated with a film of plasterdust created by sanding the joins. The plasterboard is 1.2 m (4 ft) wide, so you can see the far wall is almost twice standard wall height. great_hall04.jpg (83621 bytes)
This is the corridor a week ago. The plaster has yet to be sanded. corridor03.jpg (65230 bytes)
This is the sewage and effluent plumbing under the house. A good storage place for the flyscreens, too at this time. Later, the weeds will be covered with a layer of gravel to suppress them. plumbing01.jpg (55690 bytes)
These are some scraps of plasterboard so we could compare the effects of different colours. On my system, they all look close to what they appear in real life except the fourth from the left. Given the variability of computer displays, don't bet that what you are seeing is what we'll get. Most likely we'll be going with the two on the left; ceilings and walls. colours.jpg (32461 bytes)

Monday 27 August 2001

Yesterday we had a flurry of friends visit to admire the house. It was fun showing them around as we hadn't seen them in quite a while. Building a house kind of gets in the way of socialising.

Today, Fran was ill with a stomach upset and Tony did something nasty to his back over the weekend, so I worked solo. Michael brought his Giant Gypsy Mutant Vacuum Cleaner around for me to suck up the dust. First though, I had to use a soft broom to sweep the dust from the walls and ceiling. I attached a piece of electrical conduit onto the broom handle as an extension. That grey ducting tape has many uses. Sweeping the ceiling was a little awkward with such a long handle, but quicker than manoeuvring a stepladder or trestles.

The vacuum cleaner is in reality a dust extractor on wheels with a 150 mm (6 inch)  hose pipe. It's designed to run all day attached to whatever woodworking tool is generating dust. It's mounted on a trolley, so it can be moved from machine to machine. Or in this case, used as a vacuum cleaner. It's awkward as the hose is quite short. Bending over to sweep the sucking end adjacent to the floor is very tiring, but it sucks dust like there's no tomorrow. The motor and fan are each is as big as most vacuum cleaners.

Wednesday 29 August 2001

Yesterday Fran worked on plastering a few bits still needing to be done properly. The long vertical joins in The Great Hall need considerable feathering out to produce the smooth finish we need.

We made several attempts on the cornice for the curved corridor ceiling ends and gave up trying to persuade the cornice to bend to the curve. Instead, Fran cut several short lengths of cornice and butted them together. Then he shaped a piece of steel sheet to make a trowel to follow the shape of the cornice and plastered it. Likely it will take three or four applications of topcoat and some judicious sanding to get the result we are after, but it should be worth the effort.

We also filled underneath the protruding part of the gutter at the rear of the house with some sheet zincalume. I've decided to use sheet zincalume under the gutter at the front of the house too, but I will need to order the sheets. Fran also cut two pieces of marine ply to the shape of the gutter end to give it a finished appearance. Over the next few days I will paint it with marine paint to preserve it from decay.

Today, Fran worked on the flashings at the top of the front walls and managed to get all but one done. My hammer drill was returned and it took but a minute and half to bore the holes in the concrete pier and the dolerite pier for the rear ramp. I used some of the epoxy I painted the marine ply gutter end to bond some 10 mm threaded rod in the holes.

The inlet to the water collection tank below the front deck has a conical basket that roughly filters the water coming in through the drain pipe. Water coming down the drainpipe splashes in there and runs in off the top of the tank. That water is polluted by drips from the treated pine decking so I removed the cone and built a ring of silicone sealant around the inlet. After it set,  reinstalled the cone. Then we made a wide circular pipe almost as wide as the cone from a piece of zincalume and I set it in place inside the cone with silicone to hold it in place. When that sets, I will stretch a piece of Marguerite's discarded pantyhose across it to filter the water.

Diagram of water tank inlet

Thursday 30 August 2001

The replacement shower failed to arrive today. The electrician failed to arrive today. Fran sanded the plaster in the laundry and we put up the cornice. We can't finish here until the shower arrives. Fran also put another layer of topcoat on the improvised cornice at the corridor ends and the vertical seams in The Great Hall.

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