House Update

The House of Steel

Monday, 1 October 2001

Today, I am hoping that Tony the electrician arrives. We were waiting on him this time last year as well -- some things never change. Others do of course -- here's what The House of Steel looked like this time last year:

panorama01.jpg (242035 bytes)

Tuesday, 2 October 2001

Well, it had to happen! Tony the electrician arrived with his apprentice and while the apprentice installed power points and light switches, Tony and I tackled the lights in The Great Hall. The three main lights, 200W quartz-halogens, are pendants on stainless-steel rods. Because of the sloping and curved ceiling, two of them needed custom-made rods. Those two are at the same height relative to the floor. Unfortunately, the one without the custom extension is at a different height. We left solving that problem until later. Also, these lights are designed to attach to a horizontal ceiling, contra to the lights suppliers assurance, so we will need to make a wedge shaped circular packer to make them work properly.

Fran had fun with the shower installation. This shower is slightly smaller than the original (incorrect) one supplied, so he had to pack out the wall behind the toilet, including the noggins that hold the tap and outlet. Then he lined the walls with cement sheet rather than plasterboard. The shower liner is a sheet of formed white plastic that is glued to the cement sheet with the supplied (smelly) glue, and that's as far as Fran managed to get.

Today, Fran will be making steel attachments for the external lights, so it will likely be Wednesday before he can install the shower door so we can finish the plaster and paint of the laundry.

The power points and switches are designed differently to those we used when renovating the cottage back in 1984. They have a snap on cover that is easily removed when painting walls. No need to unscrew the switch plate. Nice!

Despite the anomaly of one of the main pendants being at the incorrect height, the array of lights looked impressive. There are three smaller pendants over the island bench and six spots for the wall benches. When the cupboard over the bench on the eastern wall is complete, there will also be two recessed downlights under them. A grand total of somewhat more than 1 KW of lighting for The Great Hall. The three 200W halogens will be on a dimmer and the other lights controlled by four switches, so it's unlikely that we will be using all that power at once. Unless we decide to make a movie in there!

Wednesday, 3 October 2001

Yesterday, Tony and Trent have most of the power points, switches and light fittings in place, but won't return until tomorrow to finish. Fran created plates from zincalume sheet to mount the external lights on. I assisted everyone. Some parts were missing and the two exhaust fans, one for the laundry, the other for the ensuite bathroom were missing bits needed to fit them.

Today, Fran and I go to shop for what we will need to build the kitchen -- drawer rails and such.

Thursday, 4 October 2001

The trip to town yesterday went well. I returned the extra light cover and had it replaced by the missing back for one of the vanity lights in the ensuite bathroom. We were short one 12 V transformer and I returned a wall sconce we realised couldn't be used (behind a door). Along the way we purchased a six foot zincalume step ladder each at a bargain basement price. The main purpose of the visit was to show Fran the Blum drawer system that I wanted to use in the kitchen. Fran gave it more than a seal of approval, he was as impressed as I was. Far from costing more, it's significantly less expensive than what Fran is used to using. More about the kitchen design later.

Today, most of the electrics are finished and the shower is installed. The carport is reasonably tidy for the first time in weeks. I need to put the remaining plasterboard in the back of it pending its use in renovating the cottage and we needed better access to the remaining floorboards to make the architraves and skirting boards from them. This is less expensive than purchasing architraves and skirtings.

I have polished almost all the stainless steel frames for the dining chairs. Polished is perhaps not the correct word. I am rubbing the frames with #600 emery paper to create the appearance known as brushed as well as removing the marks made by the spatter of hot metal when they were welded together. I am having trouble finding screws to attach the slats I will make from the myrtle boards that Fran thicknessed for me. They are thinner than the original design called for, so they need shorter screws. Hopefully, I will find some before I finish slicing the myrtle boards, sanding them and applying lacquer.

Monday, 8 October 2001

Much to my surprise, Tony and Trent, the electricians turned up again today. We now have all the power points working, but only the light over the corridor stair and in The Great Hall. One of the lighting circuits has the ground and neutral wires touching somewhere, likely in one of the eyelid bunker lights on the external walls.

Fran and I ran the water pipe from the carport to the water receiving tank under the front of the house. The downpipe was a piece of 50 mm (2 inch) rigid PVC I have had for many years and we put an elbow joint in the bottom to a short piece cut off the downpipe. The run from there to the tank was a piece of 52 mm black PVC irrigation pipe that I had to shovel two tonnes of gravel to get at! To join the two pipes together, Fran filed a bevel on the outside of the white, rigid pipe and the inside of the black flexible pipe. After the black pipe was suitably softened with a heat gun, I thrust the white pipe inside the black and we let it cool down. Then we used some marine black marine grade sealant to secure them together.

Fran also spent considerable time helping the sparkies while Margie and I tidied things up. It was a tiring day. We had intended to stroll over to the house after dark to see what things looked like under artificial light, but today was the second day of daylight savings time and we went early to our bed.

Monday, 8 October 2001

In the morning, I discussed the stainless steel requirements for the balustrade with Tony Dunshea. We are going with (approximate sizes here) 40 mm (1.5 in) square tube for the uprights with a 15 mm (5/8 in) by 40 mm top rail. Stainless steel is hard, hard on drills and the person drilling. Round tube looks nicer than rectangular, but is more difficult to drill and mitre.

While I did this, Fran finished the plastering of the laundry and a few patches where we had to run some missing electrical cable the other day for the under cupboard lights in the kitchen, the future range hood over the stove and a light for over the mirror in the laundry.

Then Fran used his biscuit joiner to cut slots for the biscuits in the lumber we are using to make the long shelf in The Great Hall. Biscuits are like flat dowels and they help to align the timber, as well as strengthen the assembly. The adhesive we used was resorcinol, a phenolic marine glue, strong and waterproof. Then we used 10 pipe clamps to hold the assembly together while the glue cures. There's the equivalent of 10 standard wall studs in the shelf and it's hardwood. Heavy!

In the afternoon, Fran sanded the laundry walls, placed the final piece of corrugated zincalume on the carport, and siliconed around the electrical meter box and windows.

In the evening, Marguerite and I went over to the house to see what the lights looked like in the dark. The three main lights (200W each) seem somewhat dimmer than we expected, but the light is adequate and they look very impressive. The dichroic spotlights and pendants (50W each) appear much brighter, so the kitchen area will be wonderful to work in.

Friday, 12 October 2001

On Tuesday, the external lights weren't working due to a short between the earth and neutral lines. Tony spent quite a while looking for the fault. It turned out to be a roofing screw that just nicked the neutral where a cable passed between the purlin supporting the rear porch roof and the purlin. No more electrics required until the island bench in the kitchen is finished.

Fran filled and sanded the long shelf in The Great Hall. We lifted it up to the window so Fran could mark off where to trim the end. Being swamp gum, it's a lot lighter than we expected -- an easy four person lift. And it looks great.

Fran has been ferrying stuff away that we will no longer need -- scaffold boards, scaffolds, ladder brackets, the dust sucker... Thursday, Fran had another job and Marguerite and I went shopping for a few odds and ends -- primer for painting the architraves, varnish, zincalume sheet for splashbacks and kickboards in the kitchen, choosing laminate for the bath and splashback in the laundry and a flue for the stove. We tried, unsuccessfully, to find some air inlet vents for next to the stove and 3/8" self tapping wood screws for the chairs. I have finished cutting and planing the myrtle slats for the chairs; I want to finish them so I can repair and sell the spindle-back dining chairs.

I tried to phone Richard the floor-sanding guy to confirm his arrival next week, but his phones have been disconnected. This is not good.

We experienced torrential rain today, water over the roads in several places. The expert registered builders who said The House of Steel would leak are proven wrong again! A fellow from a nearby village measured 50 mm (2 in) of rainfall over a seven hour period for a total of 100 mm in twenty four hours. Perhaps we know why the expert registered builders thought the house would leak. A friend of ours has an apartment in the city and the gutters on the building were all installed perfectly horizontal. Since they don't drain as quickly as when the gutters slope toward the outlet, they overflowed into the apartments. The builders tried to excuse themselves by saying that the installers were fully qualified and registered roof plumbers and said how difficult it is to arrange the fall the correct way, but Liz had seen Fran in action on their house and knows how a water-level works. None of the gutters were high up, all being easily accessible from ladders.

Even though the underside of the rear of The Great Hall where the wiring harness runs has yet to be sealed up with plywood, the house stays comfortable warm overnight. This is a great comfort to us. Last night I tested all of the lighting and except for the stair light being overly bright, all is well. I fixed the stair light problem by replacing the 20 watt globe with an 8 watt globe. It's intended as a night light so guests, or Thomas don't fall on them in the dark when visiting the toilet.

Sunday, 14 October 2001

I was going to commence painting the laundry today, but Fran took the plaster sanding tools home on Friday. Instead, I finally got around to painting the second coat on the wardrobe wall and the hot water closet. Our friend Jane came by for her first visit to see The House of Steel and declared it a masterwork. She brought sticky buns from Banjo's Bakery and we drank strong black coffee with them. Jane is a very proper lady, so I brought out the tiger myrtle coffee table for its first use. The scraps of cardboard we used to prevent the coffee mugs marring the surface were probably infra dig, but what the hell, it's a building site!

Richard, the floor sander phoned, so we expect him now late in the coming week.

Monday, 15 October 2001

Fran and I put the large shelf up in The Great Hall. Fortunately, it's made from swamp gum, so it wasn't too heavy to lift. We clamped lengths of stud to two sawhorses to act as temporary supports for the edge furthest from the wall. The edge against the wall was supported by the ledge below the top row of windows. That was liberally smeared with silicone to act as an adhesive. Each side of the window and against the west wall, we used stainless steel brackets to hold the shelf up. At the eastern end, a bracket wasn't needed as we can screw into the header of the doorway. The rear of the shelf against the wall is secured by screws driven at an angle into the wall studs. 

We didn't want to test the effect on the French window until the silicone is fully hardened, but the western end of the opening now has no movement when pushed, so it looks like the shelf will do the job. While on the floor, the shelf looked huge, but in place it looks in fine proportion, no doubt because of the size of The Great Hall.

I painted the laundry with Gypseal and the first topcoat. This was made somewhat tedious because of the cramped confines and the necessity of using the 2.7 metre (9 ft) stepladder to reach the tops of the walls. The shower was also in the way and I overcame that by putting a stud between the top of the toilet wall and the stepladder. I used a clamp to prevent it moving.

Meanwhile, Fran made a timber surround for where the gutter downpipe pierces the front deck. The base is made from scraps of stud and topped with marine plywood. It's tooled to look as though it's sitting on feet and has been profiled with the router using an ogee bit.

Tuesday, 16 October 2001

Fran made the decorative front for the gutter from marine plywood, then spent the rest of the day slicing up floorboards for architraves and skirting boards. For some reason I was very lacking in energy, so I moved all indoor objects to the ensuite bathroom and kitchen area so that there's nothing in the way of Richard sanding the floors. Ross, the vinyl flooring guy came by to measure up the bathroom, laundry and toilet. We will have the vinyl running up the wall 100 mm (4 in) instead of skirting boards in the bathroom and laundry. This and a drain through the floor should limit any "flood" damage.

Thursday, 18 October 2001

Richard still hasn't arrived to sand the floors and Lindsay the carrier still hasn't delivered the zincalume sheet from the roofing centre that he was supposed to be picking up on Tuesday. All of the skirting boards are made, labelled on the reverse and taped in bundles. Some of the off-cuts made the shelf inside the hot water cylinder cupboard. Next week we will be making the doors. We have just enough money in the coffers to pay for the stainless steel and the door jambs. Everything else must await the release of funds from the bank loan. 

The stainless steel is from Taiwan and supply is erratic, so making sure that's available when it's needed is important. I am hunting for door jambs because even though they are made from local hardwood and much of Tasmania is hardwood forest, it too is in short supply. The emphasis by government on the use of timber from our forests is to make low value woodchips rather than high value sawn timber, or even, God forbid, furniture and houses. We could use pine but it's softer and less straight than hardwood. The boards are also 10mm wider than we need, so there's an additional labour component that reduces the price advantage.

I note that the 8 KW combustion stove in the cottage manages to keep 360 square feet at the same temperature as a 1 KW fan heater run twice a day for an hour each time in the 1500 square foot House of Steel. Despite the nay sayers, we still have no regrets on the amount of money we spent on double-glazing and insulation.

I used the cheap palm sander for the first time today and it has a major design fault. The front handle protrudes over the edge of the base, so it can't sand in corners. It came without a punch to make the required holes in the sheets of sanding paper, so Fran made one for me from plywood and short lengths of steel reinforcing rod. Air and sawdust pass through those holes and the air cools the motor.

Tuesday, 23 October 2001

Richard turned up yesterday and commenced sanding our floors. He declares the floorboards to be among the worst he has seen. The boards do not meet properly. It's as if they were made to be laid on a curved surface. When you push two boards together snugly with your hands, there's a 3-4 mm gap on the upper surface. Pushed together flat, there's a 3-4 mm gap on the underside and the tongue doesn't reach the end of the groove. The big sanding machine is depressing the area of the tongue and groove relative to the body of the board, creating a slight undulation. Fortunately, this will be only barely visible since we will be using a satin, rather than high gloss finish. The grain and colours of the boards will delight the eye, but John Clennett's idea of Select timber is not the same as mine!

Fran and I have completed putting the plain zincalume sheet under the gutter over the front deck. It should have been a half day job -- the first two sheets went up very quickly. Fran made a cardboard template for the final sheet where the downpipe pierces the sheet and it needed another cut-out for the supporting post. The cardboard template worked fine, but the sheet of zincalume steel needed lots of struggling and trimming to fit. I have no idea why. Then we needed trim around the cut-outs and edges. Despite the struggle, it looks great and the downpipe is firmly in place with its recently varnished plinth where it pierces the deck.

The architect insisted we use radiata pine decking, not Jarrah. On the front deck, the ends of the planks are lifting as they warp in the sunshine, snapping the decking screws. I will have to screw pieces of timber underneath between adjacent planks to hold them down since they are a hazard as well as unsightly. I am beginning to wish we had gone with Jarrah.

Wednesday, 24 October 2001

Fran and I finished the last of the flashing and applying beads of silicone where there was any chance of water ingress between window and door frames and the cladding. While there has been no apparent water penetration during a couple of severe storms, the silicone is cheap insurance. The purlins at the back of the house had the bottom web cut off to prevent them carrying water into the ceiling. Capillary action still allows a small amount to be carried along the bottom edge of the steel though, so we cut a small notch adjacent to the wall and that forces the water to drip downward from there.

Richard's floor sander broke down, but Fran's magic van supplied the necessary ingredients for a repair. The floor sander was manufactured in the 1970s and is much heavier and therefore more effective than more recent machines.

A neighbour came by and commented on the cost of corrugated zincalume. He had Mitre 10 2.5 quote for a shed he was building and was told it would cost $A2,400. Stramit charged him $A900 including delivery. I told him that Barry Woodley charges even less for "seconds". These are sheets cut to length for orders that are not completed. They are not "seconds" in the sense of being inferior quality. My woodshed will cost about 20% of what it would have had I purchased from Mitre 10 2.5.

Thursday, 25 October 2001

I removed the plywood from the front steps put there to protect them from damage during the main construction phase. Some particles of steel had infiltrated, carried by rain and wind, leaving black tannin stains. I used the palm sander to remove the top layer of timber and had Fran use his router to create a more rounded nose on the steps. Rain came just before I finished, so I used a large sheet of construction ply to shed the rainfall. Hopefully, I will be able to finish the sanding and oil them tomorrow.

Fran started to make the frames for the internal doors today. He went through the remainder of the wall studs and the straightest were cut to the height of the doors for sides. The cross pieces are doubled (one atop the other) for the bottom and centre piece with just a single on top. The joints between the cross members and uprights will be dowelled using Fran's amazing dowelling jig. Later, I will carefully photograph this in action. It is so much quicker and more accurate than a conventional dowelling jig!

The top and bottom panels of the doors will be made of floorboards glued together in a diagonal configuration. Before we glue them together, we will use a small plane to create a chamfer on the edges to make a V joint. The panels will then be held in place with quad glazing bead. Instead of ordinary PVA wood glue, Fran prefers a product called Bond Crete. It's PVA too, but is much stronger. If they were external doors, then he would be using Resorcinol, a phenolic resin.

Saturday, 27 October 2001

Richard came and applied the first two coats of varnish to the floor today. The first coat was a urethane sealer using acetone as the solvent, so it dried off very quickly. The second coat was oil modified urethane as will be the final coat to be applied Monday. Richard poured the varnish out in strips across the floor and spread it with a paint roller on a stick. The fumes, needless to say, were something else and he used a respirator. Most jobs I don't mind turning my hand to, but Richard is welcome to his.

I have been hanging out to see the floor in all its glory for weeks and it is possibly even more beautiful than I had hoped. There are so many colours in blue gum: reds, yellows, browns, greys... Each floorboard is a work of Nature's art.

While Richard worked on the floors, I sanded and varnished some skirting boards on the side deck and in the carport. Also, I gave the trim for the front gutter a coat of primer. To add variety to the day, I barrowed gravel for portions of the footpaths that needed topping up. A satisfying day despite intermittent showers.

Sunday, 28 October 2001

From: Alex 
Subject: Info from your experiences

Hi Johnathon, Just come across your website and I can sort of relate; however, not with building a house. My wife and I are interested in owner building sometime in the future and we are confused in what we would save in cash by doing it ourselves. We are unsure exactly what is involved in building a kit home and in your opinion, was it worth it (cost effectively & heartache)? We would love to hear your suggestion and advice from your experiences.

Thanks, Alex


This is the short reply, you will have to await the longer one, though hopefully not too long <g> That will be a longish piece published on my web.

Do not confuse owner-building with the physical work of building. A modern builder just makes phone calls to contractors and suppliers, and signs contracts. If you are lucky, he may spend some of his valuable time on-site supervising the contractors to ensure they are doing what they are supposed to. The builder is in truth a project manager and for this role pockets a minimum of 20% of the cost of the house.

The builder's advantage over you is he knows already which contractors to approach and has his preferred suppliers. If you do your research, you can find contractors who will work for you and the ones I chose were more than happy for me to do some of the shit-work, such as boring holes and digging ditches where they were needed. Some I used a labourer at $15/hr rather than the contractor's rate of $45/hr. Suppliers to the trade are more than happy to sell to you at the same rate they sell to builders. Shop around and you will find some are more than happy to give advice as well. Tradies are more than happy to talk about other tradies whose work they respect. Find one good tradie and you won't have too much trouble assembling a team. Be aware that the average tradie often waits weeks to be paid -- if you can pay on the spot, you will likely be able to pay less than a conventional builder would.

Kit homes are outside my personal experience, but the impression I am getting is that they are not a cheap option. Basically, the builder's cut is built into the cost of the kit and your "saving" would be the labour component and that's much less than the builder's. Also, the quality of the kit might not be up to it. A lot of building is measure and fit. While kits are supposed to eliminate this, I believe that to be only a partial truth.

The real buzz from owner-building comes from ownership of the process, not the cost saving. If you really enjoy that sort of thing then you are a candidate for owner-building. If you are motivated only by the cost-saving aspect, then you will likely not enjoy being an owner-builder. One of the most important outcomes of building my House of Steel has been being able to change things as we go, either due to budgetary considerations, or new ideas. Conventional builders will fight you tooth and nail to do things their way and charge extra for implementing your "strange" ideas.

Tuesday, 30 October 2001

Still too wet for Richard to finish the floors, but Fran continues making the internal doors. I paid Tony for the stainless steel we will use to make the balustrade on the front deck. He will hopefully start on that next week. Until the mortgage on the house comes through, we are now skint! Plenty to do with the materials to hand, though.

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