Building has been a great challenge for me. It is a series of challenges. It’s an activity that manages to fill my entire consciousness, it is all consuming even entering my dreams. The creative process of bringing some new space into the world. The logical and logistical challenges of co-ordinating equipment, materials, labour. It tests every ethic and principle. There is always another way of doing things, people are often very happy to offer their opinion about what you or another labourer has done wrong.
I found that during each build that there was a stage where things looked really ugly. It was as if all I had done was waste a lot of time, money and made a huge mess. I came to recognise and enjoy that moment, it meant that soon things would look better and work would again seem to get traction.
The building process changed me.
When I first started building I would chronically over estimate. Whether it was a quantity of materials or cut on a piece of wood instead of aiming for exactness, I would add a bit. Sometimes a lot. With materials I would justify it to myself by saying something along the lines of “the delivery fee is the same, so a few extra spares are better value” or “I can always cut a bit more off but I can’t add any back on”.
My initial planning was often quite good and those extra, unnecessary items would remain unused first becoming clutter, then waste.
Those bits of wood would need to be cut again, wasting time and interrupting my flow. It took a quite a few lessons before I readjusted my sights for as close to exact as I could get it and then focus in to hone that, instead spending time dealing with the excess.
It takes time for skills to catch up with new intentions but the pile of leftovers has been getting progressively smaller as projects go on.
Some surplus items are more durable and useful that others. In this composting toilet build, excess concrete blocks quickly found their way to other jobs (such as keeping timber off the ground). The extra unnecessary bags of cement went off and were only good for a fraction of their potential. I drilled a hole into them and dyna-bolted a right angle bracket to form a weak footing for a shed.
When you are self building it is possible to enter a timeless state of being.
In this state you are focused entirely on the task at hand, each activity effortlessly flows into the next. Mind and body are in harmony and my will is able to be realised in earth, stone and wood. I would see a clear image of what I wanted to do in my mind and then the steps required to get there. It is a glorious life affirming state of experience.
There are a few conditions that I found inhibited this flow state.
One of those is running a generator or petrol motor.
Mixing concrete by hand is exhausting, heavy work. Using the petrol mixer greatly sped up proceedings and reduced the callousness of the work, but increased the rate that ingredients needed to be collected from their respective sand, gravel and cement piles as well as further loading our senses with the noise and fumes of the machine.
Once the power system was connected, an electric mixer made the process far more enjoyable.
I am yet to order a truck of cement but I look forward to the opportunity to do away with the mixing process entirely.
There is a certain honour in taking time and expending effort into something that has cost the earth a lot to provide, will last many decades and is responsible for holding the entire structure together. That being said, mixing concrete would be my least favourite of the many and varied jobs on the building site.
Accurate assessment of the scale of the works makes the process as clean and easy as it can be. For patching, a bucket is fine. For mortaring the wheelbarrow is often enough because of the pace of the process. Once you start pouring more than a half a cubic meter of foundations a mechanical mixer becomes worth its while. When you get to 3 cubic meters, or a decent sized slab then it is worthy of a cement truck load.
When mixing larger quantities of concrete it is very important to take the time to set up the space. It is easy to see the difference from our initial attempts at foundation mixing to the more recent.
The use of power tools greatly speeds up work. I found electric saws and drills did not distract my own mental focus as long as they were connected to our solar power system (although I am sure that they are to those around me).
Unfortunately our most powerful drill at full torque load which is required when driving long batten screws into hardwood would overload the inverter and require us to use the generator.
I found it much more difficult to maintain my personal rhythm with the generator on, it was difficult to relax and the team was more prone to be irritable or impatient with each other and the work. I felt an extra pressure to get the job over with so that I could turn it off again. There is a numbing of our sensitivity and that sensitivity is essential for the detailed, quality work standard that we wanted.
There is a recognised tension between speed, cost and quality.
One of the Permaculture principles is use and value renewable resources. There is a good range of natural building materials, and often there is one that is uniquely suited to a particular site. Timber was my first choice in most cases. It is a renewable resource that is warm, durable, workable, modular, transportable and beautiful.
I like earth buildings but saw their vulnerabilities in the subtropical conditions near Nimbin. One local natural building we inspected had mud wasps raiding the earth bricks for their own homes. Our sandy soil was not suitable for it either, a particular balance of sand & clay is required. Tons of raw material would need to be brought on site and oversized foundations need to be made.
For the poles we were able to use trees that were felled from our block. It was extremely satisfying to have such a close circle from felling to final use. The trees were selected for their suitability, solar gain to the house & gardens and proximity for moving. Some of the trees were also a considerable risk to the existing assets, so a local tree climber was employed to put a rope up and ensure that they fell exactly where we wanted them.
Green round timber is very heavy and the trees that best fit the bill were Grey Iron Bark, among the hardest and heaviest of all.
Timber lends itself well to future extension being easy to cut, drill and bolt on to.
It has limitations in lengths and spans. Lengths from our local mill were a very good price up to 4.5 m. Beyond that meant longer waiting times and higher price per meter. Maximum timber spans are set by the Australian Standard Building Code, they are shorter than the equivalent dimension in steel.
For dimensional timbers we chose to use untreated, green milled native hardwoods from Hogan’s Mill in Kyogle. The availability & affordability of these large dimension hardwoods will vary greatly with the area.
Another key consideration in their selection was the full product life cycle. Other competing building products become toxic waste at the end of their usable life, such as treated pine & laminated beams.
The use of recycled timber was considered but we couldn’t justify the time it would take to source the materials and prepare them for reuse. If upfront capital was less available than our free time then this option would have been more closely considered. We did investigate it, visiting and questioning Keber in Murwillumbah who offer high quality recycled timber, but found the price difference not able to justify the advantages. Recycled timber also tends to be much harder to drill and saw than green timber, this is already a big factor in using hardwoods.
Colourbond steel was the most available & affordable roofing material. It seems to have surpassed zincalume and galvanised iron. It is widely available from a selection of suppliers in Lismore. Hurfords Steel was our supplier for half our projects. Some other tin for the sheds was acquired piece by piece from Nimbin Building Supplies, it was new offcuts or seconds that came in various lengths at a much better price.
Seconds and offcuts vary from recycled roofing in that they don’t already have holes drilled for the roofing screws. Recycled pieces are mostly suited to wall cladding, covering other materials or other lower order uses where full integrity isn’t required. If it is all you have available be sure to lay it so the holes are on the high point of the channels and then seal them with silicone.
For the deck roof we chose our first “hi-tech” material in polycarbonate. We did this because of the desire to maintain direct sunlight entering the house from the north east.
The latest generation poly carbonate promises to correct some of the shortcomings of previous clear roofing materials such as brittleness over time, clouding, yellowing/browning & flammability. It also comes with a lifetime warranty. The true test for it will come with time and inevitably the time will come that it becomes landfilled plastic waste.
One of the limitations of using polycarbonate, and most clear roofing products is that they are not strong enough to stand on like a regular metal roof. When I next use the material again I would definitely compromise the amount of light entering and alternate between colourbond and poly sheets so that the roof is still mostly traffic-able for ease of cleaning and palm frond removal.
It is also possible to get various grades of light and heat permeability, I chose clear for the greatest transmission of both. This isn’t normally recommended but our site is special in that come mid-summer it has tree cover for all but a couple of hours, preventing overheating. The roof is also very high and the room is quite breezy.
It is important to keep the building site as clean and organised as possible. Constantly spending time looking for tools, materials or ways through the site makes for a very expensive and frustrating build. When working with other people, make sure all your tools are clearly marked and be consistent and insistent that things are put back where they belong. A good clean workspace to grind, sharpen and oil tools such as chisels and chainsaws is well worth the effort, working with blunt tools is difficult, dangerous and very frustrating.
Just as important as the physical site is the mental site. Have a good clear plan with the necessary steps of the process, mistakes can quickly compound if a step is skipped over or a mistake is made. Such as not double checking the string lines before digging, and assuming without making sure that the holes are in the right spot before pouring the concrete.
Good communication skills are a critical tool to have in the toolbox. Maintaining goodwill and trust amongst all the people involved in the build is very important for things to flow smoothly. It allows for people to look out for one another, another perspective is very helpful in seeing potentials arise before they become problems.
Building while overly tired, stressed or intoxicated is inviting an accident and never saves time. Mistakes need to be fixed and injuries can take a very long time to heal. Thankfully I was blessed by clear lessons from those around me and have not been injured any more seriously than scratches, splinters and sprains so far. A friend cut himself very badly using a grinder without a firm two-handed grip.
With that in mind, this is physical work and a bit of fatigue is inevitable and signals to the body that it needs to build muscle & stamina. It is quite natural to feel tired after a long days work.
An important component of evaluation is to reflect on what did not go well and how you could improve your processes for the next time.
I found that building as close to standard practice as possible makes a much easier build, especially when working with other people. Our substructure is very ordinary, straight lines, squares, standard lengths etc.
One of the things that did not go so smoothly in the builds was changing between various trades. We used different people for the many different stages of construction, sometimes through circumstance and sometimes through choice. There was often a lot of time spent familiarising themselves with idiosyncrasies of the previous work, often accompanied with an unfavourable review. Many of these idiosyncrasies were due to my own inexperience in the standards of construction.
As the projects went on, I acquired a keener eye for the subtle and not so subtle standards of work, due care and attention to specifications. I was able to make adjustments, suggestions and corrections on the fly as I saw something amiss or that I needed to further understand before it was set in concrete.
This keyed in the importance for me of being onsite and involved (even as an active observer) when people are doing building or earth works. The bigger the machine, the keener the eye and more attentive the observation. There is also the process of finding the voice to speak up when there isn’t something quite right (or when something works really well). I asked many novice questions to the skilled builders here and they were often happy to explain and teach me. I was also able to correct silly mistakes before they became problems by knowing what was happening and making a suggestion.
It is so important to correct problems & mistakes early. They quickly compound to the point of disfunction when it becomes easier to pull everything down back to that point to get it right. If something is built out of square then all the other pieces that attach to it will also be out of square.
For example a mistake we made when building the first stage of the carport was having the foundations just out, the margin of error was only very small. I had unskilled, unpaid help and was just happy to see it being built. We put the posts up without checking the foundations and had no reason to suspect any issues. The beams went up and again my approximate levels where considered good enough for a bush shed. I was cutting into round posts so there was a bit of a squew in those too. Then the rafters went on and when it came time to brace the building I could definitely see that something wasn’t quite right. I couldn’t do much about it nor really wrap my head around the problem so continued and put the roof on, it didn’t go on straight and looked strange with one side overhanging more than the other.
The problem didn’t really come to a head though until it was time to build off that shed. This time I used a skilled builder to get it up quickly as we suddenly needed a bigger shed and as a training ground for the bigger project of the deck roof. Once the swearing had subsided, the new builder had to remove the existing tin that was on the roof and then twist the whole structure to fit the new square building that he was making off it. The effect looks as if the whole lot is going to fall down, despite being quite strong. There is also additional stress on the fasteners.
As the issue was in the foundations, it could not be easily fixed at the source but an experienced builder with an eye for that detail at that point could have used a bush pole with a bend in it (as we did on the deck roof) to cancel out the error and bring the building back to square.
Along the way I reached states of feeling really connected to the land, building, builder and process. Joyful moments of crystal clear purpose & intention. I got a sense of power from seeing what was once in my mind form in the physical world. Strong, real and durable with details and beauty that I hadn’t imagined. I now feel that I am able to meet the needs of providing shelter.
I also reached a few states of hubris. I knew the basics, I knew what the builder was going to do next and thought I can do this, why am I paying him?
There is a difference between knowing what to do and doing it. A wide gulf in fact. I am not shy to say that my mental capacity & belief that I can do everything I need to do is further developed than my physical capacity. When I had these feelings though, I would get involved and quickly discover that there is a lot more to cutting wood than meets the eye. Even making simple straight cuts at an exact length is a skill that needs to be honed. It made me far more appreciative of the precision of the work and the more advanced techniques.
As I acquired more skill in the diverse arts of construction my relationship to the built world around me also changed. It deepened my appreciation for good architecture and gave me the critical eye to recognise a bad job. I also developed much greater respect for the general trade of builders. There are so many facets and specific skills to the raising of a building.
Finally it gave me confidence to offer what I have learned as a project manager in a professional capacity. Another skill in my permaculture tool belt.
When it comes to the components that you actually see and touch to we put the extra time and effort into working with natural materials in their raw form or adding custom details. This pattern adds a uniqueness, magic and character to a building that we found to be the most endearing features. It also goes a long way to bringing the new structure into harmony with its environment.
Using round timbers and natural stone does take extra time to work around the inherent irregularities. However once the job is done those frustrating elements transform into the most beautiful features.
Building is exciting, amazing and empowering. The absolute best part is when it is finally over however and you can clean it all up and start to live in the new space you have just created.
1.1 Edited 15.9.2010