Sunday, September 11, 2011

How It All Began

It's time to look back.

How can one recall all the factors that have led to the conception of a design, then brought forth a renewed building?

I suppose it all began when we bought our postwar cottage. It was well-built and comfortable and, I remember saying, it would be easy to extend from the kitchen/dining area, into the lovely north-facing back yard. Not that we wanted to, of course, but it would be possible.

But we bought in October, so one of the disadvantages of our house did not become apparent to us for a good six months. While the back yard was full of bright northerly light -- in fact, a bit too much light for comfort in summer -- the house did not make any use of it. Here, count the windows on the back yard side.

One for the dining room, one for a bedroom, and the other two rooms getting that premium light are... the bathroom and toilet! And that's the laundry in the middle, shielding the rest of the house from light and heat. It's a lovely house in summer, keeping its back to the sun. There are big windows on the street side to catch the cooling southerlies. Most of the time, it's a cool, well-ventilated house.

Winter is considerably less pleasant. Cool becomes cold, and ventilation becomes draught. The occasional overnight minimum of -3 C won't sound like much to Europeans, until you realise how Australian houses leak air. Every room has wall vents open to the outside -- and you can't close them. Our windows and doors aren't made to be airtight, and our thickest winter clothes are thin by European standards.

Then I found this amongst the building books at work.

This excellent book is still in print, and is a helpful guide to energy efficient thermal comfort for Australians (particularly in our major cities). I don't know how many times I borrowed Warm House Cool House, fascinated by the possibilities which would make suburban housing so much more liveable. One of my first decisions was that if I ever extended the house, I would need a concrete slab on the northern side of my house for thermal mass in winter, and big windows to let in winter sun. But this fit in with the location of the maybe-extension anyway.

In summer, of course, I'd need to have my slab and window shaded with an external pergola smothered in passionfruit vine. But that's what Sydneysiders do with passionfruit plants: if it isn't a pergola, it's a verandah, and it will have a passionfruit vine. (The choko vine goes over the shed and dunny.)

Then the news of the Greenhouse Effect reached the general public. I'd heard of it, of course; John Seymour mentioned it in his 1987 book, Blueprint for a Green Planet, which I had bought. (I suppose John Seymour had better take some credit for this extension too!) The populous parts of Australia were in drought. I never ran out of cloth nappies for the Twig, because the washing was never rained on.

At the same time I was pondering my own wealth. Unlike many Australians, I'm aware that I'm wealthy on a global scale and on the national scale. It seemed to me that to consume water and energy excessively was unbecoming for a follower of a famously homeless man.

Of course, a major extension is also expensive. You can do a cheap extension, but it's usually ugly, made of cheaper materials, uninsulated and generally tends to result in more consumption later, whether because of increased running costs (eg heating uninsulated rooms) or maintenance and replacement of the materials. We didn't want that. We wanted to do something that would be beautiful and long-lasting. There are plenty of cheap extensions in our area as it is not a wealthy part of Sydney.

Like many gardeners, I've been aware for quite some time that water ought to be conserved (and that there are better things to do with stormwater than push it all out to sea), that artificial fertilisers and so on are not healthy foods for soils, and that pesticides and herbicides often create more problems than they solve as they damage biodiversity. I have a basic understanding of soil chemistry. I love fresh air, sunshine and flowers and didn't want to be breathing in too many outgassed chemicals from glues and paints.

Michael Mobbs made me aware of the ubiquity of PVC in the building trade and the possibility of replacing it with other materials. I even considered leaving the town water supply as he did, but decided that the costs and disadvantages were prohibitive.

The ultimate frustration with our house was down to the simple fact that a house that was comfortable for a working-class family in 1946 was not always a good fit for a middle-class family in 2011. The kitchen was built for the rationing period, and for a family who might have risen to an ice chest, not a modern fridge. The back yard was not a place you took your few guests; it was where you grew your vegetables and hung your washing--the home barbecue had not yet arrived in Australian culture. There was nowhere for us to sit outside, really, until a volunteer mulberry grew to shade the home-built carport. The dining table didn't quite fit into the dining room and we didn't quite fit into the lounge room, either.

Eventually, we went to Archicentre and used their flat-fee service to develop a concept plan. We liked it so much that we retained the architect, Peter Katris, for the project. And last night, we slept in our renewed house for the first time.

Here's the short version of the list of reasons for extending as we did:
  • Easy to extend this particular house
  • Allow for modern use of space: outdoor entertaining, computers, etc
  • Provide bigger kitchen and lounge room
  • Provide better articulation to back yard, and an outdoor sitting area
  • Improve thermal efficiency of house: better access to sun and light, and better ventilation control
  • Replace inefficient/non-functioning appliances
  • Improve stormwater management and conservation
  • To beautify the house and maintain the heritage of our street
  • To minimise the use of certain plastics where practicable
I'll post more information about some of our decisions later.


Lanie said...

Great post - always love a good overview of what people have done since buying. I'll have to get hold of the book Warm House, Cool House...and great tip about the architect too.

Anonymous said...

How exciting to be home again. Hope the move went well!


Sarah @ Modern Country Style said...

It's lovely to see all the hard work you've put into your house....seeing it all come together must be incredible!


Sarah @ Modern Country Style said...

Those are great tips! Thank you! We're in the process of beginning an extension on our house!! I'll be looking up those books!