Racing season for builders.

Melbourne Cup?  Pffft.  All eyes in our household are on a different race.  It’s the race between our builders and the clock.  December 4th:  Practical Completion Inspection.  December 18th:  Keys to House By The Water.

Some punters don’t believe it will be done, but after the new pace set in October, I am backing Webb and Brown-Neaves.  I’m literally backing them.  I’ve booked short term accommodation until December 18th, not a day later.  We all know what happens after December 18th.  Nada!  Building industry shut down.

So what has been done this week?

Well, we have a new sign:

Webb and Brown-Neaves sign

Webb and Brown-Neaves upstaging our new letterbox.

And we have a new bill.  The so-called “lock up” stage has been reached with boards in place of many of the windows.  Several  windows are missing, some were broken during installation.

Lock up.

Lock up, sort of.

Our friendly tradie, who cleaned up the site last week, has laid some bricks to hide the pipe that drains rain water into the canal:

Bricked over pipe

Small steps this week.

One bath has been set in position and the plumber has the bathrooms all ready for tiles:


Bath in position.

The tiles and grout have been delivered, so there’s only one thing missing….. the tiler.

Come on, tiler!   Please be at our house tomorrow.


House progress

How did you choose your builder?

I’m back tracking a bit today, by about 2 and a half years. To that compulsive moment when we decided to buy a block of land and build a house on it. I admit that it was a fairly emotional decision, with very little comparison of alternatives, in terms of land or building versus buying a house. In our favour, we knew the area very well, having already lived nearby and we knew the location was not one we would regret. To our demise was our complete naivety about the cost of building.

I’m thinking of these things again now, because one of my sisters, let’s call her The Sensible One, is considering buying land with the plan to build her family home.

Choosing land:

Aside from the obvious fact that land should be somewhere you want or need to live, here are my thoughts based of the luxury of hindsight and from reading many a saga on the HomeOne Forum.

  • Siteworks, site works, site works!!! $$$$. Site works costs are not included in the sticker price of an “off-the-shelf” (volume builder’s) house. Site works vary greatly depending on the contour of the land and the geology. A “site survey” before you purchase can help builders to estimate some of the costs to prepare the land for building, but there is still the possibility of hitting unexpected problems (rock!) once site works start.
  • Location can limit your choice of builders.
  • Location can dictate some of your building choices, especially in a developer’s estate.  You’ll need to comply with their guidelines in addition to council regulations.
  • Orientation.  If you are aiming for a solar passive house, this factor might be critical, but let’s face it, not everyone in suburbia can choose the perfect North-facing block.  Volume builders will easily “flip” a house plan to improve a home’s thermal performance, while trees, screens and blinds (interior and exterior) are all simple solutions to reducing the impact of that pesky sun as it sets.

    Our land

    Don’t be fooled by a relatively innocent looking piece of land. The “provisional sum” for earth works on our 747 sqm block is $20 000, not including retaining walls.

Choosing a builder:

We chose our builders, Webb and Brown-Neaves, from a fairly limited pack.  The field was narrowed by our key requirements of the house, namely:

  • A footprint small enough to leave us with lots of outdoor space.
  • A house plan with rear living areas to make the most of a rear view.
  • Four bedrooms.

My shortlist of “off-the-shelf” (pre-designed) houses that fitted these requirements was very small. In the end, we were wooed by a floor plan with a void space above the living area.  It seemed to us to take a house from ordinary to amazing.  Although we didn’t know any one who had built with Webb and Brown-Neaves, they had a good reputation, having built houses on the Mandurah canals for a long time.  Of course, I looked for online reviews for WBN and found a mixed bag.   With only 22 reviews over 7 years, I didn’t really trust this source.  It seemed to me that the minority of customers that couldn’t resolve problems with their build had headed there to seek revenge.  And a few blissfully happy customers had been encouraged to submit a review to balance the ratings.  Every one had either rated Excellent or Bad/Terrible.  There was no in-between.

I’ve noticed that many of the mega building companies, particularly in the East of Australia, have many more reviews.  Take Metricon, for example.  They have 400+ reviews.  Perhaps you can give it some credence but I wouldn’t use these reviews alone.  In fact, one of Metricon’s competitors was accused of offering rewards for customers positive reviews.

My big-sisterly suggestions for selecting a “volume builder” are:

  • Stalk the area you plan to build in for new homes recently built by the companies that interest you.  (Or you could try asking the companies for references.)  Talk to the home owners and ask how they found the process and how satisfied they are with their home.
  • Stalk the area you plan to build in to see home building in progress.  If you go on weekends, you might get to chat with some customers.
  • Get acquainted with the HomeOne Forum.   Lots of Australians thinking about building, going through the process, recently built and even repeat-building customers hang out there.  There are some building professionals there too, adding their two-bobs worth from time to time.  Follow some threads from your area.  You’ll soon discover that very few builds are stress free and problems arise.  Most customers quickly forget the problems when they move into a new house that they are happy with, others stay unhappy.  For the larger building companies, in the low to medium price spectrum, there are enough people on the Forum to form a balanced idea about how the companies generally perform.   You can get an idea of pre-construction issues, build times, the range of costs that are added on to sticker prices, customer service and how companies deal with problems.
  • Last, but definitely not least, read some independent blogs written by builder’s customers.   (Duh!!!)  There are plenty out there.  Some are tricky to find, but once you find one addressing a particular company, it will often lead you to many more.  Ask the blogger questions.  Bloggers are friendly people!

So, readers, since I’m no expert here;

What advice would you give my sister for selecting land and a builder?

The Sensible One, all the answers are just for you.  Feel free to pipe in with questions. xxx

Building the roof

Roof preparation and an inspection.

Between rain, public holidays galore and short brickies the estimated 3 weeks to complete our second storey of bricks turned into 7.   Just kidding about the brickies, but we do have a few high sections of brickwork at the front of our house, which meant that an extra lift of scaffolding was required to access the work.  Extra scaffolding = extra time.

The roof carpenters then took their turn and worked like Trojans (on a public holiday)!  Chippies, I owe you beer.

Chippies at work on the weekend.

Chippies at work on the weekend.

Skillion roof taking shape.

Skillion roof taking shape.

Lots of wood, steel and ties.

Lots of wood, steel and ties.

When the roof carpenters finished last week, our air-conditioning installer popped by to check everything was set to accommodate the air-conditioning ducts in the roof.  He’ll be back once the roof is on to install it.  The roof sheets were measured up and ordered which left me a little confused about why they are not pre-ordered based on the house drawings.  Not to worry, it is not holding the process up and our Site Supervisor expects the roof to be on by the end of this week.

Before the roof goes on, there was an opportunity to inspect the brickwork and roof carpentry.  We hired an independent building inspector to take a look and assess the work completed against building codes and/or Australian Standards.   We are pleased that overall the inspector found a “good industry standard” on site.  There are a few non-compliant issues:

  1. Absent weep holes (to let any moisture between the double brick walls escape)
  2. Sloppy mortar bridging the space between the double brick walls (which can lead to moisture build up and mould)
  3. Inadequate mortar filling where toothing occurs in the brick work (creating weak spots)
  4. Absence of parging on the recessed slab, as per drawings.  OK, I had to look this one up.  Parging is “a thin coat of a cementitious (!!!) or polymeric mortar applied to concrete or masonry for refinement of the surface.” (Thank you Wiki).  Parging is applied for various reasons, e.g. termite deterent, air barrier, but I’m not sure of its purpose in our case.

Webb and Brown-Neaves have the report now and I feel confident that the brickies will be sent back to site to fix up these issues before it’s too late.  Speaking of too late, probably we should have had a building inspection before the suspended slab was poured.  Much of the sloppy mortar in the cavities will be inaccessible by now.

I have a new found appreciation for Australian building standards following the recent disappearance of our carpark.  Yes, that’s right.  Our car park, here in Brazil, along with a 10 x 2 meter brick wall and several other car parking spaces, recently fell about 10 metres down into the neighbour’s excavated site.  My unqualified opinion on the matter is that they cut too close to our residence and should have reinforced the wall, especially before the rainy season.  Luckily, my husband and I had taken note of the rather close excavations and had started parking a little further away from the wall.  One of our neighbours was less fortunate.

I added a new page to the blog today for the serious build followers.   You can view our build Time Line by clicking on the link in this sentence or by using the page menu on the left side bar.   This page contains links to all my blog posts about the building process.  I’ll update the Time Line as we progress.


Building inspections.

Our house is being built in Australia and we are not there yet.  You’ve heard me fretting, rather pathetically, about not seeing our house grow up and desperately dropping hints for our local friends to send me progress photos.  You can imagine my delight to learn that our Site Supervisor is not only adept at typing an informative email but can also take a great photo!

This photo comes to you care of Brian, our Site Supervisor:

Since it is Tradies Health Month, I am

Since it is Tradies Health Month, I can only be pleased that such great access has been created for delivering bricks right to the work site for minimal handling.

Last week the area surrounding our retaining wall footings was cleared to allow access for bricks.  Bricks, sand and cement should now be on site and the bricklayer will take about a week to build up the retaining walls and planter boxes.  The walls will then be “cavity filled” with concrete.

In the mean time, I’ve been looking into building inspections.  I consider building inspections to be a layer of insurance – protecting against human error.  Even if we were around to regularly view the work of our builders, we’d be kidding ourselves if we thought we could judge the correctness of all the work.  Building is such a huge investment that getting an independent inspector in at key stages of the build seems like a “no brainer”.  So my research has been about the timing and number of inspections and the cost.

There are various opinions regarding when it’s best to inspect – some are based on payment instalments, others based on the building process.  Brian Ashworth from A New House suggests either a 3 or 5 inspection approach:

5 inspections:

  • Base – before slab pouring to check slab location, plumbing and site drainage.
  • Frame – to check frame and slab.
  • Lockup – to check the outer shell of the house for weather proofing and brickwork quality.  Plumbing, electrical work and insulation may also be checked now.
  • Fixing – to check waterproofing of wet areas and the location of all fixtures (sinks, cabinets, architraves, etc.)
  • Practical Completion – for the last chance to address any errors before handover.

3 inspections:

  • Base – as above.
  • Pre plaster – a combine frame/lockup inspection before plasterboards are installed.
  • Practical Completion – as above.

From a quick wiz around the web, I would say that an average price per inspection and report is about $500, with inspections at some stages costing more than others.  Some companies offer a package price for the series of inspections.

So far the quote I’ve received is more expensive than this, but the inspector has been recommended by one of my trusty readers. We are also building a large house (432 square metres including garage, alfresco and porch) and are probably located an hour away from the inspector’s office, so perhaps we can expect to pay a bit more.

We are planning to inspect at these stages:

  1. Base/Pre slab.  $595.
  2. Brickwork completed and roof frame erected to check brickwork, cavities, cavity trays, lintels, concrete slab, wall plate, roof frame etc.  $695.
  3. Practical completion.  $995.

Have you used an inspector?  What problems might you have had if you didn’t?  If I pay an inspector a couple of thousand dollars and he can honestly tell me that the builders have done a great job with high standards and in accordance with our plans, then I’ll be very happy.

The Sign has arrived.

Hello builders!

Hello builders!

Wooohoooo!   Yeah Baby.  Woot! Woot!  Do a little happy dance….

My Mandurah spies sent me this photo today.  Yup.  We have a sign.  The builders have arrived on the block!

There’s been a bit of a block tidy up too.  Our neighbours are extending and for the past year have had the luxury of our vacant block for parking, crane access, brick storage and garbage skips.  Thumbs up for leaving our place clear.

Block cleared.

Block cleared.

I’m excited.  That’s all.

For the love of a cobblestone driveway.

Cobblestone driveway by William Dangar on Flickr.

Cobblestone driveway by William Dangar on Flickr.

Pavers are fine, but cobblestones are special!  They remind me of some of the beautiful old cities that I’ve visited around the world.  We asked our builders to change the standard driveway pavers to cobblestones.  They said “No problem.  That’ll be $70K.”  Undeterred and encouraged by my blog readers I asked for some independent quotes.  Happily, we now have a quote for $25K and are waiting for some more quotes.  Still rather extravagant for a driveway but, as you will have gathered by now, sometimes we are suckers for something beautiful.  Our builders will credit us about $5000 for the driveway pavers that were included in our contract.

One decision always seems to lead to another with building plans, so now that we are mentally committed to the cobblestone driveway we’ve realised we need to consider the track across the driveway that will host the automatic/motorised gate.  That means we need to think about the front fence again.  I’m going in circles!

We are still being drip fed variation costs.  The latest being $2300 for dropped footings to the dining room and alfresco walls, over which our deck will be laid.  We are still missing an actual sum (as opposed to a provisional sum) for the earth works.  Despite this we have received our final variation cost sheets for signing.  For the next day or two I will be triple checking all the documents but I think our pre start consultant has it under control.  The messiest item to check is the electricals and lighting.  The provision of lights comes from one company, the smart wiring from another, and the installation is by the builder.  Some of the lights, electricals and installations are included, others are not.  During a quick scan, I spotted the words “oyster lights”, so I’m suspicious that I’m going to find some mistakes in there.

Enough chatter.  Can you tell that I’m avoiding checking those documents one last time?



How many blog readers does it take to pick a light bulb ?

While we wait for the pre start variations to be priced up, it is fairly quiet on the house planning front.  We’ve had a change in pre-construction consultants and apparently everyone working on our plans is on holidays.  Another week like this one and I’m going to have to go shopping again.  (See Patience and Building.)

Here are a few bits and pieces we’ve been thinking about:

1.  Changing the front door to make the most of a good looking security screen door.  We want a screen door so that we can open up the solid doors and let the breeze through the house.  We like this screen door from Entanglements:  Screen doorWe changed our front door from the door on the left to the door on the right:

Webb and Brown-Neaves’ interior designer recommended glass over a solid door to keep our entry light.  We think it is good advice and it will have the added advantage that we will be able to appreciate the fancy screen door from both inside and outside the house.  I know that some people prefer to be able to hide behind their front door, but a tall front fence, clever lighting and landscaping should be able to prevent sticky-noses from seeing into our house.  Worst case scenario is that we have to install blinds on the inside of the front door.

2.  The number of pendant lights above our kitchen bench.

An attempt at showing the correct scale for kitchen bench, pendant lights (36 cm diameter) and ceiling height.

An attempt at showing the correct relative scale for our kitchen bench, pendant lights (36 cm diameter) and ceiling height.

For a 3 metre long bench, many advise 3 pendants but my favourite pendants for the bench are quite chunky and three doesn’t seem right to me.  So my husband put a life-size picture of the pendants up on our television screen and I got out my trusty measuring tape to get a feel for the bench size.  I had just about decided that two pendants would be OK when some sensible person on the HomeOne Forum reminded me that I also need to consider the light projecting onto the bench in order to achieve consistent lighting across the bench surface instead of strange shadows.  Back to square one.  There are so many variables at play here that I’ve decided to do nothing!  Our lighting plan remains unchanged with 2 pendant lights and my fingers are crossed that the down lights in and around the kitchen will make the question of pendant number aesthetic rather than mathematic.

3.  With recent motivation from various sources, including my own blog post about taking photos of the building process, I’ve decided it’s time to get over my fear of photography.  So far the good pictures on this blog belong to someone else.  I’d like to be able to take photos of our house that I don’t have to apologise for.  Here’s the result of my first practice session.

Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified folding stool, made in Brazil by Butzke.

When this little baby finds its way to House By The Water it will either be sitting beside the bath, keeping a glass of wine upright, or snuggling next to a comfy sofa waiting for a cup of tea.

Watching the build.

It has occurred to me that I’m going to have a bit of trouble keeping an eye on the build.

In case you missed it in a previous post, there is the small issue of the house being built in Western Australia, and me being currently located in far, far away Brazil.  (The house is my dangling carrot.  One more international assignment then I can settle down into blissful, ordinary, predictable, normal Australian suburbia, in a beautiful family house with a lovely view.)

Despite the geographical challenge, you’ve probably noticed that I’m doing my best to enjoy every minute of the building process.  I’ve let my fingers do the walking and there is not too much that can’t be done online.  I realised this morning, that most of the big decisions are just about made and in a few months, it will be time for me to chill out and let the builders do their thing.  But I know that most people who build visit their developing home at least once a week to check on progress and take a few exciting photos of flat paddocks of sand, slabs, piles of bricks, wiring, scaffolding and that sort of thing.

"Sunset over slab".  Photo by Brilliana.  at Film and Fancy.

“Sunset over slab” by Brilliana von Katterfeld at Film and Fancy.

You may not be sorry that you could miss out on these types of photos, but me, I’m like a doting new parent- I want to see it all!  So I’ve come up with a few schemes to overcome my problem of being an absentee home-under-construction owner:

  1. Install web cams.  I couldn’t find a precedent for this.  I suspect it would a) p… off the tradespeople and b) be way too complicated for someone who thinks Smart Wiring is a shoe-phone belonging to Agent 86.
  2. Employ Agent 86.
  3. Approach Mandurah Cruises to see if they will reroute their daily cruise past our block and ask their tourists to email me iPhone pictures.
  4. Convince the very lovely, smart, wise and, not to mention, handsome (or should that be beautiful?) builder’s liaison officer to send me weekly progress pictures.
  5. Bribe local neighbours, friends and readers to regularly paddle/drive/ride/walk/ motor past our block and send me photos.  I’m thinking of a roster system.  Payment by the universally accepted currency, beer.  Actually, I already owe one homemade apple pie and one home cooked meal for similar favours.  I might have to start a new page to keep track of I.O.U.s.  No, I’ve got it – payment in wine on the HBTW deck once it’s done.  Any takers?

I’ll leave you with a beautiful house building photo, thanks to Brilliana von Katterfeld at Film and Fancy.  Don’t you love the colour palette?  Teal tinged trusses, sandy bricks, Scandinavian-inspired grey minimalist shed, bitumen in metallic platinum gloss.  Film and Fancy house

Display home INspiration

On my recent whirlwind trip to Western Australia to “sort out house stuff” I visited a few of Webb and Brown-Neaves display homes.  I thought that I should see some of building company’s fit-out options in real life to see what I liked.  My theory was that when it is time to select tiles, colours and fittings, I can just say “I like the tiles in the Azumi bathroom”.  I’m not sure that it will all be as simple as that, since display homes are often finished with non-standard (more expensive) fittings.  Never-the-less I took a few pictures.  (Apologies to WBN for my clumsy photography.  If you want the posh version, check out their website.)

A "waterfall" kitchen bench in the "Etesian" kitchen.

A “waterfall” kitchen bench in the “Etesian” kitchen.

I love the white shutters and wood floors in the Etesian display home.

I love the white shutters and wood floors in the Etesian display home.

We have added the "Azumi's" bathroom vanity to our ensuite, in lieu of the slightly dagga standard Rubix vanity.

We have added the “Azumi’s” bathroom vanity to our ensuite, in lieu of the slightly daggy standard Rubix vanity.

I was impressed that I had to check if this was laminate or wood.  It's laminate.  Seen here at the Brindebella display home.

I was impressed that I had to check if this was laminate or wood. It’s laminate. Seen here at the Brindebella display home.

Blanco oven.  One of two ovens that we will have in our home.

Blanco oven. One of two ovens that we will have in our home.

House plans

At last, we can reveal our house plans.  Our “house by the water” will be based on the “Rubix” plan by builders Webb and Brown-Neaves.  Last week we signed a PPA (preliminary plans agreement) to build the “Rubix” – making a commitment with our signatures and a payment equal to 3% of the build price.  We’ve been playing with the standard plan for a few months, making adjustments to suit our site, taste and family size.  The most obvious change we made is to the roof line.  We’ve selected a “coastal elevation” which softens the look of the house.  Other changes include increasing the size of the dining room window, changing sliding doors to stacking doors, changing the design of the kitchen bench to accommodate 5 stools and turning the study into a 4th bedroom.  We also added a laundry chute, an external door to the powder room (for poolside access), a 900mm freestanding oven, space for a chest freezer, and provision for future gas fireplace, gas to the alfresco dining area and water for an outdoor shower.

Ground floor.

Ground floor.

Upper floor

Upper floor

What we love about this plan:

  • The void space above the living area.
  • Open, rear living.
  • Plenty of windows to the canal view.
  • An indulgent kitchen space, including the scullery.
  • Plenty of space to add storage/cabinetry to rooms later.
  • Plenty of room left on the block to enjoy the outdoors.
Site plan showing plenty of room to entertain and play outdoors.  There is even room for a veggie patch.

Site plan showing plenty of room to entertain and play outdoors.   I’ve cut the plan short, but there is even room in the front yard for a veggie patch.