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

The library

Move over home theatre.  The library is back!

Our library:

  • a quiet place to escape to read a book
  • family television viewing area, incognito  (TV hidden behind art.  Shh!)
  • after-hours teleconference hub, away from the sleeping family

Library deliberations started months ago with the intent of picking a colour scheme because our builders will paint the house interior before handover.  I was going round in circles with too many options.  Moody colours, versus bright and natural.  Formal shelving including cabinets, versus informal, open shelving.    Since this room is mostly for The Nice Wolf, I held him hostage with my “Library” Pinterest folder until he picked his 5 favourite pictures, focussing on the mood.

Picture sources:  1-3  Tumblr – Original sources not found.  4.  Pottery Barn.

I ditched one slightly daggy picture, but as you can see he’s been trained well.  He selected pictures that are not only consistent with each other, but fit with the plans for the rest of the house too.

The room will be reasonably generous in size, with a 32 course ceiling.  The long shape and large opening to the hallway lends itself to bookshelves like these:

Bookshelves frame doorway

Photograph by Shannon McGrath.  Designed by studiofour as shown on Arch Daily.

This book shelf design is almost perfect for us.  But since it is a library and my husband has hundreds of books that he rereads, we want at least 2 walls of shelving.  I’m visualising one wood-backed wall, as above, (to hide sliding doors) and the other wall, without a back to avoid wood over-load.
Library floor plan

I spent one whole afternoon playing with the layout and the mood board.  I tried to squeeze in a second sofa, to no avail.

HBTW Library


  • Custom made shelves to match blackbutt floors.  (I may let the “Nice Wolf” DIY, but his DIY list is getting a bit long.)
  • Persian rug, looking modern when layered onto a neutral rug.  (How would that look in reality?)
  • Australian made desk (Domayne) and drawers (Mark Tuckey).
  • My old sofa looking fresh with some new linen.
  • Eames Lounge Chair or similar.

This space is tempting me already.

Building Lingo Quiz

What does it all mean?  That is the question.  Photo source:

What does it all mean? That is the question. Photo source: Pinterest (original source not found).

Hands up if you understand every word of your building contract?   Hmmm… I thought so.  What about your house plans?

A recent email from our builders (to explain a change in our retaining wall dimensions) may as well have been written in Dutch.  Like every industry, construction has plenty of jargon.  But when technical language requires my signature at the end of it, I want to know what it all means.  Already, there have been many occasions during our building process that I’ve had to look up word meanings or request more information.

For some serious help with understanding your builders, here are some references:

And for a light-hearted challenge, come this way….

Can you talk the talk?  Test your knowledge on House By The Water’s Building Lingo Quiz.

Click here to take the quiz:  Building Lingo Quiz.

(The link will open up a new tab in your browser.  The quiz should take less than 5 minutes.  Return here with your score.)

 What do your results mean?

80-100%:   You are probably in the trade.  This blog is the place for you.  I need your help.  Stick around and I’ll see what I can do about a slab.

60-79%:  You’ve done this before.  This blog is the place for you.  We’d love to see pictures of your new home and any good tips you might have to share.

40-59%:  You may not speak the language of construction, but at least you know your Australian slang.  This blog is the place for you.  I love a bit of an Aussie yarn.

0-39%:  Room(s) for improvement.  This blog is the place for you.  Stick with me and we’ll learn together.

*  Bonus points will be awarded for adding a comment about a new word you’ve learnt while building a home.



Checking the final plans.

Justine Hugh-Jones did not forget to design in some leg room.

Justine Hugh-Jones did not forget the leg room.

With the finish line in sight, it’s tempting to sprint.  Our final plans, variations and addenda arrived last week.  Signing off on these is our last task before our house construction begins.  We are so close to moving from paperwork to real-live tradespeople, concrete and bricks on our block.

I spent a couple of hours reviewing the 56 pages of plans and addenda and found a few minor errors.  An incorrectly located outdoor shower was the most significant mistake.  Nothing major, but still enough to need a fresh copy of most of the paperwork.  The corrected documents were back the next day.  I was just about ready to return the signed forms when I happened upon a photo of the Rubix kitchen, prompting a small voice in my head:  “Check the kitchen bench again.”  We altered the original kitchen island design to accommodate 5 pairs of legs sitting on stools.  As a result, we ended up with a waterfall-edged bench and lost a couple of small cabinets.  Somehow along the way the cabinets snuck back in and our bench top overhang disappeared.  Note to self: Check and check again.  I am the Chief in Charge of Checking in our family, which is all very well, but you know who’s going to be blamed if something is not right.  It is an understatement to say that I would kick myself if we were to have a huge, stunning kitchen island and 5 beautiful wooden tractor stools, and were unable to sit at the bench.

On other matters this week, the outdoor tiles we had selected to surround our pool have been discontinued.  We’ve had to pick a comparable replacement.  How do you like these porcelain beauties?

"Block" porcelain tiles by Marazzi.

“Block” porcelain tiles by Marazzi.

Before you start to worry, the slip rating is suitable for outside.

I’ve also been thinking about the front yard again.  We wanted to lock in the cobblestone driveway by paying a deposit, but as usual that triggered a chain of connected questions.  The cobblestone driveway guy might need to know that we want a motorised gate across the driveway.  Does a motorised gate need a track?  What kind of gate do we want? And what about doing the front fence, driveway and gate altogether?  Blah!  I guess that will be next week’s research.

Not wood.  Plain and simple, for showing off the garden.  Photo from: Factory Direct Fencing.

Can’t see any “track” here.  Source: Factory Direct Fencing.

Does anyone have a motorised gate?  Did you retrofit it?  Can I forget about this until later?  Please?


Photo by Ngoc Minh Ngo.

Photo by Ngoc Minh Ngo.

There’s a bit of a lull going on.  After a thorough check, we signed our 12 pages of variations to the contract.  In the end, our variation totalled $30K.  Most of that is for the retaining walls.  We tried to deal with the majority of our house plan tweaks before signing the contract, while the builder was still in sales mode.  (The changes we made pre-contract signing are listed on the House Plans page.)  Now Webb and Brown-Neaves will take a couple of weeks to update all our drawings to include the variations we’ve agreed to.  I suspect there will be more page signing to look forward to.

In the mean time, my trusty measuring tape and I have been busy.  I’ve been mulling over the house plans yet again and measuring up all our furniture to see what is going to fit where.  I’ve been taking notice of all the areas with nook potential.  It’s a completely lovely past-time.

Nook 1:  The dining room.

There is a one metre wide niche in our dining room. It is too small for our antique buffet table.  I think it could be the spot for a laptop nook, with a drawer or two to hide the bills.  One probably does not usually associate computers with dining rooms, but the reality is that laptops and iPads end up in the main living area.  I might aswell plan them a place.  In my head, there is a floating desk top and an occasional chair.   There is room for a laptop and a vase of flowers, nothing else.  I couldn’t find a picture to demonstrate this exact idea.  I’m going to start the trend.

Nook 2:  The hallway.

Surrounded by stairs and visible from the library, there is a nook in the hallway that is large enough to fit my favourite piece of furniture – a Tasmanian oak buffet table.  It will be the perfect place to drop the keys.  The landline telephone will be located here.

Nook 3:  The hallway (again).

This is more of a niche than a nook, just a 90mm indent in the wall.  I’m not sure if it is intended to be for a large painting, or whether it is a remnant of the original house design where a door to the study was located.  Anyway, it could house a painting, or it could fit a narrow bench upon which to sit and put on your shoes.

Nook 4:  Upstairs living area.

This large nook was designed to be a small library, but we’ve dedicated the entire home theatre to that.  In our house it will be more useful as a study/office storage area.

Not enough nooks for you?  You can find more on my Pinterest boards:

Breakfast in bed.

In my family, Mother’s Day is celebrated with breakfast in bed.  It’s usually something yummy that my husband has helped the Little Pigs make.  I do love breakfast in bed and I often try to sneak it in on non-celebration days too.  Which brings me to my latest dilemma….the position of the bed in the master bedroom.


Plan A shows the bed in the logical position, on the only uninterrupted wall in the room.  It leaves plenty of space for a chair or two by the windows.  But sitting up in bed, with my cup of tea, I may not be able to check out the water for passing dolphins.  I’d have to drag myself 4 metres to the chair, and that’s just not the same.

So I’m considering putting the bed in the middle of the room – there is enough space – like in Plan B or C.

But a bed in the middle of the room makes me worry about:

  • wasting space
  • it looking out of place
  • bad feng shui?   (Nah, I’m not really worried about that.)
  • and worst of all, its similarity to a certain famous pink bedroom on the Mandurah canals, exposed for all the tour boat patrons to see.  I can hear the commentary now:  “And this is where the blogger from HBTW eats her breakfast…”

Here are some examples of “bed-in-the-middle-of-the-room” done right:

The common theme here is a low wall, in these cases, built in.  Commitment required.

Here’s a possibility that would allow me to change my mind:

Dividers create a visual wall.  Looks OK, but could be clumsy without a real wall to keep it upright.  So how about this one?

This bed head would normally need a wall to prop it up, but my husband thinks that he could attach it to the bed to suit the middle of the room.  This last idea is growing on me by the minute, not least because we could do with a bit of a bed update.  Here’s an idea of how it might look in our room:

Domayne's "Amelie" bed head and some of our existing furniture.

Domayne’s “Amelie” bed head and some of our existing furniture.  (According to my husband, the silver tea set is not included.)

What do you think?  Could you, should you, would you put your bed in the middle of the room for a better view?  And, if so, what would you do with the “left over” narrow spaces created by this arrangement?

Happy Mother’s Day everyone!  You know where I’ll be!


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.

Building contract

The building contract has been doing laps in my head for over a week now and still it makes me nervous.  It’s not just the massive dollar figure that makes me feel a bit sick in the stomach, it’s the feeling of responsibility to get everything right.  My signature on there will mean that I’ve checked everything and found it to be correct.  It’s a good thing there is generous time allowed for signing before the fixed price expires.

For those who haven’t done this before, along with the standard building industry contract comes an addendum (all the details of what is included in the building price), a list of variations to the contract, updated floor plans, elevation drawings, site plans, electrical plans and carpentry plans.  Altogether there are 43 pages of text and 13 pages of plans, with cross references all over the place.

The potential for error is frightening.

The potential for error is frightening.

Up to this point, we’ve made many small changes to the standard house plan and we are probably up to version 5 or 6, but with so many changes, human error does sneak in.  With the luxury of time, I hope to:

  1. Understand everything that I sign.
  2. Minimise the little errors.
  3. Feel like the builders and I are “on the same page”, so to speak.

The “Rubix” – Coastal Elevation

The house we are building is called the “Rubix”.  It is no longer a display home, so we had been relying on house plans and old photos to picture what our future home would look like.  We weren’t too worried about that, after all plenty of people build custom homes that they’ve never seen before and I’d measured everything that resembled a living space for the past 6 months in order to get a feel for the size and space of the Rubix.  But, as luck would have it, while browsing around display homes, we found a “Rubix”, complete with the coastal elevation (non-standard roof line), the same as we have ordered.

The Rubix coastal elevation.  (Not open for viewing.)

The Rubix – coastal elevation. (Not open for viewing.)

Yup, it's big.

Yup, it’s big.

Not too shy to have a good gawk over the fence.

Not too shy to have a good gawk over the fence.

Our house will be the mirror image of this.  There is a lot of white going on there.  Nothing some outdoor furniture and good landscaping can't fix.

Our house will be the mirror image of this. There is a lot of white going on here, but nothing some outdoor furniture and good landscaping can’t soften.  Not to mention, my secret lighting feature – only to be revealed upon building completion.

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.