Owner Builder

Undertaking to build your own home comes with consequences. Pavle Radonic reflects on the ups and downs experienced by the Owner Builder

March 2, 2014

The first night we lay up in bed like a couple of chipmunks observing our new habitat. The light from the roof-windows was producing unusual, shifting perspectives. Under the high raked ceilings down at floor level on the futon the intricacies of the space had us quietly attentive. From the far corner of the front window the street lamp shone dully through tree branches, the pole and the silvered wires making an interesting composition in the left sash. Bin had to lean across from her side of the bed to see it. Initially that window had been drawn as a conventionally pretty kind of ornament, part rustic, part Tudor. After a number of discussions at the office, where the beginnings of some mutuality of thinking developed, a less domestic look was settled upon. Neither of us knew at the time of those deliberations that we would be living there, within those lines on paper, together. We hadn’t started up as yet, and were slow to do so.

Bini was the “junior” architect on the project; an unfortunate and in fact completely wrongheaded designation (one paid for such slip-ups in introductions). Her boss had done the initial sketches on butchers’ sized paper, @ $100 per hour, giving a little colouring here and there to enliven the artistry. Bini had to “make it work” and did all the interiors. Because of the compromises, both financial and aesthetic, she would mostly disclaim responsibility. “It’s your project”, she would declare when under pressure. The pressure lasted almost three years. The old, original house on the allotment had a demolition order placed on it by council six or seven years before. In the end it was to be restored, with the usual new kitchen/bathroom extension. In the backyard a new dwelling with proper northerly orientation would be built, and on top of the carport to service the two chief dwellings, a self-contained “Studio”, certainly the first such in this non-descript suburb. Neo-Georgians and traditional Victorian Repros were going up all round the place, including on a site a few doors up that the family had disposed of some years earlier. It would have been a hard blow to have the same thing happen again on this
allotment.

The ox-blood on the floor here had actually come off, which was a wonder. In the end it was concrete paint that was used on the particle-board flooring; Structura flooring it was called in the trade, or Yellow-tongue in the lingo of the framers. Initially Bini had been keen on some kind of ‘Porters’ black stain that didn’t exist, sealed by a clear finish. A bad failure on the floor in the Studio where we would live at least temporarily would have caused all sorts of difficulty. But Bini liked it.

Against the ox-blood — in fact it was milder than ox-blood, more oxide-y and red; the name escapes me on purpose — against this the ply-wood walls worked well. A friend had used ply-wood sheeting for the ceiling of a holiday house (again architect designed), and in fact the Structura flooring likewise, without the usual boards on top. Bin had been in agreement, or fell in pretty well. At one point our saviour junkie-plumber Greg ruined it for us with his comment on the match-box-like effect, which took a couple of days to overcome.

The tone of white for the ceiling worked less well, according to the Style-Queen (she was actually Sabine). It had come from either the red or green whites, but was not crisp enough. Two other whites in the subdivision had similarly failed to hit the mark. Bini herself found colour hard, whites as much as any other. In choosing the paint for the “dairy” kitchen of the old place she employed a technique that must have been picked up in Germany, her home country. What she sometimes resorted to in colour-deliberation in particular appeared at first sight nothing more than close concentration. As the dairy was taking final shape we had been at the last clincher colour for near two hours, a score of little strips Bin had brought from the office stuck up on the walls (she had brought the Blutack too). The peer had been noticed, but then it became apparent she was in fact using it serially, for one colour after another. She hadn’t wanted to draw attention to herself, but then neither was she hesitant once she had been noticed. Though perfectly aware of the limitations of the uninformed, she could also encourage them to delve more deeply if they were so inclined.

In this instance what one needed to do was take the blank facing wall as an isolated canvas, ignoring outer, peripheral elements. Having gotten one’s range, one should bring the eye-lids together to a narrow aperture, to at least a four-fifths closure, and with this lashy, dim view of the area to be covered, suffuse it with the colour from the strip. If one was doing it right the chin would be lifted, the nose pointing outward a little and upward. The lashes should not be an interference if one had it.

When Bini inveigled the section of the wall with her full powers she passed into a brief trance, seeming to teeter slightly. She was an artist all-up and suffered by the tempo of the office through the shocking building frenzy of the late nineties. Early in the piece, prior to Bini coming in on the project, the thinking had been to have the entire development in subtle, muted colours. To in fact have materials and vegetation provide the colour, rather than introduce it as an add-on or feature. So the exterior of the old place might be done in neutral white, in a tinge of olive perhaps (to complement the various fruit trees that were through the front yard). There might be hidden or recessed splashes of something else here and there, under the eaves for instance. Otherwise the giant poplar to the side of the driveway, and the lemon further on, would give their effects. Traditional corrugated Zincalume, uncoloured (not Colourbond), would give its own glint in both summer and winter. Recycled red-brick for the party-wall dividing the dwellings would be another element in the composition. Some items might be introduced to carry a little élan here and there. A post-box perhaps. The architects would come up with something. All of this had been carefully penned and faxed to the office. In the chaos of paper-work there it had been lost and as time went on the intention likewise. For the old place out front we ended up with a kind of sombre, burnt orange for the weatherboards (a Heritage colour in fact); slightly milky and soft blue for windows and creamy-yellow eaves. When Bin eventually came on in her own right, things quickly changed.

Colour charts meant very little in the end; every home renovator got to learn that at some expense. Firstly the quality of the paint was a factor. Bini’s office stuck mainly to the Bristol range, not as much for quality reasons seemingly, as for the poetics in the naming, though Dulux and the others were not far behind in these stakes. Beyond that the colour achieved depended very much on firstly the material in question (how it absorbed and retained, whether it “breathed” etc.); then lighting, position and complementarity.

Three-quarters of the Studio floor was covered by Bini’s boxes and stuffed garbage bags, some of the piles mounting to the pitched ceilings. Despite thick insulation in walls and ceilings (3.0 grade — in addition to the Building Blanket under the roof — well above the 5 star rating, though this was prior to the new legislation), the cold came in through the floor. In addition to the cold the car fumes had to be contended with, especially first thing in the morning. As yet the floor had not been insulated nor sealed from below. That was the first job on the immediate list of priorities. Bini wrote up lists every couple of weeks; the further the work progressed, the longer they seemed.

Wardrobes had not been provided for in the Studio; a big sore-point for the baby. Financial/ecological stringency over the hot-water (the boiler under the kitchen bench downstairs, open to view) was another sore-point: it needed to be switched on 15/20 minutes prior to showering. A make-shift, temporary phone-line sufficed for the moment. One of Bini’s painted Bunnings ply-panel doors on a loose frame served as dining table (she enjoyed improvising her own domestic arrangements, while at work creating dreams for millionaire wives). The ceiling fan was wrongly positioned; a little crystal would later hang from the capped central point. A twin hot-plate was the kitchen. The single round stainless-steel trough (without drainer) sat under a small, square window looking onto the herb garden, later curtained with bubble-wrap when the tenants moved in out back. Opposite the boiler was the bar-fridge. Like the happy couples featuring on TV shows devoted to home renovation, we were effectively camping, while renting out the larger units.

For almost three years we had deliberated, shopped, searched and argued. On that first night we lay up quietly observant. The gay Greek girls who had rented the old place were mercifully subdued that night. The freeway noise was hardly audible. It was a pleasant surprise the peace that settled over us. As a child Bini had created safe and secure environments for herself and her little brother in their back stable-house, away from their parents’ bickering. This recollection would return on a good many occasions. The white planes of the vaulted ceiling ran deep into far corners and caught the movement of shadow and light. Down at the kitchen window the pitching height for the roof was 2.4 metres; so that from the peak over the bed the length of that hip spanned over 5m. and created a large voluminous airiness that hung there off the upper platform. Some sense of elevation and floating could be felt, perhaps in part from the draft below. A segment of southern night sky was framed in the roof-light opposite the bed, lacking only a spray of stars. We knew every corner of each of the three dwellings intimately; we were their creators after all. Yet on this first night, in dim lamp-light, and afterwards in the odd play of light from the windows, we were overtaken with unexpected wonder.

The errors had been many, too many to mention. Kosta the Greek had been found on the street like a couple of the other workers. His tiling job in the bathroom of the old place was at one stage thought to have ruined the whole effect. (Why go to so much trouble designing it when you get a bricklayer for the tiles? When you pay peanuts you get monkeys, from plumber Greg; himself on twenty an hour — less than half the going rate — cash.) The concrete steps for the Studio Kosta poured straight onto the corrugated iron wall-cladding, without a gap. At one point out back, Alex the Russian (on $15 initially) failed to match the weatherboard line — though Bini in fact never picked that up because of the elevation. A cock-up with the pegging out for the foundations, for which the Owner-Builder was responsible (Drawings, all Drawings, should never be read to scale), caused a panic early on. Failings without number. But we pressed ahead. Through the mud and the blood and the beer. Greg struggled through the former, through the extended winter until we finally buried the sewer; he bled for you on the roof by the tin.

Nescaf’ — white with 2, 2, 3 and 5 for Bozo the labourer (tea for the O-B.), P.J. 16’s (nothing lighter), Bab’s pancakes, Merle across the road’s lemon tarts, Lebbo pizza, Friday fish, prawn and scallops, Wagon Wheels & Lamingtons, the occasional “traveller” or three for Roady (the inculcation of No Booze on Site held for the boys) helped to soften the slog. Road was originally Rodent from an elder brother for his buck-teeth. On site we ignored the etymology. He rode from Eltham early mornings and could usually be relied on. The rings under his eyes protruded more than the teeth, moreso early in the morning when the raised ridges were as prominent as the Great Wall from any spaceship and the smoke-screen over the Nescaf’ was indispensable for easing into the day. Roady was still doing penance for a fling up in Canberra after a Blues festival (the source of the initial error over the nickname: a Blues-man working in St. Kilda). The kids brought him back eventually. His father had been a chippie before him, a quiet vet from the war who had inoculated his son. Big Al (we didn’t call him Fat Al) lived opposite the local station. The cobwebs in his eyes he vigourously rubbed out with the heels of his hands; one or even both hands simultaneously, always vigourously, usually in thinking time for questions like a clown about to subside into grief. (“Waking up in the morning” the answer to a question once over lunch about whether there was something wrong.) Grey days came only occasionally for Greg and mightn’t be picked up straight off — shrunken eyes averted, quiet and uncharacteristically cranky. An hour’s work usually had him right as rain, top shelf, you better believe it brother. Progressing the works helped us all.

Here and there for the carpentry we had it surprisingly “piss-easy.” It was a “piece of piss.” With the right tools and know-how some of it turned out “too easy”. The other two used the terms occasionally; Greg never. For him everything was hard on this job. The roofs were a nightmare for starters. He had first come onto the job for the roof of the old place. Alex had sworn off roofs sometime before. Hips, gables, valleys, awkward ridges, we had the lot; gutters, boxed and otherwise, the flashing, the folding (Mentone Reece had a folder), marrying one with the other; the flat roofs on the protruding bits north and south out back and out front on the Studio (fuckin’ smart-arse architects/it’s alright to draw them on paper/I’d like to get him up here). Greg made every cut with his snips, the Owner-Builder’s two left hands more of a liability than a help. (That’s a lotta roof, he reflected later when it was done — about 2 years later.) The roofs, drains (both sewer and storm-water), the whole of the fit-off, as well as innumerable odd jobs must have altogether put $25, 000 in Greg’s arm. (For the tradies that didn’t know he wore long sleeves. Though many of them were pretty solid boozers, the junk they couldn’t have hacked.) Often it was more prudent to present rent and utility bills, rather than trust himself with sizeable wads of cash. Only the once did he turn up hanging out and feverish, begging for an advance and actually getting down on his knees. No doubt forecasting the bad weather ahead, some weeks before he had warned the boss not to advance him cash in this state. As a boy the “little man” had been a bird-watcher, and the roofs made great observation platforms. Sparrow hawks, thrushes and lorikeets were sighted. Once he brought in his What Bird Is That? an item that had failed to be hocked for the junk, no doubt because of its zero value to the Fitzroy Street trade. (The binoculars had long gone.) The works were held up by many different factors; the watching the least of them. Any number of times we had to get the tools out of hock from the Iranian Assassin on the Street.

Greg had his whacks mostly at night. While he was moving and engaged he was usually alright. Back at the ranch, just off Fitzroy Street, he was a sitting duck in his bed-sit at night. For long periods through the works he would only turn up at lunch-time, or even mid afternoon, usually after a whack earlier. One of his mates had misled him; he’d had the overalls on and all intent on putting in a day. You knew you were in trouble when he employed the declarative on the phone: “I’ll be an hour, tops.” The note of affirmation was the wrecker. Yet the vacancy of his Sundays often had him rolling up for a few hours in the afternoons, usually round lunch-time (lunch one of the trade-offs for the low hourly rate), slowly progressing the works in this haphazard fashion. To overcome the boss’s concerns about his safety up on the roof, Greg did a little jig down near the guttering one day early on. The theory was if you went for a slide the heads of the screws were the first resort; after that the gutter. (The Russian, who had done plenty of roofs too, had the same story, so these weren’t idle tales.) It would break your fall in any event. We went on without mishap or insurance.

Bini liked Greg. He was hard to dislike. His work was up to scratch too, most of the time. He was one of the few qualified tradesmen on the job, though with his habit of course unlicensed (both plumbing and driver-wise). The screw-lines on the roofs were pretty much faultless. The flashing, drain-pipes and mounds alles gut. One of the mistakes on the front house was the early choice (pre-Bini) of rectangular instead of round down-pipes. The latter you don’t really see, the Knowledge has it. These kinds of judgments have stayed in the head long-term; ‘big-time’, as Greg might say.

The old place had indeed been some kind of dairy in times past. It was the clue Bini needed for the trouble of the kitchen. A Montenegrin truck-driver, a long-term tenant who had killed himself in his car on Dynon Road, had found the twin-tub stainless steel sink on a trash heap somewhere. It had to be incorporated. With kitchen benches being what they were, a problem arose. How to integrate the raised lip of that ancient thing with a bench-top? And then fit it with the hot plate. A liquidation auction turned up the plate and a wall oven, the latter further complicating the matter.

Bin remembered the dairy from a passing mention more than a year ago at the Client desk of the office. That was the inspiration for a couple of divided stalls for sink and cooking, with a shelf ledge behind and between done in Johnson 150 Ultra whites (gloss rather than matt), Laminex cupboards to match. Above the sink a simple thick ledge (fatty and chunky the decision in all such cases) in gloss black. On the other side she carried the black contrast over to the large work-bench, topped with old red-gum, unhesitating where questionable and cheap MDF was concerned — carcinogenic and banned outright in the U.S., according to the Roady (who likewise unhesitatingly sawed and chiselled). The thing was a beautiful sweet glory, minimal and harmonious. “Clean and straight” was Bini’s credo, with a click of the tongue and Concert Master thumb and forefinger. “One good thing” was another: in any basic room or area, a Zen-like single good element was the only necessity (in fact in practise a difficult severity for her to maintain). As usual, she was genuinely surprised at the pleasure her creations aroused.

The kitchen of the new place out back was another triumph, a “dream in white” too, but of another kind. A sculptural white plasterboard stair there was one of the last things crafted. Couples might possibly be happy in these created environs. If they weren’t, it wouldn’t be the fault of the setting.

Everything took three times as long with all the protracted deliberation and searching. With the Tradies and all the supply delays, permits, regulations and finance problems. As many of the regs were broken or bent as possible. The budget was always a limiting factor and went with a particular cast of mind and intention.

None of the lads suffered any kind of injury to speak of. Roady shot himself in the knee with his nail-gun, but that was at another regular and insured job. For sequencing and progress you needed to pray for the welfare of the boys, their wives and kids, their driving, their weekend footy games, dirty hits. The sparky took the biggest bite by far of the budget. He thought himself the cream of the Tradies. The acknowledged rank went: electrician, carpenter and plumber, bricklayer, then painter and plasterer. The tiler was thereabouts at the bottom too. On this job it was all irregular because of associations and circumstances. They all respected/resented the architect’s trailing glory of course (the senior in black for site visits particularly). Bini won them over easily with her considerable ways.

The Neo-Georgian “shit-box” (Greg) had been defeated. Some semblance of the past has been retained. We didn’t end up with down-lights all through the joint (one of the 90’s horrid pitfalls). There were no features, no gimmicks. The soft prettiness of the initial design (Bini’s boss was of the gay, Federation, high-gestural camp) was hardened up subsequently — every inch of the way. The lemon and walnut were retained, as well as the other trees in front. (Not the giant poplar however, perhaps 60 years of age. Its loss irremediable.) Many old and second-hand materials were recycled. Elements of what had been torn down were recalled in the new. By some freak of chance little Mika the Croat’s brick paving under the old verandah has become the outdoor patio for the dairy, untouched. Bin now has a flat overlooking the water on the right side of the Yarra. Greg has upped his ‘Done (sic) and is getting clean again. The Road-man turned into foreman material for a Construction mob, a proper job. We may possibly do it again one day maybe.

Pavle Radonic

Australian by birth and of Montenegrin origin, Pavle Radonic has been writing mainly fiction for a number of years. A period of teaching delayed the focus on writing and a much extended building project—here in this piece treated—interrupted the same. Two years living and writing in Singapore—inspired by a particular back-corner of that strange city-state, the old Malay/Chinese Geylang quarter—has recently provided unexpected stimulus. Pavle’s writing has appeared in Wet Ink, Southerly and A Time To Write (NMIT Journal). The Singapore and other writing from the Straits region appears on Pavle’s blog: www.axialmelbourne.blogspot.com — architectural themes once more among the rest (eg. Marina Bay Sands; Super Luscious Nature (Gardens By the Bay); Due Diligence: Gardens by the Bay 2 and Super-nature in Singapore).

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