A mammoth task

What’s in a DA?

No, this hasn’t turned into a natural history blog; there is a picture of a woolly mammoth above because the thousand words that picture represents would also provide a fitting description of the DA process.

What’s in a DA? In my case, 33 documents. I feel like someone should hand me a black robe and mortarboard cap, along with a post-graduate degree and trumpet fanfare, for finally submitting the thing. The pile of documents was roughly the same size as the animal pictured above.

I now know why council buildings are so big, because even if you are submitting electronically you still have to hand over a printed hard copy, including drawings in A3 size. So there are thousands of very large piles of paper stored in there somewhere, entire herds of woolly mammoths. And that is just the residential applications, I can only imagine the size of a commercial application.

The DA Process

My DA might have been a little bit larger than usual, although I am not so sure on that. I was not all that shocked to find that when it came to working out if the house complied with the Building Code of Australia (BCA), there was no box to tick for “shipping container house” as a deemed to satisfy solution.

So, I had to present an Alternative Solution Report, and that accounted for a fair bit of paperwork. It included all the BCA compliance documents supplied by the container home builders – things like insulation, waterproofing, steel structure, windows and doors, electrics and plumbing. Then I had to provide a comparison of how the other building elements complied with the relevant clauses in the BCA, mainly around the additional BAL Flame Zone cladding and sub-floor.

I owe yet another thanks to my friendly neighbourhood architect Ross Young, who translated the process, gave lots of advice, and generously checked over the whole DA before I submitted it.

Legend has is that woolly mammoths were driven off cliffs like this as a hunting technique. Another hypothesis could be they found the cliffs strangely attractive after attempting to complete a DA...
Legend has it that woolly mammoths were driven off cliffs like this as a hunting technique. Another hypothesis could be they found the cliffs strangely attractive after attempting to complete a DA…

The other documents included a detailed Statement of Environmental Effects, which by itself came in at a stomping 16 pages. That one contains background information on the site and the development, then evaluates the planned development against both the Local Environmental Plan 1991, and the Blue Mountains Better Living Development Control Plan. It might sound a bit mad, and I could well be on the other side of sanity right now, but writing that was almost enjoyable as there’s been a fair bit of thought behind this build and keeping it green, including minimising site impacts to the surrounding Protected Area. It was chance to explain all that, and the reasons behind the build.

The Blue Mountains is a city within a World Heritage Area so although the whole DA process was truly torturous, I think having these guidelines in place is a very good thing. Although I have to admit that at first it was a bit confusing to have to compare across two different planning control documents, as they both have different content. Then there is the new draft LEP from 2013 which is not in place yet, which is slightly different again but apparently has to be ignored for now. Hopefully my DA demonstrates that my house will more than meet the objectives of all of these planning controls – the common alternative these days is a 5 bedroom, 3 bathroom brick MacMansion and it sure ain’t one of those!

It was in fact very satisfying to calculate that my development, including house, water tank and carport, will take up only 4% of the total block area. That includes the big patch of protected area in the east. The house will be in the other half of the block, which is the bit that allows development and already contains lots of landscaped cool climate gardens. The development will only take up 8% of that part. It really is a lovely little patch of Blue Mountains and I’m very happy about not completely stuffing it up to be able to live on it.

I’ve spent way too much of the last two weeks pulling the final DA documents together, herding cats to get some final documents in, not to mention those months of previous research, so now I have to catch up on a lot of life and work. Blissfully there is now a brief respite of 4 weeks while Council reviews the DA and then gets back to me with a list of more information that is required. I am hoping it will be a short list, or at least an easy one.

Faith in humankind(ness)

I rang around for a lot of quotes to get help with the final drawings, from architects and drafters. One of the reasons this whole process takes so long is that a lot of it is pretty subjective on, firstly, what exactly is needed, and secondly on the quality of information required. Responses from my quote inquiries ranged from one person telling me the drawings I had done myself were fine and could be submitted as they were, through to someone else saying the drawings were the very least of my problems and I needed to allow a massive budget for the whole DA and an expert to do it. I travelled the middle ground in the end.

Apart from the confusion caused by such a diverse range of responses, during the ring around for quotes I was really impressed with people being interested and offering free advice over the phone – on some of the finer points of DA compliance, and even new design options to consider. That included a visit with Mark Davis who specialises in sustainable design in the Blue Mountains, and his advice resulted in me flipping the whole building design to allow more north sun into the living area. People were generous with their time and advice, and that’s the sort of thing that gives you hope and helps you wrangle the mammoth.


9 thoughts on “What’s in a DA?”

  1. Goodness Kelly….you do have the patience of Job. I reckon you could now offer a consultancy for doing just what you’ve done – during the minimal time of course that you have between all of the above, looking after Badger, remembering not to use the word “catalyst” and preserving koalas.
    Fingers crossed for you that you’ve completed the hardest part and the rest will fall into place. xx

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve been following this with interest for a while. I’ve been considering getting a container home built but I was a bit worried about the bat difference between warranty on a home built on a block of land compared to a container home which doesn’t seem to be covered by the same protections against faulty workmanship etc. Have you encounters this?


    1. Hi Simon,
      It depends on how it is built. I am having most of mine done by a container home building company, who supply the standard 10 year warranty for a home. Similarly if you used a registered builder for the construction side I think you could still get the same warranty. If you do it all yourself I am guessing you’d have to make sure everything is done to BCA standards and get the right trades to certify the work. A lot of people use containers as temporary accommodation, sometimes keeping them on wheels, so they don’t do the whole DA process or go for a warranty, but it depends on your council and how long you plan to keep it there as to whether that would work. I think there is more leeway in rural areas too. If you’re considering using one of the container home companies, and installing it as permanent accommodation, then you should be able to get a standard sort of home warranty, if they do a decent job to BCA standards. If they can’t promise that then I’d shop around. Cheers, Kellie.


  3. Hi Kelly :}

    Me and my fiance have been tracking your progress for a while, we’re in pretty much the same situation except we’re in Victoria and we don’t have beautiful mountains to stare out at!

    We love your house and I’m actually regretting that we’re building a six plus Shipping Container House.

    We’ve bought a five acre parcel of land (sadly in the horrid Bushfire Prone Zone), we’ve parked our caravan, set out to clear all the floor litter and started buying tools (namely a monstrous generator that let’s us watch Battlestar Galactica ;P)

    We’re Owner Builders that are insanely attempting to build everything we can ourselves as we thought it would be an adventure. I’m completing my Diploma of Building and Construction, as well as my Civil Construction Course, I’ve dabbled in Stone Masonry as with other trades, my partner is a pretty darn good welder, a Truck Driver and…well let’s just say he’s talented (apparently he get’s board easily).

    With the kindness of our next door neighbor and purely recycled materials, he’s given us all we need to build an annex off the caravan, luckily my partner has been able to source all the relevant tradespeople and a new friend of his has built us a wood heater.

    Everything is going swimmingly, except…they really don’t make Planning Permits and Building Permits, especially in a BPZ, easy do they?

    I’ve researched and researched and researched some more, yet still cannot make head nor tails of how to write the proposals and what relevant information is needed, without having without going overboard. Like you, I’ve downloaded the NCC’s, the BCA’s, Regulations, BMO’s and it seems like a whole lot of bloated information that is like a foreign language. We have the sketches (I bought some thin material foam board, cut them out and glued the together to make mini shipping container models), so we even have a photo of what we want to build, the materials are being finalized and your find of the ModakBoard was a great help.

    The paperwork is incredibly confusing, I think if you popped me in a random country I’d be able to navigate home quicker, from Structural Engineers, to Energy Ratings, how pretty it has to look from the road and what’s actually acceptable.

    I honestly take my hat off to you, especially doing it all by yourself!

    If you could impart some information and help to our cause of insanity, it would be greatly appreciated, otherwise good luck with everything and I really do pray for your success.

    Cass and Steve


    1. Hi Cass, thanks for getting in touch and fantastic to hear you are taking on a similar challenge, although 6 containers all owner built from scratch sounds even more fun! If you are in a Bushfire Prone zoning do you know what specific Bushfire Attack Level you are, is it Flame Zone? If not then your life might be a bit easier in terms of meeting building regulations.

      You both sound amazingly handy, good on you, I wish you guys were local here to help with my build! Are you going to do a blog or share photos? Would love to see your design.
      I like your generator priorities too 🙂

      In terms of compliance yeah the paperwork is an interesting process. I would be a bit hesitant to advise on something in another state and each council has slightly different requirements. Five acres sounds lovely – if your land is rural not urban then that might be a different kettle of fish too as rural building regulations are often much more flexible. But I can share the two most helpful things I found. Firstly, the approved DA’s should (hopefully) be up on the council website, where you can download DAs including nearly all of the documents and plans and those show the level of information required (although the quality varies a lot). Here is the link to the Blue Mountains Council site, if you click agree on this page then the DAs should come up – your council should have something similar where DAs can be accessed, and you can search by area or address, or approved DAs only, etc

      Second, the council should also have a list of the documents you need to submit, depending on the type of development – again here are examples of my Council ones.
      The trick is there might be more than one guide you need to know about, I actually only found the second one down the track a bit via conversations with an architect. If in doubt give the Council a call, I actually found my Council pretty helpful so far. For the guide docs the general staff can help, then once it gets more technical there were duty surveyors on each day who knew their stuff. If you have these guides and then some examples of DAs from similar builds that were approved it’s a good start point. Then talk to as many locals you can who have been through the build process, they might have some tips!

      I hope this helps. Stay sane, if in doubt drink more G&Ts.
      Best of luck with it.


  4. Thank you so much for sharing your story so far. I went in search of “would a shipping container house be approved in the Blue Mountains” and found your excellent blog. I’m exploring ways to secure a mortgage-free house also so I am cheering for you and hope to learn something here that may help me in my quest. Your practical example and tenacity is giving me renewed hope that it is achievable. I look forward to see pics of you in your new house and beautiful garden one day – you will surely deserve it!


    1. Hi Kathryn, sorry for the incredibly slow reply, your comment came in while I was away. Great to hear you are considering similar options! Not much has happened lately, I am waiting on the DA. Thanks very much for your words of encouragement. Would love to hear if you go ahead with something similar. All the best!


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