A Shiny New Year

What happened since my last blog? I got a front door. Yep, 3 months later and all I have to show for it is a front door.

That’s what happens when you’re an owner builder, if you’re not around to do stuff or organise things, nothing happens. I did find some good trades who were not daunted by the whole container and steel wall situation, in fact several were very enthused by the concept, but they were mostly booked up until Christmas so I’m hoping to get them onto my job now that we’ve arrived in a brand spanking new year.

I also had some personal issues going on, you might have noticed an extremely good looking dog with a talent for photo-bombing in some of my earlier posts. We were a permanently attached pair for 9 years, but he was diagnosed with cancer back in August and I lost him just before NYE. If you’re a dog or animal loving person you might recognise the complete and utter heartbreak that comes with that sort of loss.

On the practical side, my trips up to my build site were a bit spontaneous and dependent on what was going on with him at the time. We had quite a few unplanned vet visits but we were lucky that various treatments helped for a while and he had good quality of life and maintained his wild puppy madness and crazy-happy exuberance to the end.

Back to the build, on the upside I enjoyed a disproportionate amount of delight from my new front door, which, in my mind at least, formally took my house to lock-up stage. As per my last post it was a bit of a saga to get the door, but get one I did and then a great local carpenter came and fitted it for me. It’s a fabulous door, it gives privacy but lets in some light and colour.

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My lovely front door, with a rhododendron glow coming through it. It’s made from double-glazed 6mm toughened glass as well of course, to meet BAL Flame Zone requirements.

You’ll see from the banner pic at the top of this post that there is no shortage of light coming into my house, and no shortage of green peering in through every window. Note that the scale looks a bit out in that photo, the inside is bigger than it looks because that brown chair is massive, my feet don’t touch the ground when I sit in it. It was scavenged from the side of the road, apparently casually discarded by some giants living up the street. While the giant-chair is comfy, I can’t recommend the green blow-up chair, it was  designed by someone with a nasty sense of humour – you have to perch towards the front of it to sit without rolling out, and it waits until you get relaxed and let down your guard then tips you forward onto your head. And that is regardless of any consumption of gin and tonic.

Aside from that piece of ill-chosen temporary furniture, the house is a really lovely place to be with plenty of birdlife around including a local lyrebird, no noise except for the wind through the trees, and a very short walk to a stunning mountain valley lookout. I’ve been camping in it for a couple of nights most weeks, working on the garden and doing bits n pieces. While I’m back in the big city I’m buying up some of the plumbing and electrical fittings in the January sales.

I wanted to get the connections all done at the same time, and get the big trench dug out to run them all from the street to my house. However, I also want to minimise the time the open trench is there as it will play havoc with access for everything else, and my Water Services Coordinators have been missing in action for a couple of months so I don’t know what is happening with the Sydney Water approvals for my sewer connection. So rather than waiting for that to go ahead, I’m now planning to get a plumber and electrician in to rough in the connections inside the house, so I can move on with interior insulation and fit-out, and do the trenched connections later.

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Cheeky King Parrot in my garden. He flew right down to my head and peered at me, then followed me around for a while – someone nearby is no doubt feeding him.

I have to finish sealing up some of the last gaps between the containers next visit. They are horizontal gaps and no rain comes in there but an absurd number of large huntsman spiders crawled down the walls towards my mattress last time I stayed. I thought I had a deal with Harriet the huntsman who lived above my new door for some weeks, she was supposed to hang out in the other end of the house, but instead she invited all her mates around for a party near my bed. She might also have produced 200 kids but these guys were too big to be her youngsters. I had to go get my tent out of my car at midnight and pitch it inside the house again and sleep in that. Yes I know huntsman spiders are harmless, and do good things like eat mosquitoes, and I’m grateful for that but if they’re crawling over you during the night instead of behaving respectably that is not conducive to sleep.

I’m looking forward to getting this project completed and moving into my little mountain sanctuary. There will be a few more hitches no doubt, the stud walls that They-Who-Should-Not-Be-Named installed turned out to be all more crooked than I’d hoped, to the extent that plasterboard would crack if you tried to install it (as a carpenter informed me), so the wall sections where any sort of cabinetry is going will all have to be squared up. I’m considering using plywood instead of plasterboard for some of the other sections, as plywood can take a less than perfectly level surface. I like the warmth of the timber as well.

Nothing ever goes to plan, but that allows for some creative licence, so bring it on 2018! Well, I qualify that challenge a bit – special request to 2018 to please be a little nice about it, my imagination is good but my budget is limited.

 

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All the bits n pieces, logistics and interior design

Things have been slow on the house building front as life got in the way for the last few months. Plus it was winter so when I went up to my site in the mountains to camp in my monolithic steel house it was about minus three degrees (inside and outside) and not very pleasant for doing anything that involved having to leave my down sleeping bag.

Instead I have been plodding away at my desk on paperwork and planning in my spare time.

However, spring is sprunging as you can see in the photo above, you have to wade through camellias and rhodos to get to my house, so the build is back on the top of my list. There is a lot to do.

First up I had a problem with water coming into the house, where the three containers meet up. I don’t know if there is a bit of sag happening, a not-quite-level-bit or if it was just condensation/dew from the top container running down the wall and pooling, but it took a few goes to fix. I can’t say I did a stunningly professional job of it but there will be decking and cladding on the outside and insulation and plasterboard on the inside so all I needed was an effective fix, not a pretty one.

There was a pretty big vertical gap of about 50mm between the top and bottom containers, and about 25mm horizontal between the two bottom ones. There is a big strip weld holding the bottom two containers together at the roof. Anyway, I started with foam flashing strips to plug the vertical gap between top and bottom containers on the inside, and added waterproof byute foil flashing over that on the outside which was wide enough to be mostly touching steel (not the foam).

I waited for rain and it still leaked, and it turned out to be mostly around the weld strip as I could see drip marks on the inside below that section. So I wandered through Bunnings and found some bitumen waterproofing putty and lathered that all along the joins. That fixed the main living room section, but a few weeks later after waiting for more rain I still had leaks back over one bedroom so I went nuts with more putty to seal the lower edges of the flashing as well and now there are no more drips. It hasn’t rained for a very long time but there was enough to form a small pool of water over the putty a few weeks back and nothing ran inside. We’ll sort out the waterflow/pooling problem when the deck is added on. There are other gaps between the containers where there are no water issues and I have sealed those from the inside with spray foam for now which should do until the cladding goes on.

putty and flashing to fix water issue
The place where the three containers meet and water was coming in, on one side of what will be a deck. You can see the flashing and putty in the pic on the right, the putty runs either side of the strip of raw steel that was welded on to join the bottom two containers. The bit of carpet tile is there to block the flu penetration for my wood stove.

The other tricky thing was ordering a front entry door. Just go to a door shop and buy one I hear you say. I wish, not for a Flame Zone I’m afraid. The first company I found had some nice door choices in sexy aluminium (my door has to be metal framed), but the door would come from New Zealand and they wouldn’t supply a door frame for some reason. That sounded all too hard. The next two companies would do both door and frame but when it came to the final quote it took many weeks and calls for one of them and then an order time of eight weeks, and the quote never arrived from the other one. They were both very expensive and delivery fees even more so, and pickup was not an option.

To meet my fire regulations the door seals have to be silicon and that made it a BAL 40 rated door, and it turned out both companies would have ordered the door via Stegbar. So I contacted Stegbar, who quoted within days, I saved about $700 and have a door arriving around the 20th September, with frame. It’s mostly frosted glass to let in some more light, 6mm toughened of course as that’s the only glass I can have, and double glazed for cosiness.

Other things that I’m working on at the moment include:

1. Sydney water sewer and water connections – this has to be done through a water services coordinator and is a long and involved process, but it is well underway and I’m waiting on quotes from Sydney Water approved sewer constructors. I have to put in a low-pressure pump which is not cheap, and I chose the process where Sydney Water would own the pump and therefore have to fix it if it breaks, which involves more paperwork but saves a bit of money (they pay for the pump) and also saves me having to deal with any future sewer problems.

2. To get the inside fit-out happening, I need to finish my electrical plan, get the interior wired up and then I can insulate with spray foam and start to plasterboard. Most of the wiring and plumbing will be coming up through the floor due to the steel stud-work in the walls, but there is plenty of crawl space under the house due to the slope of the block so that shouldn’t be a problem. The electrical plan is taking some work as I had to work out where everything will go, including kitchen and bathroom design and cabinet sizes, power points and USB points, lighting, fans etc. So I’ve been a busy bee with SketchUp plans, trawling through Pinterest for ideas and crawling the net for various electrical and plumbing fittings. I’m finishing the plan this weekend so I can start to get quotes.

kitchen layout container home
Basic kitchen cabinet layout, or half of it. The inspector-looking fellow is actually standing in the bathroom. The big grey block in front won’t be there, it will be stairs and cabinetry I’m just not clever enough to do stairs with quarter turns in SketchUp yet. The hole in the wall is a window over the kitchen sink. The splashback might be copper or bright orange, I’m not sure yet if I’ll go for classy or loud. The benchtop will either be timber or white.

3. I also need to get some quotes for plastering, including squaring up the walls as nearly everything that Port Shipping Containers did is crooked. I’m a bit sick of writing about them and finding more mess ups, so I think I’ll call them “They Who Should Not Be Named” to maintain a degree of distance. The wobbly bits include windows and wall stud work. I knew they couldn’t use a tape measure very well but it turns out apparently no-one there has a spirit level either. I have totally changed my expectations and I now assume nothing is quite where it should be, and nothing is level, and that has kept me much happier. I think my attitude might be called pessimism but I’ve put a cheery hat on it and I walk in ready to make a plan to adapt and fix stuff instead of having steam coming out my ears. I’m keeping tabs on things and the cost of fixing stuff, in case it’s worth suing them later on. Or finding the Elder Wand to sort them out.

The newly discovered level of crookedness slowed down the electrical planning as none of the dimensions on the drawings by They Who Should Not Be Named were correct, apart from the window sizes and the windows were made by someone else. So I had to go up to my site and physically measure all the internal walls to see where they ended up. Then I could work out where to place the power points.

4. I have finished the kitchen and bathroom design. I’m still looking into the pros and cons of Ikea versus Bunnings flatpack (overhead cupboards are the concern with Ikea apparently) but I have the basic design and cabinetry layout done, plus the colours of course as that’s the fun bit. It still includes my copper walled shower recess and I’m looking into the best way to achieve that. I’ve ordered a small piece of copper sheet to try hammering it, oxidising it and gluing it. I was planning on pressed tin with copper paint but all the tin sites say you should use powdercoat not enamel paint on the tin for wet areas, and the powdercoat copper colour is just a murky, dull, dark brown.

mood board for my bathroom
The mood board for my bathroom, including the copper shower recess and my fancy floor tiles. It’s a slightly dodgy cut and paste effort I did in Gimp (the poor woman’s Photoshop) and the bathroom should look much better in terms of finish than this! I’m still not sure if I should risk black tapware (hard to keep clean I’d say, and more expensive even on ebay) or stay with chrome.

5. An ongoing task has been removing the rest of the masking tape from the windows. This can be fun if the weather is nice and you approach it with a mental state of Zen, or it can be as annoying as a mosquito in your ear at 2am if you think about the fact it should not be this hard. True to form, They Who Should Not Be Named did not use window tape when they taped up all the glass for transport, they used the cheapest, nastiest masking tape you can imagine and put it everywhere. It crumbles into teeny pieces when you try to remove it, it won’t peel off. I tried solvent, WD40, window scrapers and just about everything else and it’s a torturous job to remove each strip of it millimetre by millimetre. I’ve had help from a bunch of people so it’s been several days of effort already. I eventually worked out that a heat gun was the best solution, it melts the glue behind it so the tape comes off in strips not atoms. Some of the tape is still left on the high windows and hard to reach places and will probably stay there until stairs and decks are on, or until I find a very tall volunteer because me plus my ladder is not enough.

windows with masking tape both sidesMasking tape masking tape everywhere, on both sides of the glazing.

6. I’m chatting with a talented local carpenter for my interior stairs, which also form part of the kitchen as there will be cabinetry underneath them. I think they are going to be pretty special and I will share designs and photos when the plans are finalised. I just have to get the electrics, insulation and wall linings done before they can be installed – which is not a bad thing as deadlines are always a good motivation for me.

 

Hallelujah, the containers are on site!

I’d love to show you photos of all the angles of my new container house now it is on site, but the delightful thing is that most of it is hidden by the garden. Many of the pictures are of trees and shrubs with just a glimpse of container behind. You can see the whole house from the front where the view is, and it’s shown in the banner photo above.

Getting the containers into position while keeping a substantial garden intact was not a simple thing. I reckon I ended up with the best team in the business, both for the truck delivery and the crane. Adam’s team from Turner and Central Crane Services worked miracles to get the containers from the truck to the piers. Fifty tonne cranes don’t look that manoeuvrable but apparently they can turn tight corners quite well if they’re in the right hands, and this one inched it’s way off the driveway, down the little garden path, to a spot half way between the truck and the piers. I think I might be slightly oblivious to just how close we were to the maximum reach of the crane when it hefted the 6 tonne containers over the tree tops, but I’m happy to stay that way. Adam said not to worry they’d get it done, and they did.

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Setting up the crane in soggy ground near a garden retaining wall.
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The 50 tonne crane in position, with Adam from Turner and Central
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Crane in mid-lift. This gives an idea of how much garden everyone was working around!

Jodi Thompson from J & K Heavy Towing and Transport did some seriously talented driving to reverse the 12m containers down to the bottom of my driveway, with very little room to manoeuvre. A couple of other drivers had visited my site to give me a quote and said it wasn’t possible. Not only was there a blind reverse turn from a very narrow street involved but to add a bit more of a challenge there is a small garden right next to the road, directly opposite my driveway, which was right in the area where the truck needed to swing around. The garden now has large semi-trailer tread marks within 2mm of it, but is otherwise unscathed.

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The truck reversing into the driveway, neatly missing the neighbour’s garden bed by millimeters.
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The truck at the end of the driveway with a container being lifted.

We just had the wettest March since 1975 and then the rain didn’t realise it was April for a while so it kept on going. Delivery day followed the first good break in the weather but the ground was still soft and it’s a good thing we waited as long as we did – the crane only just got back out with the help of a few well-placed solid timber sleepers. I have a bit of landscaping to do to fill in the deep furrows it left in the driveway and path, but that’s a small price to pay.

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Lift off from the driveway – the truck pulled out to go and get the next container.
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A high lift over the trees.
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The first container going into place on the piers.

I am totally chuffed to finally have my house structure tucked away on site, and I can’t wait to get stuck into the rest of the build. I’m also pleased I chose this build method as anything else would have had much more impact on the lovely garden block.

The real fun is about to begin and I am now finally free from dodgy container fabrication companies.

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The first container in place, from behind showing the tree view through to the front.
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Container Number 3 going on top.
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A crane “dogman” with a fine sense of balance working on the roof of the first container.

If you read my last post, which was a frustrated vent about the performance of Port Shipping Containers, I have a relatively quick update for you. After some negotiation the Company Directors acknowledged they knew they were in breach of contract and didn’t care, they refused to release my containers until I paid in full. I offered several compromises including 10% payment after delivery (instead of the agreed 20% outlined in our contract), and a third party payment system where the final payment could be held independently until all parties were happy. Then I asked for payment by credit card, as that would give me a bit of protection via the visa charge back system if something was wrong. They said no to everything except payment by EFT, and decided to stay uncompromisingly unethical.

The company did a last quality check for me, where they picked up yet another mistake. We had actually picked this mistake up back in drawing stages and a correction had been identified then, but it was completely ignored during the build stage. They fixed it promptly this time, without arguing which was nice.

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The view from the garden path right near the containers. They can’t be seen at all from the street.
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The tree view from one side of the deck.

Then as a grand finale, as the one tarnish on an otherwise happy day of container delivery, Port had got the position of the bottom side rails wrong. This bit is rather important as the bottom side rails, along with the corner casts, are where the containers sit on the foundations. If they are not where they are supposed to be then the container might miss the foundations.

I checked the position measurements with Port when I was doing the foundations. Their measurements were way out, basically it looks like they didn’t check which type of bottom side rails the containers had and they gave me specs for the wrong type. So I now have a section where the side rail of one container is sitting only on an overhanging steel top plate not directly over a pier and it will have to be reinforced. The incompetence of their staff just never ends.

I am currently looking into whether it is worth the legal fees to try to recover some of my build costs from Port due to the extended delays, plus the cost of fixing the foundation. I’ll certainly be posting some reviews to give people fair warning – if anyone is looking for a container fabrication company I strongly recommend you look elsewhere and find a company capable of using a tape measure, reading the supplied specifications, and sticking to their own contract.

Overall, apart from what is hopefully the very last stuff up by Port containers, it was a very fine day and a great outcome.

The wheels get wobbly

The wheels have not fallen off, not by a long shot, but they did get a bit wobbly this week. Before you read on, this is a technical post about wall structure and cladding, so if you have something better to do with your weekend like a good book, a movie, or maybe watching grass grow then carry on with that. If you are interested in the nitty gritty then read on, but be warned, you might need to sit down with a gin and tonic at the end of this lot like I did.

I have put a moody mountains picture up the top of this blog post because it calms me, and reminds me why I am doing this. The project is progressing but I’d really like to get my DA in SOON.

Optimist that I am, I have been carrying on thinking that I have at least two options for my wall structure to meet BAL Flame Zone compliance. This week they both became a lot less certain, and probably more expensive. Darn you Flame Zone, darn you.

Option 1 bites the dust; well that’s a bit melodramatic, Option 1 bent down and tasted the dust and stood back up again, thinking about whether or not it would like to spend more time with the dust. After getting the NASH standard wall structure info (see previous post) I sent that to the company I am hoping will do my container build, and they said no worries we can build anything you want if you provide the specs, and something like that should only add about $2K to the cost of your build. Yes, $2K! So I thought right, we’re on.

elephants on the Zambezi
The lovely effect that dust can have, if used correctly.

The company has been amazingly helpful so far with such an out of the box build and a hundred emails and calls from me, and they are pretty busy developing a lot of cool new off-grid container homes. I’m fairly sure in this case they didn’t actually take a look at the NASH wall extract I sent before replying to my email in such an encouraging way, because when I then sent them the full house design and asked for a quote using that NASH wall structure, the first wheel went wobbly.

They recommended that I stay with the polyurethane spray foam insulation that they use as standard, because not only is it really effective, it also reduces the risk of condensation happening. Condensation can be an issue with the corrugated container steel if the corrugation gaps aren’t all filled by insulation. Normal flat batts are not so good. There might also be an issue with the type of internal framing they would have to add in to support the NASH wall structure in a container.

I can see their point but from what I have found so far, polyurethane foam is organic and therefore considered potentially combustible, so will not meet BAL FZ requirements. I am yet to see a BAL FZ approved wall system that doesn’t use mineral or glasswool insulation.

The condensation is also a risk but I reckon (being the builder architect that I am, NOT) that risk would be greatly reduced because of the thermal barrier in the NASH wall. Condensation happens due to the difference between the inside air temperature and the outside temperature – like if you sit in a vehicle with the heater on in winter and the windows up, and it fogs up the glass and drips moisture (not so much in these modern days with the aircon on though as that removes condensation).

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The evil that is condensation. Pic taken from here.

So if, from the inside of the house to the outside, you had just plasterboard then normal flat insulation batts then corrugated steel then the risk of condensation, and therefore corrosion of the steel, is high in extreme temperatures. Like the temperatures you get in winter in the upper Blue Mountains; warm heated house inside, minus 2 outside. However, the NASH wall system has from the inside to the outside; plasterboard, insulation, plasterboard, 20mm air gap (air is a good insulator), then the steel. So I am guessing/hoping the condensation risk would be far less as the temperature difference by the time you get to the steel would be minimal.

Maybe you could also drill tiny, less than 2mm holes in the bottom of the steel wall to allow more air mixing – but small enough not to allow ember attack because as we know from BAL FZ, embers grow up to be bigger than 2mm.

So this wall system is not written off yet, it’s just a matter of whether the container builders can adapt it to a container wall system, and how much it will cost. The walls would also end up being about 130mm thick, which is a bit of extra space to lose in an already tight space.

Option 2, INEX cladding. The magic silver bullet that, in my starry eyed optimistic state, looked like it was a standalone BAL FZ cladding solution. A silver-bullet-proof werewolf caught this bullet in it’s teeth and spat it back out. Being a tough little bullet it’s only partly damaged by the wolf’s teeth so maybe I can still use it, but it lost a lot of its sparkle.

Reading the INEX specs for use in bushfire zones it says “No fireproof plasterboard required” and that it gives FRL 60/60/60, double that required for BAL FZ. I really wanted that to mean that all you needed was the INEX cladding to meet BAL FZ requirements, without any other wall layers.

My bad. As with everything in BAL FZ, the INEX weatherboard was tested as a system, and that system included R 2.5 rockwool or glasswool insulation underneath it. So adding the INEX cladding onto a steel wall with polyurethane foam insulation under that will not match the approved BAL FZ specs.

An option here is looking at how much it will cost to add the insulation to the outside of the steel under the INEX, instead of having the poylurethane foam on the inside. And looking at the relative cost of this compared to other solutions. If it’s affordable, that would make for thinner walls inside the container and a bit more space.

So, I am back to getting some more quotes and information on feasibility from the experts, and we’ll see what the best and most affordable option is. A tent with a heater is looking pretty good at this stage. I miss my block of land, the view I don’t get to sit and look at yet, and the cool fresh mountain air.

Patience, persistence…and a bit more persistence…and some stubbornness for spice ; the essential recipe for building a container home in a Flame Zone. Mix thoroughly and roast slowly over the flames.