My containers are not on site yet – thanks to Port Shipping Containers.

Why? Why? Why? People keep asking if the containers are onsite yet, and then why not? Isn’t one main advantage of this build method that it’s quick?

I wish.

Warning, this post is long and quite painful. Read it at your own risk and expect to come out confused at the end. If you’re not confused and it’s all crystal clear and reasonable please let me know as I could use some of that perspective.

It might be something to do with this flu that’s been doing the rounds, but I feel like I’m floating in parallel universe where rationality and written agreements have no relevance. I’ve been trying to keep a sense of humour with this blog but right now I’m just completely baffled by a constant assault of unreason.

I’ve been trying to organise delivery of my containers since my last post but the guy I’m dealing with at Port Shipping Containers is doing my head in.

This is of course my own personal experience and my opinion and you might have a different experience with Port Shipping Containers, I am just sharing for my own therapy. My recent experience has been with one particular person so it might not represent Port the company. I would rather not write about one person but all my recent dealings have been with one person and I think it’s probably a personality thing so I can’t see a way around it. So to protect them, imagine someone you don’t know, and whose name you’ll never know. To be fair he has copied a lot of other Port people onto his emails who I don’t know and they haven’t piped up in protest so maybe he does represent the company.

You might have seen my post from April last year with a summary of my not-very-positive experiences with various container companies. At the end of last year when the job from Port was looking like it was nearly done I was thinking that in comparison to those other companies the guys at Port Containers were angels wearing some extra halos of radiant professionalism (plus high vis vests and work boots). That impression is now gone.

Right now Port are in breach of contract and I’m hoping someone from their head office is going to help me sort this out because I’ve hit a wall of mind-bending, illogical reasoning and blame. We have an agreed quote that states clearly I will pay the final 20% on delivery. Port wrote the quote and I accepted it. I am calling the parallel universe guy I am dealing with “Port Guy” because if I have to think of another name at the moment it might not be polite. He might be a very nice person to others and at home. He might be being advised by other people in the email trail. He’s the 4th Port person I’ve dealt with on this job. The other Port people were friendly and pleasant to deal with and never accused me of anything. Even Port Guy started out OK.

Anyway the point is that I have an earlier email in Port Guy’s own words that refers to this agreed concept of payment on delivery and states that the “payment 30 days after delivery…gives you piece of mind, that if for some reason there is there is something needing to be done on site by PORT, it will be sorted out for you straight away.” Given everything that has gone wrong with this build so far, I really want that peace of mind.

Suddenly despite that email and our subsequent contract Port Guy is demanding I pay everything right now before he will release my containers for delivery. I might have been able to live with that if I’d had a different experience with this company, one where everything went right and the first quote I got was the only one and the job was delivered in 6 weeks as promised. But the reality has been different. Here is a very quick summary of the job so far, there’s a lot missing it’s just some of the bigger stuff to paint the picture:

1) Various staff members kept re-quoting the job so the final quoted cost was uncertain for 7 months. Yep, 7 months. Two months from one staff member, he left then another 2 months for someone else to do the whole quote again (“why did they have to do that?” you might well ask), then the last three of those months were after I had paid 50% of the deposit because the quote had finally been agreed with Port Guy. I started to pay then it was suddenly up the air again and being re-quoted. At that stage I was pretty worried I had made a mistake and might lose the money I had paid.
2) Since the first quote agreement this job has taken 6 months instead of the promised 6 weeks.
3) There have been significant errors in all stages of the build, including getting order specs for materials wrong and putting windows in the wrong way or in the wrong position. All but one of the errors was picked up by me, not by Port staff.
4) I’ve been told various things by  Port staff which have then been denied by other Port staff, and I wasn’t off talking to someone I shouldn’t have these were all people I was passed on to at Port. Some of this has meant I’ve been charged for things I was told would be included. There’s been little accountability within the company. I did keep an email trail on most of it as to me that is written record of agreement, but in this weird universe of Port Guy those emails are all apparently irrelevant or inconclusive.

This is a cute fluffy animal (baby albatross). It has no relevance to this blog, it's just here to cheer me up.
This is a cute fluffy animal (baby albatross). It has no relevance to this blog, it’s just here to cheer me up. (pic from boredpanda.com)

The current status – Port Guy is trying various tactics to get me to pay more money, preferably the full balance right now. I believe the job has come in at close to cost for Port due to inexperienced staff and the high number of errors in the quote and the job, and I appreciate them fixing them all and sticking to their quote. Having said that, it’s what I’d expect a professional company to do. It’s what the rest of us have to do if we underestimate costs in a quote.

It’s pretty apparent that Port Guy is now desperate to recover some costs. The bit I struggle with is that professionalism appears to have gone out the window and lately he’s been trying to blame mistakes on me. He’s now accusing me of having less than honest motivations. I find that a bit much given my tolerance so far and the track record of this job.

Port Guy utterly refused to correct the last error where a window was in the wrong place and was insisting I pay for it because it was my fault, until eventually just to save more time and my keyboard I had to suggest we get NSW Fair Trading to arbitrate. He was appalled I had suggested that, then he fixed the error at Port’s cost. His view is that since he came onto the job and sorted out all the quote issues everything has been rosy, but he’s been more heavily involved in the job since August 2016 and now we’re in March 2017 and not done yet. I see no roses.

Most recently, after a few months of me trying to get the BCA compliance paperwork for the glazing from Port Guy, which last year Port promised would be supplied, he said he finally had the correct paperwork but he wouldn’t give it to me. Not until I paid in full. Without that paperwork I had no evidence Port had installed the correct glazing (and they’d got the order wrong before), so no evidence the job was completed to my specs. My next payment was supposed to be on job completion. Port Guy finally released the documents after more discussion but it wasn’t easy to get it.

fluffy animal with greens
Another cheer up moment. Don’t forget to eat your greens with this flu going around. (pic from justcuteanimals.com)

Now his new angle is to blame me for a late payment and tell me I’m a credit risk so I have to pay everything up now. Get ready, this is the mind-twisting part; the “late payment” is for the part of the deposit I didn’t send when he was re-quoting for 3 months.

So I was supposed to send them more funds during the time I had already paid 50% of the deposit but then found out the deposit amount owing wasn’t actually known anymore – when I was finding out that the window sizes and glass specs about to be ordered by Port were wrong despite them having had 4 months to check them, and that the quoted engineering costs might change, during the time that I didn’t receive a single payment invoice or reminder from Port or any emails from Port Guy requesting payment.

I was actually assuming they didn’t ask for payment then because they understood that might come across as slightly insane. I was instead thinking I might have to ask for a refund soon for the part of the payment I had sent because now the quote that took 4 months to confirm might not be valid and because the amount of mistakes was scary. As I said they did eventually fix everything at their cost and they stuck to the quote so I stayed with them. I saw Port Guy in person in Newcastle last month when I went to inspect the job and when to my great relief I saw the work had actually happened and looked good (apart from the last window position mistake) I told him then that I’d send the rest of the deposit. He said no worries, no issue. Suddenly now it’s an issue.

When that argument doesn’t seem to spin well Port Guy tries other tactics like saying the 20% payment on delivery was completely dependent on Port doing the delivery and if they don’t do it then it’s a change to the job and I have to pay everything up front. It wasn’t a condition, that’s not in the contract and to the contrary Port even organised a site visit by another transport company for me back in July 2016 so they knew then they probably weren’t doing the transport. I also asked Port Guy to itemise the delivery portion separately in their final quote/contract for that exact reason, in case Port didn’t do delivery due to site access limitations and the need for smaller trucks. He itemised it separately for me.

Then Port Guy sends me a quote from an independent transport company, but adds 30%-40% on top for Port as a gift I guess. I met with the transport guy Merv onsite last July and just last week again, and he’s been really helpful.  Port Guy makes no apologies when I pick him up on inflating the quote. Meanwhile he is accusing me of having unethical motivations and saying the only reason I’m pushing for the 20% on delivery payment is because I don’t intend to pay, and he’s therefore protecting the company with this policy of paying 100% now. Seriously? Protecting Port from overly patient customers who put up with everything above and don’t sue you for costs due to delays, great idea.

Oh and one more thing. Before I accepted the quote Port Guy agreed in writing that he wouldn’t charge me for storage for 90 days after job completion. Now he’s threatening to charge me storage, and says his previous agreement by email doesn’t mean anything.

Does your head hurt yet? Mine sure does. I’ve was hoping for delivery in February, then last week, then this week, now next week. I can’t book drivers, cranes and notify the neighbours until Port confirms they will release the containers and honour our agreed contract terms. Port Guy says that all the current delays are my fault for not paying 100% as he demands. I have stopped talking to him.

I wait in hope for the higher ups at Port to come good on this and bring us all back to reality.  I don’t do well in this alternative facts universe. Maybe this is good training for me to get used to it.

 

 

A few interior design ideas, while I wait some more..

Happy Anniversary to me! As of last month this blog passed the one year mark. On the one hand that is a bit depressing since I naively thought the build would be done and dusted within 6 months, but on the other hand when I look at what was involved in the whole process it’s not that bad.  At the start I didn’t realise that container houses in flame zones were as rare as hen’s teeth and unicorns, so half of that time was house design and research into wall structure and other bits to comply with BAL FZ, the other half was DA and Council.

I decided not to stress over this build some time ago, as I have a day job that can provide as much stress as I would like if I need some, and the build process is creative and it’s supposed to be fun. I have started camping on my block most weekends and have begun to tidy up the garden and make some space for the house, and have also been doing some lovely hikes in the mountains and getting all inspired to live up there again. Hence the gap in blog posts.

I have had the engineering done for the foundations, and am currently chasing up the structural engineering for the house itself. Then my CC will be issued. Nope, that’s not a flavoured corn chip, it’s a Construction Certificate.

I am trying to get fixed quotes for the house itself then for the onsite works including the external cladding, but most trades disappeared over January and at least half of February so it’s been slow progress so far this year. Building seems to be the one industry where you ask for a quote on something and have to spend a minimum of 3 to 4 weeks chasing it up, like people don’t actually want the work. I guess if you’re out there building stuff you’re not on the computer doing quotes, so I just have to build that sort of thing into the timeline. The house itself should take about 3 months to build, not including on-site modifications.

In the meantime, I’ve been doing some interior design and layouts just to double check that I can fit things like a sofa into my little container house. It is hard to visual the size of the space so I’ve been digging up pictures that show the inside of two containers joined together.

FB pic_12341463_10153457026658640_451899172317218101_n
Building a two container wide space (posted on FB by Mac Evangelista on “Living sustainably using shipping containers”)
FB pic Mac Evangelista Living sustainably using_10153502876623640_3293812624169542141_n
The finished space, two containers wide.

I think the width of the space above looks pretty good. My living area will have one glass wall made of glass doors down the length of it; the pic below has two walls of glass but you can see what a difference the extra light makes to the space. Half of my ceiling in the living area will be double height as well, adding even more sense of space.

banidea.com interior 2 containers
Two container wide space with lots of light (from http://www.banidea.com)

The layout of my place will be a bit cosier given it’s cold climate, and it includes a wet-back wood fuel stove for heating the house and boosting my hot water in winter.

layout5
One of the many furniture layouts I have come up with, centred around the wood stove and with a dining nook/banquette up in the top corner – the dining table will probably fold up onto the wall and only be there when I need it so the space can also be a reading nook. The glass doors are not drawn on this pic but they take up most of the lower wall, and the main couch faces the view. The white bars represent bookshelves or cabinets, and there will be more storage under the dining nook seating, and in the sofa. The front door is top left. Ignore the colours, the design software didn’t have much choice.

Then sometimes I get a bit radical and think of alternatives to the traditional lounge/dining, like this below. At the end of work days when I sit at a desk, I either end up sitting on the floor or on the couch with my feet up, and I like the casual feel of these floor seating ideas below.. although I would add a lounge chair or two for older visitors whose knees might not be up to floor seating..

sofa alternative2
Moroccan theme with low seating – it doesn’t have to be Moroccan in style, I just like the low cushions in this space (from http://www.brit.co/how-to-make-your-living-room-feel-bigger/)
sofa alternative 1
This is a bit more zen in design, and it could be fun to do somersaults on if the middle space was a bit bigger (from http://home-and-garden.livejournal.com/130234.html)

My colour theme will be natural – I am aiming for “things of stone and wood meets the hobbit”, if the hobbit went a bit tribal but liked metallic ceilings. Not minimalist, I don’t live tidily enough for that and I like books and timber feature walls.

It has been a while since my house design was posted, so here it is again but without any external colours added yet. The idea of the chimney/flue appearing on the back of the deck is to give out a bit of warmth in winter, something to huddle around and take in the fresh mountain air.

3D house designKL

That’s it for now, if no news is good news then I should be the happiest person on the planet.

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).

condensation
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.

 

 

 

Plans, plans, plans

The pic above shows a lovely spot for a container home, no? Apart from the potential to perish in the Flame Zone of course. Plans are coming together to reduce that risk as much as possible, and to try to make this build feasible, affordable and beautiful.

There has been a bit of a gap since my last post since life and work got in the way. However, during that time I have managed to get my site survey done, which will form the basis of many plans for the DA including a landscape plan, a site plan and a vegetation management plan. I have also detailed out the first concept house design into floor plans and elevations.

Since this build involves a new wall structure and quite a lot of Flame Zone extras that all have to comply with a range of Australian Standards, and I also have a day job to get on with, I have been talking to a shipping container company about the actual build part. To be honest this was always the plan, much as I would love to get in there with angle grinder and welder and do it all myself (well, at least part of me would), I would also like to be able to live in this house very soon.

container house pic Norway
Example of a pre-built container home – this one is by NovaDeko Modular.

Part of the attraction of the whole project is the pre-fab modular bit – where the containers are all fitted out off-site, shipped in and within a couple of days they are all connected up and ready to live in. That also reduces the amount of transport needed for bringing materials on to the site, and the amount of wasted building materials. Plus it removes the risk of potential timeline blowouts from miserable weather and trying to get various trades all lined up at the right time so that nothing is delayed.

My customised floor plans are below. I finally managed to find and chop up some 3D stairs in Sketchup so a cut-out showing the stair structure is included too, just visualise a large pantry cupboard under them, and maybe an oven.

Floor plan - ground floor
Floor plan of ground floor – the containers are 12m long by 4.8m wide when combined. Bedroom 2 is small and likely to be an office/library. I am still considering whether to have a large sliding door (clad in reclaimed timber, as a feature), or just keep it completely open plan from the living space. (Yes, I remembered to put dimensions in the floor plan, I just cropped them off for these pics).
Floor plan - top floor
Floor plan of the top floor – this floor will have only one container, with the floor cut out for half of it creating the double height ceiling over the back of the lounge/dining, then one large loft room about 6m by 2.4m, opening onto the rooftop deck (top right).
sliding door reclaimed timber
Reclaimed timber sliding door, which might feature between my living and office areas, except it would be larger at 1.5m wide. (click on pic for source)
Stairs in the kitchen.
Sketchup cutaway showing the stairs in the kitchen that will house a pantry and appliance, then run up into the top story loft.

I am now waiting on the CAD files for my site survey, which I will use to put some concept drawings together to take to RFS and Council. It is time to start pulling all the pieces together; the contour survey shows the property details then I add on the planned house footprint and elevations, water tank location, nearest fire hydrant, Asset Protection Zone and planned changes to vegetation etc.

I figure there is no point hiring a draftsperson at this stage to make lovely final drawings if the concept gets knocked back.  So it is time to dredge out the decades-old graphic designer skill set and see if I can remember how to whip up some technical drawings. How hard can that be?

First Draft House Design

With a footprint of around 60 square meters, my container house concept is pretty close to meeting the criteria for the “Tiny House Movement”. The values behind the design are definitely shared – realising that we don’t need as much space as we think, and using space in a more efficient way. Then there are the advantages of not having to heat and cool a large space, consuming less energy and less “stuff” in general (having nowhere to put it helps), and, critically, not having to clean a crazy number of bathrooms.

Seriously, how many toilets does a person need? And how much time do we spend in there each day? If your health and diet are OK, it’s likely that for most of the time the bathroom is just dead space.

Reducing debt around home ownership is also a major factor, avoiding a mortgage trap and being able to maintain freedom. I have to admit I am addicted to freedom. In my case the BAL Flame Zone issue is blowing the budget out a little, but hopefully not much and certainly not anywhere near as much as it would for a traditional home.

Small does not necessarily mean plain though and given the lovely private block of land that I am very fortunate to have, this design process is all about letting the outside in. Letting in the light and the view, but not the bushfires.

So here is a draft design, consisting of 3 forty foot containers, two on the bottom and one on the top. I am new to SketchUp so please forgive errors, lack of details, yada yada. My floor plan is looking much neater than this 3D effort. I have left in the default SketchUp dude for scale, in his bomber jacket with clipboard.

Imagine a classy finish inside, timber feature wall, wood stove with corrugated iron backing, and nicer furniture (no offence SketchUp). Plus a railing around the deck of course.

View of house from front.
Front of house, windows and double glass doors face the view. Lounge/dining on left, then home office, then main bedroom (with built in robes). The kitchen and bathroom are behind the office and bedroom.

In this design the living space works out to be about 5m x 4.7m which is not a bad amount of space. I now carry my tape measure with me everywhere I go and my friends and family are getting used to me randomly measuring bits of their houses.

I have offset the bottom containers a bit so that the design is not just a plain box, but also so that I can put in a dining nook and tuck the dining table out of the way. I don’t use my dining table much, and the nook will also function as a cosy book reading spot, or an alternative office space where I can put my feet up and work on my laptop. Under the seat will be storage space.

Dining Nook
Dining nook idea to save space in the living area, includes a comfy couch for lounging – taken from here

To open up the space a bit more, the floor of the 2nd story container is cut away over the living/dining area below, so there is a double height ceiling in that section. That still allows for a good sized room in the rest of the top floor container, which then opens up onto a rooftop deck via glass doors. These will be high cube containers so with insulated ceilings should still give about 2.5m in ceiling height. That’s a crazy 5m high ceiling section, pretty cool no? While I’m not into dead space from extra toilets, dead space from high ceilings and extra light I love. There has to be somewhere for artworks and a feature wall too, and this space has lots of potential.

The stairs leading up to the 2nd story loft are in the kitchen, and are looking very dodgy in the drawing (sorry about that, no time to draw each stair and no idea how!). The stairs will have a pantry cupboard housed underneath and maybe a pull out bench for extra work space in the kitchen. Sorry Harry Potter no room for you.

Cut away showing double height ceiling
Cut away section showing double height ceiling area, and the dodgily drawn stairs which first run along the wall in the kitchen, then take a 90deg turn and cut above the kitchen. The stairs were tricky to fit in but this way they provide useful kitchen storage.
Cut away of back of house
Cut away showing the back of the house, with bathroom on left, then kitchen with stairs running along the far wall. The kitchen is not properly drawn in, it’s just that long bench shape that represents the bottom cabinets, sink/stove etc. There will be overhead cabinets as well, plus a linen cupboard and laundry cupboard.
kitchen
Visualise a kitchen more like this – smaller overall of course, long and narrow with bigger overhead cupboards. I like these colours too. Taken from here

The 2nd story container is pending DA approval of course, but hopefully the roof top deck will stay put either way. It would be a tragedy not to be able to sit on top of the house, drink in the view and do a bit of twitching arm-chair style (that’s bird watching for anyone who thinks that twitching sounds unhealthy).

I am meeting a surveyor on site this week to get my landscape plan underway. Once that is done, along with concept drawings of the house and steel-based wall structure etc, it will be time to chat to the RFS about whether the overall design concept is OK for BAL Flame Zone, and also chat to Council about the design in general and clearing of the block. At least it’s a very small footprint to have to clear.

So far so good

The picture above shows a fabulous design with a rooftop deck on a container house (from Pinterest via fantasticfrank.se). Take away the timber, and I am planning a similar rooftop deck on my house to take advantage of the gorgeous view. The back half of the house might also have a second story container on it, opening onto the rooftop deck. That top story might have to be scrapped if the new draft LEP comes in soon which restricts building height, since the height of the second story will be right near the limit pending the height of the foundations.  I’m really hoping I can squeeze that one container on top, the houses either side are both two story. More on the house design later.

Back to the progress update: I just had onsite meetings with an extremely helpful bushfire assessor, and a crane driver who clearly knows his stuff. Both went well. No surprises, the block is BAL Flame Zone; back, front and sides. Partly because of that, there is a good argument for building the house just where I would like it. There are the lovely established gardens and a sandstone retaining wall which it would be awful to ruin, plus the Flame Zone at the front of the block is out of my control as it is across the street, whereas I could maintain a firebreak on my land at the back (closer to the house). That will all become clearer when I post site maps, but for now it is hopeful news.

Container house by Meka with rooftop deck.
Container house by Meka with rooftop deck. Ditch the timber cladding, turn the top story container around and double its length so that it runs along the longest side of the house, and that’s the sort of deck I am aiming for. (From http://www.mekaworld.com)

Walls
For the steel clad walls, the bushfire assessor said that the new NASH standards will be adopted into the BCA (see previous post for background) so steel walls are potentially a viable BAL FZ solution. The plan of attack is to draft up some plans including steel clad wall structures, elevations and the landscape survey map showing vegetation etc, and go straight to the horse’s mouth so to speak – to see the Rural Fire Service in Glendenning and check if they would be happy with the proposed solutions. First though, I have to check if the approved wall structure is feasible in a container build.

Why is the RFS suddenly a horse? Because for a BAL FZ build, if anything out of the box comes up then Council sends the DA to the RFS for approval. And this container build is very much out of the box (excuse the pun!).

Windows
For the windows, I have good news. NSW is being very sensible about the astronomical cost of BAL FZ approved bushfire shutters and window systems, and is not forcing that cost onto us yet. So BAL FZ tested and approved windows and shutters are not required, as long you use the combination of 6mm toughened glass windows with metal frames, steel mesh screens over the opening portions, and then standard solid aluminium shutters (they have to be easy to close, with no gaps big enough to let embers in). I had one quote for BAL FZ approved windows, for what is going to be a small house, and it was over $20,000. So it’s a huge relief not to have to go in that direction. I am sure it is an even bigger relief for those rebuilding after the bushfires, who already face anything from $40,000 to $100,000 in extra costs due to the new BAL FZ regulations.

I have briefly looked into having the window shutters made out of the steel that is cut out of the container in order to create the windows. However, because the ease of manual closing of the shutters is so important (so you can race around and close them quickly if a fire front threatens), container steel shutters are unfamiliar/untested and might complicate RFS approvals. I would have to get an engineer to draw up the shutter design anyway, so it’s probably cheaper to go with standard aluminium shutters for now. But if anyone out there is already designing container steel shutters and getting them approved please let me know!

Container steel shutters
An example of window shutters that could be made for a container home. These are corrugated iron I think, but something similar from container steel might work. This solution looks to be out of the budget for now though. (Click on picture for source)

Roof
I also asked the bushfire assessor about the roof structure, as I would rather not add on a standard sloping roof – especially given the plans for a rooftop deck. Roof systems that have been tested to BAL FZ do not come cheap and it seems silly to have to add on another roof when I will already have one.

There are all sorts of structures in standard roofing systems that are potentially vulnerable to bushfires, like the fact the internal framework is normally timber, along with the eaves. A solid steel container box should be a better option in theory, so one avenue to venture down is looking at whether an approved wall structure could also be used as a roof. Flat walls, flat roof (with drainage of course). This would be the simplest solution.

Other options include cladding the flat roof in BAL FZ approved panels of which there are several, including INEX and Promatect 50, both of which do not require any additional layers to meet BAL FZ standards (like membrane and plasterboard). Neither are particularly cheap though and I would rather not have to add any unnecessary materials, to keep the build as green as possible.

Cranes
The containers need to be lifted in by crane, so this meeting was a quick feasibility check for access and the type of crane needed. There are a number of dead and sick looking gum trees to remove to give access, which should probably come out due to fire hazard anyway, and the hazard of falling on the house. They are all in the established garden rather than the native bush down the back of the block, and I am guessing that the garden fertilisers have probably done them in. I need to chat to Council about that side of things, but overall it looks pretty feasible for the moment.

There are nifty little cranes that can scoot under power lines and be jacked up so that they don’t squash the garden too much when they drive over bits of it. It’s all about reach with cranes (longer distance = less load) so if we can get the crane close enough a 50 tonne crane might do the trick.

Two more meetings down, no major obstructions to the build yet.

 

A little rainbow of hope

I haven’t found the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow yet, but I have at least found the start of the rainbow. External steel clad walls can exist in a Flame Zone. You may well ask, how can steel cladding and pretty rainbows be related? If you are not sure then you need to read my previous post first.

I heard back from NASH today (National Association of Steel-Framed Housing Inc) and they have new NASH Bushfire Standards coming out at the end of this month. There is a solution for using metal clad walls in BAL Flame Zone in it!

Little dance of joy.

Little. NSW Rural Fire Service don’t accept the NASH Standards for Flame Zone as a standalone, but might as part of a total solution – which according to NASH seems to mean that if you have water tanks dedicated for fire fighting, have AS 3959 rated windows and satisfy other aspects of the AS 3939 conditions, then the wall solution should be OK.

One key issue with steel in a BAL FZ is that steel is a conductor (although not as much as some other metals) so it would conduct some of the the radiant heat expected in the Flame Zone. There is potentially a LOT of radiant heat in a Flame Zone. The NASH solution therefore has a “thermal shield” in it, which going by the diagram looks like steel battens that create a small air gap between the steel and then an extra internal layer of plasterboard, creating a plasterboard sandwich on the inside of the steel (with insulation in the middle). A pic taken from the new NASH standards is below:

NASH steel clad wall solution in flame zone
NASH steel clad wall solution in flame zone

To me this looks a lot better than having to put plasterboard, membrane then fibre cement over the outside of the steel, and would have a smaller carbon footprint than all those extra layers. I am yet to cost it out.

I also don’t know how tricky or expensive this is to apply to a container build yet, as it has implications for insulation (normally spray foam) and also structure (achieving the gap between steel and floor frame for example). The full NASH document might include some other solutions, who knows. It’s a good start!

Thank you NASH. I had no idea you even existed until this week, but you are my favourite acronym now.