IN MEMORIAM #5: HOW DO YOU BUILD A HOUSE?

An application for subdivision of Lot 50C Parish of Wartook lodged with the Shire of Arapiles on August 4th 1974 was returned approved on April 9th 1975 just eight months after it was submitted. That meant that the process of buying the land could commence.

polesBy that time I had found, felled, skinned, transported and weathered the trunks of four big trees, two yellow box, one messmate, one stringy bark, and ended up with four big (reasonably) straight poles. On April 10th with the aid of my ute I got the poles in, and by the end of the 13th I’d finished the box for the slab. I did the preliminary feed plumbing on the 19th and the waste plumbing on the 20th. We were living in Horsham at the time and I was working on this at the weekends and sometimes coming out to the land after school. When I was doing my school work I’m not sure.

Then on the 3rd May the concrete trucks rumbled in to Girin Flat again. I had made fewer mistakes this time but 22 cubic metres of concrete are never going to be less than daunting.

slab#1These pictures indicate the help: Robert, Myrna’s brother, in the white T-shirt, John and a very heavily pregnant Gabi who were living in Horsham, the Sproulls. During the whole enterprise we had a great deal of volunteer labour. It would be curmudgeonly to complain but, you know, a lot of time spent supervising, and as I got better at it, a certain amount of time spent pulling out work and doing it again. But on balance, you would never complain. In building there is a permanent role for at least a second person. There is so much repetitious hackwork and Mernz and Geoffrey Ainsworth did as much of that as I did and often more neatly.

By the time the fifth truck came the vertical boxes I’d built for the upright concrete stanchions were groaning and sweating unhappily and I could no longer bear to look. They ended up with rather more hour glass figures than you would like, but the straight sides were where I needed them to be, straight and reasonably vertical. Patina.

How many things did I write off as patina (lit: a film or incrustation, usually green, produced by oxidation on the surface of old bronze and often esteemed as being of ornamental value, but here: ‘a dodgy bit adding to the character of the whole’. So much patina was employed. Sloyd would have walked away, horrified.)

By the time the fifth truck came we had, as usual, plenty of concrete, always a bad moment. Concrete waits for no man and dumping four cubic metres of concrete somewhere … well, you’d notice. I rapidly improvised a verandah, a slab for ‘other use’ and asked the driver to rinse out where we couldn’t see.

slab#2I nearly did have a fit that day. So much was bound up in getting that slab in: two years of focus and thought, not to mention 18 months of struggle with lawyers, a surveyor and the Shire’s building inspector. I looked at the way I had built the stanchion boxes and how pathetically flimsy they were, scarcely supported, and knew it was all wrong. I hadn’t thought about how the concrete was going to get in them (and in the end, see at left, Barry Sproull indefatigably filled them all by hand with a bucket!), and I just wanted everyone and everything to go away. But the workers kept on working. I went off and had a walk around and a cup of tea and when I came back most of it was done. I noted at the end of this day: It now remains only to build the house.

On the 20 May I was exactly 25 and a half and celebrated by buying 15 pine poles (the veranda posts, skinned and soaked in creosote and sump oil; Myrna had to be taken to hospital with an allergic reaction to creosote) from Horsham Rotary Club for $7. My father was round at the time and noted wistfully: ‘I guess you can’t make a straight veranda out of bent poles just as you can’t make a good world out of bent people.’ My mother concurred, importantly, as she was generally the authority on the moral dimensions of trees. But, on the other hand, while you may not be able to make a straight veranda you might be able to make one which is perfectly serviceable, and that might be the difference between the good tradesman, described elsewhere in these blogs, and me. (Below: Pole wrangling: Geoffrey Ainsworth, Rod Parker and the non-owner-builder.)logswhole frame25th May. The house now has a roof framework and a veranda that it didn’t before. The weather has come and gone a bit, a couple of nice days but mostly shitty and wintry [during two weeks of flat-out building in the May holidays.] Apart from a sore wrist and some tender fingers there have been no major mishaps. It’s interesting how with the addition of the form of the veranda the external aspect has changed and internally you are suddenly aware of these heights, especially in the bathroom, which are going to be lovely. Cutting and shaping the poles I don’t want to do again immediately.

hand tools 1Cutting and shaping the four poles was a matter of balancing on top of a ladder with nothing to lean against trying to get a series of straight cuts with a bush saw through a foot of very hard wood. With power tools and a bit of scaffolding it would now take me about half an hour. But with no power tools — and no power tools were used in the building of this house; no power — it took me a lot of two days.junction 1

June 8. Nigh unto death. I don’t think I would really care at the moment if I never saw another hammer or nail. I’ve had it. Went over to Mt Gambier on Friday and fish-tailed my way back with $458 worth of exterior pine cladding in the trailer. Smells nice, will look good when it’s up. If it was just a matter of whacking that up it’d be fine, quite a nice job really — quick, good result — but there’s so much else to do.

On the 3rd July we moved from Horsham into the shed on the property (still Joan’s). We’re out here now for good or ill. The die is cast; the McKenzie/Rubicon has been crossed. Of course we still don’t own the land. Ha ho. So we were ‘on site’ every day if not necessarily working.

The shed had our bed in it, a table and four chairs and a very old wood stove that we had rescued from somewhere which actually worked a treat. Light was a pressure kerosene Tilley lantern, which had reasonably durable mantles, gave a strong light — you could read by it quite easily — but hissed mercilessly. It was always a relief to turn it off. The smart set had moved onto gas bottle lamps by then, still noisy if less so, but that move had passed us by. Cold water came from the tank and hot water from a 5 gallon ‘fountain’, a big cast iron vessel that you just left on the stove. It was never warm in the morning, so the day began with a cold splash followed by a cup of tea made with water boiled on a gas ring. Then we’d climb in the car and pray we wouldn’t get bogged before we’d got out the gate. Forty minutes later we’d be in the staff room at HHS at our desks checking what was actually in front of us for the day. After school we’d do a bit of shopping, Myrna down the street and me at the hardware store, and make our way back towards Mt Zero, down the Laharum road past Mt Stapylton (named by the Major’s trusty off-sider after himself) and the olive plantations, through Laharum, past Joan’s, up over the hill at the Roses Gap turnoff and down into our valley.myrnz #1

12 July. It’s three weeks past the shortest day and there is still no real sign of a let-up in the minimalist approach to sunlight. More or less dark at 5.30. After ’staff meetings’ and that sort of thing it means no time no time no time and we of the pioneering fraternity have things to do. There’s wood (currently getting thoroughly soaked) to cut, lamps to clean and fill, water to be pumped. … Here I am espousing the glories of noble ecological savagery to 3A1 and 3A5 with an aching shoulder and tomorrow with a sore eye having been hit ker blam by a flying bit of red gum. At night the Screech Owl is continuing its horrifying cries over in the ti-tree, and the first time always makes you jump. Or it may be someone being tortured. Hard to know. The shed fills with the smell of hot wet stringy bark and the wife sits meditating on greener pastures.

the builderIt was another very wet winter (and spring). One of the things that I was constantly alert to was how I could keep the materials up to the site and not stuck half a kilometre away on the other side of ‘the pond’. But even some of the materials that had been there a while provided a challenge. Upon checking the interior lining board — in the open now for I suppose five months [under a bit of plastic actually] — I find it has been colonized by a fungus and families of various creatures: the giant slater, the ant, the spider ENORME etc. etc. What do they think this is? The bloody bush?

roof#1But it wasn’t always like that, and things improved when I got the roof on. At last there was some shelter.

19 July. Faintly warm. We drove in from the best angle, the north-west, in the middle of one of those red, red sunsets with a huge moon rising over the ranges. The roof was a shimmering silver sea, the moonlight pouring in through its skylights. I climbed up and sat there on the roof thinking that for every hassle with the house there is a countervailing stroke of the purest and most energetic luck. It’s coming into shape and it’s ours and it’s beautiful.

Val Finch [another teacher living in an owner-built home, an A-frame] told me a story today about how two Mallards and an ibis had tried to land on their roof in the moonlight thinking that it was a lake. I was just thinking about that when a flight of some unidentifiable birds whirred past just above — you could hear the motors in their wings they were so close — and uttered one stark cry. One. Stark. Cry. It means nothing, but the whole situation was art. I’m living in an art form, an installation. The weather is good, the wood is reasonably dry, the shed is warm, the food is cooking, the sun will rise tomorrow.

stove inA couple of days later: On the credit side, to which the Great Keeper of the Balance Sheet would urge attention, we might have some hot water soon. [I’d installed the fancy and fabulous second-hand IXL slow combustion stove in the house (where it belonged on the slab really) and hooked it up to the hot water. Even though we were out in the open we could, if we wanted, cook on it, and we weren’t a long way from the first bath if en plein air.] Arthur Phillips [our lawyer] is refusing to return calls and we’re $1000 in debt. Yippee. Not sure if I’ve stayed entirely on the credit side. I have put the heads on the taps and they’ll work soon, but rain is getting in on the rather gorgeous mezzanine floor at the moment and I really don’t want that weathered. And why do the mice have to shit all over the bloody table? Tell me that. We have become an exciting new food source. Where’s their sense of gratitude? I wonder when it’s pay day and whether I’ll get $1000. Myrna might. She deserves it though. Once again I’d like a nice sunny FREE week to just get a few things done. Just a clear week or two. Hot water. That’ll be a groove.

mezzaI took two days off the next week to put in the glass panels in the mezzanine and the clerestory in the south wall running between the top plate and the roof, a fiddly job but one which would improve weather proofing substantially. As I surmised it was a bugger of a job. A while ago I wrote up some sort of phoney timetable for us to follow of things to do. After two weeks we’re three weeks behind. Anyway, what the hell. Drunk again.

One of the features of the house was two pairs of magnificent black bean and glass doors, oversize, nearly 3m high and out of a city bank via Whelan the Wreckers. (See below.) They were a striking part of each end wall. But double doors are hard to fit. Anyway …

20 July. Last week, a windy week, I had for the 103007th time tried to fit the double doors: the unfittable meets the unwidenable with intransigence the name of the game. A gust took one of the doors and smashed it down onto a pile of Hardiflex [the proprietary name of the AC sheet], the world’s most revolting building product. The thick and very expensive glass, however, did not break. So I went round to pick it up, thanking lucky stars etc etc, lifted it up and returned it to its place saying, hmmm tough no damage great etc etc, dropped it and the glass smashed.

The work was getting done at the weekends. I would do a tour of the hardware shop or the plumber’s supplies or the saw mill on Friday after school to make sure we weren’t going to be thwarted by some crucial missing item and we would get up at the crack of dawn on Saturday and get into it, often with amateur help arriving mid morning. By four o’clock the mistakes would begin. By five o’clock insuperable obstacles would have emerged. By six o’clock I would be walking around looking at what had happened to see if I could see any difference. Next morning I would correct mistakes, I would have resolved the insuperable difficulties and we’d be off again.

On Sunday nights we would make our way over to the Taylor’s for a hot shower, so we could at least begin the week fairly clean. Their house was fully air-conditioned, warm, lined with western red cedar, had lights, everything working, often a bowl of soup to go with the shower. My best recollection was that I was very grateful — it was always fun to see Gwyneth, not so much Ron — but not envious. It was a very nice house with a fabulous view of the Asses Ears and a remarkable garden of natives emerging very quickly under Gwyneth’s tender ministrations, but they’d brought the suburbs with them. I think that’s what I thought.

seppo 1toiletIn early August, the septic tank went in and a friend’s plumber father hooked it up to the pan and signed the plumbing off, the only professional contribution of labour to the whole. Here is an example of the occasional offset. It took me less than a morning to dig the hole for the tank (at left, 2.5m. deep) in slightly damp pure sand. A talking point was provided by the fact that I sunk the toilet pan so that it was half way between a squat and a pedestal. I’d read somewhere it was a good idea. My mother demurred.

first fire 1The first fire in the fireplace was on 25 August. Laurie Polec set it. He wrote, inter alia: The house, yes well one of the nicest and most splendid I’ve seen, and safe and secure thanks to my work today. And we should finish grouting those tiles tomorrow. But Mernz’s cooking is the big drawcard here. I had a bath tonight which was magnificent in a room with view. At left is the first fire occasion. The grand doors are on display along with the clerestory above the top plate.

This is followed by one of my many ‘lists of disasters’. Borer in the main poles. Moths breeding in the blankets. Vegie garden underwater again. Pump under water. Ran out of trim. Fridge goes on and off. East wall leaking somewhere. And so on.

Wet orchard 1On the 5th November we had two days off to go to a wedding in Mildura, the first downtime since 5th April.  But we had moved in. All that’s left to do on the house is a bit more trimming, two storm water drains, make and fit the fly screens. All the systems are working. The stove is brilliant. Might have another day off sometime. Life? Good.

The person who started it is the person finishing it. There have been no deaths. It seems like the shallowest of beginnings. Constant, teeming struggle against things that can’t be satisfied, like hundreds of lots of dishes to do everyday and I’m the dishpig. But then the trees [in the orchard] are in leaf and some are going very well.

This is the only photo we have of the inside of the finished house: blurred, black and white, shot into the sun coming in through the east wall. Jill and Melissa Vallence talking to Mernz. It doesn’t show the warm honey colour of the wood or the glorious variety in the quarry tiles that I bought from an Eltham potter. Or the way that the light would come through the quadrilaterals of plate glass cut for me so willingly by the chaps at Horsham Glass. Nor the bits and pieces of Italian ceramic on the wall. It was often bit neater than this. No idea what the fly screen is doing inside and we would have put the tent (in the hessian bag) away. Its usual spot was in the root cellar.inside
garage 1We finished the house to a very liveable condition before Christmas and I built this over summer. So we finally had a shed for the ute, the wood and a laundry.

But then we had some news. Myrna was pregnant and while the house was perfect for an athletic childless couple, it wasn’t ideal for a new and growing family. We were also having lots of visitors and it would be nice to be able to offer them a pleasant bedroom. So we built another wing of three bedrooms, more simply designed than the house and much more skillfully executed.

Again we were in something of a hurry. Always in a hurry. My nephew Martin has been building his own very fine house in southern Tasmania for years now. He’s a much better builder than I am, and one of the reasons is that he is patient. When he’s a bit sick of things he stops. He’s also made a friend of his building inspector, who inspects only to marvel at the quality of Marty’s work. I’m not patient.

siteThis is today, I wrote in the journal as a caption to this photo, where there are 92 tons of McKenzie Creek Quarrying Co.s finest and lots of bits of 4×2, 4×1½, 6×3 and 7/10s of a roof as the rain pours down and my terribly expensive lining board gets wet. There’s not the same big fat history to the bedrooms as there was to the house. That was a case of schizoid obsessionalism, a phase now passed. Don Carter has been shooting his scurrilous and lizard-like mouth off saying we haven’t got a building permit. Horrible Don. He had dobbed us in to Fred. I’d sent the plans in but we didn’t have a building permit.

The slab was poured on the weekend before Easter, 10 April just less than a year since we had poured the slab for the house. This slab was a pretty one. I used prime scantling for the very well secured box but experience must count for something. The last mixes were a bit runny but that wasn’t my fault. I began the frame on the 18th and finished it four working days later. I think there’s a future for me in timber framing. The roof is on now so there is somewhere to put the pristine new lining board. It seemed to go up in a flash. It wasn’t a very complex building but I was in practice, I knew what to buy and I had a clear idea about what to do.

Compounding a most inglorious set of mail, Fred sent the plans back yet again on 21 June. He noted the roof needed strutted purlins (an impossibility as he himself admitted when he knew what was going on) and that the slab was unsatisfactory! (Bust ‘er up and start again. Aaaarrrrrrrrgh …) With these and other travails in mind I thought I’d harden up and ring him with a solid line of engineering argumentation. So I gave it a burl on Friday. On Thursday night we had noted new tyre tracks into our place and Myrna had cracked an hilarious joke, ‘Probably Fred Heinz.’ (heh heh heh)

‘Hello Mr Heinz? David McRae. We’ve been corresponding recently …’

‘You’ve been doing a bit more than corresponding. I inspected your place yesterday.’

What can I say? There is no confessional for the building miscreant. This is what Freddy found.frame

And for some reason that’s where the journals end, except to note that on Christmas Day 1976 it was 106 degrees Fahrenheit, and that even though there was work to do I was sitting reading Charles Mingus’s autobiography and it was making me feel queasy.

Front#2I can’t even remember how Fred and I sorted out our differences. I wasn’t required to break up the slab. (Can happen. Happened almost over the road near here a year ago.) I didn’t have to pull any work out. The bedrooms were snug and efficient, each with a different lovely view. We had a bay window in ours. The floating wood floor made things very comfortable.

 

But then Jessie was born. The Wimmera Base Hospital, 16 September 1976. She had heart surgery in Melbourne a few days later, and everything changed.baby Jessie#1

Telecom put the phone on, a very difficult task, running an underground cable almost a kilometre through thick bush two days after I rang and asked them to do so. That was a help, but Myrna was expressing milk, saving it, getting up in the middle of the night, walking across to the house, lighting a lamp, lighting the gas bottle, heating milk, feeding a baby who had spent quite some time in intensive care as often as possible day and night. I was going in to work in Horsham leaving at 7.30 in the morning getting home at 6 or later. And there was still wood to cut, water to be pumped …

Other things happened, but between locking the gate for the last time eight months later and now, I have spent surprisingly little time thinking about all this. It’s been an adventure to rediscover it.

I kept building: a fair bit of another house for a friend, big renovations for others, two new rooms on our new house when we moved to Melbourne and then in Alphington whenever I got bored till every room had a view of garden and from every room you could see the birds.Backview#2

 

There’s still more: the final IN MEMORIAM #6: THE ASHES

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