Making It real
My story in attempting to bring a new housing type that improves affordability, livability & community resilience
Even though there are a few in-ground heating options, they can either be heated by electric radiant cabling or the more commonly known hydronic hot water piped system. As they do not provide any cooling, this form of temperature control is typically an additional charge on top of the more common installed split Air systems. As the Melbourne climate is typically needing more heating than cooling energy, I was eager to not have any A/C units working long hours during the winter, so the inground heating was undoubtedly a preference. The problem I faced was that I didn't really know if I could justify the added expense for what in effect would be two heating systems. It all became evident to me when I thought more deeply about the Federal governments' desire to establish the snowy river 2.0 initiative, which was seeking to develop a hydraulic battery. This simply was a process of pumping and holding water upstream in a dam when energy was cheap and abundant, and only releasing the water to produce hydro energy when power was in high demand. This empathised to me that a battery in its purest form is simply a capsule to store energy to be released at a later point. If I could simply transfer solar energy into heating energy that is stored in the slab and then allowing it to naturally release the energy in the evening, I in effect had a house battery.
Although not as efficient as a battery where I had control in releasing its power, it helped me better manage free solar energy. Using electricity to heat the floor made it easier to decide between hydronic versus electrical coiling. As the hydronic system needed gas to be more efficient and really wanted no gas connection to the house, it was really a no brainer. The other benefit of having the electric coil, over hydronic pipes was that much less equipment was associated with the electric option meaning long term maintenance cost was less and more space within my service cupboards. After this decision, I researched the coils available and eventually selected Devanir as the preferred supplier. They were preferred mainly because of its proven track record but also in the way the people at the other end of the line were so caring and considerate in explaining to me the options that I could consider. To date, this has been the best trade experience I have ever had, yet I will reserve this opinion until the system is up and running, which leads me to my next point, the risk associated with this system.
One of the negatives of in-ground heating is that it does draw down a bit of energy to heat a slab and it takes a bit of time to warm up when initially turned on, yet if you have a suitably sized solar panel arrangement much of this could be countered by managing your power gains to supplement the times when you need to draw off the grid which will generally be early in the morning. When I mean early, I am talking about 3-4am when the demand and prices are low so that the slab is nice and toasty when everyone wakes up. However, the more significant issue is when something is found not to work after the concrete is poured, especially if your floor finish is a polished concrete slab.
The only way to repair a faulty system is to first locate the cable's fault, break open the concrete around this supposed location, and then patch up the newly formed whole with fresh concrete. As you can guess, there has never been a patch up concrete job that does not look like something went wrong. You do roll the dice when you choose the exposed concrete option with floor heating, and this time, the wrong number came up for me. I now have the dilemma of needing to break open a 300x 300 area to fix a cable without a party wanting to take responsibility for it. Not only will I end up with an inconsistent flooring finish, (a patch at my front entrance), but there is a dispute brewing as to whether the cable had been initially faulty, or the concrete damaged the line when pouring the concrete. The lesson here? Make sure the builder and the concreter are present when the cabling testing is done before the concrete is poured and give everyone a record of this test. The trick now is to try to make exercise look like a deliberate feature rather than a mistake. A great lesson to have learnt, but not really of much value to me unless I do another similar project...do I need the stress?!
I will post images of the area needing repair, before and after to show how this ended up. We are currently still working through our options.
I have jumped the gun somewhat here as the damage to the heating coil was not known for some time, but the next few blogs will simply be snapshots of work status as not too much went wrong...until we start talking about the windows.
It should not be a surprise that you are likely to come across some latent conditions within the ground adding a few extra tasks to deal with. To be fair, there was not that much except for striking rock at 600mm...and of course, the big old elm street tree root system that more than likely was contributing to the telephone book-sized crack in my neighbour's wall. Even though we knew the boundary wall had a crack within it, I think we were all surprised to see the actual size once exposed.
.The Elm tree, nearing 80 years was a majestic mistress and with its fellow brethren, significantly contributing to the glamour that a tree-lined street brings. These trees were like a gateway to the hidden forest, and they provided ample shade in Summer that gave the road an unnatural coolness during those long summer hot days. With such beauty can come many a troublesome root and this one was the size of a man's thigh. Too big to cut without fearing for the life of the tree. In the end, it did not really matter as the tree inspector from council quietly said that this and another tree needed to come down with some urgency as they were in bad health and were a public safety issue. I could not help feeling a bit guilty that I had fast-tracked the demise of such glamourous beings, yet maybe it saved a life. Needless to say, it was not too long before the tree-lined street was looking a bit bear as trees were quickly escorted off the road to becoming future garden mulch.
After all that was resolved, we managed to excavate and get the slab down. Yet another problem was about to eventuate.
Images of the house before demolition
Before I get onto the demolisher, I need to share my experience with the utility companies, namely the NBN. They should never complain when people give them a bad rap. Apart from a pretty antiquate website, it was not too much pain to register to have the power and gas supply cut off. That only took around the 2-3 weeks without a charge. The NBN, on the other hand, requested over $200 and they took the longest time to physically remove the connection, almost 6 weeks to get there. And the fairness in that is where exactly....?? Yet that was marginal when I compare it to the demolisher.
I am sure many have a similar trade experience where they promise the world and follow the rules. Yet this changes when they are on site. They simply do their own thing and tell you that you do not know anything. "I've been doooing disss for tirty years maaate, yoou knoow nutding". In short, instead of pulling individual sections of the old house down by hand along the neighbour's boundary, they used heavy machinery which they initially agreed that they would not use. This created unnecessary anxiety for my neighbour and lead to numerous heated discussions with the demolishing group. That was not fun. They were also meant to provide me with a certificate that they had the house inspected by a hygienist for any asbestos before pulling things apart, as is required under the Environmental act. In the beginning, they repeatedly told me that they could not start until this inspector had made the visit. This delayed the project by 6 weeks. So, when I asked for the certificate upon completion, they asked me what certificate...in other words, they were not waiting for anyone. Arrrhhhhh!!! Lucky, I knew that house had only a single, non-friable short asbestos pipe but that was not the point. Why can’t people just follow through with what they agreed with?
So, in the background, I was waiting for the bank loan to come through, and I needed my neighbour to sign off on a works permit notice. Covid was just heating up around this stage, which meant that it would be tough to get an inspector to undertake a dilapidation report of my neighbours' internal walls. At one point I was looking at the prospect that I might have to delay the commencement of construction for close to 2-3 months or until Covid was no longer an issue to allow the inspection to occur... a hands-in-head moment. Thankfully, we could, and my neighbours were very accommodating, allowing the inspector to complete the report. (thank you) Now surely, we could start..."could we"?
By May 2020, after 4 months after signing the contract...we got there but not without a few hip cups, like the tree root that we discovered was snuggling under my neighbour's front veranda wall.
I guess that a high proportion of people underestimate just how much documentation is needed within a building tender pricing schedule. I was over the drawings as I just wanted to start building. Clearly, the process of researching and challenging the system to squeeze some level of reasoning had exhausted me. That alone should have been enough. Also, managing the website and building an animation to help spread word brought a whole new level of work and commitment that I clearly underestimated. Even though I really enjoyed seeing how this came together (A big thanks to Devon, Don and Steve for helping me put it all together), it takes a lot more effort than you realise. Hopefully, if you have read this, you have seen it and if not, hopefully, you will. It is on my website front page. So how did finding a builder go?
There were several builders I was talking with to supply a quote whilst getting a feel in how they think and operate. It was going to be especially important that the builder I selected did not see this as another job but a challenge and interest to learn more. I wanted someone who always looked to become better at their craft. I felt the vibes I needed from Hartman Construction, and after working through the details, we hit the button and signed the agreement in xx 2020...right at the tail end of the national bushfires. I was doing much of my negotiations whilst holidaying in Bright, which rather than being calm and peaceful was one of heat and anxiety as I was continually checking the bush fire emergency app to see if I need to evacuate. As an urbanite, I can now say that you do not fully appreciate what a bush fire does to your physic until your life is threatened by this unpredictable force of nature. It is eerie like. It was certainly an omen for just how many bushfires I was going to have to deal with in the construction of a single house...and just what lay ahead in 2020
The first issue was getting the Loan approved. Wow, I knew Westpac was terrible, but this was ridiculous. I feel sorry for giving my mortgage broker a hard time, but just getting through the phone to Westpac was a joke and when finally getting through, they would hang up. All this was happening at the start of the Covid crises, and nothing seemed normal. My experience with the banks did expose to me just how much some were dependant on international support. I still find it amazing that it was a preference for the bank to send progress payments through fax to a place in South Australia and not through their website...what year is it again?! Westpac was responsible for delaying me by 8 weeks unnecessarily. It's a bitter pill to swallow when you know they would penalise me at a drop of a hat if I was a day late in repayment. It is not hard to see why the smaller fintech solutions are sprouting up all over the place, taking their market share. They have had it too good for too long, and their size has made them too lazy to change.... seemingly a continuous theme I was experiencing for this project. I was soon to find out that the big groups were not the only ones that were going to give me a hard time...enter my friend the demolisher...oh god.
When finding frustrations with the council in attempting to gain support for the proposed home design, it became clear that I need to find out the Government department that was responsible in the building and planning rules. I first approached the planning department, and after much consideration, they concluded that it was the building department that needed to be addressed. So off I went to the state building department; however, they indicated it was the national code that needed addressing. So, I then went to the National Code authority who was running several information sessions for the draft 2019 code that would mandate increasing accessibility requirements. At this time, I realised that the house design I had produced could also offer a fantastic living option for those who are physically challenged, increasing its importance as an alternative housing solution.
Notwithstanding this, I attended the sessions and questioned the speakers about who the authority was responsible for approving designs that allowed separate quarters for carers or alternative family members where there might be a need for the second kitchen. It was clearly outlined to me at these public forums that even though it was a "grey area”, it was councils’ responsibility. After returning to council armed with this, they repeated their previous advice that it was a building code issue and could not address it unless the house was issued as a class 1b (refer to earlier post). As I mentioned previously, going down a Class-1b option was fraught with risk, so I had little choice but to return to the Building Authority. After multiple attempts in emailing them with no response, I rang them up. They again told me it was a council responsibility and provided some reasons why. When I asked them for that advice in writing, the response I received was gobsmacking. "we never provide written responses". I find that deplorable. I again went back to council once again outlining what the building authority had "verbally" told me, yet the response was not different to last time. Once again, the council mentioned it was out of their control. Around this time, I was annoyingly reaching out to councillors and making submissions to the council in how they might be missing an opportunity to be innovative in caring for both its future residents and the environment. I never thought I would be "one of them" but what choice did I have left to me.
Even though I was being heard (credit to council on that front), nothing was being done nor were they willing to work through a viable solution (credit removed). Somewhere in all my pinballing through the different authorities, the Practise notes within the Building code (Additional details in how to interpret the building code), were updated to make more significant reference in how to consider homes where there were 2 living quarters above one another. It was clear that even though the council could have the authority to work around the code in this instance, the most prominent entity that prevented a multigen-house was the Building Authority. In all of this, I could not find nor was I given any plausible or scientific reason why the concept I presented would be of greater risk to life, which I could have only assumed was why no one was willing to support it. It was clear that the building rules suggested that I needed to treat the dwelling as though it was an apartment when it clearly was not. I still challenge the system to explain or show me evidence to suggest otherwise, something I have done on numerous occasions. All this to and throwing occurred over 9 months...was unnecessary time wasted when all I was trying to do was provide families with an improved alternative that seeks to improve their lives. It should not be this hard. Nor should starting the building after all of this....but nothing would be easy on this project.
Previously I set out how I came up with the design and home concept, and now I will explain my experience with the institutions and merry ground that I have had to endure. Before getting too deep in criticising all of those involved, I will start by saying that no government or large institutions is free from periods within its existence where a heightened level in the fragmentation of responsibility will exist. Through not acceptable, this is not abnormal. What really matters is how these organisations behave once they are made aware of the issues and what role we have in making them aware of it. My personal belief is as stakeholders of society, we have a responsibility to become more informed if we come across an issue that raises concern to see if we can do anything about it. If we consider it worthy of pursuit after deliberation, we should at least try to notify those who are responsible; allowing them an opportunity to clarify and/or rectify the issue presented. If we do not do this as the customer/citizen, who will and how long will the change take if we simply choose to voice our displeasure through the ballot box or by shifting our purchasing decisions? Let us have a quick look at how the private sector has sought to quickly respond to their customer's issues well before becoming evident in delayed sales results.
One of the most significant changes to the private business over the last decade has been their ability to invite and scan instant feedback to gather intel and determine what they are doing right or wrong. This early collection and analysis help them deal with the issue before it becomes cancerous and has long term impacts on the business. This is not so commonly adopted by government institutions due mainly to its immense scale and the difficulty to decide which agency might be responsible for the issue in the first instance. What makes this even more difficult is that it is not uncommon that a problem may cross over multiple government agencies/departments meaning that determining the chain of responsibility often becomes the most challenging puzzle of them all.
When an issue may need to cross multiple 'desks”, it does make it hard for those within the system to freely make decisions without considerable engagement with others in other corners of the system. As a result of the excessive amounts of effort required to navigate these desks, it can lead to an encouragement of the continuation of that unfortunate service trait of being passed on to someone else. So, if you are after change, it certainly requires an unnatural level of tenancy, persistence, and the belief that your efforts will one day result in something meaningful. The effort needed does sadden me somewhat as I wonder just how many unique ideas/solutions some people have had but have been lost due to bureaucracy? I can see why people would give up. So, let me start with the agencies I tried to work with and where that all ended up.
Once my plans were with the building surveyor, it was not long that I discovered the building rules were against me when it was made clear to me that 2 kitchens above each other created a risk to life. (see challenge6). After the challenges with my first building surveyor, the new one encouraged me to have early discussions with the council to obtain several set back dispensations and acceptance of the second kitchen. To be fair to Darebin council, some officers agreed the design had merit. Still, through further consultation within their office, I was informed approval would not be granted for any consent unless I removed the 2nd kitchen. As that was central to the whole design idea, I wanted to understand the reasoning for this. Even though they have the authority to approve instances where no definitive ruling on an issue exists within the building code, they preferred a more conventional approach. The council suggested I go down a town planning route and submit the house design as a rooming house, not a typical residential family home (more on the differences of these two later).
By this stage, I had already spent close to $20k on consultancy fees. A planning process would double this not to mention it would drag out the process even further with the added risk that I might lose the design aspects that I had generally been accepted. In other words, the planning route had a real chance of delivering me with a worse result. So rather than go down the public planning process, I opted for an "as of right" approach to obtaining approval through the councils building inspectors rather than their planning office. This approval approach came at the expense of the second kitchen. However, there was a slight opening of opportunity to later submit a formal submission to obtain approval of a Rooming house (Class 1b) once the house was completed as a typical residential house (Class 1a). There was, however, a bit extra I needed to do for this approach to occur.
The original plans would need to change to meet the class 1a requirements and the design needed to ensure the current design was future-proofed, allowing for an easy transition to a class 1b building, pending whether council granted the approval in the first case. Futureproofing was no easy feat as a class 1b needed to allow for disability access requirements (DDA). For those who are not familiar with DDA rules, not only are they incredibly complex but it generally requires extra space, potential ramps and undesirable institutional-looking bathrooms. Making all this work within a 10m wide lot with acoustically rated walls (i.e. Thickwalls), was extraordinarily difficult. Not only did this require an additional specialist consultant and extra wall supports, but it forced me to increase the building footprint that not only increased construction cost but reduced the backyard space :(
I undertook this knowing it was a gamble as there was no certainty that council would accept my intended future planning submission, but for now, I considered it the best approach to move forward so I could at least build something.
This redesign's total cost, including additional floor space and extra fire rating, is estimated to be adding around $50k to $60k to the final build price. This is something that could and should have been avoided as most of these additional requirements are unnecessary. This was the investment-gamble I considered would give me the best chance when I eventually presented my case in the future planning submission. Let us not forget the planning submission will likely cost me another $15k. In the end, the additional expense, that could be associated with bureaucracy would surpass $100k. I would have preferred to have used that to obtain an 8-star energy rating, yet I am not sure the authorities understand just how much of a burden they are placing on such initiatives. This should be even more surprising when you learn Darebin (The council) are supposed to be environmentally focused. There is one other important fact to note. During this whole redesign period, I was having parallel conversations with both the building and the planning authority to work out who was ultimately in control of the rules that prevented a multigenerational house from being built. So this is how that went....(see next blog)
I am confident that no idea is purely born out of a single thought. It is an accumulation of experience and percolating theory where a need needs dealing with. So, on one sunny Saturday morning, I once again mulled over the sketch pad that I had been revisiting every 6 or so months since I bought the property...which was almost 5-6 years ago if I measured it back from that Saturday. I had drawn a few sketches and ideas, even one I had before I bought the property, but nothing really gave me that "ah-ha" moment. Below is an early sketch in 2014.
Sometimes after an extended session of drawing, I would try to convince myself that I had solved it, knowing only too well that I was lying to myself. This Saturday was somewhat different. They say that you are at your peak when you are in flow, a state where nothing else exists other than the challenge in front of you. I was there.
I drew lines and created spaces at an increasing pace feeling as though I was building up to a crescendo. I imagine it is like nearing the end of a 1,000-piece puzzle where the speed in locating and placing the pieces increases almost at a feverish pace. I am guessing that is what flow is. I remember putting the pencil and ruler on the table and pushing it away and asking myself, is that it? Is that it?! As I kept visualising the process of navigating around the rooms and altering the inhabitants' lives, each virtual experience kept responding with an affirmative yes. The thing that I remembered most of that event was the feeling of relief. Something I discovered was a bit premature.
After I shared the plans with a few friends, the response only confirmed that I had the design that had the best chance in contributing to addressing those societal issues I had challenged myself to fix. At this stage, however, I was ignorant that having two kitchens in the same house was to become my nightmare. And so, the journey really started to begin from here. My experience with the institutions was the most telling, which I will recap on next.
I have restarted this blog (Dec 2020) quite a long time after completing the previous series of "challenge" blogs. Those earlier blogs were where I attempted to compress 10 years of thinking, learnings, and frustrations in my search for a house design that could solve the growing societal challenges we were forced to face. I focused hard on getting those articles out at that time as I was not only tired of talking about this solution, but I was eager to share with the aged care commission that was going on at that time. Those articles simply brought to the surface many societal issues at play and demonstrate just how entangled they were with one another. The beautiful thing about entanglement is any rational solution, no matter how small, should have some degree of impact on all the problems at play. The key was to find the one that would reverberate the most with as little public funding dependency as possible. When there is less need for public funding, there will be less chance for the irrationality of politics of getting in the way. That all aside, I was finally ready to get back on the keyboard to share where I am at with this decade extended mission and true to form with this project another curveball was thrown, enter COVID 19. It brought with it all kind of challenges as many will know, particularly those in Melbourne. Still, most importantly, it reminded us of what really was important, family and the support it offers... If this pandemic has not amplified the importance of home care for your ageing parents or the need to allow your home to adapt to the situation you may find yourself in (home-schooling), then I really do not know what would. Before getting into some the building details, I think it is only right to cover some of the events before the building began. I will first recap on the previous article discussion points up to the point of gaining authority approval to commence construction because if I had received a favourable outcome, this website would never have had to exist.
If you had read the content on this website, you would have become familiar with the problem that putting in 2 kitchens in the one house creates. Yes, you probably know some homes with 2 kitchens, but you might be surprised how many do not comply. They might get away with it but if a fire were ever to occur in such a house, be wary of the insurance claim. You will see in articles labelled challenges 8 & 9 just how nonsensical these rules can be made to look but what probably isn't clear is how I became aware of all of these rules and challenges that surround the kitchen sink. I'll try my best to do an abbreviated outline of the process of ideation through to starting construction, but it has been 10 years so it might not be so brief. I am somewhat apprehensive in looking back, but I need to share the bumps and blockers I have come across so there is a record of how bureaucracy can do the opposite to what it set out to become.
Challenge 10 – What are the specific planning & authority rules that need changing to support Multigenerational homes. (Article 16)
(Please note that this article is one in a series and it may make references to previous articles)
When starting this, I never knew that I would have had to travel such a journey. Would I have started this knowing that there was such illogical and incomprehensible resistance to a solution that could benefit so many? Absolutely. If anything, as a result of being forced to traverse down the many rabbit warrens, it has only strengthened my resolve as I am much more confident of the roadblocks than I ever have been. And they are not insurmountable. I can’t help but feel that it is somewhat a shame that the authorities we rely on to solve planning and housing issues are part of the cause as to why the problems exist in the first instance. Yet the authorities have so much to deal with that sometimes they too can become overwhelmed by the multiple responsibilities they have to deal with and maybe sometimes, it also needs others to challenge what they do and provide alternative approaches. In saying all that, there is not a great deal that needs to change in allowing more multigenerational homes, yet there is a need for change. The suggested amendments to current planning and building rules are outlined below.
If these amendments are adopted, then in the long term this slight change should provide more opportunities for families to take better care of their aging parents, children or disabled family members while also improving our broader approach to sustainability, housing affordability and community resilience.
A multigenerational house should:
If these rules are implemented, then we will be making it real.
The journey, however, does not stop until the prototype is built to demonstrate what such a house the meets these rules, looks and feels and behaves (Image above). In the next few articles, I will explain the planning strategy taken, how the home design embraces flexibility allowing to have multiple configurations, the building approval process and hopefully the fun part where I can start adding photos of the thing coming out of the ground! The one thing that I haven’t highlighted here is that the final confrontation with the authorities will occur when the house is built. At this stage, it will not yet be a Multigenerational home; however they will be given a chance to determine if it can be. If you want to hear how this works out, please register for updates.
(Please note that this article is one in a series and it may make references to previous articles)
In my previous article, I described how restrictive and illogical the Australian Building code was when confronted with a multigenerational home that had two kitchens. In this article, I will outline how the planning system can influence the building code while providing yet another nonsensical scenario that the current rules create which surprisingly seems to be supported by both the building and planning authorities. First, let's look at an example where planning has influenced a build form outcome. Before we start, have a look at the images below and ask yourself, which would you think posses the greater fire risk?
A planning scheme can guide the building code as it has with Rooming Homes. Under the building code, a rooming home is considered very similar to a typical residential home bar a few minor differences. Both attract class 1 classifications with a standard residential home being a Class 1a, while a rooming home is a Class 1b. The critical difference is that a Rooming house identifies as a housing specific for the accommodation of disadvantaged people. Other than this, there are many similarities between it and a multigenerational home. To highlight this, let’s review how both the planning scheme and building code approach this type of class 1 building.
Under clause 52.23 of the Victorian planning scheme, it outlines the critical criteria needed for a home to qualify as a Rooming house. In parallel to this, the building Code has specially developed a building type, Class 1b, that aligns with the planning restrictions which state that dwelling should not:
Even though very similar to class 1a, there are some minor differences; The Building code identifies that the facilities are designed to be shared and that there must be a full DDA compliant bathroom and car park. It also requires increased fire escaping measures that are far less stringent than what a Class 2 building would need (refer to article 12). This high level of amenity in a rooming house is designed to protect disadvantaged people of our society, who generally are not related to one another. This now brings me to nonsensical restriction number 3.
Non-sensical restriction number 3
Which would you consider attracts the higher fire risk?
A) A 2-storey multigenerational home with 4-5 bedrooms, two kitchens and residents that are generally related to one another;
B) a 9-bedroom dwelling with disadvantaged strangers.
According to the Build Code, it is A)
Yes, the Multi-Gen house unbelievably is assumed to posses the greatest fire risk....
Notwithstanding the above and the fact that both the building codes and planning scheme are silent on the ability to have a second kitchen for a rooming house (class1b), this building class, subject to a few adjustments, could provide the right solution in increasing the supply of more multigenerational homes. So, what would these amendments be? I will outline this in the next article.
A property expert with over 25 years experience working across both private and public sectors, predominately within the housing space.