Always hungry

Did you know that if you coat your outdoor furniture with linseed oil, your lab (ie, labrador retriever) will attempt to lick it all off?

Planning ahead [house renovation]

Our house is almost 100 years old. Built in 1925, it is a typical brick bungalow with 130 sq/m of floor space and 650 sq/m of land; little bit in front of house, and most of it in the back. Many Invercargill buildings - especially in this suburb - are laid out like that.

Back yard in 2017 before chimneys got taken down.

Having been sold 5 times in the last 20 years, it's one of those houses that are sort of... patchwork-looking. We don't know how many owners and tenants it has had, exactly, but it looks like a variety of people have done a variety of repairs and improvements over the years. No-one has ever 'overhauled' it in its entirety though, and it's sort of awesome and horrible at the same time because... it definitely needs work done on it. 

Don't get me wrong: the house in entirely "livable" as is. However, "livable" does not mean "comfortable". It has some serious structural issues and when I say "structural", I don't mean it's about to collapse (though one corner, actually, is). Rather, I mean that the problems of this house are deep within the 'structure'. To remedy them, the house would have to be fixed "deeply", too.

Insufficient ground clearance

The house sits on a slightly sloping ground; about 3% gradient (ie it slopes 3 m downwards for every 100 m covered, lengthwise). Take the photo above, for example: if you look closely, you will see that the foundation is about 0.5 m above ground on the right. On the left, it is... 10 centimetres. Here, I put some notes on for you:

Or take the front door, for example:

The first day we saw the house, it looked like that.

The important thing to note here is: our house does not have a concrete slab for a floor. It is a suspended timber floor throughout.

In modern houses, timber floors should have a clearance of at least 450 mm. On the Southern wall of our house (where the foundation is about 0.5 m above ground) we have that. But! On the Northern wall of our house (photo above), the clearance is more like... 100 mm. If that.

I am not sure why the builders put up a house like that to begin with. Surely, even in 1925 they knew that under timber floorboards there needs to be sufficient ventilation and ground clearance. (It allows moisture to dissipate). I've considered several scenarios: maybe the owners were old and didn't want steps; maybe there was a wheelchair in the house. The only good explanation I've come up with so far, is that builders who set the levels for our foundation, did so on the other side of the house  first (450mm+) and continued it to the North where it almost meets the ground and thought, good enough!

Either way, it is what it is - but we don't want to leave it that way. If it were a 100% timber house, it would probably be the easiest to lift the entire house onto higher piles ('pack' the piles), but with a brick exterior it cannot be done. Due to our floor being the original hardwood tongue-and-groove boards, with no insulation underneath, then if we left it as is, we would continue living atop cold, drafty floors.

Plus, there is likely mould under the floorboards - that's what the insulation guys said, anyway. Last year, they came to insulate the underfloor of our house. About 6 m away from the Northern-most wall they couldn't even go any further - a human couldn't, literally, fit there. The crawlspace went from this on the Southern side of the house...

Moisture-proof polythene sheet laid on the ground, polystyrene insulation stapled between joists above. Please note bricks (!) holding up water pipes that run underneath the floorboards.

.... to this on the North.

About 6 metres away from the Northern-most wall, there came a point where a human could no longer fit.

So: if the problem is too little ground clearance, what to do about it? Several options have been discussed. We could 1) dig trenches, 2) pour concrete, 3) raise floors. All three suck.

...but 2 and 3 suck more than 1. (Main reasons: raising floors would mean we'd have to raise all door lintels so we wouldn't get hobbit-sized doors; pouring concrete inside old foundations not meant for slab is... Yeah. Not good.) So for the moment, the plan is to:

* pull up the hardwood floorboards,

The day we ripped up an old carpet from one of the rooms, the underside turned out to be full of some powder which we assume was some sort of insect repellent.

* dig access trenches between piles,
* install further ventilation openings in the foundation wall,
* lay down polythene moisture barrier on the ground,
* install insulation between joists,
* lay timber sheets over joists (MDF or ply, not sure yet)
* on top of timber sheets, lay down wide wood planks

We'll probably do that at the same time as we re-line the walls because:

Scrim walls

Several rooms have the original scrim and sarking wall lining - or in other words, 100-year-old hessian sack material under the wallpaper :). Obviously, there is no insulation inside the wall cavity.

The kids' room in 2017 with its scrim and sarking wall lining, wallpaper over the top

To make those walls better, material would need to be stripped back to timber framing, insulation installed, plasterboard installed. (House is held up by a timber frame, so the brick on the outside is simply a cladding, what's called "brick veneer" and serves no structural purpose. So when we strip back scrim and sarking, behind it is a timber frame, not brick.)

Our current plan is to re-do the house room-by-room: strip one room in its entirety (floors, walls, ceiling), lower the ceiling (to 2.2-2.4 m), change electrics, re-line with plasterboard, paint.

In the process we'd also demolish chimney stacks which, at the moment, go up to ceiling height. They sit there, taking up space, unused.

Open fireplace was 'boarded up' with a real estate sign when we moved in last year. We have such fireplaces (and chimney stacks above them) in 3 bedrooms.


Similar scenarios abound outside.

By the front door where the floor level sits close to the ground, moisture is probably "weeping" slowly under the foundation and ending up underneath the floorboards. I have described the "trenches" we are probably going to dig underneath the house, but there is an additional step to be taken outside the house.

We want to install drainage channels along the outside perimeter of the house (they're called French drains), and therefore have a twofold protection: keep the moisture from seeping under the house, and if it does seep there, have good ventilation to dissipate it.

To remind what the 'floor level' vs 'ground level' situation is on the Northern wall.


I guess what I'm saying is: the house is not a 'simply paint the walls' sort of a DIY job. Everywhere we look, the jobs run "deep" into the structure of the house.

Part of the problem is, I guess, that both me and The Man have a fairly high standard of "thermal comfort". And not even just thermal comfort - we want our house to be efficient. When we embark on renovation jobs, we expect high levels of insulation, good thermal sinks, good ventilation, low energy use, low water use. We want to renovate to a standard where the house will, in all likelihood, be habitable for the next 100 years.

To cope with that, plans get laid out in Sketchup first.

In part, it simply allows me the fun of sketching. In part, though, it allows to plan.

Water and sewage lines: what layout makes for a reasonably efficient way of using water?

Our log burner license is due to expire in 2024. When we install a newer, more efficient version, it is good to have it close to water heater so we can direct log burner heat into water heating.

Doorways and windows: how to make the layout more user-friendly, but also keep (as much as possible) the current windows and doorways in place?

Sketchup is how we agreed on the placement of 'service buildings' in the back yard (woodshed, greenhouse, toolshed).

Whilst we could've gone without Sketchup, and just built a woodshed somewhere, I think it made sense that me and The Man worked out where all of them would go ahead of time. Their locations affect each other.

For example: the greenhouse we want to build is a Victorian-style brick-base greenhouse. The basic building structure is quite straightforward: brick base to about 80 cm height, timber-and-glass frame from there upwards.

But here's where it gets interesting. Ideally, I would like to install a 1000-litre water tank inside the back of the greenhouse so that rainwater from the woodshed can drain directly into that tank. A quick sketch just to give you an idea what I'm talking about:

If the water tank is then connected with a drip-feed irrigation system inside a greenhouse, it would allow several important things:

* water would keep the temperature inside the greenhouse more stable due to its 'thermal mass': slow to warm up, slow to cool down,
* water-collection that is independent of town supply - even if outdoor water use gets banned during summer heat, there is an independent supply/storage of water,
* less work, too: if the tank sits on an elevated platform above the plants, then it doesn't even need a pump to operate. Watering would mean switching on a tap, and then switching it off later.


In some ways, planning ahead like that is irritating because I know that many of these jobs are years (and years!) away. This summer's list is a woodshed, possibly a deck, maybe start of a workshed. I don't envision a new kitchen in 3-4 years, at least.

But on another hand, it helps. These are the sort of jobs that are good to get right. And whilst life may happen and I don't know if this house will actually get to the point where it's similar to my Sketchup models... if it does, it will be awesome.

Because having lived here for a while, how wonderful it would be to live in a house that is warm, dry, quiet, comfortable, enjoyable. Pretty. The Man is wanting to do something like this on the deck flooring.

Okay, that's enough. I'm tired of writing :)

Getting the kids to agree and choose something together

The kids have a fair amount of disagreements. One of the ways I am getting them to learn how to work together is by asking them to make decisions and agree on it.

For example: I am making pasta for lunch. I asked them to go choose what type of pasta we're going to cook, and let me know once they've agreed on it. They headed towards the pantry, let me know two kinds of options - one wants one, the other wants the other - and I said, "Cool, let me know once you've agreed on which one it is. Then I can cook it up." 30 more seconds and they had it worked out.

Same with board games, pizzas, movies. "Hey guys, choose what we're doing, and once you've agreed on it, let me know." It can't be over-used because they do get tired of it, but it's a nifty little parenting trick, I think.

On being an adult

A measurement class. Talking about a house in Arrowtown where water vapor condensed onto the underside of roof, froze, kept collecting for several weeks and then, on a warm day (when the sun was high enough to start warming that side of the roof), melted all at once creating what was essentially flooding in the house although it had not rained a drop for over 3 weeks.

Tutor: " we attached blocking onto the underside of building paper where the material is lapped..."
Me: "Why not install a moisture barrier between the ceiling and the roofspace?"
Tutor (after explaining that, on an old house, it's hard to do): "Besides, if you want to make that  kinds of decisions then you really should be an architect, not a quantity surveyor."

Yeah, that's what I keep telling myself, too, except at age 33 with two kids in tow, studying architecture is not a realistic option, so quantity surveying will do.

...which doesn't take away from the fact that, almost every day, I keep thinking that I really should be designing houses, rather than estimating construction costs. But part of being an adult, turns out, is making the sort of decisions where I get to do not what I want, but what I choose.

Come on, Maria. Three more assignments and this school year will be FINISHED.