Monday, 20 June 2011

A Game of Drafts

So you think you’ve designed your own home - have you specified the nail length?
How about the depth of your anchor piles?

Having decided to build our own home we each took a blank sheet of paper and sketched what we each thought it should look like. The bank of North-facing glass doors and windows was there right from the beginning, except my initial drawing looked more like the Tracey family’s ‘60s sci-fi’ island mansion from Thunderbirds, with impossibly expensive curved walls. No harm in aiming high to begin with, but ‘Thunderbirds weren’t go’, this time.
Our initial sketches.  Mine is the one from Thunderbirds,
Rose's is the one which looks more like our final design
Instead, we took our inspiration from the real world, specifically a truly beautiful house which we had been shown through while staying in the Hawke’s Bay a couple of years ago. As luxury accommodation, it had its own website which very thoughtfully included a floor plan. At this point I should state that I won’t name this elegant home to avoid accusations of plagiarism. I seriously doubt the architect would ever recognise anything of his own in our finished home, (it will be a tiny fraction of the size, for a start), but ‘the house which shall not be named’ was a constant inspiration and touchstone through every part of our own design process.
 Whenever we felt we’d reached a dead end, the adage "What did {unnamed Hawkes’ Bay house} do in this situation" would often come to our rescue.
My next sketch more closely resembled the finished concept
(scroll to bottom for comparison)
The details of the numerous conversations we must have had about room sizes, positions, quantity and flat screen TV dimensions seem to have blurred, but we somehow channelled our energies and ideas in a similar direction throughout. I know I’d offer token resistance occasionally, but knew it was only a matter of time before Rose’s practicality would win over my whimsy. I soon learned that leading Rose to believe that something I really wanted had been her idea all along was a better way to go.
Finally I drew up a floor plan which was detailed enough for our builder to obtain initial costings with.
Our floorplan - rich in detail, but a little lacking in measurement accuracy.
 But we wanted to see our ‘dream house’ in three dimensions, so downloaded a free 3-D drafting programme called Google Sketch Up, which I’d highly recommend. Before we even started using it, Rose’s and my differences in methodology came to the fore. I wanted to carefully prepare, watching instructional videos on You Tube - while she just dived in, turning simple shapes into 3-D forms just by experimenting with the programme’s tools. Rose’s results weren’t useable, but when I saw how far she had got, I imported our floor plan and dived in myself.
Our 3-D model grew quickly, and as I became more familiar with Sketch Up I even added transparent glass windows and textured cladding. The result was largely a botched job, (a little instructional video watching would probably have helped after all), but it fulfilled its function of giving us a rudimentary 3-D model which we could reposition and even move around inside – virtually, of course!
Two views of our 'Sketch Up' model (minus the roof). 
Looking East (above) and looking West.
Our builder was more interested in the floor plan and barely glanced at our proudly-displayed Sketch Up model, which was a good clue as to its actual practical use. Never the less we took it with us when an all-important initial meeting with our draughtsman took place, and he was polite enough to watch indulgently as I spun our model around a few times on our little laptop. Several key issues were addressed during this meeting, with an emphasis placed on making certain we were absolutely satisfied with our plans before they went to the local council to begin the consent process.
It wasn’t long before a request for a follow up meeting took place. It seemed that although our floor plan gave far more information and detail than their clients were usually able to provide, my measurements were somewhat askew. This was ironed out and then our draughtsman, Tim, showed us our home as a three dimensional model rendered by a CAD programme which made our Sketch Up efforts look… sketchy, to say the least. It didn’t matter; our own foray into 3-D had served its purpose and could now be honourably discharged.
Various details were resolved and tweaks made over the next few weeks, including breaking our simple rectangular envelop by extending the master bedroom northwards. This became a necessity when we realised that our large walk-in wardrobe prevented us from also fitting a bed in the room!
A proper draughtsman's floorplan (note extended master bedroom)
Another issue which we struggled with was our chimney. Initially we were set upon extending the large freestanding wall behind our wood burner, (which we named ‘the monolith’), right through the roof to become our chimney. Unfortunately this meant that our wood burner flue, left exposed inside the living room for maximum heat production, then had to be bent to fit into the monolith somewhere in the roof-space. The safety issues and detriment to the wood burner’s efficiency meant that we eventually had to discard this imposing rooftop feature in favour of a far more modest chimney.
Eventually a 25 page document was delivered into our hands for approval. Containing a bewildering amount of detail, we hardly felt qualified to green light anything beyond the floor plans, so invited our builder, Dean, around to the container for a cup of tea and a look through it all.
Dean was happy, and so were we, so shortly afterwards Tim reported that he had delivered the plans, the land transfer titles, and an 86 page specifications document, a 20 page waste water specification and our cheque for $4,000 to the South Wairarapa District Council to begin the consent process.
And now… we wait.
Two views of our home rendered with a professional 3-D programme.
The north face of the house (above) and the south side.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Six of the Best

We never needed a manual for adapting to rural living – we had the amazing Roger Barton Farming Circus.

A toned six-pack. (from left) Roger, Nicky, Barbie, Anna, Meg and Rupert Barton.

I mean Circus in the sense of constant bewildering activity, performed by an experienced troupe with a deftness which masks the skill involved – of course.
We first experienced the boundless generosity of this amazing family when Rose had a stampede at our previous home, several years ago. We were looking after four young steers who suddenly decided that our cattle stop was no obstacle after all. I hadn’t arrived home yet and Rose was all alone when they staged their breakout at dusk and rushed onto the road en masse.

It’s not often that Rose is overwhelmed, but faced with visions of lethally tenderised beef and a traffic pile up when the next wave of commuters hurtled home from the railway station, she was in a desperate state. Suddenly, a lone car appeared, pulled over and Barbie, Rupert and Nicky Barton leapt out. Quickly assessing the situation they skilfully mustered the wayward beasts back through the fence to safety. Cheerfully waving aside Rose’s heart-felt thanks, they piled back into the Bartonmobile and disappeared into the distance.

So our first encounter with the Barton’s was a rescue, and their kindness and experience has come to our aid many more times since.
I like to think that we have a fairly unpretentious approach to living in the country, coupled with a willingness to laugh at ourselves when things don’t quite work – and this seems to appeal to Roger. After we had raised our first two orphaned lambs, Barker and Corbett, (also provided by the Bartons) Rose decided to embrace the concept of ‘using the entire animal’ and taught herself how to tan and turn their fleeces into sheepskin rugs. When she proudly displayed the beautifully-prepared skin of Barker-or-Corbett to Roger, he took a closer look and then roared with laughter: "You’ve tanned his pizzle!" Cue hilarity all round and a quick snip for Rose’s first ever sheepskin rug.
Needless to say, we were given endless Barton help in raising Barker and Corbett, including free consultations and eventually the ending of their brief, but we’d like to believe, happy lives. I’m not going to justify raising our own animals for meat here, it might sound arrogant, but after ten years in the country I’d now be surprised if someone felt I needed to. I did make sure I at least watched as Roger coaxed our trusting boys over and despatched them in moments. I also recall hosing the small amount of spilt blood out of the grass before Rose got home, and then, as a thank you gift, I sent Roger a cartoon afterwards. It depicted a hooded figure brandishing a scythe while hurtling down the road on a quad bike, the gowned and harp-playing souls of two newly-departed sheep floating into the clouds behind him.
Our first animal husbandry experience was deemed enough of a success to be followed by Irwin and Pluto (we had developed a tendency to name our sheep after the recently deceased - in this case: Steve Irwin, and the recently-demoted planet), followed by Florence and Dillon and then the piglets Trinny and Susannah. In all cases Roger and Barbie’s help and advice was invaluable.
It’s not been all slaughter, although it pays to keep your guard up in social situations, too.
Roger is a notorious prankster, past triumphs having included festooning a friends Christmas decorations with ‘recently jingled lamb’s bells’ (the flies were particularly numerous in their living room that summer) and artfully arranging two enormous grinning cattle skulls on our front gate in full view of the road. We retaliated by continuing the skull theme and locally promoted a totally fictitious performance of Hamlet, starring Roger in a fetching pair of green tights, with fliers and posters. To his credit he took it very well and even received a booking.

Despite running a farm, sitting on almost every committee going and raising four amazing children, Roger and Barbie always have time to socialise and held an unforgettable hilltop barbeque overlooking a vast stretch of the south Wairarapa one year, including the piece of land which was one day to be ours. We even graduated to being invited to spend Christmas Day with them last year, an event which completely belied everything you’ve ever heard (and experienced) about the nativity celebration bringing out the worst in families. In fact, we had the best Christmas in years and left wondering if they ever argued with each other.

Negotiating with Roger and Barbie to buy ‘Little Bush’ (which we had fallen in love with as soon as Barbie took us there, one perfect summer afternoon) could have been awkward – talking that amount of money face-to-face with people you hardly know is bad enough, never mind your friends. But as usual, it was done with straight-forwardness, honesty and a certain degree of humour. Initially Roger advised us to wait until the wettest months (August/September) so that we could fully appreciate how marshy the land got. As it happened, it was a very wet year and we didn’t have to wait that long to see the place at it’s worst. Wading through the lower paddock with muddy water splashing up our legs, we still loved it, and so a valuation and soil survey were carried out, and finally an agreement was collectively signed. It was a mark of the magnitude of the situation that Roger stayed awake the entire time – his evening ability to slip into unconsciousness almost mid-sentence is legendary, but farmers work long and hard.

We have never looked back and the Bartons still factor very much in our lives. Nicky recently baked Rose the most amazing 50th birthday cake and used her influence at the Tin Hut to ensure that our night out was very special. As I’ve mentioned earlier, Roger connected our container to his farm water supply (something which can’t be overvalued) and even the on-going offer of the use of their shower and washing machine has been made.
Tonight we have a very special treat in store. The Bartons are away for a few days and have literally opened their home to us, inviting us to use their shower, relax in front of their TV and enjoy being in a house for a little while. It’s just the kind of people they are.

Roger and Barbie overlooking their domain.  Little Bush is indicated on the right.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Worms of Endearment

Those of a delicate disposition look away now, this entry is all about cutting the crap.

According to HG Wells, "…our microscopic allies, the humblest things upon the Earth, minute, invisible, bacteria!" scuppered the Martian’s invasion to take over our planet. These same micro-organisms almost brought our own master plan to a halt as well.

As I’ve mentioned before, a waste system independent of a town sewerage network is mandatory for living in the country. This mainly takes the form of a septic tank, which processes waste with anaerobic bacterial activity then filters the resulting effluent, which is dispersed underground via irrigation drip lines.

As much as we love ‘little bush’ it can be a very wet piece of land in the winter months. Surface water makes its way down from the Tararua foothills, and from the more elevated blocks of land on either side of us. An alluvial pan, a dense layer with the appearance of wet concrete, lurks half a metre below our topsoil, and this slows the natural draining of surface water. Add to this the fact that we have two streams running through our property – both with the potential to overflow during particularly heavy rainfall, and we have a piece of land very unsuited to the standard septic system. Unable to drain away into the saturated ground, the discharge from the tank would be more likely to rise to the surface and, well, we’d lose friends and effluence people.
Rose found and hired a consultant who recommended, (and the South Wairarapa District Council insisted upon), a secondary aerated treatment system. Essentially this uses tanks and filters to establish huge colonies of bacteria which feed on the waste outflow from the septic tank; further processing it to such a degree that the resulting outflow is as clean as is possible to obtain (given the original raw material).
The problem lay with the word ‘aerated’. In order for the bacteria to keep their appetite for the all-you-can-eat banquet we’d be serving them, they require a large amount of oxygen, which needs to flow constantly using electrically-driven pumps.
In other words, it’s no longer a passive system power-wise, and would continually draw on our precious, self-generated electricity - a demand which we wouldn’t have the capacity to supply. Unless we could keep the germs happy our entire off-grid dream was looking as doomed as H G Wells’ Martian invasion.

Only slightly daunted, Rose kept in constant contact with local ‘waste water system suppliers’ and together they all tried to find a system whose air pump would have the smallest possible draw on our electricity. We were considering regular power black outs just so that our bacteria could breathe easy when the answer arrived out of the blue. Our perhaps out of the ground, is more appropriate because we were rescued by earthworms.
 An Australian company called Biolytix had just become based in New Zealand, and they brought with them the gift of the Biopod ‘worm farm’ system to mankind. Essentially worms living in a tank convert the sewage into hummus, naturally aerating it as they create kilometers of tunnels. This ultimate worm residential estate becomes the ideal environment for the bacteria-fueled aerobic decomposition – eventually producing filtered, odour-free ground water. All of this through completely natural processes and using 95% less power than any other system. We were hooked, but now had to sell it the South Wairarapa District Council. To our further astonishment, the Building Control Officer practically gushed, having come across the system many times in Northland:
"In my opinion it is the best system with the most proven service history", he emailed enthusiastically, "there would be no problem with consenting the Biolitix system."
At the time of writing, our house plans are now with the council and going through the consent process. The energy-producing and waste-processing systems which we’ve spent so long researching will be coming under scrutiny, but we’re feeling confident.

Having started by invoking HG Wells, I’ll now finish by quoting Charles Darwin:
"It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world as the worm."

Our current, temporary 'waste water system' - definitely not bigger on the inside.