Monday, June 4, 2012

On DAs and such

Today I got an email from a lovely lady called Holly who plays in The String Contingent. She and her partner are getting ready to submit the DA for their little strawbale cottage, which is to be built in Braidwood. I was so happy to hear from her because a) I like knowing that people are reading the blog and learning from it, b) I quite like answering questions, especially about building, and especially when it's going to help someone else build a totally awesome little-house-of-their-dreams and c) in her bio pic on her web-page, Holly is wearing an outrageously cute Icelandic wool jumper that she knitted herself (!) and which, in addition to being cute is "super warm and somewhat water repellent as Icelandic sheep have developed a special hairy layer in their coat to cope with the harsh winters". Yay, yay and double-yay.

In the interests of making our blog a place of learning for would-be strawbale builders, I thought it might be nice to answer Holly's questions in blog form, so others may benefit. Sorry to those of you who read this blog who are not building and/or interested in the minutiae of the building process.

Did you have any issues getting the earth floor through council? 
No we did not! we were lucky, I think, because the Bega Valley has had a long history of hippies moving in and building 'alternative' houses with things like mud bricks and composting toilets and earth floors. Basically, they'd seen it all before, so weren't that fussed. I also spent a lot of time on the phone to the planners at council before we submitted our DA, just getting a feel for what they were like, what they wanted, what they might be a bit 'funny' about etc. They were super nice! And also very helpful, happy to chat through things and tell us what they wanted/needed to get our house built. 

Did you use a private certifier for getting a construction certificate or did you use the council person? 
We got our DA and CC at the same time, both through council. We didn't really know what to do, and were tossing up both. I had talked to a friend who was a builder, and he said there were pluses and minuses to both of them. In the end we went with council just because it seemed a bit easier, and they all seemed nice enough and not freaked out by what we were wanting to do. As our inspector told us: "It's my job to help you be able to build the house you want, and to make sure it doesn't fall down on you".

Assuming you had to do a BASIX certificate... which flooring option did you put in? (earth isn't an option surprise surprise!) 
Our lovely building designer, Tracy did a crazy amount of work on our DA, basically putting the whole thing together for us. Amazing. She also did our BASIX for us, and I believe that she nominated a slab floor, on the assumption that a concrete slab will perform, thermally, in a similar way to earth. I don't know if this is particularly true, but I also don't really believe that BASIX is a terribly sensible way of assessing a building's sustainability, so don't put too much weight in it.

Any particular advice or things you wish you'd known before? 
Advice...hmmm... Well, at every stage of our building so far I've thought "I'm so glad this is so small!", so that's my biggie - make the house as small as you possibly can. If you're feeling a little bit funny about living in a small house or wondering if you can do it, read Little House on a Small Planet. It was revolutionary for me.

I would also probably look into an alternative for our footings, as ours were very concrete-happy. Holly, I know you're planning on a rubble trench - go you! I'll be really keen to know how that goes, how council is with it, and how it actually works.

I suppose I'd be hesitant to do load-bearing again, just because of the extreme stress we experienced when it totally pissed down on our uncovered bale walls during our building week. Not to say I'd totally write it off - I think there are distinct benefits, but I'd be scared, I reckon...

When you're budgeting, try to get a budget from someone else, and then fill in your own amounts. I had done a rough budget very early on, just trying to calculate costs for all the things I could think of. That was OK, but then my buddy Rebecca gave me a copy of the budget her husband had done for their place. It was so detailed! There was heaps of stuff in it that I hadn't thought of, so I used it as a template and just filled in our quantities and specifications, adding in special things like strawbales, which they didn't have. I also overestimated pretty much everything, meaning that our budget has served us pretty well.

I hope this all helps you get your DA together! I remember at the time feeling so stressed about it, like it was the biggest deal in the world. Once the build started though, boy did it shrink into insignificance. Kind of like our HSC: at the time you think it's the biggest deal in the world and if you don't do well you might as well just go and crawl into a little hole and never come out. Then you get into the real world, a few years pass, and you forget all the stuff you learned for the exams, you forget the mark you got, and, when something stressful happens in your life you think "man, if only I was just doing my HSC...".

Enjoy the DA process but believe me - things are going to get a lot more exciting once you actually start digging!


  1. Thanks Pearl and Elspeth, this is incredibly useful. My g/f and I are saving up to buy some land, and want to build a strawbale with vegie patch, solar power and composting toilet! Can I ask a bit of a stupid question? how do you get the electrics in and what sort of an oven are you going to be using (me being the cook). Also, my g/f is a body worker and Bowen therapist, we need to keep one of the rooms very warm, is there an issue with damp at all?

    1. Hi Julie, thanks so much for you message. Whereabouts are you looking to buy land?
      There are a couple of ways of getting the electrics in. You can lay conduit into the straw bales or else you can bring the wiring in through the eaves.
      As this little straw bale is a kind of interim dwelling for us (ie. to allow us to get onto our land and out of the rental market) we're not really having an oven. It'll be more your outdoor style kitchen. High class camping is how we're envisaging our life for the next couple of years. We'll have a BBQ and a clay wood fire oven that we will build in a couple of months time. We're thinking we'll have a designated day for baking in the woodfire oven each week - pizza, bread, cake, biscuits etc. throughout the day, according to where the heat is at... Longer term we'll probably have a gas oven with a view towards utilising more wood fired once we have our own woodlot established (and the kids are older and we have more free time for that sort of thing)
      There's little issue with damp and strawbales once you have the bales rendered. Also if you limit the amount of cement in your render and use natural clay or lime renders then the walls will be permeable so any damp transpires very easily. People talk of strawbale buildings as being buildings that breathe. Of course they don't breathe but they are vapour-permeable.
      I hope this is helpful?
      all the best xx