By Richard Keech
After we signed the contract for the land in May 2017, the quest for a design started. We had time up our sleeve, since we were expecting settlement on the land in early to mid 2018. We also had some threshold questions to deal with, i.e.
- what did we actually want?
- do we use an architect?
- what can we afford?
- when should we build?
While a number of our neighbours-to-be got cracking engaging a builder and designing their homes long before settlement, for a number of reasons we chose to hold off. First, our site, #66, is the steepest on the estate, and it has a retaining wall whose form and exact location was a little uncertain. Second, we wanted a very clear understanding of the actual sight lines before locking in the design. So we chose to delay the detail design process till after settlement.
Even though we weren’t locking in any detailed design decisions, through 2017 and 2018 we had a lot of fun thinking about what we liked and what designs might work.
The standard designs. The Cape, as a project has a set of standard designs available. We spent ages exploring and understanding these designs on paper. These designs were available, open-source, and free to use or adapt. The thinking was that having freely available designs that met the design rules for the estate would make things much easier. The pathway for achieving design approval with a standard plan was simpler than with a full-custom design.
Noosa. One of the display homes, known as Cutlers, was a variation of a standard design known as Noosa. We liked the feel of Cutlers/Noosa very much. However, it was apparent that this design wasn’t suited to our site because the it didn’t take advantage of the sightlines, and the vehicle access was wrong. But there were elements we could perhaps borrow.
Mindil. A design that was perhaps better suited was one known as Mindil. It was properly aligned for our site with regards street and vehicle access (street to the west). However we thought that it didn’t respond properly to the unique opportunities and challenges presented by the site.
Moosa. We played with a few variations of our own, combining elements of different standard layouts. We stitched together a concept hybrid of Mindil and Noosa that we called ‘Moosa’, and we conceived of it aligned on the block unconventionally. The idea was to try to better unlock the sight lines to the south east and south west. However it still presented the main outdoor living space to the north, which was problematic because of the neighbouring car park.
Ventnor 2. Another design we looked closely at was an EcoLiv pre-fab design called Ventnor 2. We thought this L-shaped design, sited obliquely might give us the south west and south east sightlines. However, it still didn’t solve the problem of the outdoor living space to the north.
The looking at the designs above showed the key things we were looking for were:
- access to the key sight lines to the south east and south west;
- accessing the north light without opening too much to the north because of the proximity to the car park;
- ability to cope with the sloping block.
Slab or not? A critical design choice was whether to go with a high-thermal-mass design using a conventional slab on ground, or whether we could use a high-performance lighter-weight design. The latter ‘light and tight’ approach was something I’d been thinking about a lot. I was pretty sure we could get good thermal performance without a slab, and we both liked the idea of a home with a posture that was slightly raised above the ground for aesthetic reasons and to get most out of the sight lines the site offered.
Passive House. We considered the Passive House (PH) approach. I liked the rigour of the method, but wondered if it might be overkill. I learned about PH reading the book ‘Positive Energy Homes‘ which taught me a lot about the science and techniques.
HRVs. Whether or not a strict PH approach was used, I liked the ideas behind centralised heat-recovery ventilation (HRV). HRV seemed sensible in a house that’s going to be built quite air-tight, and my sense was that indoor air quality was likely to become an increasingly important issue. During this period we got to visit a PH home under construction at the Mullum Creek estate in Donvale. We got to see an HRV being installed and it seemed to make sense.
Solar access. Another element that I was keen on was having solar panels at a steep angle, but without having them up on a tilt frame. Having solar panels tilted steep seemed important to get the most solar energy in winter when it’s needed most. An example of doing this well was the excellent CORE 9 home which has panels semi-integrated into the upper facade. My tentative thinking was that to achieve this we’d need a pitched roof with a north face at a steeper angle than the south face.
Grasscrete. I really like the idea that the hard driveway surface would blend in with the vegetation and be permeable. I’d seen some examples of this around.
Ribbon windows. We liked the ribbon windows at the house behind the Kilkunda general store, and hoped to incorporate that as a design element.
Board and batten cladding. The exterior finish we liked was a simple, rough-cut board-and-batten cladding as per the 10 Star design at The Cape by The Sociable Weaver.
Ply-panel ceilings. Another element we hoped to include was ply panel ceilings with expressed joints.
By mid to late 2018 it was pretty clear that no standard design, or simple adaptation of one, was going to suit us. So we started looking for architects and designers. Through my work in building sustainability I’ve come to be acquainted with a few excellent designers of sustainable homes. However, none of the homes and designers we saw really stood out as an obvious match for our needs and expectations.
Then in September 2018 we looked at homes as part of Sustainable House Day. One home we visited was known as MM House by designer Luke Middleton. It was an immediate light-bulb moment. We felt an immediate sense that the design of MM House had the efficiency, with an aesthetic that we loved. It was geometric and surprising – deliberate and clever – efficient and inviting. So we got Luke’s business card with the intent to follow up.
First meeting. After SHD we had a private meeting with Luke on 9 October. We got on well, and agreed to keep the conversation going. Luke sent us a design fee proposal in late October – not cheap but acceptable. We accepted tentatively. So we had a designer.
Builder comes later. At this stage we’ve not yet spoken seriously with any builder. The idea being that we’d get a design, then get it costed.
We didn’t quite expect the Stage 2 civil works to take as long as they did. During this period, access to the site was restricted, so there wasn’t much we could see.
Through our lawyers we were advised that the land title was issued on 7 November 2018, and settlement on the block happened in soon after on 22 November.
At settlement the promised retaining wall was not present. That feature was added to our lot and the neighbours’ in January.