How to build a house without losing the plot

Never are three people more mesmerised by the digging of a large hole than the day our house build finally starts. It is a sunny morning in October and we are standing with our six-year-old daughter watching our house dreams come to life. Cameras click, imaginary corks pop and our daughter jumps for joy as the digger begins excavating the site. It is the culmination of nearly three years of planning. In just 26 weeks, our first home in Australia will be finished. Or so we think.

I’m not sure how we got here. It seems incredible that we are even living in Australia let alone building a house. Not long ago we were living in a terraced house in a leafy street in a newly gentrified suburb of south London, surrounded by parks, shops and cafés. Then I remember how noise, traffic, the absence of family, redundancy and not least a couple of neighbourhood shootings persuaded us that the block of land we had bought as an investment twelve years before in Australia might provide us with a better alternative and a new life.

In early 2010 we move to Coffs Harbour, NSW, where my partner Stephen was raised and has family, rent a house and begin talking about what kind of family home we hope to build on the 1,220 square metre block.

We are helped by Stephen’s brother, an architect, whom we contract to design the house. He suggests we read architectural magazines to get ideas. I ditch Marie Claire in favour of Houses and become obsessed with scrapbooking Grand Design style houses.

Towards the end of 2011, after several meetings with the architect and a few hundred emails, the designs are finalised. Our dream home will be a four-bedroom contemporary beach house over two levels capturing views of the mountains, glimpses of the ocean and the South Solitary islands, with an open plan kitchen, dining and living area, a swimming pool and a guest wing.  Stephen’s wish list includes a separate office and a triple garage, with enough space to house his toys — surfboards, ski equipment and his Caterham racing car still languishing in the UK. Our daughter’s only demand is quickly ruled out. We are not having a pink house. We settle on a back garden chicken coop instead.

Stephen and I, who almost never agree on anything, defy the odds by agreeing on the selection of everything to do with the house from the timber floors to the vanity units. Just one item provokes a slinging match — the door handles. We decide to postpone making a decision till later. We still have six months left to argue.

We tender the project to four builders, expecting it to come in within our budget of $600,000 and are astonished when the quotes come back 40 per cent over it. We discuss the unfeasibly high cost with one of the builders. He says he is confident that with a few small money-saving tweaks to the plans he can bring the build cost down. We say goodbye to the guest wing.

In July 2012, we sign the contract and hand over the $30,000 deposit cheque to the builder. At a push we might be in for Christmas, he quips. I don’t want to move in before Christmas. I imagine family members having to sit on packing boxes to eat their festive lunch while nephews skateboard around on the newly varnished timber floors.  I don’t need to worry, within a few days a letter arrives from the local council putting the whole project on hold.

The council will not issue a construction certificate until it is satisfied that storm water from our property will obey the laws of gravity and run downhill into the council’s pipe system. The build is delayed for two months while a survey which costs us another $1000 is completed to the council’s satisfaction.

Building can finally start. It is now October and the waist-high grass on the land is slashed and footings of the house are laid. The block looks underwhelming, like a freshly mown field with a miniscule area cordoned off to show where the house will stand. I think there has been a mistake with the plans.

The builder mentions a rough schedule of works in passing. Concrete will be poured, a timber frame will go up and a roof will go on at some point he says. A detailed timetable is useless he adds - it might rain for three weeks straight, the carpenter might get drunk at the races and not turn up, the timber mill might not be able to get the wood for the floor for a month, and so on. I will him to stop talking about hold ups. In my mind Christmases come and go and the house is still not finished.

The project has now been going on so long that I begin to wonder if there is really a house at all or whether I have made the whole thing up. It feels too abstract, like it is all happening to someone else. On the days when it does feel more lucid, like after writing a large cheque to the builder, the only emotion present is anxiety. It usually peaks at 3am when I lie awake thinking about everything that can go wrong, from weeks of torrential rain and wind blowing down the newly erected frame, to loathing the bespoke kitchen cabinets for the next twenty years or something even worse I haven’t thought of yet.

Then it happens. On the eve of the first major milestone in the project, the pouring of the concrete slab, the builder tells us that something untoward has been discovered during excavations — some landfill material which might turn out to be asbestos. There is a long silence while we consider whether we have swapped the mean streets of London for a new life on an asbestos waste dump.

Sandy Smith will be charting the highs and lows of her first home build, diarising the project for Life & Style over the next six months.

The story How to build a house without losing the plot first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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