A lot has happened since my last post, although you wouldn’t know it by looking at the slow progress on the 450sqm of dirt that I’ll one day call “home”. There is nothing vaguely resembling a house there yet, but we haven’t been idle. We’ve resolved the landscaping of the neighbour’s block. The two sites are now much more integrated. We’ve finished removing all that loose fill that was giving the builder heartburn. It’s gone, 70 truckloads of it.
Unfortunately, though, when those trucks returned from dropping off all that dirt they came back with a few truckloads of additional paperwork to be submitted back to Council. The removal of the fill had unexpectedly caused a change in the contour of the land that required us to make a new submission for building approval. The house was suddenly higher than it should have been.
This is how it happened: the X-House is anchored at the top of the site, so it juts forward over the slope. At the front of the site, the building is at its highest point because the slope drops away underneath it. After we removed the fill, the house technically became a higher building because the land was lower, presenting us with building approval problems. We were now above the permitted height. We had to go back to Council for a reappraisal and a new set of approvals.
While the paperwork made its way back through the inboxes of City Hall, we tried to keep things moving along by working on the footings for the slab at the top platform of the block and the footings for the garage and forming the very uppermost piers. We couldn’t form the ones at the front of the block, because if Council failed to approve our new height we would be forced to pull the front of the building back up the slope, losing half a metre of so of floorspace and if we’d put the piers in we’d have to move them too. Thankfully that wasn’t necessary. It was the miracle in Hamilton.
The documents sailed through Council relatively quickly. I was getting ready to praise the Japanese priest who had conducted our ground breaking ceremony because our luck seemed to be improving but then this happened.
Cyclone Marcia crossed the coast in Central Queensland as a Category Five storm and made her way south toward Brisbane and my site. If she had decided to set up camp over us with her accompanying rain depression, there was a significant threat of erosion to the site and the possibility that I’d lose the remaining fill that I required for landscaping. It would have been a strange irony to have dirt that I’d been cursing a couple of months earlier, taken away from me now that I wanted it.
Thankfully, there was little damage to the site from the storm. Once more I felt ready to praise our Japanese priest. You’ve got to look at the wins when you’re building. You’ve got to be optimistic and patient, and prepared to do stuff in the background while you’re waiting for a site to make itself ready.
I’m told that the hardest thing with a build is getting out of the ground. It’s a cliché of course, but it’s something I’ve experienced now as a reality. It’s been 2 months since we broke ground and to look at the site today you’d be wondering what the hell has been happening in that time. It’s been very hard just getting to this stage, but there are at least small signs that things are happening.
It’s a bit like a pregnancy, this build. There have been a lot of months spent in anticipation of the outcome and all the time there has been nothing much of this baby to experience, save for a ballooning feeling of pressure.
I feel a bit like a father who can do nothing but watch and wonder. I can sense pressure from the builder who isn’t able to get in and do stuff on site, I can sense pressure from the architect who is dealing with unexpected problems created by the site conditions as they reveal themselves. But I can’t really do anything about it and no amount of pacing around and getting in people’s faces is helping.
You get very excited about minor things when they do happen though. The garage walls have been built, which I’ve admired up close, touching them just to make sure they’re real, and appreciating for the first time some of the craft demonstrated by my builders. The block work looks good. And straight. And neat.
I’ve even found myself admiring the gleaming new power pole that has been installed on the corner of the site. It’s a beauty!
Meanwhile, Yo Shimada and Chihiro Ishii from Tato in Japan and Paul and Yohei from Phorm in Brisbane have been working on the steel package, the steel drawings that represent the skeleton of the building. These steel drawings are pretty much everything to this house. Put the steel up and after that it’s really just cladding to go on. As a result, this steel has been created to a whole new level of precision. In Japan the tolerances for variance between the design and manufacture of steel work are minimal. Millimetres minimal. From what I understand, that level of precision is unheard of here. It’s not that it can’t be achieved, it’s just that we’re not used to doing it. We like a margin for error here. Australians are realists. The Japanese are purists. Their precision works in an environment where everything is correct and there are no mistakes and where everything goes to plan.
So far, with regard to the site conditions, not much has gone to plan here in Hamilton. As well, everything about this project is risky. We’re testing the limits of what can be done on this site. We’re testing the limits of the engineering. And we’re testing the patience of the builder who I’m sure didn’t really know what he was getting himself into.
Meanwhile, Yo Shimada has been testing the limits of his own design. Testing and retesting. One of the procedural quirks of Yo Shimada is his insistence that every feature of his design should be tested in model form. Not a computer generated 3-D model, but an actual model. A scale model of every feature. In paper and cardboard and with incredible model-making precision.
Look at these images of a model that he’s created to test the change from a stainless steel bench top in the kitchen to a timber bench top. I guess he needed to see how it would feel to walk up those stairs, so he built a set and let his fingers do the walking. Shimada san wanted to be sure. Really sure. So he created this sequence of shots.
And here’s another series of shots, of the latest almost complete scale model of the entire house, built to reflect the changes in the site now that we’ve had to remove so much fill. This is how the building will now sit on the drastically changed topography of the hill.
You can see how much the underside of the house will now play a part in the language of the building. It’s a facet that has revealed itself to be a feature and the entry through the underside of the deck is now something of a trick trapdoor. It changes things, this new height. It makes the stair that will eventually suspend down from the underside of the building more impressive, more precarious. It makes the concrete stair up to the house from the garage something more to consider in the landscaping. It’s now practically a greek odyssey from the garage to the house.
It’s been a difficult pregnancy getting this far with the build, but because we’ve had extra time offsite to think and to work over the finer details of Yo Shimada’s design, I’ve developed a new level of clarity about it. I’ve started to get to know this baby more, even before it’s born. When I look at these new model images of my Minimalist Monument to Moi, I’m now not just seeing it, I’m really starting to feel it and that’s almost as good as living it.