Chapter 16. Make yourself a home

Were we up to giving birth to a house?

Many would-be parents, having watched their friends lose their energy through the process of pregnancy, birth and sleepless post-natal nights, must dream of simply slipping off to a magical adoption agency. This wonderful organisation will deliver for them a perfect child: cute, cuddly, sleeps through the night, smells sweet and delivers big droolly smiles.

In retrospect, after our off-again-on-again process, I could see we Shedders unconsciously craved this fairy-tale option. We wanted to wander into a real estate office and come out an hour later with the perfect thing for six fussy adults who wanted to live together, but not too-together; who wanted the country, but not too-country; who wanted big but not too-big. We wanted comfortable and elegant but not expensive, a place where each bedroom was as comfortable and spacious as the next, each bathroom as luxurious, each view as compelling. Surely someone somewhere could deliver this to us.

We’d know it if we saw it. But we’d never seen it and weren’t able to envision it.

Where to start?

I spoke to Gail, a friend at work who had bought a lot in a beachside town a half hour’s drive from Mitchells Island. She wanted to put up a duplex and had hired a designer who lived in the area to draft plans for her.

I knew from years of working with Gail that she was hard to please, and that if she was pleased with something, it was good. She was delighted with her designer, describing him as creative, thorough, responsive – and inexpensive. His forte, she said, was passive solar design, which was important to all six of us. She strongly recommended having a conversation with him about our project.

What could we lose?

John Basden was his name and his company was called Sunergy Design. I gave him a ring one afternoon and explained we were in the early stages of a building project and looking for some ideas. In confessing to him the six-some nature of our project, I half expected him to tell me that life was too short to get involved in a design for multiple owners – but he didn’t. “Sounds like an interesting challenge,” he said, “and I love a challenge – probably more than is good for me. When are you next up at the site?”

I warmed to someone who liked a challenge, and I loved that he called it a “site”. We set a date for a coming weekend and arranged a meeting – at the site.

The six of us decided Rick and I would do the initial screening – check out the guy and see what he had to say. Thus it was just the two of us watching out the screen door of The Shed when an unkempt family station wagon pulled off the road and onto the grass Saturday morning.

A man about my size got out of the car. He waved at us as we stepped out of The Shed, then gazed intently at the patch of land that had been levelled by the previous owners as their building site. He appeared absorbed in some mysterious ritual. He turned back to face the sun, raising his arms to form an arc. He walked to the edge of the hill, took in the views in all directions, and then brought his attention back to us. A big smile beamed on his face. “You must be Rick and Heather,” he said, holding out a hand. “I’m John Basden.” He sported a well-worn shirt and trousers and big eighties-style wire-rimmed glasses.

As I greeted him, I thought about our visit to the North Sydney architectural firm a few months ago, about the stainless steel office, the ready cappuccinos, the smartly dressed professional with sharply creased trousers who removed his suit jacket at just the right time after our arrival. John was not on the same planet.

I liked him instantly.

“Well!” he said. “Beautiful spot you have here.” He faced toward the sun again, shading his eyes with his hand. “But next time you buy, see me first. You’ve got the completely wrong aspect.”

That was my introduction to passive solar, as well as to John’s matter-of-fact style. Over the next three hours, through which John talked almost non-stop, I learned how the right aspect will save you thousands of dollars in building fees. I learned how a well-positioned window and roof-line will allow in the sun in winter and will block it in summer. I learned which building materials reflected sun and which absorbed it, which ones were expensive and wanky and which were cheap and practical. I heard how, in a house properly designed for this climate, you could get by with a cardigan in the winter and a ceiling fan in the summer. I learned about something called BASIX, which was how the local council dictated the energy efficiency of a new house. I learned about five different kinds of windows and the solar effectiveness of each.

In addition to factual information, John was full of opinions. I discovered it’s no coincidence that “kit house rhymes with….” (John let us fill in the dots), because the quality is dodgy and you have no idea what the final costs are going to be. The “standard dream homes” aren’t much better – they aren’t designed to be energy efficient, and will end up costing you and the planet in the long run. According to John, it was quite predicable that the boxy little brick house on the corner near our property had been up for sale for a couple of years – who on earth would want to live in that miserable place? Also according to John, builders are mostly a pretty conservative lot who like to do a standard frame and truss design, rarely a solar effective solution. Reading between the lines, you could hear John’s view that plenty of award-winning architects are more interested in fame and fortune than in satisfied clients.

John had an odd conversational mannerism. Rick or I would say something which he appeared to ignore. Then, several minutes later, a carefully worded response to our comment would emerge. His mental process ran fast and deep, meandering like an irrepressible river.

For example, at one point he asked, gesturing to the walls around us, “You want to keep this shed?”

Rick replied, “We don’t know if it’s structurally sound, but if it is, we’d like to get some use out of it.”

John nodded, then went off on some tangent. Five minutes later he arrived back at the subject of The Shed. “This shed would be a natural yoga studio,” he said (amazingly, he’d heard and understood yoga was important to our community) “…and the two existing bedrooms could be used as your guest quarters…” (he appreciated we needed to think economically!) “… and by putting in another window here and a skylight there, this would be a more comfortable space…” (he’d understood that lots of light was essential to us). Moments later we were outside checking the plastic sheeting on The Shed’s slab, and concluded it was in good condition.

From that moment, The Shed was here to stay. As a light-filled guest house and yoga studio.

As John chatted, he began weaving imaginary designs in the air before us that seemed to alluringly fit what we were after. At one point, in an attempt to explain a concept he’d had for independent living quarters, he hauled out a massive portfolio of his plans. As we swept through the pages I began to develop a real hunger for a John Basden house. The designs revealed homes with sweeping skillion roof lines, lots of glass and plenty of Colorbond, an inexpensive material much cherished in the country. There was an economy and ingenuity of design that I found myself longing for.

Rick admitted that the six of us were uncertain what layout would work for us. I said we’d considered everything from separate cottages with a central common area to a single dwelling with three or four wings off a shared core. I mentioned that the six of us were currently living in a conventional house with lots of bedrooms. It was working all right, I said, but our quarters were of uneven quality, and the layout of the house didn’t really match our needs.

I wouldn’t have known from watching John that he was digesting this, but a few minutes later he wandered back to the theme of our layout. Every corner you build adds a truckload to the cost of the building, he said. If we went with separate dwellings or a wing-type structure it could add hundreds of thousands of dollars to our costs. Would we consider a more conventional single dwelling? he asked, adding that he was sure he could build in the privacy and independence we needed.

The wire-rims glinted in my direction. I understood how much hinged on our reply. We’d told him our budget and I could see he was struggling to find a concept that would meet our needs and still be affordable. I said that a single dwelling which allowed sufficient privacy could be a good way to go, and I sensed his relief.

John was an open book about money. He told us the projected cost (always reasonable) and actual cost (usually slightly higher) of every house he’d built in the area. His fee was about a fifth what we’d been quoted in the swank North Sydney offices. If we stayed away from granite benchtops (“they just break everything you drop on them anyway”) and designer bathtubs, we might be able to build out here in country for $1000 per square metre, $1200 at the most.

I was thrilled. For the first time, building an attractive, customised house began to look affordable.

John was also an open book about the vagaries of a designer’s life, showing us several of his designs that hadn’t been built. He tapped a page showing the drawings for a
large home designed for a nearby area: this couple had divorced, perhaps over
the thought of building a house together. Another tap pointed to plans for
people who had decided after all that the house was going to cost more than
they could afford. Yet another set was for a woman who had been told by her
desired builder (“an idiot”) that the house would be too hard to build. Although he was pragmatic about these setbacks, I could see how disappointing it must have been to have such creative ideas that never left the pages of his portfolio.

When I complimented an aspect of the house designs, he peered at me through the big glasses and said, “That’s what you pay me the medium bucks for.”

After the three-hour consultation, I felt overwhelmed with opinions, information and new ideas. I breathed out and said, “John, you have to go. I can’t take in one more word.” I reeled to the door to let him out.

As Rick and I talked through all this later over a coffee, we compared John’s visit with the one to the North Sydney architect. I fished out my notes from that encounter, stored on my laptop. There was a lot of nice jargon: “Style should not drive the way you live; rather work out the way you want to live and then the style supports that.”…“The experience of space, light and colour is foremost.”…“Good design is about subtleties…”

John himself was about as subtle as an old ute, but those designs! Those designs had captured my imagination. John may not have had a formal marketing skill in his body but I had a feeling his strike rate with clients would far exceed that of the big city boys. He was entirely credible.

The next day Rick and I went for a drive through the countryside to look at four of John’s houses that, against the odds, had managed to be built.

The first house we spotted in a new housing development of mostly ordinary brick homes was unmistakably one of John’s – this one with strong angles, striking lines and earthy colours stood out. To our good fortune, there was a woman in the garden who promptly came over and introduced herself.

“We get a lot of people driving by who are interested in this house,” she said, hands leaning against the car’s window frame. We explained we had met John yesterday and were considering having him design a house for us.

That pleased her mightily. “Well, come on inside and have a look around,” she said. As we walked around and through the house, she pointed out features she especially liked, many of them relating to John’s passive solar approach. An indoor swimming pool sparkling under the glass-enclosed dining room was solar heated. A strategically positioned brick wall in the bedroom collected heat in winter from the sun. A pair of louvred windows exactly channelled the ocean breezes.

The other three houses we looked at that afternoon were equally inspiring.

We had discovered a sub-culture of Basden-ites. It was a club I was finding myself increasingly keen to join.

*    *    *

After a weekend of Basden-immersion, Rick and I were ready to go – John was the designer we wanted. But of course it wasn’t just up to us. There were four other people to convince. We could speak ardently about John, but I didn’t think anyone could capture his flavour other than the man himself. Our partners would want evidence – concrete ideas from John about our situation. We needed to set up a meeting.

I rang John.

“Here’s what we’d like,” I said, “and please tell me if it’s not a fair request. I’m wondering if we could engage you for a few hundred dollars to give us a rough sketch, just a pencil and paper doodle really, capturing some of your ideas.”

“Sure,” he said. “I can understand why you’d need that. And I do already have some ideas. Send me your wish list, and I’ll see what I can do.”

*    *    *

“All right, team,” I said. “John wants a wish list. Let’s give him one.”

So the Shedders sat down in our Longueville lounge room one evening and brainstormed what we wanted in our new home.

We wanted the house to blend with the block, capture the views, be easy to maintain. We wanted it to have lots of glass and to make use of materials natural to the area. We wanted the house to have the smallest possible ecological footprint: solar heating, generous rainwater tanks, best practice sewage management, local materials.

We favoured a big country kitchen with a walk-in pantry, multiple fridges, gas stove, double ovens and a big island for food preparation. We also wanted ample private space, with our own bedrooms, office/reading area, decks and ensuites. These personal areas would need to be similar in size and equally desirable in features.

We needed guest accommodation, as well as space for tools and workshop, for yoga, for hobbies, for music-making, for home cinema, for gym and fitness, for our thousands of books.

We wanted the house to be inexpensive, and to have resale value so it would have a broad market on the day we needed to sell it. This meant that while the house had unusual occupant requirements, it might need to be somewhat conventional in design.

I captured all our ideas, then emailed the rather sparse and abstract brief to John.

*    *    *

In the end, all it took was one visit with John to win over the rest of the team.

We all drove up to The Shed one weekend, and John showed up, in blue jeans and his big glasses. “I’ve just come from the garden,” he said. “Hope you don’t mind how I look. I like to think you aren’t buying me or my office or my car, you’re buying my ideas,” he smiled. Tucked under one arm he had his portfolio and two or three pieces of paper which turned out to be simple sketches.

He talked us through his concept, which entailed using the existing Shed as a guest house and laundry facility, linked by a short covered walkway to a sprawling low-slung house with sloping skillions intersecting one another at unusual angles. The rough floor plan showed a large open living/kitchen/dining space, three generous personal areas and decks everywhere.

John submitted everyone to the full test: weighty information, acerbic opinions, straightforward honesty and passionate solar zeal. His laid-back modesty camouflaged an absolute certainty about the quality of his work. He talked through several of his previous designs, showing how this feature and that would relate to our own building. He dished it all out. Not unlike my experience with him two weeks ago, we were reeling by the end of it. The indefatigable John with his restless intelligence and boundless enthusiasm wore us down into complete acceptance.

I’m not sure who passed whose test, but we decided to retain John, and John accepted the retainer.

We had a designer. At the risk of pushing a metaphor too far, we had found a father for our infant house.

What’s more, we had our vision back. A few weeks ago, in the middle of shutting down our project, we had no view of what our community would physically look like. We had little motivation for the back-breaking work of weeding and the expense of pine removal, and no way of really appreciating how a life outside the city could look any better than the one we currently had. Now suddenly we could picture the house of our dreams; we could imagine where the sofa would sit, where the coffee pot would perch and where we would live relative to one another. We could envision gardens, and decks to view them from.

One day up at the property, Rick, Eve, Daniel and I paced out the dimensions of the house John had sketched for us. We stood where a corner of each of the personal decks would be. We looked out over the valley, the nearby forest of white gums, the mountains in the distance.

A panorama opened up for us again and we were energised.


3 thoughts on “Chapter 16. Make yourself a home

    • The biggest issue with designing something in another country isn’t the sun angles (my Revit 2013 design software can place a building site worldwide to within metres) or climate data (generally readily available online) but rather a total lack of knowledge of local building materials and methods.
      I did move a Revit model to a ‘Kitchener, Ontario’ location for a facebook friend and was surprised how low the Summer sun was, let alone the Winter angle, and he’d be South of the West coast area. (on Southern Oregon latitude)

      Mates from here lived in a Canadian snow resort town for years and were showing me pictures of the lodge they built – so many alien features like the ‘stay cold’ roof sheets to prevent ice falls and things I’d never even heard of.

      My initial thoughts for that sort of latitude is somewhere between a European style ‘Passiv Haus’ (that is generally a very well sealed and insulated structure) with some Passive Solar type Winter solar gain built in as well. Closed up airflow is by simple ERV (Energy Recovery Ventilation – either retail or home built) that pre heats incoming fresh outdoor air with the exhausting indoor air. It’s probably normal up there, I know it is in Northern Europe.

      A problem with South facing collector windows at high latitudes is weak warmth (meaning you want big areas) over short times (maybe 5 viable hours per day) and then the losses from the windows over the 19 other hours of the day. Any daytime cloud or fog then turns a heating hour into another cooling hour.

      Am currently working on ‘collector walls’ to solve this issue, which only ‘open’ when the sun is shining and shut off during cloud cover and overnight – been planning prototypes for the last year but they haven’t happened yet.

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