Chapter 19. Ready, set, go

From: John Basden []
To: Heather
Subject: Mitchells Island Prelim Elevation

Dear Heather,
Here are the preliminary elevation drawings for the house. The scale is 1:150 because the combined house/shed is so long that’s the only way I can get it all on an A3.
It shows a fairly skillion-based structure, largely driven by the difficult block slope/orientation and of course the need to get winter sun access and privacy at several points.
I have reduced the complexity of the roof modifications as the budget for the whole project looks difficult. (Remember for next time, gentle slope down to a northern view makes efficiency on a budget possible.)
I will ring you for initial feedback after you’ve had time to circulate it to the rest of the troops.
John Basden

In this unassuming way, the first cut of the drawings for the new house arrived in our email.

The plans, only partly completed, were already complex, with several pages of elevation views and floor plans. We printed copies for the Shedders in both Mitchells Island and Longueville, and began the process of absorbing them.

Simply put, I was rapt. We were all rapt.

We liked the concept, the shapes, the proposed materials. We pored over the floor plans as if our future comfort and security depended on it – which of course it did.

“It’s bigger than we initially discussed,” John warned me when I rang him. “It’s going to cost more. I think you’ll be lucky to get it built for 20% over your budget.”

So we pared. We cut back on renovations to The Shed. We removed a covered walkway between it and the house. We deleted a balcony running along the back of the house. We took out a back entrance, and reduced a hallway that was to double as a library and art gallery. I compiled all the feedback and phoned John to set up a meeting.

“Should I set aside all day?” he joked. “I haven’t had to deal with feedback from six owners before.”

Girded with the massive printouts, Rick and I drove to John’s house in the country forty minutes or so from The Shed. He welcomed us warily, his humour attempting to cover his nervousness. I pictured the meeting from his perspective. How often had clients come back to him, notes and mark-ups everywhere, oblivious to the integrity and intention of his designs? To what extent did each innocent suggestion create a ripple of complex reactions? What was it like to have to deal with people who knew very little about architecture but were nonetheless passionate about what they wanted in their home-to-be?

His big lenses glinting, he absorbed each of the changes we were wanting. In his usual style, he would ask a question or two, appear to ignore the replies, then come back to the issue five or ten minutes later with his response in place. Eventually, he addressed each suggestion. Sometimes, he regarded an idea as an improvement to the overall design, not just a cost saving, and readily said so. A couple of times, after he’d circled around one of our proposals, he would come back and paint the full picture of why it wasn’t a good idea. Mostly, he just sketched and fiddled with the drawings, trying out a change and dealing with the ramifications.

Rick and I were pleased with the result, and John seemed relieved. He agreed to redraft the drawings with the changes.

This process was a pattern we repeated several times over the next month, the suggestions and changes coming to rest in ever-decreasing circles. I was sure John had seen worse in his time and that he was pleased everything was going as smoothly as it was.

Underpinning it all, the six of us loved his concept and the drawings. THIS was the house we wanted built for ourselves. If John thought there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of the building going ahead, he didn’t say so. He obviously loved the house he had designed and wanted it built, but years of experience with unpredictable clients had trained him to be unattached to seeing his designs turn into real houses. The Shedders were bound to be more unpredictable than most – just from the sheer mass of us.

The plans began to get more and more technical. There were site analysis plans, setout plans, elevations, window schedules, and engineering plans.

The BASIX (building sustainability index) process imposed by Council fascinated me. Increase the size of your water tank and gain a point or two. Increase your window area and lose some points (unless the windows face the low angle winter sun, in which case you may gain some). Get points for more energy-efficient glass. Lose them for inefficient lighting. Gain them for a light-coloured roof, lose them for not having a sheltered outdoor clothesline. John was a juggling concern. In the end, he submitted the plans to Council with several points to spare. Our house was solar efficient.

*    *    *

Getting plans approved by Council seemed as if it would feel like being told you’ve been selected for a space shuttle voyage. Against all odds, you’ve somehow passed the tests and been allowed to participate in this incredible adventure. Could it possibly happen to us?

Locals said Greater Taree Council was not difficult to work with, compared with other councils that were reputed to knock back plans arbitrarily. Nevertheless I felt considerable trepidation on the day Peter the Inspector came out to the site. I was on my best behaviour.

Peter jumped out of his car, greeting us warmly. “Beautiful spot you’ve got here,” he said. “And John has designed you a nice home for it.”

“So you like the plans?” I asked, surprised at his candour.

“Oh, yes indeed. I know John’s houses. He designs a good building.”

Rick and I exchanged glances. So far, so good.

However, there were a number of sticking points, and we had been warned that any one of them could cause our application to fail. Peter came straight to the point about them.

“Let’s have a look at this boundary issue,” he said. Our property’s boundary wasn’t where it appeared to be, and the plans pushed our house a metre or two closer to the actual boundary line than was allowed. Peter paced out the offending angles, looked at the little road that finished in a cul de sac a few metres from our driveway, and concluded, “That boundary’ll never cause a problem. No worries about that.”

More glances between Rick and me.

Another challenge was our septic system. While it seemed to work fine, it hadn’t been built to accommodate a large household. “Are you having any problems with it?” Peter asked us.

We indicated, no, it appeared to be doing its job well.

“Well, you might need to get it replaced when there’s six adults living here,” he said. “Meantime, I’ll tick it as needing inspection periodically. Just get a new one if you need to.”

Another relieved glance.

The third challenge related to the pines on the hillside (this being several months before Trevor and his dauntless bobcat had removed the final lot of trees). We knew fire restrictions had tightened considerably over the previous years, and the trees were technically too close to the building site. We explained our plans to get them removed as soon as construction started. Could we get approval just on our word?

“Sure, that’s fine,” Peter said. “Those trees aren’t much of a threat on an island anyway. But you’ll be more comfortable with them gone.”

He made a note or two and snapped shut his folder. “Looks good,” he said. “You should get your official notice of approval within the week.”

We tried not to look flabbergasted, but I’m sure Peter appreciated glimmers of joy that wouldn’t have gone unnoticed.  It’s possible I’d have felt more excited being selected for the space shuttle – but perhaps not.

Houston, we have lift off!

*    *    *

We now had house plans, Council approval and a timetable. Just over a year from now we needed a house to move into. The lease would be up on the Longueville house: Eve and Daniel were very clear they were ready for the country when that deadline arrived. Rick and I, much as we had come to enjoy the simplicity of life in The Shed, were feeling clipped in the wings in its confined space. It was time to find a builder.

The Shedders decided that Rick and I would manage creating a short-list, as we now lived in the area. We consulted with numerous neighbours and local tradespeople, and located three prospects.

One was Simon, a builder who had worked on several Basden houses and wasn’t afraid of John’s nonconformist designs. One was Rod, a local builder highly recommended by someone who owned a classy new house on our island. And one was Dallas, another local guy with a father in the business, a son in the business, and a number of clients who spoke well of him.

I interviewed each of them by phone, working through a list of questions designed not only to flush out their (un)successful experiences, but to determine whether they were people we would enjoy working with. I followed up those calls by interviewing a number of their referees, asking them the same kind of questions. Then we drove around and looked at the houses they’d built.

We provided a set of plans to each builder, and asked them to give us an estimate for the work. As the old expression goes, it was like comparing apples and oranges. I learned a lot about the building process, about each builder’s communicating style, about their professionalism – but the quotes didn’t give any definitive answers to the question of which to choose.

We eliminated Simon because he lived too far away and had too much work on. That left Rod and Dallas, and we figured we could work with either of them.

Michael, Judy, Eve and Daniel came up from Sydney one weekend and separately met both contenders. We all gave full marks to both Rod and Dallas, as they presented well and didn’t appear to have any reservations about working with a consortium.

Michael and Judy liked both equally and said, we don’t mind; pick whoever you care to work with. Rick and I leaned toward Dallas – there was something about his maturity, his vigour and his openness that appealed. Eve and Daniel favoured Rod, who had come across as clean-cut and well-organised…

…That is, until Sunday afternoon, shortly before Eve and Daniel were to head back to Sydney.

They had gone down to Old Bar beach for a walk and a swim. There they had an encounter that they enthusiastically reported to us when they returned.

While testing out the waves, their attention had been drawn to a noisy altercation up the beach a few metres. A group of teenage boys was circling and their interaction took on an angry tone. Someone took a swing at someone else and a melee ensued.

Suddenly a commanding figure loped toward the fracas, pushed into the middle and held up a vertical hand between the warring parties. He appeared to be respectful and firm, listening and negotiating between the two main combatants. In the end, both boys shook his hand, shrugged at each other and walked off.

The negotiator turned out to be Dallas, who walked toward Eve and Daniel, grinning broadly, a bead or two of perspiration on his forehead. He philosophised about young people; his straight-forward, practical, powerful manner spoke worlds about his ability to handle an unusual circumstance and perhaps even build a big house for a handful of owners in a timely fashion.

Eve and Daniel changed their vote and Dallas moved to the top of the short-list.

Our decision-making process might not have made the Harvard Business School register of first-rate practices but it revealed a lot about who we were. Though we didn’t understand much about building a house, we were more confident in our ability to judge a human being. Pick a good person and he’ll do the job.

After a round of emails with the Shedders ratifying our choice of builder, I sat with my phone in one hand and my morning coffee in the other while I prepared to phone Dallas to give him the news.

I’d hired a lot of staff in my life but it felt as if no one quite held my future in their hands in the way that this appointment did. Would we end up with a house that lived up to the vision of John Basden’s designs? Would Dallas help us draw together as a team or would the experience erode our partnership in the way that so many house-building experiences seem to do for the owners? Was there any chance that we would look back on this decision ten years from now as one that was still giving us daily happiness?

In the face of these unknowable questions, I dialled Dallas’ number.


One thought on “Chapter 19. Ready, set, go

  1. Heather, you continue to enthral me with your wonderful stories. By the end of the chapter I really feel I know your characters – Dallas, John and Peter the Inspector. I really get your excitement about the process leading up to building the house too. I love how you keep us in suspense waiting for the next instalment – you sitting with your coffee, about to dial Dallas’ number. What will the future hold?

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