I had this idea of building a house ‘for nothing’. We didn’t have enough money to build a house, and we didn’t want to borrow money. Probably couldn’t have anyway, given I had only just escaped bankruptcy a few years earlier. I reasoned that you didn’t need money to build a house, all you needed were materials and labour. The labour could be free if you provided it yourself, and the materials could be free too. You could use your labour to get them.
We bought a block of twenty acres at a knockdown price on the outskirts of a charming goldfields town in Central Victoria. It was rough sheep country but there was a ridge on it with a lovely view of the mountains.
The house we would make mud brick. That suited the location and mud bricks are ‘free’, too. The rest of the materials would be recycled: second-hand, demolition materials. To get them ‘for nothing’ I set up a small demolition business. I had no expertise nor even much of an idea what demolition actually entailed, but then we were planning to build a house, and I didn’t know too much about that, either. I thought I could learn how to build just by ‘doing it’. (opposite: the first meal on site.)
During this time we met other people planning owner-built houses. They all knew a lot more about it than I did, yet we were the only ones who went on to actually build a house. There is a lesson here, I think, of how knowledge can be a real impediment to action. We could have built a better house if I had known more, but if I had known more, we might not have built a house at all. We might never have got started. The more you know, the more you realise you don’t know and then, sometimes, knowledge just intimidates you.
I had one other thing going for me apart from my ignorance: Barry, a friend of a friend. Barry knew how to build houses, his brother was a builder. By extension he also knew how to knock them down. It was, he said, simply ‘the reverse process of building’. Barry had two other sayings about building that I remember. The first, that building was merely the process of rearranging stacks of timber; the second, ‘just get the roof right’.
So I employed Barry to ‘help’ in the demolition business. I sold half the materials to pay the bills and kept the other half for building. After four demolition jobs there was more than enough material for the new house, and we’d both had enough of demolition.
I dug the footings by hand during a drought, (we couldn’t afford a contracter), and then the drought broke and flooded the trenches the week we were going to pour. There were other mistakes made along the way. I didn’t quite ‘get the roof right’, and the plumbing needed several exasperating attempts. But pre-cutting the timber frame worked just fine, (there was no electricity on site), and the mud bricks turned out remarkably easy to make, almost as easy to build with.
Building the house was the only time in my life I grew a beard. In part it was a response to the climate, but principally it was the belief that good quality mud bricks could not be made by men lacking facial hair.
The house project took two years of weekend trips from Melbourne and any other spare time we had. We moved in to a more or less habitable house, although there were things not finished, and some things were missing.
you can’t have too many arches
It is quite cold in winter in that region, and sometimes hot in summer. Usually, it was also too dry. But it was often real fun to be there, too. And the house had a full life. There were guests who stayed and events that were celebrated, and some fabulous neighbours who became old friends.
There was a vineyard planned and an orchard planted and the story of the neighbours’ blue heeler who stole the only Jonathon apple from the tree one year and then hid it in his kennel.
It was in this house that we learnt to make bread, learnt about gardening and kept a first bird diary. It was also where I wrote radio plays, where I attempted to break into television and film, (unsuccessfully, thank God). The house was even burgled once, (they stole a pump), and it survived the awful bushfires of 1985. The house was rented out for awhile, and then finally we had to sell it. We were living a thousand miles away, and we knew we weren’t coming back.
There were no tears of farewell when we sold it, and that surprised me. It turned out that the house was not as important as the project of building it was. It was the first time I had conceived something significant, planned it, learnt how to do it, and brought it to completion. I took that away with me, not just the success of having built a house, but the know-how of making projects work.
We live in a house now that I had no part in building, although the gardens are all our own work. It’s a 1920s house that doesn’t resemble the mud-brick house at all, but does resemble the idea that animated that first house: the idea of a house with land and a bush garden, with orchards and food gardens, with birds and animals, and a sense of peace.
It was probably to be expected that a house built from demolition materials would end up itself demolished, and that’s just what happened. Some years after it was sold, the new owners pulled the old house down. It was no more than twenty years old. Bewilderingly, they built a new house that was smaller and meaner and made out of ticky-tacky (fibro-cement). They even moved it from the top of the ridge so they lost the view of the mountains.
I suspect that the old house was knocked down and ended up in the local tip. But I don’t want to believe that. I harbour the fantasy that the house was carefully demolished, (as Barry and I would have done), that the timber was de-nailed and that the materials — the framing, the beams, the windows and doors, the beautiful baltic pine floorboards — were sold on, to became part of someone else’s lovingly hand-built casa, and so the old house lives on in a new manifestation.