Rowena, together with her husband, has been designing and building a passive solar new home.
Hear about Rowena’s experience of building a passive solar new home with the expert guidance of Amelia Lee from Undercover Architect, through her membership in the Undercover Architect online program.
We’re located just outside Armidale, which is in northern New South Wales. We’re on a 120 acre block, which is obviously quite large. And because of the new bushfire regulations that have come into Australia, we were slightly limited on where we were actually going to start our house.
We’ve been planning on building for about 10 years or so, and this is actually our third site to build on. So I’ve gone through the planning quite a bit and because I designed the house myself, with a bit of help from my husband. And we’re a passive solar off-the-grid home. I don’t have any background in that, I was just interested in it, and also my dad built one of the first sort of passive solar type homes in Canberra a long, long time ago. And just having that light come in, and the warmth, you know, that’s something that we’ve really missed.
So I’ve harnessed all my project management skills from my work experience. I’ve got a science background, and I’ve worked a lot at universities and done a lot of project management. And so I thought, well, I think I can do it. But we were quite stressed about the whole process because we’ve never built before. And even though I’m quite resourceful and competent, you know, it’s the unknown.
Yeah, so anyway, we’ve moved around a little bit in the last four or five years, and then we moved back to Armidale, where we’d lived previously for about 16 years. And we found a lovely block, just outside town, about 10 minutes from town, and a reasonably level site where, you know, we’re able to really take full advantage of the northerly aspect. Because Armidale is quite a cold environment during winter, it’s got the full four seasons, so we had to design, what I chose to design, for the winter. But also the summers have been getting hotter, so we incorporated a few additional things to take account of that. But that’s the sort of background it’s been 10 years in the making. But the actual design and build process was actually quite short for a house, so we were really pleased about that.
What made you decide to build off-the-grid?
Yeah, my husband and I are both environmentalists, and we’ve got that science background, and we wanted it to have a lighter footprint. And we thought, yep, let’s see if we can do it. And it just so happened that this block didn’t have any power to it, it didn’t have any water to it. So we were able to start from scratch, and design. So with the help of a solar designer, I designed the solar system and the battery system as well. And, you know, we had to do a full electrical audit. And yeah, the whole idea was so that we had lower bills, we could live a bit lighter off the earth, and also this area gets lots of thunderstorms. And being off the grid, we don’t have to worry anymore about having blackouts. And you know, we just, it’s very comfortable.
What concerns did you have before you started?
Well, the main concern was, not having been through the build process before, how would we know if the builder was actually constructing the house well? And how do we communicate with the builder? How do we ensure that we’re running on schedule and budget? Those sorts of things. And when we’d been looking at building down the coast, I’d gone through a process of interviewing different builders. But you know, it still left me a bit wanting. I still wasn’t quite sure. And then when I was in Canberra, some other Master Builders actually were having a sort of information night, which I went along to. And that was really useful because it gave me lots of tips about, you know, the building process, how to go about thinking about it, and sort of debunk some of the myths about building.
And that sort of encouraged me to do a little bit more research. And in the process of doing that, I discovered the Undercover Architect website and Amelia’s fantastic work.
I think it’s fairly normal that if you haven’t approached anything or done anything before, you’re going to have a fair amount, or you know, of anxiety, because, you know, this is the biggest financial investment that we’ve made. And so there’s a lot riding on it.
And also you want the house, you know, for us it was going to be our one and only home because we’re in our early 50s, and we were looking for a house that we could live in for the next 20 to 30 years. So you know there was that sort of pressure plus also the pressure about, well how do you know if you’re going to be diddled on the contract? Or is this a fair price? Are you keeping to the schedule? How would I know, you know, the steps of the build to go through? And you know, the contract, what should I be looking for? And you know, with all the different materials, how will I know if they’re going to work well together?
You know, there’s just endless, endless … I think one of the things that I would say about building is it is just endless decision making.
And being a researcher, I guess I just went into sort of normal-mode about, well okay, if I don’t know about something, what can I find to inform me and educate me a bit better, so then I will feel a little bit more comfortable about the process.
And my husband, while he’s fantastic in his field of work, he doesn’t know anything about building, and for him it was even more scary, because he just, you know, it was totally unknown. And, you know, we didn’t know what we didn’t know.
So we just sort of started searching and also talking to other people about their experiences, and whether they knew of a good builder and all that sort of stuff. So we, I guess we canvassed fairly widely and started reading some books and things like that. And because we’ve been thinking about passive solar and off the grid, we knew we didn’t want a conventional builder that was just going to want to build a project home.
We needed someone that was going to be interested in doing the project. And that we would be able to communicate well with, so that if there were choices that had to be made, they would understand why we were making them. And then just to have a builder, who was really interested in doing something a little bit different from the norm.
I guess we were hoping that we could build and be in the house within about a year, to a year and a half. But we didn’t know exactly how long it was going to take. But we wanted a builder that was just going to be focused on our job. They weren’t going to be going off and doing two other jobs and you know, we were being fitted in and all that sort of stuff.
Yeah, so I guess some people might have a bit more relaxed attitude towards the build, but my husband and I are both quite methodical and organised. And we wanted to find a builder who had a similar approach to building, as we did too when we do other sorts of projects. And find one that would be able to work with us.
Like probably a lot of people, we’ve watched a lot of Grand Design episodes. And my husband and I would just be groaning, you know, when they wouldn’t set a schedule, or they had to find money, or they decided they changed something at the last minute, or you know.
And what we decided to do was to have our plan already, and not make any changes. Or if we were going to make any changes, they were going to be minimal. So they weren’t going to impact on the schedule for windows, or framing, or interiors, plastering, you know, those sorts of things.
So I had the design, probably about three months before we actually started going into the official design phase. And during that period, my husband and I reviewed the design and we had a look at it. And we thought that, you know, we’re fine with it. So we’ve just, we basically stuck to that. And that was another thing that, you know, made it a lot easier and the builder appreciated it.
Why did you decide to join the Undercover Architect course?
Yeah, well, as I said earlier, I decided to try and inform and educate myself a bit more about the building process. And we’ve done renovations, and we’d had a few issues with that. And so I started looking around for books, magazines, reading, anything I could find, you know, in front of me really, that I thought would assist me in learning about the building process. And the New South Wales Government has some useful information under Fair Trading and then the Master Builders do. And I thought, well, I really want something a bit more from the client’s side of things. You know, something that explained in more detail about the process and would give.
Because the other thing that I also had in the back of my mind, being a woman, was whether or not all the tradees, and the subbies, and whatever, were actually going to respect my role there as the project manager, and the designer, and the client all in one.
So I really wanted to make sure that I knew, you know, the different steps and what was happening. And then if I didn’t know, I knew where to go to find out that information.
And so I started, you know, trawling the internet and just looking around and I found, eventually found, this Undercover Architect website and I had a bit of a scroll through it and saw the program for the Manage Your Build, and just sort of had a bit of a look and had a bit of a think. It actually, I didn’t do it straightaway. I took a little while to have a think about it, and then I thought, well, no, actually, that’s probably going to be the most useful. And even if it only saves us money in two or three areas, it’s still a great investment, you know. Because just reducing the financial cost and reducing the stress and worry about a build. So I thought, well yeah, just go ahead and do it. And so that’s sort of how I found it really, just trawling the internet.
We were very fortunate both, I think, because we prepared and in our choice of builder and his team, and he had a fantastic team. And there was so much respect on site for me, and for my husband as the clients. But also in the preparation that I had done in the organisation, they could see that I was ready for this build. And I knew what we wanted, and I would be able to make the decisions quite quickly. And that if there was anything I didn’t know, I’d get back to them.
So part of it was also just establishing a relationship with a builder and his team. And them to understand how, you know, I like to operate. And for me to recognise that any holdups on my side would actually hold the build up. So we, you know, we were quite clear about that sort of stuff.
And then I’m, you know, I knew I didn’t know a lot about it. So I had quite a few discussions with our builder. And, yeah, you know, we didn’t have any problems, really. So it was, you know, I said to the builder afterwards, you know, it was much less stressful than I anticipated. I mean, it was still stressful. But it could have been a whole lot worse, I think. Yeah, and it is an important point.
And I would have to say that after the build finished in, you know, a few weeks after we moved in, I did say to my husband, and also some friends, I felt like being around more feminine energy. I’d had enough of the male energy for a while. Even though they were lovely, you know, it was just, yeah, just different.
Well, I think part of it was because I’d spent quite a bit of time having a look to see what was out there. And, I couldn’t find anything really other than an Amelia’s course. And I thought about the cost of it and then I had a bit of a look through the modules.
And I thought about, well, other courses that I’ve done which might have been a craft course, or, you know, learning something else like a computer software program or something like that, and I thought, well, actually, it is a really good investment.
You know, it was like a miniscule amount of the total budget. But it just made such a difference in terms of the budget coming in on time. Like we moved in a day after the scheduled finish date. So, you know, we were really, really pleased with that.
And we, while we weren’t on budget, all the choices that we made to increase the budget, were our choice. They weren’t imposed necessarily by the builder. We did have a few small things, but you know, it just made such a difference. And it just gave me so much more confidence when I was liaising with so many different people in the industry about all the different aspects. I mean, all the tradies in town, you know, all the hardware stores, all that sort of stuff, they get to know you during the course of a build, because you’re going in there talking about all that sorts of stuff.
And I think that was the other thing, that I wanted to have some ownership in the build. I didn’t want to just, you know, okay, here’s the design, hand it over to a builder and say, right, off you go. You know, I wanted to be part of the process. And I thought that Amelia’s Undercover Architect course would allow me to do that. And as I said, you know, I thought, well that’s a really small investment, for a huge amount of knowledge. So for me, it was well worth it.
What did you do differently because of what you’ve learned?
Oh, you know, it just, it trickled through the whole build really. Site meetings, recording site meetings, making sure we had them regularly, and that we had follow up action happening. When we were laying the slab, just knowing what to expect, and even before that, being able to look through the contract with a builder. All the information that Amelia had there, and to be able to go through it page by page, to look for the things that, you know, I needed to look for.
And to be able to negotiate and liaise with the builder about that, so that you knew exactly what was happening. What would be the situation, if the build went over time. What would be the situation if we had variations, so that then, you know, obviously going to be in writing, which we did have a few of, but yeah, it really just went all the way through the build.
And it meant that, you know, the builder was also confident that I knew what was going on, and he wasn’t going to have to come and you know, harang me for information. He knew that I was wanting to do that as well.
And you know, part of the information in Amelia’s thing is about setting up a communication rapport with the builder, getting the builder on site early. And that’s what we did.
So I interviewed a couple of builders in the Armidale area and talked to Andrew Williams, from Adder Constructions, who became our builder. And really was quite open with him about what we were trying to achieve and could he be involved in the design process? And the reason for that was, so that if the formal building designer and I came up with an idea, we could check with Andrew about whether that was going to work or not, or whether it was going to cost a lot or, you know, was there a better way to do something.
So you know, and it also meant that he knew what was happening on the build before we’d actually really started. And so it just made everything so much easier. And he had the contacts for the certifiers, and the engineers, and all that sort of stuff. So we didn’t actually need to go through a whole development approval process, we had a complying development. And so we didn’t have any of the waiting time, which meant we could get straight onto laying the slab before winter, which then meant that the build progressed a lot quicker.
So look, there’s just so many things. Just knowing what to look for when the framings done. Knowing what to look for when the plasterings done. How to do an electrical plan, which I’d done before, but you know, it really helped me think about the lighting and what we wanted for this new one. And just, you know, it’s just endless, really, you know. There’s just so much in the course. And you can, depending on what type of build you’re doing, you can hone in on yours and your aspects that you’re interested in.
And I think one of the other things that I wanted to mention is that some people have said, well, they don’t have six weeks to do the course. Well, neither did I. And I didn’t do it all at once.
I started with the first module, and then the second one, and then we got to a certain phase where I had a bit of free time, so then I did the next one. And I did it sort of as the build progressed, but slightly ahead so that I wouldn’t sort of be surprised too much.
So, you know, and it doesn’t actually take a lot of time. And I just think it’s, you know, just invaluable investment when you’re building your own home.
Did the Undercover Architect course save you drama + stress?
Well, it was interesting, because I added up that during the build, we had drought, bushfires, snow, high wind, transport failures, COVID-19, and then huge rainfalls. You know, so we went through the whole canvas of things, but I think there was still less drama and less stress most definitely, then if I hadn’t discovered Undercover Architect.
It just gave me so much confidence to be part of the build. And, you know, the builder said, you know, he wished everyone had done it, because it just made his job a whole lot easier as well. And it saved us money all over the place.
So yeah, we still had, you know, our usual dramas and some things you just wouldn’t expect at all just happened. And you know, you just can’t plan for those things. You just have to roll with them. But yeah, definitely much less stressful.
What was the best thing about being an Undercover Architect course member?
I think it’s just having access to that insider knowledge, and that it’s presented in such an easily accessible format, that you can understand it and apply it straight away. There’s just so much useful information in there.
Because I just found it fantastic.
And I couldn’t recommend it more highly because I really think it’s incredibly valuable for people that are doing their own builds.