Alternative Housing, The Cost of Commitment

The Cost of Commitment

Author: Alistair Knox

The Boer and the computer engineer

AN ever-increasing number of single and married people are feeling the challenge of getting back to a simple lifestyle free from the fruitless money game which demands more from them than it can ever give. It is a Satanic delusion that makes it appear fascinating and free at the beginning, but as each step is taken demands more and more for less and less. It also corrodes the will to escape, despite the fact that there is no country where it is easier to set up an independent life. Third generation Australians are still very close to pioneer stock. Even many of the Europeans who have settled here since the war can also feel this, particularly the second generation. It is in the climate, with its sense of space and peace, colour and light.

The Boer

Jack Droomer of Boer descent was one who took up this challenge about five years ago. In his case it was not as difficult as with many because he and his wife inherited 600 acres of land beyond Werribee, and they had the means of raising money with which to build an imposing home. When Jack and Carol first came as clients, Jack was an on-site foreman of a large building then under construction. He had left it to start a farming life. They had not long been married and were expecting a child within a few months. He selected a site beside the Werribee River which ran through their property. It was summer time and the stream was low, but the deep scarifying that remained from previous floods showed how quickly and powerfully it could run. It is in fact the fastest flowing river in the State of Victoria. The land was flat and open, a strange combination of the fringe of the western industrial area of Melbourne and the beginning of the western plains. The soil was rich and volcanic, and not suitable for mud-brick making without the introduction of extra clay. By way of historic footnote, the Chaffey Bros., who developed Mildura through irrigation, started work next door to Droomer's property prior to their going to the Murray. There is an overgrown channel over a mile long near where they set up their machinery to irrigate South Werribee right next to Jack's boundary.

Strong structural lines express tbe strength of the builder and his building Strong structural lines express tbe strength of the builder and his building

Being a Boer, Jack Droomer's first thoughts were for a cellar deep in the ground. I detest cellars as a rule, although I agree with celliers, which are cellar-like rooms but at main floor level. I have always found cellars subject to flooding and expensive to construct. Frank Lloyd Wright said the first thing he did in his early designing was to eliminate them. But these arguments were fruitless with Jack. The house was sited close to the river and commanded a view of it, a lovely thing to see in the almost treeless landscape, especially when the dust of summer swept over in the wake of the strong north winds. Water of any kind or dimension is particularly valuable in the water-hungry Australian scene. The dust is also an essential ingredient that combines with the water to make the landscape authoritatively antipodean. It is this climate which causes the plainsman's eyes to recede into his head below his bushing eyebrows and tan his face and arms into a deep, brown leathery texture. The plains make strong, silent men who seem to lean in the direction of the prevailing wind in the way the occasional tree leans away from it. West of Werribee was that sort of country.

When it came to building, Jack retained the same concepts he had when he was a foreman in charge of city buildings. The structure had to be large, really large - some forty of fifty squares plus verandahs. And before the house was erected, he had to build a big mud-brick barn. Jack's building was a long and arduous task. He found it extremely difficult to obtain mud-brick labouring types in the district. My heart bled for him in the early days, especially when the bricks made from the home soil cracked and the unroofed cellar was half full of water after the rains. But he showed tremendous determination and belief in the material. He expected no quarter and he gave none. I recall him driving to Eltham with a truck and three men to pick up some old ironbark timber salvaged from the famous Union Bridge that once joined Victoria and New South Wales at Albury. The biggest piece he wanted was nearly thirty foot long by eighteen inches wide and seven inches deep. Red ironbark has a specific gravity of 1.31 which meant the piece would weigh nearly a ton. As there were three foot steel plates as wide as the timber by a half inch thickness bolted to the timber, the weight was almost inconceivable. After several hours of using crowbars and an endless chain hoist, he drove away in exhausted triumph. The whole operation had something of this difficulty about it. Heavy second-hand timber seemed to be scarce just when he needed it, and a hundred other things went wrong which would have daunted all but the most tenacious heart. When I said, 'It's more difficult than a large city building, Jack', his short staccato laugh endorsed my premonitions. Carol, his beautiful wife, was not used to this sort of hassle, especially when the baby arrived and they took up residence in the half-finished building. But she remained charming, patient and resigned.

His farm location could well have touched almost unconscious recollections of the land his fathers had pioneered in Africa. The blood of the devout, tough stock that had outwitted and outgeneralled the British at the turn of the century was very much alive in his appearance. There was nothing but goodwill in Jack Droomer towards his present battle with the elements and he seemed to be at his best when it was hardest. He never relented.

It was not until I was running through the list of past clients that his name conjured up the realisation that I must get there and photograph it, not because he was trying to buck the system, but because he was a fighter who needed a protagonist that was worthy of him. And the house he built was just that.

It was nearly two years before I finally saw the homestead. It was visible for a long distance over the open plains, standing in juxtaposition to the barn and another outbuilding. It had a frontier type strength as it looked out over the nearby river, the You Yang mountains forming a sharp-edged, silhouetted backdrop some miles further away. They touched a nostalgic chord in may memory as I recalled how I used to also see them across Port Phillip Bay from Middle Park beach nearly every day of my life as a boy. They are the one indelible feature in the flat topography around the west side of Port Phillip Bay. Only a short stretch of tall eucalypts near Laverton seemed to make any other vertical accent.

The eastern courtyard of the Droomer house - a place of protection against the winds of the western plains The eastern courtyard of the Droomer house - a place of protection against the winds of the western plains

On drawing closer to the house, I could see that it was not quite complete in all details, though very much finished in structure. It was one of the largest buildings I have seen undertaken by one man. The necessity to earn money kept taking him away from completing it. When I arrived, they had just finished harvesting 900 acres of wheat - quite a task to undertake along with the building program. Inside, the house looked and felt enormous, and indeed it was. The main living room was about 18 feet high, with wings extending out in all directions. A full length window took up half of the north wall and there was a clerestory across the whole of the south end of the room in a way that can be seen above the mezzanine level. Pride of place went to the enormous ironbark bearer that stretched across this elevated level. Our son Alistair made the circular stairs and the iron balustrade. The mezzanine flooring happened to be thick jarrah decking retrieved from the Government Bond Store, a beautiful nineteenth century building that was located beside the Appleton Dock until recently demolished.

Everything about the house was on the grand scale. On one side there was a large kitchen and a covered outdoor eating verandah adjacent to the main hall, and on the other a series of bedrooms aI).d facilities. One of the bathrooms looked out of its full-length windows on to a free-standing mud-brick walled court. There were several children's bedrooms and playrooms which would have felt tight and undersized in the remainder of the house's expansive dimensions had doors been hung to their entrances. The discretion of not doing so has made them intriguing and satisfactory spaces.

Jack used second-hand timber almost entirely in the work and, wherever possible, it was larger in section rather than smaller. The Murray River bridge timbers stood like sentinels at all the major openings and spans, mutely declaring that they and the building will stand forever.

Both Jack and Carol have a deep appreciation of the personal cost of their new building and their environmental way of life. Despite her two young children, Carol looks happy and radiant and the home-made bread she produced for luncheon underlined how they are united in the purposes of genuine Australian living in big spaces and in strong elements.

The Computer Engineer

Robin Batty was one of the most able owner-builders Eltham has been privileged to welcome to its numbers. He and his wife Julie came to see me on their return from the United States in 1974. They had purchased an acre block of land provisionally before they went, so that rising prices would bot precent them from buying when they wanted to build.

They became somewhat disappointed when they saw the block again. It was steep, sloped in a difficult manner and was in general rather a difficult sIte to handle. After consulting me, they spent a considerable time looking for something they felt would be more appropriate, but all without success. So it was finally agreed I should plan a house that Robin himself could build on the land. He was young, handsome, tall and intelligent. His wife was equally attractive and was about to start having a family. He had been sent overseas by the firm he worked for to study computer engineering. Armed with these facts I designed a building in a few minutes in my mind, but did not commit it to paper for several weeks as I weighed their ability to construct it. In order to make the alternative building program a success, it is essential to relate the character of the building with the capacities of the builders, as well as identifying the natural environment. The primary purpose of a house is a shelter for its owners, themselves the most important element in their environment. The one is interdependent on the other, but the environment was made for man, rather than man for the environment.

The Batty house during construction Above top Looking down the hill on the Batty house - entry being made through the portcullis on the left-hand side. Above bottom Looking up the hill - the kitchen on the ground floor and the bedroom on the first.

I considered Robin's mind processes and finally summed up that, as a computer engineer, he should be able to handle the complex design. I also felt it would be the ideal way to prise him out of the system. The building was an inevitable shape, composed only of essential elements. Nothing could be added or taken away without affecting its quality. Because of the slope and the valley it overlooked, it was necessary to start with a severe and almost vertical excavation rising to about eight feet in height. The walls of the building curved concentrically in a wide arc on both sides and finished in a circle at each end. The roof also rose at a consistent angle as it spread out over the curved plan, until it became two-storied at the northern end and declined into a lower level and a single storey at the south end. The basic notion had been vaguely suggested by a postcard a friend had once sent me of a famous Norman fortress in Wales. The structure curved in the same line as the excavation. Access was gained to the building through doors halfway up the wall, that were like a portcullis connected to a fixed drawbridge. The bottom of the excavation was carefully shaped to look like a narrow moat. Once inside the building, you would stand on a platform about five feet above the floor that would provide an exciting view of the house and the valley beyond. Stairs curved up to a bedroom suite on the one hand and downwards into the main living area on the other. The whole of the opposite external wall was of panels of glass that curved upward an equal amount at every mullion.

The roof of the general living area led the eye upwards to two balconies at first floor level that were arranged on either side of a large curved chimney. There were three fireplaces in the sculptured chimney stack, including one to the bedroom suite upstairs. It had been excellently executed by the bricklayer who had employed a girl as his labourer. Because of its curving features, the chimney took longer than usual, but it was well done by a person who felt and believed in his work. Later he wrote me from Cairns, where he was then teaching Environmental Studies, asking for material and photographs to spread the alternative lifestyle gospel to that subtropical area.

Curving earth walls are difficult to build because there is an art to keeping them plumb at any time. This is even more so as the work ascends and curves at the same time. The basic plan was set out from a single point about fifty feet down the hill. A string, swung in an arc from that point, designated the position of the concentric side walls of the house. The outer curved wall, which ran adjacent to the excavation, was almost solid. Long narrow windows, recollective of arrow slots, were the only other break in its length besides the drawbridge and portcullis entry. The single ascending curve of the wide fascia was bound closely into the wall and the whole structure appeared timeless and powerful from the gravel track that led down to the land. Its massive walls, crisscrossed by squiggly shadows cast by the young eucalypts, created an aura of medieval power and pageantry. Inside the building this feeling persisted. The stairway was let into the mud walls on one side and followed their sweeping curve. The internal shape had the character of a living organism. On the open side the steep valley dropped away quickly and you looked down into the tops of the trees.

The Batty house during construction Above top Engrafting the building into the primitive landscape - the Batty house at North Warrandyte. Above bottom The curving walls and narrow windows create the sense of a castle keep.

Robin set out his footings and poured them, a soul-searching battle in the rocky terrain. He rose from the task undaunted and then laid one or more courses of brickwork on them to form the line of the curved walls. A ten by ten inch post was located every fifteen feet along this line. The depth of the arc they contained was kept constant so that a trammel or a light timber template could be used between them that would act as a guide to keep the wall curving consistently and remaining vertical. I never saw him use a guide, but his walls were excellent. The only place where they were not absolutely plumb and level was at the circular kitchen end and here the primitive character fully maintained the notion of the medieval.

The roof structure was quite simple. A spine of heavy timber ran longitudinally along the centre of the building and was supported where there was neither wall nor chimney by large posts. Substantial oregon joists ran transversely over it and timber lining was laid above to form the ceiling and lock the whole structure together.

The kitchen, on the ground floor, was circular. Over it was sited the parents' wing, including a bathroom, a fireplace and a balcony looking down into the main area of the house. It was once again the roomless building idea, negation of walled divisions and a plenitude of devious spatial nuances that captivated the eye and gave illusions of involvement and mystery.

The sense of visual intrigue is a consistent, stimulating possibility in environmental design. It is created by resolving the organic shapes derived from an inevitable approach to planning and layout. It is remarkable how convincing the shapes and spaces become as they follow the flowing, objective proportions that promote them. The result takes away the set square dominance that plagues today's architecture. Where design is limited by drawing board techniques, inspiration is also limited to what can be done after all the corners are filled in. It is a general misconception that our ever increasing techniques allow for an ever-increasing variety of ideas. The opposite generally happens. The system becomes the message, as the technique conveys the idea instead of the idea being supported by the technique. Organic design degenerates from its original concept of individual cellular structure into meaningless mechanical repetition. Instead of opening a wealth of inventive opportunities, it revels in childish block-making.

Plan of the Batty house

Robin Batty didn't have it all his own way on his precipitous clay and rock site. Eltham is strong, clay-loam silurian landscape, particularly in North Warrandyte. It is wild and picturesque, with gnarled yellow and red box and stringybark trees in tumultuous confusion. He fell once or twice on the rocky slopes and had a month or so of enforced rest. (Robin had taken extended leave without pay in order to get the house built.) Though it became obvious the building time would extend beyond his leave arrangements, he never lost his cool determination. He employed Bernie Bragg, a real mud-brick character, to form his bricks for him. When I first heard of Bernie someone said, 'Give him a Coke and a pie and he'll work all day'. Bernie turned out to be about forty years of age and small and spare of body. He had a more philosophical attitude to life than any other itinerant mud-brick maker I ever encountered. For a man who got paid by the brick, he was a superlative worker. His bricks were so well-formed and compacted they withstood heavy rain even on the first night following their production. He was never in a hurry. He would arrive from about ten miles away on a bicycle and quietly settle down to make 100 bricks for the day. He would then mount his cycle once more and disappear into the setting sun.

As mud-brick building becomes more popular, the trend is to buy topsoil for mortar rather than use what the site happens to provide. This makes for quicker laying of brickwork but at the expense of a darkening of colour in the walls. (They have to be washed over with a clay slurry of selected colour afterwards.) This method loses some of the true earth character "and Robin Batty would have none of it. He had practically no topsoil on his site so he screened the subsoil at some real cost of labour. The resulting brickwork however was completely indigenous in spirit and the high, curving walls expressed the poetry and power of the ancient landscape. His building took considerable time to finish and be made habitable. Like Jack Droomer, he had to knock off building to earn money to live. But all that is now behind him and he is working full-time as a builder.

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