A House Full of Tradies

At the start of this month I applied for a rebate from Solar Victoria for a new PV system for the house. As part of that installation, we’ve had to get the external asbestos removed from the house. Since there was also asbestos behind our switchboard, this was a job that required multiple trades to do the work.

Working on this house has definitely been a voyage of discovery. “Dodgy as <insert expletive>” is a phrase that gets used around here with a high degree of frequency and creativity. Between a long list of poorly executed renovations and the mere age of the house, we’ve realised that the amount of work required to bring this place up to the standard that we want is going to take a lot longer than we initially planned.

Problem One – Electrics

We’ve now removed the asbestos from the switchboard, and we had hoped that would be the worst of it. Ha ha, no. The wiring from the street brings the standard capacity, but the wiring from the fuse to the switchboard is only half that capacity. The sparkie thought that our solar installers will need to upgrade this in order to connect the panels. Regardless of how that aspect goes, he advised us that we can’t convert our gas appliances to electric versions until the wiring is upgraded. To make this even better, we’ve got the old style of wiring that’s wrapped in cloth, and I’ve been happily assured that this is the sort of cabling that eventually becomes a fire risk.

Problem Two – Gas

Essentially another aspect of the previous problem, without a cabling upgrade to the house we don’t have the capacity to convert any of our existing gas appliances to electric replacements. This means that if any break down and need to be urgently replaced, we’d probably be stuck replacing them with a new gas model, and that is completely out of the question for us.

Problem Three – Insulation

We had two asbestos panels removed from the front wall of the house, and it became immediately obvious that the walls have no insulation in them at all. The minimum insulation rating for walls in Melbourne is currently recommended at R2.8. This is a great opportunity to upgrade the insulation for that part of the wall, so we’ve ordered some insulation rated at R7.0 and it should arrive next week. While that’s lovely for this part of the house, it does leave us with the question about what to do for the rest of it. If we put insulation inside the walls, we’re going to need to take down the plaster from inside to fit the insulation in, and that will be some major work. There are insulation options that can be applied to the external walls, but these will change the look and feel of our house. Regardless of what we eventually decide to do, the first step is going to be lengthy research.

Problem Four – Windows

We already knew the windows were a bit below standard, and eventually we want to upgrade them to double glazing or better, but we were surprised by how much the woodwork around them suffered during the asbestos removal. The frames had been poorly maintained, and sections fell off during the work, so we’re going to need to look into this work a lot sooner than planned. I’d like to say this came as a shock, but after an entire stretch of cornice fell off the living room ceiling last week… *shrug*

Problem Five – That <insert expletive> Cornice

Hole in the roof
Because who doesn’t love cabling just hanging through the ceiling?

Speaking off which, where the cornice fell off the ceiling has left a gap in the plaster. The warm air from our heater is now rising into our roof space and happily flowing out through the open eaves. It was 2°C outside this morning and a balmy 10°C inside the house when we woke up. The children were inexplicably keen to snuggle up with me under a mound of blankets. I do cherish their affection, but it makes it difficult to convince them to get up and dressed for the day. Our carbon use is going to skyrocket until we get some of these holes patched up.

If you’re playing along at home…

…do you have a long list of structural challenges that are stopping you from reducing your footprint? Please share in the comments below the obstacles that you’re facing in your home.

Moving Closer

Three months ago we bought our first family home. Prices in the area we most wanted to move to had plummeted in the previous months, there was uncertainty in the market due to the election, and competition was thin on the ground. We ran the numbers and, if we bought something small, we were in a position where we could pay less in interest than we were paying in rent. It was now or never, so we chose now.

Since starting this project to curb our emissions, we had a few new criteria for buying a house that we wouldn’t have considered a few years earlier:

  • Within walking or bike riding distance of our daughter’s school;
  • Good access to public transport, shops, and other amenities;
  • A building where we could make energy efficiency improvements and not somewhere that they had already been done;
  • Small, properly sized for our family, and not a McMansion; and
  • Space for a vegetable garden and our chickens.

The biggest surprise in our search was what a limiting factor the chickens turned out to be. While they’re permitted by the local council, almost half of the properties we were initially interested in had covenants that prevented owners from having a wide range of pets, and chickens were often on that list. It’s possible to get a covenant removed, and I suppose we could have just ignored one, but it’s not a fight I was particularly interested in having. Many gardens were so small that it would have been vegetables or chickens, but definitely not both. We were happy to leave those properties for people who don’t want the hassle.

soldAfter a lot of drama, a few tears and several lawyers, we ended up finding the perfect property for us. It was a stretch for our budget, but we settled on a property that is only a five minute walk to the school (ten with our toddler). Eliminating our car for this commute will save approximately 7,000km of driving per year. The house is approximately half the size of our previous home, and we’re dazzled by how much less cleaning that involves. Since the local supermarket is next to the school and there’s a bus stop at the end of our short street, we’ve got all of the convenience we could have wished for.

Our new house is at the bottom end of the market because it’s very worn and tired. The wooden stumps had almost rotted away, so they were a major structural defect, and getting them replaced chewed up the budget that we had for our solar panels. That repair work has cracked the walls and ceilings, but it’s an opportunity to take down the damaged plaster and put some insulation in the external walls. We’ve decided to view every problem with the house as a challenge that gives us the potential to create something better than we might have otherwise had. There’s an enormous amount of work ahead of us, and it will probably take years to complete, but we know it will be worth it.

If you’re playing along at home…

…how different could your life be if you were close enough to walk to the important places instead of driving the car? If you’ve moved closer to where you live, please share in the comments what sort of impact that decision had on your every day life.

Goodbye Old House

At the start of the year we decided to buy a house of our own, which meant saying goodbye to the home that we had started to transform into a more sustainable place to live. There were a surprising number of comments about how it seemed like such a shame to abandon all of the work that we had put into the property over the previous two years. We were encouraged to dismantle a lot of what we had built on the assumption that nobody would want to take on the workload of an extensive vegetable garden, fruit trees or chicken coop, and that by taking materials with us we could recover a lot of our costs.

As we prepared to leave, we did take some of the plants with us. These were mostly plants with sentimental value and the trees that weren’t thriving in their initial locations. However, the garden beds are all still there, the structural modifications are intact, and there is still a chicken coop with run bolted to the back of the house. For the first inspection, it even contained the chickens.

for leaseThe real estate agent was sceptical that anyone would be interested in what I considered the key selling features of the property, but she agreed that it wouldn’t hurt to leave them there and let potential tenants know that they could be removed at will. This was our chance to test a theory that maybe – just maybe – there were other renters out there who would appreciate what we had created.

The response from those potential tenants blew us away. None of the advertising for the property mentioned established fruit trees, energy efficient construction, the gardens or the coop. Nearly everyone who spoke to the agent wanted to know if the chickens would stay with the property, and they were disappointed when they were told that the chickens were moving on.

A family leased our old home at that first inspection, and we couldn’t be happier. They’re keen gardeners, and they’d never expected to have the opportunity to indulge that passion while they were renting. Their son is bursting with excitement at the thought of having chickens of his own, and their daughter can’t wait to make soup from the pumpkins that weren’t quite ripe when we moved out. Our landlords picked up a considerable rent increase from tenants who definitely plan to be of the long term variety. Most importantly for us, we have validation that there are people who would love to have a bit more sustainability in their lives if they just had the chance, and that knowledge is worth more than what we left behind.

If you’re playing along at home…

…is there something that you could create for someone else that will help them reduce their environmental impact? Please share in the comments below what you’ve been able to pass on to enrich someone else’s life.